“That’s My Australian Side”: The Ethnicity, Gender and Sexuality of Young Women of South and Central American Origin

This article was first published in 2003 by the Journal of Sociology. Below is the final manuscript submitted for publication. The published version may have some minor editorial and formatting changes.


Through an analysis of qualitative interviews, this article explores the ethnic identities of Australian women aged 17–25 years of South and Central American backgrounds. The interviews show that expressions of Latin ethnicity are constructed around four ‘emblems’ symbolizing Latin ‘culture’– food, language, music and dancing, and festivity. Adopting a social constructionist perspective, this article details the respondents’ agency in the reconstruction of Latin ethnicity, and the consequences of the racial categorizations of ‘Australian-ness’ encountered by the participants. Their emphatic rejection of an Australian identity arises from their experiences growing up in Australia, where they are not ‘seen’ as Australian, highlighting that Australian identity continues to be regarded as synonymous with an Anglo-Celtic appearance. Nevertheless the respondents acknowledge Australian values of egalitarianism as significant when negotiating gender and sexuality. This ‘paradox’ of ethnic identity in the context of this study is best exemplified by the recurring comment, ‘That’s my Australian side’, and will be investigated through a critique on the limitations of ‘multicultural’ ideology and its lived experience.


Photo: Zuleyka Zevallos
Photo: Zuleyka Zevallos


Keywords: Australian national identity, ethnicity, gender, multiculturalism, sexuality, social constructionist perspective.


Isabel was born in Brazil, to a Brazilian mother and Spanish father. When Isabel was two years old her parents moved the family to Australia, and divorced when she was about nine. Isabel’s father then re-married in Australia to a Chilean migrant. As Isabel had little contact with her Brazilian mother, she does not know how to speak Portuguese. She was ‘raised Chilean’ as a result of her (step) mother’s large extended family living in Australia, and their family’s extensive involvement with their Chilean community.

Isabel explains how she came to be ‘raised Chilean’.

Because my dad’s got all his family in Spain. And my mum’s got her whole family in Brazil. But my step-mum’s got half her family here. So… I’ve grown up with a Chilean family… I love it. And a lot of people think I’m Chilean. They get really surprised when I tell them, ‘I’m Brazilian’.

At the same time, Isabel is emphatic that she is not Australian:

I’ve had this conversation before. Like, are you determined by where you’re born, or where you’ve grown up, or what are you? What are you exactly? I don’t see myself as Australian. I see myself as South American living in Australia. Australia’s my home, but my culture’s very much South American. And Australia’s always gonna be my home. I don’t really see myself as living in Brazil or Chile, from what I’ve heard. I’d go for a holiday, definitely, but no… I don’t see myself as Australian. I see wherever you’re born, that’s where your culture comes from. But there’s also influences, definitely, from Australia. But yeah, absolutely, I would say I’m not Australian.

The case study of Isabel highlights the construction of ethnicity as a social process. There is an element of flexibility and choice in Isabel’s ethnic identification. This paper explores the social construction of ethnicity in the context of Latin identities in Australia, and the role of flexibility and choice in this process. It also investigates the paradox regarding ‘Australian influences’, referred to by the participants as their ‘Australian side’, and shows how the participants ardently reject an ‘Australian’ identity, preferring to think of themselves as ‘Latin American living in Australia’. This qualified view of Latin-Australian ethnic identity will be discussed against the ideology of multiculturalism in Australia and its ‘lived experience’. This paper will address the shortcomings of multicultural ideologies by investigating the implications of racial categorisations regarding Australian-ness.

Discourses on ethnicity and multiculturalism

The concept of ethnicity has long caused heated debate. For a long time the debate focused around the extent to which ethnicity was primordial, or alternatively the outcome of instrumental interests (see Banks, 1996; Hutchinson and Smith, 1996; Jenkins, 1997). Nowadays the controversy is more centred on the role of researchers and policy makers in promoting the idea of ethnicity to the wider public (de Lepervanche, 1980; Eipper, 1983; Banks, 1996). A further source of conflict is centred on the role that the ideology of multiculturalism plays in the construction of ‘ethnicity’, ethnic identities and ethnic culture in Australia. The relationship between ethnicity and multiculturalism is fraught with contradictions and ambivalences, primarily due to its tensions with a national Australian identity (Castles and Vasta, 1996; Kukathas, 1993; Stratton and Ang, 1998; Vasta, 1993).

Multicultural policies (which for the purposes of this paper concern only migrants’ issues) were introduced during the 1970s following the former ‘assimilation’ stance. The meanings and objectives of multiculturalism have undergone a number of contentious transformations both politically and socially (see Stratton and Ang, 1998; Lopez, 2000; Vasta, 1993). Vasta offers four broad meanings of ‘multiculturalism’ that operate in Australia. Multiculturalism can be construed as a descriptive term; an ideology; a state-monitored principle for social policies and also a set of special institutions (Vasta, 1993: 212-3).

Since the introduction of multicultural policies in Australia, three profound shifts have emerged within the academic literature on ethnicity concerning culture, socially constructed ethnic identities, and race. First, there continues to be a challenge to the conceptualisation of ‘culture’. The critique on multiculturalism discerns that multicultural policies implicitly conceive of migrant cultures as ‘some static item of baggage, imported into this country and susceptible to “maintenance” so long as this activity does not conflict with “society at large” which, presumably, has its own, different culture’ (Morrissey, 1997: 3. See also de Lepervanche, 1980; Bottomley, 1997; Vasta, 1993). Vasta writes that throughout the history of Australian multiculturalism, ‘migrant cultures generally became defined in a static way to mean cultural and linguistic traditions and migrant cultural identities were based on characteristics such as language, folk traditions and cuisine’ (Vasta, 1993: 211). An alternative conceptualisation to this unchanging, monolithic view of culture maintains that culture is constructed around ‘ideas, beliefs and practices through which people negotiate their conditions of existence. Culture, in this sense, both forms and is formed by human activity in a wide range of contexts’ (Bottomley, 1997: 3. My emphasis).

Bhabha has focused extensively on the hybridity of ethnic cultures in multicultural nations (1990, 1998). His work on ethnic groups emphasises the, ‘…dialogic practices of culture, including those of historical revision and the (re)invention of tradition’ (Bennet and Bhabha. 1998: 37). Similarly other researchers argue that ethnic cultures reflect an ‘embodiment of history’ thorough symbolic expressions of ‘tradition’, which in turn facilitates a common ‘sense of place’ between members of an ethnic group (cf. Bourdieu’s concept of ‘habitus’, 1977; Baldassar, 1999; Bottomley, 1992a, 1994, 1997). The complex relationship between history, tradition and practice embodied in migrant cultures highlights the way in which culture is constantly reinvented through social interaction. Vasta writes that the reconstruction of migrant cultures and identities,

…need[s] to be conceptualised as active social processes which link historical processes with present day action. Ethnic minority cultures, through ethnicity, can become cultures of resistance which operate in a number of ways…. [These include] many customs, rituals and traditions [that] are also an expression of ethnicity, though not an inert or static ethnicity, but one which is reconstituted and adapted to local conditions… (1993: 219-22).


Photo: Zuleyka Zevallos
Photo: Zuleyka Zevallos

This leads us to the second way in which the advent of multiculturalism has influenced empirical research on ethnicity in Australia. This is an increasing emphasis on the social constructionist approach to ethnicity. In Rethinking Ethnicity (1997), Jenkins outlines four main ideas about the social construction of ethnic identity relevant to the present study. Firstly, Jenkins argues that ethnicity is an ideology concerned with cultural differentiation. Ethnicity is centred on the dialectic of perceived similarities and differences between groups. Here, Jenkins is advocating Barth’s (1969) view that ethnicity is produced and reproduced in social interaction, in an exchange of group boundary transactions. Secondly, ethnicity is a cultural process that emphasises shared meanings of symbols. Thirdly, ethnic identity is variable and manipulable, and as such is potentially flexible. Finally, Jenkins notes that collective (external) and individual (internal) exchanges both equally impact ethnic identities. As Jenkins often reminds us, we learn who we are because other people – in and outside of our ethnic boundaries – continually tell us. ‘Individual identity is located within a two-way process, an interaction of “ego” and “other”, inside and outside. It is in the meeting of internal and external definition that identity, whether collective or individual, is created’ (Jenkins, 1997: 54).

There exists rich empirical data to support the social constructionist view on the enduring, but changing constructions of ethnicity. This literature argues that the identities of second-generation migrants are self-reflexive and under a constant state of re-negotiation (Baldassar, 1999; Bottomley, 1979, 1991, 1992b; Elley and Inglis, 1995; Pallotta-Chiarolli, 1994; Vasta, 1992, 1994). The majority of this research has focused primarily on Mediterranean migrant groups. There seems to be very little written on second-generation ‘Latin American’ Australians. The limited sources that focus on Latin Australians do not address the identity constructions of Latin communities in the Australian context (for examples see Amezquita et al., 1995; Kaufman and Seitz, 1994; Moraes-Gorecki, 1991). There are only two exceptions. Moraes-Gorecki (1988) emphasises traditional constructions of ethnicity that reinforce female subordination and gender inequalities for Latin immigrants in Australia. Langer (1998) employs her research on Salvadoran refugees in Australia to argue that collective labels such as ‘Salvadoran’, ‘Central’ and ‘Latin American’ are misleading, as these identities do not correspond to ‘ontologically given cultural communities’ (1998: 163). Langer proposes that the impact of globalisation renders the constructs of ethnic community and culture (Salvadoran or otherwise) as ‘myths’ of multiculturalism: ‘The whole idea of fixed and coherent “ethnic culture” becomes an increasingly anachronistic fantasy when geographically distant “life-worlds” are inflected through the same material and cultural products and processes’ (1998: 171). In light of the aforementioned research on second-generation migrants, Langer’s argument is shortsighted. It does not account for the significant ways in which ethnic cultures are influenced by the changes within the country from which the group migrated, the host country and the communities established in Australia by migrant people (Baldassar, 1999).

The third way in which multiculturalism has influenced the study of ethnicity has been in the move away from researching groups in racial terms, and propelling the idea that people belong to ethnic groups (Banks, 1996; de Lepervanche, 1980). Yet the absence of race from discussions on ethnicity is problematic. Perceptions of ‘race’ – defined by Jenkins (1997) as the categorisation of phenotypic difference – are critical in a discussion of ethnicity. While ‘racial’ differences are genetically slight and insignificant, Jenkins insists the idea of ‘race’ persists within daily social interactions. Racial categorisations are part of boundary maintenance, to varying degrees, and play a role in the identification of both groups and individuals (Jenkins, 1997).

While multicultural policies in Australia have been liberating by opening up a celebration of cultural diversity, they have not dealt adequately with the marginalisation of migrant Australians who are perceived as ‘different’. On the whole, Australian multiculturalism has not been able to fully address institutionalised racism, particularly in relation to national identity (Castles and Vasta, 1996; Hage, 1998; Vasta, 1993). There has been no consensus on the way to best bridge the gap between the ideology of multiculturalism and an all-encompassing Australian identity. ‘Celebrated by some and rejected by others, multiculturalism is controversial precisely because of its real and perceived (in)compatibility with national unity’ (Stratton and Ang, 1998: 135). Two papers reviewing comprehensive data on attitudes towards multiculturalism (Goot, 1993) and Australian identity (Phillips, 1998) reveal a general ambivalence regarding the compatibility of cultural diversity with national values and ways of life.

Vasta argues that despite the emphasis placed on diversity by multicultural policies, ‘[Anglo-Celtic] Australians have always called themselves the “Australians” and this ideology remains strong though is constantly contested’ (Vasta, 1993: 223). Australian history still fails to integrate what Martin termed the ‘migrant presence’ as part of its ‘heritage’ and national identity (1978; Bottomley, 1997; Castles et al, 1988; Castles and Vasta, 1996; Kukathas, 1993; Stratton and Ang, 1998; Vasta, 1993). As such, Vasta maintains that many ‘Anglo-Australians and migrant Australians still believe that the “real” Australian is blond haired, blue-eyed and he prefers to spend much of his leisure time at the beach’ (1993: 223).

Kukathas (1993) claims that a society like Australia that is marked by ‘cultural pluralism’ cannot sustain a ‘strong sense’ of national identity. In Australia, ‘there can be a national identity only in the weak sense of an identity based on shared or common institutional and historical inheritance’ (Kukathas, 1993: 157). Kukathas argues that attempting to reshape Australian institutions to reflect a ‘more definitive notion of what Australian society should look like… [will mean that] multiculturalism and the idea of a national identity come into conflict’ (1993: 157). Bennet (1998) disagrees with such a position, arguing that ‘Western multiculturalism’ must be ‘radicalised’. ‘As a doctrine of tolerance of “ethnic” difference, [multiculturalism] preached a change of consciousness, leaving social structures and institutions largely unchanged’ (Bennet, 1998: 6). Australian national identity, when referenced alongside ethnicity and multiculturalism continues to be an area that contains much uncertainty and contradiction.

This paper will address the limitations of multicultural ideology through an analysis of the participants’ constructions of their Latin identities in Australia. The ideology of cultural diversity supported by multicultural policies makes it possible for these respondents to negotiate their ethnic identities with a great deal of agency and flexibility. Yet despite the crucial role that the ‘Australian side’ plays in their reconstruction of Latin ethnicity, the respondents emphatically deny that they consider themselves to be Australian. This paper argues that this occurs partly due to the practice of multiculturalism, which does not adequately deal with the consequences of racial categorisations of Australian national identity. The findings of this study suggest that the ‘lived experience’ of multiculturalism falls short of its ideology.


The participants interviewed were 13 heterosexual women aged between 17 to 25 years from a Latin-American background, living in the Western suburbs of Melbourne. All participants were given pseudonyms. Five of the participants were Australian born, and the remaining eight had come to Australia generally between the ages of two and seven. They came from four Latin countries: Argentina, Brazil, Chile, and El Salvador.

I used the snowball method to recruit participants for the study, originating with a contact established in a university in Melbourne. I gathered data through open-ended questions in semi-structured interviews that averaged one and a half to two hours. The interviews covered four general areas: migration and family experiences; culture and expressions of ethnicity in Australia; discrimination; and sexuality. This paper draws on themes from the various interviews that reflect the general ideals of the group, in order to convey the participants’ subjective experiences of their Latin ethnic identities.

In order to explore Latin ethnic identity, this study was guided by two research questions: how do young Australian women of South and Central American origin see their ethnic identity and how did they come to see it that way? Does this ethnic identity affect their views about appropriate sexual behaviour and does it affect their perceptions of gender inequality?

This paper has taken a social constructionist approach to ethnicity (Jenkins 1997). The terms ‘ethnicity’ and ‘ethnic identity’ are used interchangeably throughout this paper, and are defined as the dialectical process of both subjective and objective influences which become internalised (Bottomley, 1997; Jenkins 1997; Vasta, 1993). The Latin ethnic identities are self-defined by the participants and the interviews show that these are influenced by ideas about ancestry and subjective interpretations of culture. Ethnicity is ‘a political construct as it is often defined in relation to a dominant national identity… [and can also] be used by a majority group to draw boundaries and marginalise people of minority ethnic cultures’ (Vasta, 1993: 210). In this sense, ethnic identity is objective, as ethnicity is shaped not just by the individual’s self-perceptions but by the context of multiculturalism (particularly in its definition of ‘culture’) and by the external definitions imposed by other people. Ethnicity, when understood as a ‘social identity’ can be seen,

…as a combination of self-identification and identification of others. In other words, the term indicates whom one feels similar to, and whom one is categorised with. This process, however, largely takes place below the level of consciousness, and within structured layers of power relationships (Bottomley, 1994: 65).

Latin identities in Australia

The respondents articulated four ethnic identities. First, the participants identified with a localised Latin identity, relating to their family’s country-of-origin, for example Chilean or Argentinean. Second, the participants held a wider regional Latin identity, this being either South or Central American. Third, they identified with a pan-ethnic identity. This was described as being ‘Latin American’. Finally, while all but two participants strongly asserted that they were not Australian, all respondents referred to an ‘Australian side’ of their identities. The ‘Australian side’ is thus a qualified identity, signifying that the respondents are in fact adopting an Australian identity, albeit a partial and problematic identity for most participants. The interviews highlight two interesting aspects of the social construction of Latin ethnic identities. First, the respondents’ ethnic identities are contingent – that is, they depend on the social context. Second, external categorisations related to race, as well as the ‘lived experience’ or ‘practice’ of multiculturalism, influence the adoption of an Australian identity.

The first three Latin identities were interchangeable for all participants. In the interest of consistency, the term ‘Latin’ will be used to refer to both the regional identities of being ‘South’ and ‘Central American’ as well as to the pan-ethnic identity of ‘Latin American’. Respondents described how the idea of a ‘Latin’ ethnicity arises as a direct result of migration. The participants’ experiences lead them to believe that people who migrate out of Latin America overlook differences and rivalries that might attach to identities based on their countries-of-origin, in order to identify with a larger group. The participants believe that this stems from the small overall Latin-American population in Australia, which was comprised of around 83,000 people at the time the study was conducted (Personal Communication, Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs, April 2000).

The two participants who held (hyphenated) Latin-Australian identities felt that because they had grown up in Australia, they were Australian – a connection that the other participants were unwilling to make. Most of the participants stressed that they were ‘not Australian’, despite feeling that Australia is their ‘home.’ They planned to establish their careers and raise their children here. These women ‘love’ their family’s country-of-origin, ‘but only for a visit,’ having witnessed first-hand the poor economic conditions in Latin America during visits. More significantly, they felt that living in Latin America would be ‘too much of a culture shock’. Interestingly, when the participants travelled overseas, they told people they were Australian – thus showing that they do adopt an active Australian identity, even though in Australia they don’t think of themselves as ‘Australian.’ This partial adoption of an Australian identity while in Australia highlights the contingent nature of the participants’ identities, as ethnic boundaries can be seen to depend upon social context.

The participants’ identities are ultimately described as ‘Latin American living in Australia.’ This is in spite of the idea expressed by the participants that ‘anyone can be Australian, it depends on the person’. They strongly believed that because Australia is a ‘multicultural’ society ‘there is no true Australian, only the Aboriginals’. Therefore the participants expressed the belief that no matter what a person looks like, they should be accepted as Australian if that person says they are Australian.

Ironically however, part of the reason why the participants do not think of themselves as Australian is validated by the fact that, as they reported, ‘people don’t treat me like I’m Australian when I’m in Australia.’ Here we see the influence of external definitions on ethnic identity construction, definitions which are being internalised by the participants. They felt as if people in Australian society, primarily ‘Anglo-Australians’, don’t ‘see’ them as Australian, because they don’t look Anglo-Celtic. This occurs when people have asked the women ‘where are you from?’ Upon the participants responding ‘Australia’, the other person would be disbelieving. ‘You’re not Australian,’ they would say. A further question would follow, ‘Where are you really from?’

The following quotes exemplify this frustration shared by the majority of the sample.

Gabriela: If you go overseas – this is the really contradictory thing about living in Australia – you go overseas, someone asks you where you come from, you say ‘Australia. Born there.’ And they go, ‘oh, okay’. But when you’re in Australia, when you say, ‘I’m Australian,’ they go to you, ‘no what nationality are you?’ Then you go, ‘oh, Chilean’. So in the end, I think a lot of people just cut out the ‘Australian’ and just go straight to the ethnicity. This happened to me a lot in high school. [Consequently she decided] ‘Well I’m not going to think of myself as Australian’.
Marah: It’s hard in Australia, because I’m not seen as Australian. I’m not. Even though I have no accent, I was born here, but because my parents aren’t Australian, I’m not Australian. And I’m not your typical blond-haired, blue-eyed Skippy. I’ve got the dark features. I mean, you look different to them. Plus my background is different to them.

External categorisations of ‘race’ influence the way in which the participants think of their ethnicity. Every woman involved in this study has grown up having her ethnicity ‘guessed’ wrongly. Participants were most often mistaken as European, most typically Italian or Greek. Some other mistaken identities included Hawaiian, Samoan, Indonesian, Asian and Aboriginal. The mere act of having to continually re-affirm that ‘I’m South American,’ ‘I’m Chilean,’ and so on, confirms to the participants that they are ‘not Australian’, as their self awareness grows in reaction to the way in which other people perceive their ethnicity. Such exchanges highlight the significance of boundary transactions that are contextual (see Barth, 1969). Ethnic boundaries are constructed around perceived differences, and in some cases, racial categorisations can act as an obvious boundary marker. Jenkins argues that whilst external categorisations may be resisted, and boundaries and their content may be rejected, ‘the very act of defying categorisation, of striving for an autonomy of self-identification, is, of course, an effect of being categorised in the first place. The rejected external definition is internalised, but paradoxically, as the focus of denial’ (Jenkins 1997: 71). Hence the ‘Australian side’ has not been synthesised into a ‘Latin-Australian’ identity.

The role of racial categorisations is largely ignored in the empirical research into the constructions of ethnic identity for second-generation migrants in Australia. Other theorists however have investigated the role of cultural authorities, such as the media, in welding the idea of being ‘Aussie’ exclusively to the idea of being ‘Anglo-Celtic’ (Brook, 1997; Jakubowicz et al., 1994; Kilic, 1997; Martin, 1996). These authors argue that if a person is not a ‘white Australian’, then they must ask themselves if they see themselves as Australian, as a consequence of reading cultural signs of ‘Australian-ness’.

Understanding the consequences that follow categorisations of difference as perceived by others is essential to the findings of this study. Baldassar’s (1999) work on Italo-Australian youth found that their ethnic identity is constructed around the notion of difference, in defining oneself ‘in opposition to the perceived identity pattern of gender relations and sexuality of their “Australian” peers’ (1999: 2). Similarly, Butler’s (1999) interviews with second-generation Pakistani and Bangladeshi Muslim women in Britain revealed that an awareness of being treated as different by the wider ‘Anglo-Celtic’ society strengthened their Muslim ethnic identity. Consequently, this self-awareness of their ‘difference’ also stopped them from feeling ‘British’, although they did see themselves as permanent British citizens. The present study came to a similar finding, with my participants making the distinction between being ‘Latin American living in Australia’ (a citizen) and being ‘Latin-Australian’.

Emblems of ‘The Latin-American Way’: Constructions of Latin ethnicity in Australia

Respondents defined their Latin ethnicity in terms of four emblems that they believed were shared by other people of Latin American origin. These elements of Latin culture have been termed ‘emblems’ due to the immense pride that the participants attached to them as symbols of pan-ethnic Latin ethnicity. Uniformly, the participants believed that all parents who come from South and Central America rear their children in a similar manner, irrespective of their country-of-origin. As Wanda explained proudly, ‘we were brought up in a particular way’. The participants saw the ‘Latin American way of life’ as ‘natural’.

Candy: My family, I’d say [have placed] just enough [emphasis on being Argentinean]. For me, when I think back, growing up, it was just a natural process. It was just our way of life. What my parents knew, how they had grown up, and that just came to me and my brother. It’s like a natural process, I guess.

The four ‘emblems of Latin ethnicity’ are:

  • ‘Traditional’ country-of-origin food
  • Growing up speaking their family’s country-of-origin language – either Spanish or Portuguese
  • Being ‘passionate’ about ‘traditional’ Latin music and dancing – this being cumbias, salsas and sambas
  • And finally, festivity. This refers to big get-togethers involving the entire extended family, and also community-organised functions.


Photo: Zuleyka Zevallos
Photo: Zuleyka Zevallos


Whilst there is nothing uniquely ‘Latin’ about this list of emblems, the significance lies in the participants’ articulation of the meanings placed on these emblems. These emblems highlight the participants’ perceptions of similarity and shared experiences of ethnicity across the individual countries-of-origin. The emblems also highlight the continuing influence of multiculturalism on subjective understandings of ‘culture’, which are centred on folkloric expressions of ethnicity such as language, cuisine, national dress etc (Langer, 1997; Vasta, 1993). Despite the emphasis on food, dance and festivity in everyday interpretations of Australian multiculturalism, these emblems act as a site of resistance to dominant narratives of Australian-ness. For these respondents expressions of ethnic culture are, as Vasta writes, ‘a reaction to the exclusionary practices of the dominant Anglo-Australian culture and institutions…’ (Vasta, 1993: 219). The emblems are critical to the constructions of ethnic identity because they connect them with a sense of personal and family history that Australian culture does not provide for them.

Lucila: What am I to say about Australia, me as an Australian? I’ll say, you know, we had a lot of convicts who came down to Australia, and killed off a lot of Aboriginals. Murdered people here, and took over there, but that’s it. That’s nothing to make you be a part of it. You’re always searching for something else. And I think it’s very important for people to have background. It gives them a sense of being somebody. If you don’t have that, you have nothing.

Emblems of ethnicity are symbolic of ‘the need for attachment to common history and origin but they also symbolise the need for reference groups…’ (Vasta, 1993: 221). Identification with cultural emblems helps individuals convey messages about their ethnic identities. Emblems of culture become an expression of identity as they symbolise a ‘badge of pride’, where tradition, place and history meet (cf. Murcott, 1996: 51, 65).

Furthermore, these emblems mark the in-group boundaries (Barth, 1969) central to the construction of the participants’ Latin ethnic identities in Australia. At the same time, emblems of a pan-ethnic Latin culture mask the political and historical differences between the individual countries of origin (Langer, 1997). The respondents believed that ‘cultural differences’ between the individual Latin communities were inconsequential, and considered the ‘similarities’ to be of greater importance. This process allows these participants a much more pronounced signalling of their perceived differences to other groups – particularly to ‘Anglo-Australians’.

Central to the expression of Latin ethnicity is the participants’ emphasis on passion, which is personified through Latin music and dancing, and festivity. Bottomley has also highlighted the significance of dance to constructions of Greek identity in Australia (1992a, 1992b, 1997). Cumbia, salsa and samba dances have common ways in which one moves the body, and consequently reflects the embodiment of their ethnic identities. Latin culture was thought by the participants to be generally ‘very physical’, particularly in family life. Kissing as a greeting and open displays of affection were emphasised heavily as an important feature of Latin ethnicity. The participants’ discussion of family and festivity accentuated traits of Latin people that continued to emerge throughout this study: being friendly, warm, affectionate, passionate, ‘party animals’. The women in this study felt that due to these shared emblems of ethnicity, Latin people are bound together through a consensus of similar values and personality.

‘The Australian side’: Negotiating gender, sexuality and ethnicity

The participants identified five areas of conflict with their parents: sleep-overs, going out, bringing boyfriends home, moving out, and the constructions of Latin femininity and masculinity. For these respondents, the ‘sleep-over issue’ is usually one of the early instances of resistance towards their parents’ cultural ideas, and one of their first major family conflicts. As Isabel’s comment shows, once parents ‘broke’ on the sleepover issue, the ‘being allowed to go out’ issue was the next hurdle:

My only [non-European and non-Latin] friend is Australian… I’ve noticed that with her family life and my family life, it’s so different. So different! It’s like, especially when she was younger, she was allowed to sleep over at other friend’s houses. Her parents used to give her permission easily. With me, it’d be like big hell to get permission to sleep over at one of my friends’ houses. When I finally got one permission then it started to, you know – now that I’ve gone once, I can go whenever…

When the participants reflected upon their early to late adolescent years, they describe escalating conflict with their parents as they challenged gender inequalities within their families. The participants emphasised that Australian society is egalitarian and therefore they cannot ‘put up with’ inequality. The participants describe this as their ‘Australian side’.

Almost all the women interviewed had travelled back to their families’ country-of-origin and, as a consequence, felt that their parents’ values regarding gender were ‘frozen in time’. Marah summarised these Latin parental values as, ‘Men can: Women can’t.’ In Australia, these women have been raised with double standards that allowed their brothers more freedom to date openly, go out and move out. There was a general belief that if they had been raised in their parents’ country-of-origin they might have enjoyed more independence. The struggle for ‘more permission’ to be ‘independent’ had been fought on the grounds of ‘fairness’ and ‘trust’. They felt satisfied in the changes they had instigated towards their personal freedom. Moving out ‘before marriage’ however presented an ambiguous territory of parental authority and compliance on behalf of the participants (cf. Pallotta-Chiarolli and Skrbis, 1994). Moving out was viewed as ‘unnecessary’ by most participants, and was believed to hold the potential for intense family conflict.

The chief area of negotiation in the participants’ lives concerns Latin femininity and masculinity. All participants perceived Latin men in general to act and present themselves as being ‘macho.’ The participants’ descriptions of their ‘macho’ fathers/brothers/boyfriends echoes Moraes-Gorecki’s (1988) investigation of Latin ‘machismo’. ‘Macho’ for them is being dominant, over-protective, controlling, and homophobic.

Significantly, my study found that the participants’ own femininity was constructed as the extreme opposite to ‘marianismo’ values. Moraes-Gorecki described ‘marianismo’ as the ‘behavioural attributes of humility, serenity, tolerance and submissiveness… perceived as necessary requisites for the ideal Latin American women in her relations with men’ (1988: 26). The respondents in this study did not subscribe to these ideals. Instead, they emphasised that their ideals about gender and sexuality were influenced by the Australian context in which they had grown up.

The present study found that the participants’ femininity is constructed around establishing autonomy, independence and equality. Because they asserted values of egalitarianism they often clashed with the Latin men in their lives, who continue to adhere to a Latin American masculinity of being ‘macho’. The inequality embedded in their parents’ marriages, particularly in the division of domestic labour, was something all the women wished to avoid. This was reflected in their attitude that relationships should be about ‘give and take’ (equality), and also about quality (which was established after finding the ‘right’ partner, following past experiences with various boyfriends).

It is a crucial point that the participants’ views regarding gender equality are referred to as their ‘Australian influence’, given that authors such as Lois Bryson (1992) emphasise that gender inequalities are entrenched within Australian social institutions. Furthermore, the participants did not mention the feminist movements that have been pivotal in the fight for democracy throughout Latin America (Jaquette, 1994; Waylen, 1993). On the contrary, the participants believed that living in Australia has maximised their life chances as women and as such, their ‘Australian side’ is a positive aspect of their identities that they believe is integral to their reconstruction of Latin gender relations. For example, Cassandra is proud to have made a personal contribution to making her family ‘more equal’, and works hard to re-sculpt her father’s ‘sexist’ attitudes and ‘macho’ values:

We kept some Salvadorian stuff and blended it with Australian values, and made it a combination that works for all of us… I really feel that I am the ambassador for equality in my family [she implemented a shared-chore roster for all members of the family]… It really made some changes that I haven’t seen in another Salvadorian family… We’re half Salvadorian, half Australian.

Despite Cassandra stating that her family is ‘half Australian’, she went on to say that if she were ‘being honest’, she wouldn’t ‘really’ call herself ‘Australian’, as she tends to think of herself as ‘Salvadorian and Latin only’. Cassandra’s view was typical of the sample and is critical to the analysis of Latin ethnicity in Australia.


The social constructionist model utilised in the analysis of this paper emphasises the element of negotiation and agency involved in the participants’ Latin ethnic identities. For these women, emblematic expressions of Latin culture signify a proud and positive statement about their ethnic ‘differences’, yet equally, categorisations of race proved to generate negative consequences for this ethnic difference. The literature that is critical of multicultural policy in Australia argues that while multiculturalism provides a base of resistance to a dominant culture, it simultaneously promotes marginalisation of ‘ethnic’ groups. Australian multicultural policy and its ideology is one of the processes that ensures that the appropriation of Australian culture does not result in integration. The respondents’ ‘Australian side’ is not synthesised into a ‘Latin-Australian’ identity partly due to the limitations in the ideology of multiculturalism, which does not address racial categorisations of Australian-ness.

The idea of Australia as a ‘multicultural’ society manifested itself in all interviews. All the participants use the word ‘multiculturalism’ with two of the four meanings offered by Vasta (1993). ‘Multiculturalism’ to the participants is descriptive, acknowledging Australia as a ‘poly-ethnic’ society, and it is also an ideology of acceptance for this cultural diversity. The women in this study believe the identity of being ‘Australian’ should embrace everyone who lives in this country – migrants, Aboriginals and ‘Anglos’. Vasta argues however that the ‘hegemonic definition of multiculturalism has centred around social cohesion with stress on a national identity dominated by Anglo-Australian culture and institutions’ (1993: 222). In part the respondents’ lived experience of multicultural ideology reflects this. The idea of being Australian is still seen as an Anglo-Celtic privilege in the participants’ experiences.

The relationship between the objective and subjective dimensions of ethnic identity highlights that ethnic identities are both ‘chosen’ (claimed) and imposed by others – it is in the nexus of these processes that the ‘Australian side’ proves significant. The participants think of themselves as ‘Latin American living in Australia’, and do not see themselves as ‘Australian’ because they perceive that others are not seeing them as Australian.

But if the ideology of multiculturalism described by the participants is to ‘work’, the question ‘where are you from?’ is an important aspect of Australian social interaction. ‘Where are you from?’ is almost a ‘double edged sword’ question. It is important to promote understanding and mutual respect between different cultures, and it also offers Australians of ethnic backgrounds an opportunity to express their ethnic pride. Yet this question also implies that the person to whom it is directed must not be Australian, because they don’t look Australian (cf. Ang, 1996). It simultaneously works to exclude people from ‘feeling’ Australian and reinforces that ‘being Australian’ continues to be read as a physical ascription.

Undeniably, multiculturalism as an ideology promotes the opportunity for Australians of migrant backgrounds to engage with and reconstruct their ethnic identities instead of having these determined by a dominant group. Multiculturalism enables the participants to embody and re-construct the ‘Latin American way’. The ideology of multiculturalism, which is centred on cultural diversity and ‘otherness’, is a vehicle for the respect of ethnic cultures. Yet multiculturalism in practice continues to view ‘otherness’ as separate from its national identity. My research suggests that the ‘paradox’ embedded within the participants’ ethnic identities is borne in the fissure between the ‘ideology’ and the ‘lived experience’ of multiculturalism. There is a continuing struggle to find a way to reconcile Australian national identity as being all-inclusive, without denying the existence of ethnic cultural difference that is celebrated by multicultural policies.


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I would like to thank Dr Michael Gilding and Dr Katherine Betts for their support and feedback while I was writing this paper. I would like to extend my gratitude to the three anonymous reviewers for their insightful criticisms and suggestions.


To access the final published article from the publisher, click on the link below.
Citation for published article:
Zevallos, Z. (2003) ‘”That’s my Australian Side”: The Ethnicity, Gender and Sexuality of Young Women of South and Central American Origin’, Journal of Sociology 39(1): 81-98.

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