Ana Sanchez, a 15-year-old from Brownsville, Texas, should be going to school and hanging out with friends. Her main concern, though, is how to get enough money to buy food and diapers for her baby son.
“I don’t have work, I had to leave school and sometimes I don’t have money to buy diapers,” said Sanchez.
Like many other Hispanic teenage mothers, she does not have a husband to help support her child. And, she has seen her story played out before - in the lives of her Mexican-born mother, Maria, and her two older sisters.
As the U.S. population passed 300 million this week, some demographers noted that Hispanics account for about half of the current population growth. Many of the Hispanic women who gave birth were teenagers.
About 51 percent of Hispanic girls have babies before turning 20 in the United States, compared with 34 percent of girls nationally, according to the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy.
“In the Latino community we have not made as much progress as we have in other oppressed communities”, said Michael McGee, vice president for education at the Planned Parenthood Federation of America.
Emily Rios says she “can’t even count” how many girls became mothers at her high school in El Monte outside Los Angeles, where 72 percent of the population is Hispanic.
Rios was the lead actress in the award-winning movie “Quinceanera,” which follows a 14-year-old from a Mexican family living in Los Angeles who finds herself pregnant before her much-awaited “quinceanera,” or 15th birthday party.
“Maybe they just think it’s the life that they are supposed to live,” she told Reuters in an interview.
With many girls growing up in immigrant families from countries where women are encouraged to have children young, the cultural pressures are strong.
“Most Latino mothers had their children at an early age. So they think: ‘If it was OK for them, why can’t it be for me?’” said Neusa Gaytan, program director for the Chicago-based community group Latin Women in Action.
Most of them are Roman Catholic and less likely to use contraception or contemplate abortion, and lack sex education programs in schools with large Hispanic student populations.
Many teens grew up caring for younger siblings and are eager to have a family young, as their mothers did.
While nationwide teen birth and pregnancy rates have fallen in the United States in recent years, the reduction in teenage births has been slower among Hispanics, the country’s fastest growing minority with more than 42 million people.
Hispanic teens had 83 babies per 1,000 women aged 15 to 19 in 2004, compared to 63 for non-Hispanic African-Americans and 27 for non-Hispanic whites, the National Center for Health Statistics said in a study released at the end of last month.
Gaytan said parents need to have frank talks with their children about practicing safe sex and the risks of becoming teen parents.
Adilene Araujo, a 16-year-old Mexican student who lives near Palm Springs, California, and is expecting her first baby, agreed.
She said she thinks many Latino parents don’t want to talk about sex to their kids because they generally think it’s “too early”.
“They think their kids are too young, when they are (already) sexually active,” she said.
Rios hopes other Hispanic teens will watch will learn from “Quinceanera,” which is released on DVD in January, what they didn’t learn at home and in school.
But they are unlikely to have seen it in theaters, unless they went with their parents. Its subject ensured an “R” or “Restricted” rating for people under 17.
Revision date: June 22, 2011
Last revised: by Andrew G. Epstein, M.D.