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A Cry for Love : The rise in California's Latino teen birthrate astonishes some, but others say it is one way the poor and powerless can have a say in their lives. : "Mom, tell me, really," one 10th-grader asks her mother, "what else is there to do?" :

THE TEEN BIRTH EXPLOSION: Two Generations of Children Grow Up as One. Second of three parts. TUESDAY: In Part III, a look at South Los Angeles, where teen births are highest and women have little access to neighborhood family planning.

March 15, 1993|LAURIE BECKLUND | TIMES STAFF WRITER

As a social worker with Los Angeles County's Latino Family Preservation Project, Arlene Guzman tried searching for reasons why one young Latina after another was getting pregnant.

This girl comes from a dysfunctional family, Guzman told herself; that girl is an immigrant who didn't use contraception.

Then friends of her daughters--neighborhood girls as young as 14 whom she had watched grow up--began stopping by her house with babies.

Only then did Guzman come to the conclusion that she was dealing with "a kind of epidemic" that seemed to put her own daughters at risk.

"All the kids are doing it, thinking it's cool, how cute babies are," Guzman says with trepidation. "They don't even think about the consequences."

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday March 17, 1993 Home Edition View Part E Page 2 Column 6 View Desk 1 inches; 23 words Type of Material: Correction
Wrong sponsor--The Times on Monday incorrectly reported the sponsor of the Infant Learning Center at San Fernando High School. The center is sponsored by the YWCA.

Though Guzman did not realize it at the time, what she was seeing was part of a nationwide trend that began in 1987, when the teen birthrate stopped declining and unexpectedly started climbing. But national rates were unremarkable compared to a handful of border states, notably California: While births rose in all ethnic groups, 75% of the state's increase in the late 1980s occurred in a group long ignored by national experts: Latina teen-agers.

"The increase in Hispanic births to teen-agers in California is really astonishing. It's driving the national figures," says Kristin Moore, director of research at Child Trends, a Washington-based nonprofit group that analyzes data related to children.

According to Moore, Latinas account for more than a third of the increase in teen births nationwide, although they comprise just 9% of all teen-age girls. But in Los Angeles County, 6,329 of the 8,814 girls age 15 to 17 who gave birth in 1990 were Latina, according to state figures.

Statistics suggest that the Latino birthrate in the county is now higher than in Mexico City, where the government has carried on extensive family planning campaigns.

Moore and other experts stress that Latina birthrates here are imprecise because no one has an accurate count of how many illegal immigrants live in Southern California. "Are more immigrants coming into Los Angeles, or are more Latinas having babies?" Moore asks.

But just as teen births soared in the late 1980s, immigration data reveal, Border Patrol apprehensions of illegal immigrants plummeted to the lowest in a decade. The reason: Fewer illegal immigrants crossed the border because of a 1986 law penalizing U.S. employers for hiring them.

For Dr. Claire Brindis, co-director of the Center for Reproductive Health Policy at UC San Francisco, the roots of teen-age Latina pregnancy go far deeper than immigration status.

"It's hard for Americans of means to understand this because they have power over their lives," says Brindis, who was born in Latin America and worked in Los Angeles clinics. "But when you're poor, when you feel powerless, that translates into an inability to assert control over your body. You go back to common, historical roots. To relationships. To family. And you can do that whether you're an immigrant or a citizen."

*

"Breeders," a local high school teacher called them.

The term sounded ugly, and she was nervous when it slipped out. Working at a large public high school, she says, she began hearing other teachers use the term two or three years ago to describe Spanish-speaking girls for whom school seems merely a waiting room before they go on about the business of childbearing.

"We (the teachers) just don't know how to reach them," confesses the teacher, who asked that her name not be used. "You can say 'breeders' is our perception of them, or you can turn it around and say that's the only thing these kids were raised for long before they got here."

Chances are that these girls never had the opportunity to watch an older sibling sit at a desk at night, switch on a study lamp and sweat over an algebra book. Many come from impoverished rural areas of Mexico, Guatemala and especially El Salvador, where textbooks, schools and even electricity were luxuries during the bloody civil war of the 1980s.

As children, these Salvadorans won sympathy from Americans by drawing crayon pictures of American bombs dropping on their homes and writing stories about watching their parents "disappear" at the hands of death squads.

Now, many of those children are growing up--in Los Angeles.

"Let me tell you what I've seen," sighs Dina Olivas, who works with pregnant Salvadoran teen-agers at Childrens Hospital in Hollywood through a program called Project NATEEN (Networking, Advocacy, Teaching, Employment, Education and Nurturing).

Back in the early 1980s, she begins, a mother would come to Los Angeles to earn enough money to send for the rest of the family.

By the time the children arrived in this country--often years later--they barely recognized their mothers. Stepfathers had materialized. Extended families were redefined to include strangers who shared crowded apartments. While such networks provided support for most, for some children they spelled abuse or molestation.

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