OBJECTIVE: To assess Latina immigrants' beliefs about the role of sexual activities in cervical cancer etiology and the impact of the beliefs on Papanicolaou (Pap) smear use. Previous research has found that Latinas, particularly immigrants, believe that cervical cancer is related to 'unwise' sexual activities; however, their beliefs about the nature of the relationship are unclear. DESIGN: We conducted semi-structured face-to-face interviews with a non-probability purposive sample of 20 Mexican immigrant women who resided in Orange County, California regarding their beliefs about risk factors for cervical cancer and Pap smear use. We used qualitative content analysis to identify major themes. Three investigators independently reviewed transcripts of the audio-taped interviews to identify themes and came to a consensus about them. RESULTS: The women had a mean age of 39 years and had resided in the USA for an average of 16.3 years. We identified several themes. The majority of respondents had limited knowledge about cervical cancer and no knowledge about human papillomavirus (HPV); believed that infections caused by physical trauma, certain sexual activities, and poor hygiene caused cervical cancer; believed that they only needed a Pap smear if they developed symptoms of a pelvic infection; and felt that women who engaged in 'unwise' sexual behaviors, in particular, should receive regular Pap smear exams. CONCLUSION: The results suggest that culturally related beliefs about the etiology of cervical cancer play a role in the decision to obtain Pap smears for Latina immigrants. The findings may help to explain why researchers have found Latino ethnicity to be an independent predictor of Pap smear use. They also suggest that programs designed to improve cervical cancer screening, particularly among Latina immigrants, should stress the nature of HPV transmission, its role in the etiology of cervical cancer, and the importance of Pap smear screening in the absence of symptoms.