Du Bois Review: Social Science Research on Race

Current Status and Priorities


Racialization Processes, Ethnic Identity Formations, and Their Health Implications1

Edna A. Viruell-Fuentesa1 c1

a1 Department of Latina/Latino Studies, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign


Explanations for immigrant and Latino health outcomes often invoke culture through the use of the concept of acculturation. The use of acculturation models in health research has been, however, the topic of growing debate. Critics of acculturation-based explanations point out that despite the growing psychometric sophistication in measuring acculturation, the concept and its underlying assumptions remain flawed. Specifically, questions regarding how Mexicans experience and make sense of the ethnoracial structure of the United States and how racialization processes impact health and well-being remain largely ignored within acculturation-based models. By examining the processes Mexican women engage in as they construct ethnic identities within a stigmatizing social environment in the United States, this paper contributes answers to these questions. Based on a qualitative analysis of forty in-depth interviews conducted with first-generation Mexican immigrant women and second-generation Mexican American women in Detroit, this paper describes how Mexican women work through the tensions and complexities embedded in the process of constructing a sense of ethnic belonging while, at the same time, confronting and resisting racial stereotypes of Mexicans in the United States. Women's narratives suggest that the stress involved in negotiating ethnic identities under stigmatizing environments might be one of the ways in which living in a racialized society affects health outcomes. The paper concludes with a discussion of the implications of these findings for Latino and immigrant health.

(Online publication April 15 2011)


  • Immigration;
  • Racialization;
  • Ethnic Identity;
  • Health;
  • Mexicans;
  • Latinos


c1 Edna A. Viruell-Fuentes, Department of Latina/Latino Studies, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 510 E. Chalmers Street, Champaign, IL 61820. E-mail: eviruell@illinois.edu

Edna A. Viruell-Fuentes is Assistant Professor of Latina/Latino Studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She holds a PhD from the University of Michigan and specializes in the social determinants of Latino and immigrant health. Based on her field research in immigrant communities, she has proposed conceptual re-directions for Latino and immigrant health research. Her current work examines the impact of racialization processes, transnational social ties, immigrant integration, and neighborhood characteristics on health. She has been a Yerby Fellow and Kellogg Scholar in Health Disparities at the Harvard School of Public Health, a Fellow of the Center on Democracy in a Multiracial Society at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and a Fellow of the Healthcare Quality Scholars Program of the Network for Multicultural Research on Health and Healthcare at the University of California at Los Angeles.


1 I wish to express my gratitude to Maria Rendon, Sawsan Abdulrahim, and three anonymous reviewers for their comments on earlier drafts of this paper. This research would not have been possible without the generous support of the Center on Democracy in a Multiracial Society and the Research Board at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; as well as from the Network for Multicultural Research on Health and Healthcare (funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation), Dept. of Family Medicine, at the University of California at Los Angeles. Short excerpts from Viruell-Fuentes (2006, 2007) and from Viruell-Fuentes and Schulz (2009) are republished here with permission from Taylor and Francis, Ltd., Elsevier, Ltd., and the American Public Health Association/Sheridan Press, respectively. Most importantly, I am deeply indebted to the women who opened their homes and shared their lives through the course of this project; I hope this work is worthy of their trust. I am also thankful to the Southwest Detroit community and its many formal and informal leaders whose knowledge about and commitment to the community inspired this work.