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Objective. Guided by a life-course framework that incorporates the interconnection between marriage, migration, and other transitions, we critically examine the familism explanation for the earlier age at marriage among Mexican Americans. Methods. We compare the marriage patterns of Mexican immigrants derived from the National Survey of Family Growth (NSFG) to those of women living in Mexico derived from the Mexican Census. We then use data from the NSFG to estimate proportional hazard models of marriage using fixed variables such as parent's education and time-varying variables such as school enrollment. Results. Analyses show that the Mexican immigrant population marries earlier than Mexicans who do not migrate to the United States. In addition, the U.S.-born Mexican population has lower marriage rates than whites once family background characteristics associated with early marriage are controlled and Anglos are no less likely than Mexican Americans to marry in response to a pregnancy. Conclusion. We find reason to doubt that ethnic differentials are driven by a strong attachment to marriage, female chastity, and the "traditional" family. Although cultural factors may play an important role, researchers need to more carefully specify the aspects of Mexican culture that might encourage marriage and how these factors interrelate with economic and demographic constraints.
The Mexican-origin population in the United States marries at an earlier age compared to non-Hispanic white (Anglo) women. In March 2000, 72 percent of Anglo women age 20-24 were never married. The corresponding proportion for Hispanics, the majority (65 percent) of whom are Mexican, is 55 percent (Fields and Casper, 2001). This relatively large percent married at an early age is surprising because limited economic opportunity and discrimination are often used as explanations for the late age at marriage among African Americans. As the Mexican-origin population also experiences economic disadvantage, one might expect that they too would have a later age of marriage (Oropesa, Lichter, and Anderson, 1994).
An alternate unproven explanation for the early age at marriage relative to Anglos is that Mexican culture is familistic, emphasizing "values which give overriding importance to the family and the needs of the collective as opposed to individual and personal needs" (Bean, Curtis, and Marcum, 1977). This explanation argues that Mexican culture emphasizes marriage, motherhood, and fidelity and discourages overt sexuality among women (Erickson, 1998). These claims about the Mexican emphasis on marriage are supported in empirical analyses that show that Mexican-origin girls expect earlier transitions to marriage and motherhood than other women (East, 1998). However, no research has directly linked familistic culture to early marriage among the Mexican population. The goal of this article is to critically examine the idea that early marriage among Mexicans arises because of a cultural heritage that especially values marriage.
Theories on Ethnic Variation in Marriage
Family sociologists have produced various theories to explain racial and ethnic variation in marriage. Economic resources, mate-selection processes, and culture are the core concepts for the most common of these explanations. Both theory and empirical observation suggest that greater economic resources enable marriage and can increase the incentives for marriage, especially for men (Becker, 1991; Oppenheimer, Kalmijn, and Lim, 1997; Landale and Tolnay, 1991). The tendency of African-American males to have lower wages and higher levels of unemployment relative to majority whites, resulting in a lower availability of "marriageable men," partially explains their later age at marriage (Lichter et al., 1992).
At first glance, it appears that marriage patterns among Mexican Americans contradict the expectations derived from the economic resources explanation for black-white differences in marriage. According to a recent report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (2001), the 2000 unemployment rate for non-Hispanic white males age 16 and over was a low 3.4 percent, whereas Mexican-origin unemployment was higher at 4.3 percent. Furthermore, Mexican-origin men in the United States have substantially lower earnings than either whites or African Americans. In the year 2000, the average median weekly earnings for full-time employed men over the age of 16 was about $670 for whites, $500 for African Americans, and only $400 for Mexicans (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2001). Clearly, to the extent that earnings are important for marriage, low male earnings should hinder Mexican-American marriage formation, but the Mexican-American population still marries at the same age or earlier than Anglos.
To explain this unexpectedly early age at marriage, some analysts appeal to cultural factors, specifically Mexican familism. Mexican familism manifests in three domains of family behavior: extended kin ties, fertility, and "traditional" gender roles. Research comparing the kinship networks of non-Hispanic white and Mexican-origin women in the United States shows that the kinship ties of Mexican Americans are more intensive and extensive (Keefe and Padilla, 1987). The fertility rate in Mexico is higher than in the United States and within the United States, Mexican-origin women have higher fertility rates than non-Hispanic white women (Bean and Tienda, 1987). These fertility patterns, combined with research showing that women in Mexico hold stronger orientations toward motherhood than Mexican women who live the United States, suggest that Mexican culture is more pro-natal than is the culture of the United States (Guendelman et al., 2001).
The dimension of familism that is most relevant for our study is the high value placed on traditional gender roles and marriage. A substantial body of research argues that Mexican culture is more pro-nuptial than United States culture (e.g., Alvirez, Bean, and Williams, 1981; Del Castillo, 1984; East, 1998). Mexican-origin women have strong orientations toward domestic roles, and ideals of femininity encourage women to defer to men and preserve their virginity until marriage (Dietrich, 1998; Blea, 1992; Guendelman et al., 2001). In combination with other aspects of its purportedly pro-nuptial familistic culture, this emphasis on premarital chastity may contribute to an earlier age at marriage for Mexican-origin women than observed among women from Western European origins. A strategy many societies employ to reduce (the visibility of) premarital sexuality is an early age at marriage and high rates of marriage among women who become premaritally pregnant. Altogether, even though there is likely substantial variation by class and experience within the United States, Mexican Americans exhibit the three dimensions of familism to a greater degree than non-Hispanic whites. Thus, researchers trying to understand the early age at marriage and lower divorce rates of Mexican Americans have turned to Mexican familism as an explanation (e.g., Oropesa, Lichter, and Anderson, 1994; Yang and Frisbie, 1989).
A problem with the cultural argument, one that it shares with the economic resources theory, is that it is static. A theory about marriage should take into account the fact that finding a mate and jointly deciding to marry is a process that is shaped by multiple dimensions of the life course, such as age, school leaving, pregnancy, and fertility. An 18 year old may not feel as ready to marry as one in his mid 20s even if he has sufficient earnings to maintain a household, perhaps because he does not feel like he "knows himself" well enough yet. Moreover, his potential mates have less information on what kind of man he will become. This uncertainty is compounded while youth are still enrolled in school (Oppenheimer, 1988). Consequently, school enrollment is a strong negative predictor of marriage (Goldscheider and Wake, 1986; Thornton, Axinn, and Teachman, 1995).
Compared to Anglos and African Americans, a much higher proportion of Mexican Americans do not graduate from high school. In 2000, 7 percent of non-Hispanic white females had less than a high school degree. The corresponding figure for Hispanic females was 35 percent (Newburger and Curry, 2000). This suggests that some of the reason Mexican-American women marry earlier than Anglos is that they leave school at younger ages. The negative effects of socioeconomic disadvantage on marriage may offset some of …