Hispanic communities are blossoming in nearly every city, town and hamlet in the United States, but the flower of Hispanic girlhood is wilting badly.
A young Latina is more likely to live in poverty, drop out of school, get pregnant as an unmarried teenager, succumb to drug use and attempt suicide than any other demographic group.
They are in worse shape than young black males, who had previously held the title of this country’s lost souls.
These girls and young women are caught between the cultural traditions to which their immigrant parents expect them to adhere—particularly, service to the family—and the galloping teen culture in which they find themselves in this country, a culture about which their parents are particularly uninformed.
According to The New York Times, a government study found that one in six young Hispanic women have attempted suicide, a rate 1 1/2 times as high as that among non-Hispanic white and black teenage girls. Fortunately, most survive.
According to Child Trends, a nonprofit, nonpartisan research center in Washington, Hispanic teens reported the lowest levels of all racial and ethnic groups in the use of any contraceptive method the first time they had sex.
Worse, when asked whether they used any birth control method the last time they had sex, only 36 percent of Latinas said yes, while 72 percent of non-Hispanic whites reported that they used birth control.
And Latinas are more likely than other girls to have older male partners—five years older or more—so there is likely to be a significant power differential in the relationship.
In addition, Child Trends found, Hispanic girls have a less-negative view of pregnancy than other girls and more of them were likely to see pregnancy as a positive event, compared with other teen girls.
The result of all this?
According to the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, 51 percent of Latinas get pregnant at least once before age 20, compared with the national average of 35 percent of all teen girls.
While teen birth rates for other demographic groups have declined, the birth rate for Latina teens has actually increased.
And teen births no doubt explain the disproportionately high rates of poverty and school drop out—Latino teens are more likely to drop out of high school than are white or African-American youth.
“In addition, these families don’t understand American youth culture well enough to teach their kids how to be careful.”
The Hispanic community places a high social value on children and on being a mother, and that means any messages about delaying first sex, consistent use of birth control and delaying child-bearing has to be delivered with some sensitivity.
“The message can’t be ‘No babies!’“ Brown said. “It has to be about sequencing and timing. If you have a baby as an unwed teen, especially in this economy which is so tough on everybody, you are putting your participation in the American dream at risk.”
The message, she said, has to be this: Finish your education. At least high school, and probably some additional training or education. Then give yourself a chance to get a toehold in the American economy.
Marry, then have children, when both parents are ready for the added responsibility, because the children born to two parents who have at least a high school diploma are nine times more likely to avoid poverty.
Until then, if you are not abstinent, use birth control every time you have sex.
When you think about it, that’s the message for all our children.