Latinos Live Longest Despite Poverty. Here’s Their Secret

Yves here. This profile focuses on the fact that immigrants, here Latinos (more specifically, Mexicans) are healthier than ones born here even though the newcomers are much less well off. My bias is to give the greatest weight to the tight communities, and another factor I suspect is operative but the author fails to mention, more physical activity, are even more important. But keep in mind that Latinos (and Chinese) are more susceptible to Type II diabetes than Caucasians.

By Jasmine Aguilera, a multimedia and enterprise reporter from El Paso, Texas. She often reports about minority and LGBT communities, including issues with immigration, poverty and racism. Originally published at YES! Magazine

Celia Aguilar wears a long, loosely fitted white dress with touches of red embroidery and red bandanas tied around her head and waist. The 29-year-old Chicana dances alongside men wearing large, feathered headdresses, the seashells on their ankles rattling. Here in El Paso, Texas, they gather in a ritual of Danza Azteca, an Aztec dance preserved in Mexican culture.

Good Health

“For me it is a form of spiritual healing,” she says. “A way to connect with my indigenous roots as well as preserve ancient traditions. It’s a form of prayer and ceremony that really helps me cope with all of the things that I face in my life.”

Author Claudia Kolker took a closer look at such cultural practices for her 2011 book, The Immigrant Advantage. Her book examines why immigrants are often healthier than native-born Americans—a question that continues to be explored. Some credit this perplexing phenomenon to the idea that immigrants must be healthy to migrate. Kolker’s research shows its connection to customs like Danza Azteca: close community bonds, traditional foods, and la cuarentena, a Latin American tradition in which a new mother rests for the first 40 days after giving birth, not lifting a finger except to breastfeed and bond with her child. Kolker also has a hunch that a lack of smoking is a factor, and other researchers agree.

But these findings not only show an immigrant advantage; they present a paradox, too.

Recently arrived immigrants, especially Hispanics, experience nearly double the poverty rate of the U.S.-born population. Despite their economic situation and lack of health insurance, Hispanics tend to live longer than both black and white males and females: about three years more than whites and six years more than blacks. However, they still have higher death rates when it comes to diabetes, cirrhosis, and hypertension.

Aguilar’s mother and grandmother, who are from rural Mexico, have developed diabetes and hypertension, diseases Aguilar is sure their change in diets caused. “Right now we’re all pretty much eating the same crap,” she says. “It’s cheap, and it’s fast.”

Kolker says immigrants who are not used to consuming so much fast or processed food have an upper hand when they arrive in the United States because their dishes are usually made up of more natural, healthier ingredients. Maintaining that diet once in the United States takes commitment.

As for Aguilar, she strives to stay in touch with her roots. She has worked at a local restaurant that serves traditional Mexican food, and she’s a firm believer in the medicinal practices of her mother and grandmother. Yet she realizes that it isn’t easy for her family—and those who follow—to keep that culture alive. As generations become more Americanized, their health begins to decline.

U.S.-born Hispanics face higher prevalence rates for unhealthy behaviors than foreign-born Hispanics: a 72 percent higher smoking rate and a 30 percent higher obesity rate. They also have a 93 percent higher cancer rate, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Timothy Smith, a psychology professor at Brigham Young University, also has studied this scientific wonder and suggests that social bonds and culture do contribute to health. While more research is needed to know for sure, one thing is certain: American assimilation isn’t exactly healthy. “They’re adopting the local culture, which does have some adverse consequences,” he says. “There are positive consequences to health and adverse consequences.”

Regardless, Hispanic customs hold some value—and leave a lesson to be learned.


One tradition seen in Latin American cultures, but rarely in Western cultures, is cuarentena, meaning “quarantine.” During this tradition, the new mother rests for up to 40 days and bonds with her child while relatives or friends handle all the cooking and household needs. Traditionally, someone even helps teach the mother how to breastfeed effectively.

In her book, Kolker describes cuarentena as a tremendous health benefit for both mother and child. The mothers are never alone and are fed healthy food; the babies can nurse whenever they want.

This luxury is nearly impossible in the United States, where there is no federally mandated paid family leave. Plus, being overworked is almost a sign of success here, Kolker says. “It’s ironic that we are a richer country, but it’s harder to organize a cuarentena.”

Aguilar’s mother practiced cuarentena for her five children, including Aguilar. Aguilar plans to do the same when she has her own children—she wants everything to be as natural as possible. She believes that, in the United States, pregnancy is treated as a disease rather than a spiritual process. Too many doctors, too many medications.

“There are certain things that are just passed down generationally without any kind of effort,” she says, “and I’d like to continue that tradition of healing and self-care.”


Aguilar learned the value of self-care through food when she worked at Café Mayapan, a Mexican restaurant in downtown El Paso. It sources some of its ingredients from a community farm, aiming eventually to source all of them from the farm. Women of all generations run the farm and restaurant, along with a daycare center, as part of La Mujer Obrera, or “The Working Woman,” an organization dedicated to building a strong community based on Chicano heritage.

“Our philosophy is that the more we go back to our traditions, the healthier we’ll be,” says Lorena Andrade, director of La Mujer Obrera.

Andrade was the first of her family to be born north of the border. As a girl, she translated labels at the grocery store for her mother, who would buy only the items that matched as closely as possible to what she used in her native Jalisco, Mexico, to cook caldo de pollo (chicken soup), chile colorado con nopales (red chile over cactus), beans, squash, and tortillas—all served at Café Mayapan today.

For Andrade, traditional cooking is a form of resistance: a way to preserve a culture that is hundreds of years old, a culture easily lost in a new place. It is a way to reject the status quo that glorifies processed foods.

“When we cross the border, we lose our sense of community and our connection to the land, verdad?” Andrade says. “We start to think that in order to be healthy, we have to look externally, when really all we have to do is look into our culture.”

Family and Community

This same philosophy of looking inside translates into Rayito Del Sol Daycare & Learning Center, the daycare beneath Andrade’s La Mujer Obrera umbrella. There, female community members teach reading, math, history, and science to about 35 children, infants to 8-year-olds. The women look to each other to help raise their children, working hard to develop a sense of community in El Paso, where more than 80 percent of the population is Hispanic.

“Sometimes our culture is narrowed down to just folklorico,” Andrade says. “We need more than that. We need the math and the subjects that’ll strengthen us. And as a strong community, we eat together, we cook together and live together, and that’s how we become healthier.”

It’s not uncommon in Latino families for three or four generations of relatives to live under one roof. This close family dynamic and sense of community contributes to the overall health of each member, Kolker says.

“When your cousin is sick, you know, and you go out of your way to help,” Kolker says. “When each member of the family is involved in the health and needs of the other, everyone is healthier.”

Even though most of Andrade’s family is in California, her Mexican culture is a crucial part of her life. She cooks every day, using whatever the garden has to offer. Andrade even makes atole, a warm beverage popular in Mexico and Central America that’s made with corn, water, cinnamon, and sometimes chocolate. “It tastes better at my mom’s house, but at least I’m trying,” she jokes.

Though she often wishes she were drinking her mother’s atole, Andrade feels pride in making her own. It’s little practices like this that help keep her culture alive. And they might just be what keep this paradox very much alive, too.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email


  1. Jagger

    I suspect optimism is another very important and possibly dominant factor. Immigrants know what they are leaving and are so grateful to be leaving. They also believe in the American Myth. Work hard and all will be well. They will retire rich in a nation of justice and civilization. Their kids will all go to college. All will live happily ever after. It is a beautiful dream.

    By the second or third generation, if/as that belief in the American Myth disappears, then I can see life spans shortening.

    1. different clue

      It sounds like an interesting “social-natural” experiment being performed. If it happens differently than what you predict, another theory of what is happening will have to be come-up-with.

  2. John Day

    As a family physician in a public clinic in Austin, I will tell you that the children of the immigrants eat the same cheap crap food and sit around playing the same video games, as other American children.
    That’s the problem.
    The people who come here to work are already selected for health, work-skills and determination. They are good, hard-working people, and the foundation of the Texas economy. They are all my patients.
    This country bears the sickness, and infects it’s young with it.

    1. tim s

      This is the main problem I see with universal health care for the USA. How can you set up a universal health care system when you are poisoning your people in every way possible? Junk food, lack of exercise, stress, corrosive entertainment, etc, etc…

      Not that I’m against universal health care, because I am not. I’m very much in favor of single payer non-profit health care, but without a foundation of healthy living, health care is nothing more than keeping the nearly dead alive at great effort and cost.

      1. different clue

        Believe it or not, this point has been made for countless days in countless ways in the pages of Acres USA, the Weston Price Foundation, books by Sally Fallon, various spokesfolk for the Organic HealthFood Movements, etc.
        Is there a way to render healthy food-eating possible in the not-going-to-change context of mainstream American civilization? The people I mentioned (plus others besides) are making every effort to see that there is.

        1. tim s

          I believe it. No surprise that their voices don’t get much if any press.

          Healthy living for all doesn’t seem to make the capitalists enough money. Besides, if the poor were healthier & stronger, they’d be more competition for those not-so-special children of the wealthy, and we know they don’t want any competition.

      1. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

        It’s not only that ours is not healthy, but also our mighty propaganda machine inspires everyone in the world to be unhealthy like us –

        – a big suburban home,
        – a car,
        – job mobility that one’s family is scattered across the continent or the world,
        – independent living so who needs friends or relatives,
        – long commute/long working hours and two working parents so there is no time for a sit down family dinner (or the least resisting way – lots of packaged dishes)
        – educated (often sedentary) to serve the machine/system
        – vicarious physical fitness (watching superhuman feats as a couch potato)

    2. Jim

      Jagger – Amerindians have lived in the US much longer than three generations and they continue to experience high rates of poverty. But their rates of death from cardiovascular disease and cancer are lower than Whites. I doubt this is due to greater optimism given their generally low SES.

      Amerindians are genetically close to East Asians who also have relatively low rates of cardiovascular disease and cancer.

    3. Malcolm MacLeod, MD

      John: As a retired general pediatrician in northern California, I
      wholeheartedly endorse your view. At the age of eighteen, most
      US children are not able to function on their own, and it’s their
      parents’ fault.

      1. different clue

        And how did their parents get to be that way to begin with . . . to raise kids unable to function? Pure free choice on the parents’ parts? Or were the parents also subjected to a culture-toxic upbringing?

  3. vidimi

    food probably plays a large role. i bet the long-lived latinos probably eat a lot less meat. furthermore, the healthy ones probably eat more natural. beyond that, physical activity, especially in old age, is crucial.

  4. tim s

    I’m very glad to see articles like this. Living in Texas has given me plenty of opportunities to see how rich Hispanics actually are in all of the ways mentioned here.

    It is too cliche to say that riches are found in health and love – family & friends with deep bonds, but it is considered cliche probably only by those whose riches are only in their materialism. Materialistic people are the poorest. America is not the richest country in the world. We would be the poorest if our materialistic culture were not infecting so many other cultures. These others are all drawn to the bright shiny objects just as we were, though, like moths to the flames. I guess it’s always been that way.

    The positive side to our materialistic world falling apart, is that it will allow these deeper bonds to form and grow again. Pity those of us whose roots are too withered to reform. All the best to those cultures who will survive and thrive if ours is not.

    1. Pepsi

      It’s cliche but true, having a big extended family is correlated with longer lifespan.

      The diet part is important too. In traveling around the world, I’ve noticed that there are really only 3 countries where teenagers look as pimply and sickly as americans, the others are the uk and japan. Maybe add the more affluent in China. Our diets and habits are fucking murder.

      1. tim s

        Our diets and habits are fucking murder

        I don’t think that’s an exaggeration.

        And all of our sugary drinks are the worst! ….but not Pepsi, though, Pepsi’s OK ;)

  5. John Wright

    The diet difference has been studied with the Pima people, here is an excerpt from

    “have various environmentally based health issues that can be traced directly back to that point in time when the traditional economy was devastated. They have the highest prevalence of type 2 diabetes in the world, much more than is observed in other U.S. populations. While they do not have a greater risk than other tribes, the Pima people have been the subject of intensive study of diabetes, in part because they form a homogeneous group. The general increased diabetes prevalence among Native Americans has been hypothesized as the result of the interaction of genetic predisposition (the thrifty phenotype or thrifty genotype as suggested by anthropologist Robert Ferrell in 1984) and a sudden shift in diet from traditional agricultural goods towards processed foods in the past century. For comparison, genetically similar O’odham in Mexico have only a slighter higher prevalence of type 2 diabetes than non-O’odham Mexicans”

    The American consumptive lifestyle, where physical labor is to be avoided, is prevalent.. I have seen visibly overweight families driven up to the front door of retail stores rather than being expected to walk from the parking lot.

    It would be better if Americans had a better “healthy mean” for new immigrants to regress to.

    1. Gio Bruno

      It’s the sugar; not the lack of exercise! Watch the documentary “Fed Up” (narrated by Katie Couric) or read the recent book by a well-known cardiologist (can’t recall name) that believe no amount of exercise can reduce fat accumulation in most humans WITHOUT radically reducing sugar consumption. (All processed foods now contain sugars of some type.)

      The cardiologist was on a radio program I listened to yesterday. His contention (not that new) is that our long evolutionary history predisposes humans to store excess calories as fat (survival mechanism). Sugar is a naturally compelling, brain-addictive substance (my words).

      Cane sugar came into wide-spread availability with the discovery of the “New World” and the application of slavery plantations in the 1500’s. (See: Haiti and the devastation; vs Dominican Republic (Santo Domingo).

      1. bob

        Next to fat, the most readily availible energy is alcohol. After that, sugar.

        For most of “the west” this probably meant that, in the past millenia, most of a day’s calories were consumed in liquid form, one way or another.

        This is again, for “most”. ie- real people. Mostly, within that time period peasants and other “common” type people. The much larger majority of “people”.

        There was a link to a story here, a while ago, about a cabinet maker who hid a note in a very elaborate desk he built for some european royalty in the 15th to 16th century. This was a highly skilled craftsaman, probably “upper class” or, at the very least, upper middle class.

        He complained about not having any food, but there was plenty of wine.

        I think it’s a pretty recent (last century), development that people ate most of their calories in the west. The vast majority of people in the “west” probably drank most of their calories, most of the days of a year, as some form of ethanol.

  6. oho

    Jiminy crickets….alright I’m not an epidemiologist but here’s my anecdotal hypothesis…it’s survivorship bias.

    A lot of legal/undocumented migrants I interact with are “snowbirds”—traveling between the US and Latin America, following the work/reacting to the US economy. and pretty much everyone keeps in close touch w/their extended social network back home.

    If they get too ill/old to work, they retire, semi-retire back in their hometown, buying property or investing in the small businesses of their family/friends.

    living a modest but comfortable and above average life as their savings goes way further back home (housing/food/healthcare)—then throw in the bonus of having extended family/friends around.

    that’s how i see it. ymmv.


  7. Denis Drew

    Rice is double diabetes trouble. Most foods have glycemic indexes and insulin indexes that are about the same numbers. Rice has a high glycemic index of 100 and a low insulin index of 50. Possible escape: fish and meat have no glycemic impact but have 50 insulin index — eat more fish and less rice?

  8. Anonymous123

    I actually think their strong health is related to immigrants’ strong gut microbiomes when they arrive (due to being outdoors often, eating diets optimized to their specific genetically-determined gut flora, tight social communities, etc.). Over a generation, due to eating processed foods and less physical activity, their children ultimately have less diverse microbiomes and are less healthy.

    1. Stephanie

      I wondered about that as well – and additionally what effect U.S.-specific stresses may have on the younger generation. Committing to the American Way definitely had an impact on my gut bugs. I developed GI issues after making a career move that required longer hours and a car commute (first time in 12 years I needed to drive to work), both of which meant much less time at home to prepare food, much less time outside, and more job-induced stressors. Ironically, I made the move in part because my previous employer’s insurance offerings were terrible (as in Bronze Plan terrible).

      On the other hand, Dave (below) makes an interesting hypothesis re: cancer. It seems most of the members of my husband’s tiny, majority-white high-school class who grew up on farms have been hit with it, and they are all under 50. If the second generation has grown up picking, what effect would that childhood exposure to modern farm chemicals have on them?

  9. Dave

    Many factors, but let’s look at diet.

    Okinawans have the highest average lifespan, until they move to the U.S., then start eating our junk culture diet.

    Noticed lots of signs nailed to power poles all over Southern Texas on a recent trip:

    “We buy diabetic strips” Asked a local doctor. He explained that diabetics have to test their blood a couple times a day. The test strips are expensive and have a short expiration date. People buy expired unused strips in the U.S. and resell them in Mexico. It’s a decent subset of the economy there. Most people in Northern Mexico that have been within driving distance of a Walmart are obese. Now they have them right there.

    Unlike the claims of this article, cancer rates among Mexican and Central American farmworkers are staggeringly high. Got pesticides? They do. It would be interesting to see what the rates among farmworkers on organic farms versus conventional agriculture will be once a decent interval of time has passed.

    1. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

      The trap with science/technology (that particular way it has developed here on this planet over the last few hundred years) is that we can’t go back (realistic or just our pessimism?).

      Or so they say.

      With what we know, the knowledge we have accumulated, going back and living a sustainable life, as a minimal-environment-impact cave-person seems healthily tempting, without completely throwing away what we have (thus, the term, Neo-Luddite).

      The other question is, could science/technology have developed another way, so that today we have 1/5th or 1/10th of the current population and we consume in a wise, moderate way? Are science and humanity a bad match that we have traveled the only path possible?

      1. different clue

        Year after year, Acres USA has written up and discussed a whole Parallel World of Parallel Ecological Technologies. Some of them could be used to live a “neo-sustainable 2.0” life. But of course at 7 billion people and counting , sustaining anything over the longest term is going to be hard. Maybe rich world will cut consumption while poor world cuts population till both meet in the middle.

  10. readerOfTeaLeaves

    I once asked a friend who does a ton of business in Eastern Washington state about his experience with Latino clients. He said that he’d never, ever lost a penny. Family honor (‘familia’?) is so strong that if one person doesn’t have the money, everyone else chips in to ensure the family honor remains ‘golden’.

    And humorously (at least to me), one of my more recent wedding invitations was to a little Eastern Wa church where in the 60s, the priest had an Irish brogue. Now, it’s a Spanish accent ;-)
    Whole families (3 and 4 generations) show up for the weddings and in yet another sign of the times, and now Mrs Hernandez is the one who makes everyone’s favorite 3 Bean Salad. Lotta Catholics in those little churches are Latino, and OMG the food is to die for ;-)

    1. readerOfTeaLeaves

      This post strikes me as so important and touches on such fundamentally key issues in society today that I’ll come back and read again later — I know that I missed 60% of it in my morning rush. Awesome post!

  11. Plutoniumkun

    Cuarentena – I do wonder about this – quite a while ago I was reading some research indicating that this cultural practice (common in Asia too) is actively harmful. I’m no expert on the topic, but I believe it is standard advice now that new mothers should be on their feet and physically active as soon as possible after birth. I had to explain this to a horrified Chinese friend who couldn’t understand why, when giving birth in an Irish hospital, she was basically given told not to be lazy and to get up out of bed and get active within a day of birth. Of course, it may be that the truth is more subtle – a combination of early physical activity with a longer period of rest and bonding may actually be the best.

    A particular problem I think for Asian immigrants to the US is diabetes – Asians are far more susceptible to diabetes, a combination of a high sugar/carb diet and not much exercise is particularly disastrous for their health. I think there is a reluctance among medical professionals to bring ‘race’ into medical advice, but there are certainly good grounds for focusing on the children of Asian immigrants when it comes to diet.

    1. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

      Bringing in race into medical advice.

      We have talked about bringing in ‘individuality’ into medical advice, here recently.

      That should cover it.

      1. LagunaMadre

        I don’t think it is a matter of “race” necessarily … in the sense of blood line and genetics … I believe it is a matter of culture and community: what messages are being delivered and received. Like most Mexicans, and north ‘mericans by and large, I am a mix of “races” but the benefits of longevity through diet and physical activity seem to cross those barriers … but that is my anecdotal observation clearly. I would imagine that Mexicans, meaning Mexican nationals who remain in Mexico, who succumb to the hype of processed foods exhibit the same medical malaise as those north of the U.S.-Mexico border. And those of younger generations, who see the bling and fast money accessible via the drug trade are just as jaded, disenchanted and disenfranchised as young people living north of the border.

        1. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

          By ‘individuality,’ I mean both the genes one inherits and the unique personal experience living in one particular culture and community.

        2. Plutoniumkun

          My understanding (I’m not a medical expert) is that a relative immunity to diabetes comes with the genes for lactose tolerance – hence those of European ancestry have a tolerance to sugars/carbs that other groups don’t have. So its not so much that Asians are more vulnerable to sugar heavy diets, its that whites in general have a greater tolerance to many of the ill-effects.

          1. different clue

            That too is being tested to the max with our ongoing experiment of mass carbo-sugar dosing of the American population.

  12. TheCatSaid

    Small addition to the excellent observations of original post & commenters: even if one tries to use the most natural traditional ingredients available in the USA, they won’t be the same nutritional / energetic quality as . For example, think of a chicken. Your average US factory-farmed “chicken” is probably a far cry from a chicken reared on a very “poor” farm in Mexico. Or USA vegetables grown on soil degraded by many decades of chemical fertilizers & pesticides (and without the soil additions such as compost/manure that help to build soil structure and microbial diversity).

    USA-style factory farming has done untold damage to the health of those who eat the results. Multiply this effect by several generations, and consider the generational impact on epigenetics. . .

    1. different clue

      Pardon my johnny-one-note broken-record repetition, but the Acres USA community has been cussing and discussing this very issue year after year after year.

      And the multi-generational preservation of band-village culture is also very important to a social pack-animal like species human. How many of us commenters here are seeking the psychic comfort of a virtual tribal band . . . after all?

  13. TheCatSaid

    This begs the question as to who is really “poor” in this picture. It highlights the nonsense of comparisons that reduce everything to a financial data point.

    Not to paint a pollyannish picture, just that comparisons that look at very narrow criteria are not always valuable or accurate, and can be highly misleading.

    There are unexpressed assumptions and value judgements inherently present in our choice of which data points we choose to look at.

  14. LagunaMadre

    Having been raised, for the most part in El Paso, by beloved allomothers of Mexican origin, I can attest to the benefits of being nurtured by an extended community, especially one whose appreciation for this day and this life was coupled with a determination to make the best of what is. When I was young, we bought our produce weekly from the same woman in the market in Juarez year after year. After returning to the border as an adult, I found her stall in the same place and shopped there for another 10 years. But alas, NAFTA helped open the border for the drug cartels. I agree with many of the previous speculative observations about subsequent generations, who become jaded by the messages they receive via mass media and diets of empty calories.

    1. different clue

      I believe that was a deliberate purpose of NAFTA, very carefully unstated. Think how much money the pro-Free Trade banks make laundering NAFTA-facilitated drug cartel money. And wasn’t Carlos Salinas de Gortari’s brother involved in Big Time drug trafficking and/or money laundering? And isn’t Carlos Salinas himself a fugitive from the law and living in exile in Ireland? Just my memory, of course.

  15. craazyman

    There’s something wrong with this post. It’s a logical flaw that nobody has seen evidently. It’s incredible to me, how something like this can go un-noticed by otherwise literate individuals. What’s up with youze guys? I mean really. Here it is: “The Azetcs aren’t Latino!” If somebody is doing an Aztec dance with feathers on their head, that’s not a Latino thing. That’s a pre-Columban thing. It would be like saying Daniel Boone is healthy because of his Cherokee culture. Let’s hope it didn’t involve a pyramid but we won’t go there. Nobody’s perfect.

    1. different clue

      If there is a flaw here, it starts with the people themselves who are resolutely calling themselves Latino, however strong their pre-Conquest cultural and genetic base.

      Hmmm . . . I wonder what the lifespans of the Spanish peasantry in Spain were up till the mid-Franco period before the age of Rising Wealth?

  16. TG

    Um, really?

    I looked up mean life expectancies in wikipedia:

    Japan : 84
    United States: 79
    Mexico: 76
    El Salvador: 72
    Guatemala: 72

    Sorry, but poverty is as poverty does, beans or not. One is reminded that, personal habits or not, American of Latin American ancestry are nonetheless living in America and their health benefits come largely from American culture, not Latin American.

Comments are closed.