by Amaury Nora
The United States has the highest teen pregnancy rate of any country in the industrialized world; Texas has the highest teen pregnancy rate (63 births per 1,000 females ages 15-19) of any state in the nation, according to a newly released study of children’s health, KIDS COUNT Data Book, issued by the Annie E. Casey Foundation.
Texas achieved this title in 2003 and it seems nothing really changed in 2004. More concerning, Texas surpasses the national average of 41 births per 1,000 teens by nearly 20 points. According to the National Vital Statistics Reports, in 2003 the number of teen births in Texas was 51,091.
Even though Texas has seen a decline in the number of teen births, apparently this was not enough to lower our ranking. One reason, according to Frances Deviney of the Center for Public Policy Priorities, is that Texas has a high rate of Hispanics (35 percent of Texas population) and they tend to produce more teen mothers than other groups. What exactly did she mean by this statement? Unfortunately, we cannot blame the media for misquoting her; it is a statement she also made in the press release. The reason this concerns me is that it’s easy to assume that the reason teen pregnancy is high among young Latinas is because they are hyper-sexualized, a stereotype that continues to plague Latinas (voluptuous, sexy, morena, vixen, exotic, and sensual, etc.) – in other words, they’re hot mamacitas with insatiable appetites for sex.
The problem with stereotypes is that they force people to live out their lives in accordance with these extremely pervasive roles. Statements such as these seep into the collective public subconscious, causing us to believe that Latinas do have large sexual appetites and that they’re ready to hop into bed at the sight of a man. However, the facts do not support myths. According to a study published by the National Center for Health Statistics, it was found that Latinas 15-17 years of age are less likely to have sex than their non-Hispanic black or white counterparts.
The same is true for 18-19 year olds. In the first age group 30% of non-Hispanic white girls, 41% of non-Hispanic black girls, and 25% of Hispanic girls report having had sexual intercourse with a male. In the second age group 68% of non-Hispanic white girls, 77% of non-Hispanic black girls, and 59% of Hispanic girls report having done so (p. 24). And, of those girls who had had sex in the previous four weeks, 19% of non-Hispanic white girls had had sex 4 or more times in that period compared with 13% for both black girls and Hispanic girls.
While teen pregnancy and birth rates have declined in the Latina/o community, the reality remains that one in two Latina teens (51%) are still getting pregnant at least once before they reach the age of 20, according to the National Campaign Latino Initiative. That is nearly twice the national average. Why is there such a high pregnancy and birth rate when there’s less sexual activity? The reasons behind why young Latina/o teens get pregnant are both complicated and numerous. One thing is for sure, the old methods of advising a young female adolescent to “put a penny between your knees and keep it their” is useless advice and so is “sexual silence.”
It is important to recognize that teen pregnancy is both a cause and consequence of poverty. That is, high rates of teen pregnancy and childbearing reflect in part the existing disadvantage and limited opportunities for many in the Latina/o community. It is important to understand that many Latina/o youth are at high risk for teen pregnancy due to the same factors as other minority youth, such as socioeconomic status and educational attainment. However, it is also vitally important to understand that there are other risk factors that contribute. These factors tend to be related to cultural issues, such as acculturation, family values, attitudes about motherhood, religion, and traditional gender roles. It is easy to tick off stats on the dangers of teen pregnancy, and for some it does make a difference, but not enough to solve the problem. To get to heart of the matter, we must have a firm understanding how these cultural risk factors play a role because it is these factors that influence the level of knowledge or lack of knowledge one possesses about sex and contraceptives.
If we really are serious about curbing teen pregnancy, it definitely will not be done through Bush’s “Abstinence-Only” Program. Even though the Latino heritage is a rich and diverse, it is not monolithic. The Latino culture in the US varies not only by country of origin, but by regions and ethnicities within those countries. Yet, there are some common values among these various cultural. Some of these core values can be used to great effect when designing or implementing prevention programs in Latino communities.
One must also keep in mind there is no such thing as a generic Latina/o youth. There are varying levels of Spanish language usage, different cultural traditions and values, and an urban Tejana/o will have a different set of values from a Tejana/o from the Valle or from California and so on. There are also different levels of perceived discrimination, degrees of political organization, and social and economic dislocation among Latino subgroups.
And finally, using a “one size fits all approach” is not the solution. This approach tends to stereotype community members and their needs, and in the end it wastes valuable resources by designing inappropriate prevention efforts and inadvertently neglects of the needs of specific groups in the community.