When Juan Baez worked in the casino industry as a human resources training specialist, he knew how important it was to help patrons who showed signs of a gambling problem. Baez – who had previously struggled with substance abuse – now sought to educate fellow casino staff on recognizing the signs of addiction.
This is all part of his new life, having come full circle to be a problem gambling specialist for the State of Kansas. He’s coupled that with his Spanish fluency (his father is Puerto Rican and his mother Salvadoran) to help Latinos with gambling problems.
Baez anticipates he’ll soon get a lot more work: He and other experts are concerned about the recent explosion in sports betting, and how it’s affecting Latinos nationwide.
A survey by the Global Sport Institute at Arizona State University shows young Latino males are the demographic that bets on sports most frequently.
“We suspect (sports betting) will be an increasing issue for the general population, as well as Latinos,” Baez said. “It’s just a matter of how much. It’s happening so quickly, (it’s hard to) know exactly how much. We expect it likely will be, with the expansion of availability.”
This expansion began in 2018 when the U.S. Supreme Court overturned nationwide gambling restrictions in Murphy v. National College Athletic Association – which invalidated federal restrictions set by the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act (PASPA). Since then, a majority of states have expanded sports betting through legislation. And professional sports leagues have done an about-face, embracing gambling as a new opportunity. Since 2018, legalized sports betting has added roughly 20 million adults to the gambling ranks. The risk for gambling problems has increased by 50% between 2018 and 2021, according to Keith Whyte, executive director of the National Council on Problem Gambling.
“In general, folks (in the survey) were supportive (of sports betting),” said Scott Brooks, director of research for the Global Sport Institute. “I think that favorability, being supportive, did surprise me … When I grew up, there was Pete Rose not being able to get into the Hall of Fame.”
In the rush to engage gamblers, the betting industry has identified Latinos as an untapped market demographic.
In March, amid college basketball’s annual March Madness playoff frenzy (and, ironically, during Problem Gambling Awareness Month) a bilingual platform called JefeBet.com debuted as an initiative of Las Vegas-based Fifth Street Gaming – which owns several Vegas casinos, including the Silver Nugget.
The NCPG’s Whyte said, “JefeBet is the first US-based gambling site targeted to the Latino community, though I’m sure there are others.”
In April, the site shifted focus to baseball, soccer and American football, among others, with articles on its website interspersed around gambling ads – “Juega gratis / y gane (gana) premios en dinero real!”
“There are some articles about the Latino market being a huge, kind of untapped market in the U.S. with regard to sports betting potential,” said Ted Hartwell, community outreach liaison for the Nevada Council on Problem Gambling. A recent survey by Futbol Sites found that 61% of U.S. Latinos are either betting on sports or interested in doing so, while a significant number are familiar with the Mexico-based gambling platform Caliente.
“Some of the research that the (National Council on Problem Gambling) has done suggests sports betting is one of the forms of gambling with some of the highest self-reporting of problematic behavior,” said Hartwell, who also overcame a gambling problem before counseling others with the addiction. “People who engage in sports betting are more likely to report unhealthy gambling behavior than those who typically engage in other types of gambling.”
Michael Campos, a clinical psychologist with the UCLA Gambling Studies Program, estimates 631,873 Latinos in the U.S. suffer from disordered gambling – covering both the clinical diagnosis of a gambling disorder and subclinical problem gambling.
According to the NCPG, less than 1% of U.S. adults, around 3 million people – have a severe gambling problem, which means a “much higher risk for severe consequences, including bankruptcy and even death,” Whyte said. “People with gambling problems have a high rate of suicidal behavior. People think often gambling addiction is just a financial problem. Of course, you can lose your entire life savings in a day, but the money you can get back. It’s the psychological and emotional consequences that can be even more devastating.”
Compulsive gambling led to a litany of problems in the 1990s for Julián, a Mexican American in Arizona who did not wish to give his full name because he is a member of Gamblers Anonymous in continuous recovery from his gambling addiction. A married father of two, he saw gambling end his marriage, threaten his job as an engineer and bring him to bankruptcy after maxing out 17 credit cards.
“It caused a lot of pain, emotional pain, for all of us,” he said. “I would go out to gamble almost every day. I couldn’t stop myself. I wanted to stop, but couldn’t … It was literally something I had to do. I felt I was going to die if I couldn’t do it.”
“Once I got into the casino, my brain short-circuited,” he added. “I couldn’t think straight anymore. I was just in there to gamble. I could not control how long or how much money I would gamble, every bit I had. Once I had no more money, I would leave and come home.”
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After multiple attempts to stop himself from gambling, Julián ended up reaching out to Gamblers Anonymous. He started going 21 years and eight months ago and it has helped dramatically: He has not placed a bet since July 21, 1997. Initially, he joined an English-language group. Although he is bilingual, he recalls other Latinos having a harder time at meetings.
“I saw Hispanics struggling to communicate in the English meetings,” he said. “I thought it might be a good idea to start a Spanish Gamblers Anonymous meeting where people feel more comfortable (and) recover from gambling in their language.”
His idea became one of the earliest Spanish-language GA meetings in Arizona in 2002. Twenty years later, Latinos with gambling problems still face a shortage of resources compared to the general population.
“From what little research has been done, people in the Latinx or Hispanic community face a disproportionate burden, likely because of lesser access to healthcare resources,” Whyte said. “There are fewer gambling counselors who speak Spanish, or materials and resources in Spanish.”
Cultural factors may also make it hard to seek help, according to experts.
“One of the things we have with addiction is that very often, the individual who is involved in addiction resists admitting he has a problem,” said Mercy College criminal justice program director Mary Cuadrado, a scholar of addiction. “Pressure very often comes from outside, from those around him. In Hispanic culture, the problem is with men. Everyone around them thinks what men do is whatever they want. Nobody pressures them to see their behavior as problematic.”
Also, she said, “in general, Hispanics are not very open to going to probably the most prevalent type of gambling addiction treatment, Gamblers Anonymous. Hispanics don’t feel the most comfortable, even (in) Alcoholics Anonymous, going into a group, talking about things they’ve done affecting their family. It’s not a very attractive way of treatment for Hispanics. It’s been very problematic.”
Gambling in Latin America has its own history, some of which has taken different directions than in the U.S.
“In Hispanic countries, there’s horse racing, cockfights, domino playing,” Cuadrado said, “a lot of activities involving gambling … It’s not necessarily for money,” but rather “a type of enjoyment, in particular for the men.”
Meanwhile, Latin American immigrants often have a relationship of distrust toward the government in their homeland.
“First of all, they come with a bad government experience from their own country. Maybe it’s even why they headed for the U.S. – the government was not a resource, just a mechanism of oppression. They may be reluctant to go to any sort of government entity to seek help.” She added, “for any sort of treatment, there’s the matter of language. Are they really understanding what the therapist asks of them? Can they truly share what needs to be shared?”
Venus Moore, who works in Latino outreach for the New York Council on Problem Gambling, has tried to marshal community resources and Spanish-speaking clinicians to help individuals in the Bronx, which has a diverse Latino population that includes Puerto Ricans, Dominicans and Panamanians.
In an email, Moore said that the Bronx Problem Gambling Resource Center (PGRC) has a core group consisting of her advisory council “to address and engage the Hispanic community to make sure that they are aware of gambling treatment services we provide. We also partner with organizations that serve that population and are always looking to collaborate with more.”
Sports betting is a problem in multiple neighborhoods of the Bronx, reflecting the industry’s growth in New York ever since the state legalized it this year.
When Cuadrado, a New York resident, watches TV, she sees a constant stream of gambling commercials offering different kinds of software to download, and enticements such as double winnings. Some commercials are sponsored by casinos such as MGM or Caesars; gamblers no longer have to travel to Atlantic City or Las Vegas.
“It’s really problematic,” Cuadrado said. “Anybody before who might be having a problem, in my mind, is now at even greater risk. Everybody carries a phone.”
Julián, the recovering gambling addict, said he knows another Latino compulsive gambler – an attendee of a Spanish GA meeting – who can’t stop betting on sports online.
“He kept having relapses,” Julián said. “I think online gambling, betting on sports online using your telephone…it’s only going to aggravate the problem of compulsive gambling. The impact of compulsive gambling on Hispanics is just going to grow and grow and grow.”
Crossposted from palabra