Ricardo DeLeon shares his insight into factors that can make Hispanic children vulnerable and how we can address them.
I grew up in a mostly Hispanic and Black neighborhood in Corpus Christi, Texas. Spanish was my first language, although being the youngest of six kids, I learned English pretty quickly from my siblings. They would come home from school speaking English and watch English TV so I quickly picked it up. By the time I entered school, English was my primary, if not my first, language.
The whole first 11 years of my education (I say 11 because I skipped a grade), all the way through high school, my classmates were ~99.9% Hispanic or Black. In those 11 years of school, I had two classmates who were not minorities.
My parents, both migrant workers, married at ~18 years old and had six kids. With six kids, my dad often had to work two or three jobs in order to pay the bills. He grew up in a small town in Mexico and never went to school. He tried to get his GED a couple of times but that meant he had to go to class two or three evenings a week. Ultimately, he couldn’t keep attending because he had to go to his second (or third) job to support the family. My mom came from a small, transitional town in southern Texas and her highest education level was second grade.
My family was very traditional. My dad very much had a vision of what his sons needed to be; they needed to be “machote” (macho/tough guy) – something I’ve seen a lot in traditional Hispanic families. He expected his sons to help him with cars, help him with the plumbing, and help him with home repairs. And we didn’t all meet that expectation. Of the four sons, two of us met that description, and two of us did not. I think that the “traditional perspective,” and the expectations that come with that perspective, ends up being very relevant to how vulnerable Hispanic children can be to sexual abuse.
There are multiple factors that I think could make Hispanic children more vulnerable to abuse. The traditional Hispanic or Latino family, based on my observation and experience, is very authority-focused. There’s a deep respect for elders, deep respect for bosses, deep respect for religion. Basically, a deep respect for any individual with authority. And my generation learned quickly that you don’t question things. If so-and-so said it, then it must be true; that would apply to the priest, to the teacher, to the elder. I think that makes it easy for individuals to encounter situations where things may be inappropriate, but not question it.
I think the second thing that makes Hispanic children vulnerable is the belief in traditional roles for males and females. For instance, if you’re a boy, you have to be macho. You have to be good with tools, plumbing, construction, and girls have certain expectations set on them as well. If a child doesn’t conform to those things, they may find themself on the ‘outside’, not belonging, and vulnerable; there could be an emotional void that presents greater opportunities for an abuser to take advantage.
This also speaks to the intersection between Hispanic culture, LGBTQ+ youth, and the opportunity for abuse. Think about machismo. Take, for instance, a young gay boy who doesn’t meet his parent’s expectations. If he isn’t that macho kid, he’s much more vulnerable to abuse because he could be lonely and seek support he doesn’t get from his parents. An abuser could see that and take advantage. The effect of failing to meet expectations definitely creates a risk that can be hard to recover from.
Another thing that creates an environment where Hispanic children are vulnerable is the amount of time adults spend working. As I said, my dad had two or three jobs and my mom had six kids. People are spread pretty thin trying to make ends meet. This leads to the kids being unsupervised by their caregivers. It’s not for lack of wanting supervision on the parent’s part, it’s for lack of time and resources.
There’s also a sense of community trust. Again, people trust the community authority and assume the best, and sometimes that’s dangerous. In the Hispanic community that I grew up in, for a withdrawn child to have a close relationship with an elder was not automatically a warning sign. It might even be thought of as a positive thing. No one asks, “what really is going on there?” Obviously, it’s not always going to be negative. But it can be.
And if it is abuse, it can accelerate from there. There could be a downward spiral that a person can go through. If something does happen, a victim may ask themselves “whose fault was it?” And they may feel enormous shame. “Was it my fault?” It’s like a cloud hanging over their head. And this is a factor that can contribute to ongoing abuse. The feeling of shame can actually help it continue or persist. There could be long term impacts, especially if you don’t feel supported to reach out and get help or don’t know if your family will support you. All of these factors can create an environment where children might be more vulnerable. This isn’t a comprehensive list, but these are the things that stand out from my experience as a survivor.
I would advise caregivers to do what they can to be more involved in their kids’ lives, even if the kids don’t meet their expectations. I think awareness of the risk and danger for children is also critical. Think about Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs; every day, the family makes lifestyle choices that fit around their needs. If the parent knew there was a risk of abuse, I think that hierarchy would change. But they just don’t know. So if we want to empower caregivers to make children less vulnerable, we have to start by raising awareness.
What Can Safe Adults Do?
Based on the vulnerabilities Ricardo pinpointed, here are some potential action steps that safe adults can take to minimize opportunities for abuse:
- Know the risk that kids face – 90% of children who are abused know and/or trust their abuser.
- Make sure kids know you care and will listen to them, even if they don’t live up to your expectations. Find ways to carve out time in your day to spend with them and talk with them.
- Be willing to listen and trust what your child says, even if it casts doubt on an adult you trust in your community. Remember, only 4-8% of reports of abuse that are made by children are false. Be willing to ask questions about the safety of your child.
- Find ways to minimize opportunity when you can’t be with your kids – you might make a rule that there are never one-on-one situations, you may only allow your kids to be in places that are public or observable, or you may find ways to call or interrupt when you’re away and check in with each kid.
This is blog #3 of “Honest Conversations: Spotlights,” focusing on the intersection of child sexual abuse in Hispanic communities. Honest Conversations is a Live series from Darkness to Light where experts have a variety of authentic discussions about the realities of stigma and child sexual abuse. Click here to read Blog 1, and Blog 2 in this series and here to register for the live discussion.
Ricardo DeLeon retired from The Procter & Gamble Company in 2016, after 25 years in financial roles, and specializing in Supply Chain and Mergers and Acquisitions. Post-retirement, Ricardo served as VP/Corporate Controller for the Duracell Company and Chief Operating Officer for The Hispanic Scholarship Fund. Ricardo is currently living in Los Angeles and serving as CFO of the Los Angeles LGBT Center.
Ricardo holds a Bachelor’s Degree from Princeton University and an MBA from Washington University, St. Louis. He has served on other nonprofit organizations including Catholic Charities of Southwest Ohio, National Society of Hispanic MBA’s, Princeton University’s Alumni Council, and Su Casa Hispanic Center – Cincinnati. Ricardo is a board member at Darkness to Light.
Follow us on social media to stay up to date and join the conversation.