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Changing Lifestyles : Splendor in the Grass in Mexico : Church teachings and machismo are yielding to imported modern morals. But young people are still quite traditional.


MEXICO CITY — These have been some steamy times for young lovers in Mexico City.

Couples neck on the grass at the Alameda Park, condoms are prominently displayed at supermarket checkout counters and the hottest novel on the bestseller list is a torrid tale of teen-age sex.

As Mexico opens its borders to foreign trade and cultural influences, teen-agers here are grappling with an onslaught of new choices and pressures in forging their sexual identities. Caught in the tug between tradition and modernity, Mexican youths are struggling to develop a new moral code that strikes a balance between family values and individual freedom.

Mexicans' morals are tied closely to the teachings of the Roman Catholic church, which prohibits premarital sex, abortion and divorce. However, sexist machismo is also common here, resulting in different standards for men and women. For example, virginity has traditionally been a requisite for women while sexual prowess and experience are prized in men.

While polls show that young Mexicans still espouse much more conservative attitudes about sex than their peers to the north, it's clear that they are simultaneously questioning those old values and creating new ones.

Lupita, for one, finds the traditional role of women too restrictive. A slight, dark-haired 19-year old, she became sexually active two years ago.

"I am not like other women who worry that their boyfriends will lose respect for them," says Lupita, a high school dropout who agreed to be interviewed on condition that her real name not be used.

She uses contraception on the advice of her mother, who reluctantly accepts her daughter's decision to sleep with her boyfriends. They keep Lupita's sexual activity a secret from her uncompromising father and other family members.

In spite of her openness about sex, the young secretary, like most Mexicans, considers herself a Catholic and declares that she would never have an abortion. "I would not want to degrade myself to such a low level," Lupita said.

Lupita's boyfriend, Fernando, a 22-year-old college-educated waiter at a 1950s-style diner, is aware of his girlfriend's sexual history and accepts it.

"I would rather be the last than the first," says Fernando. "I cannot demand something from my wife that I am not willing to give myself."

Nevertheless, he affirms that many young men insist on marrying virgins and harbor other macho ideas.

Another sign of change is that Mexicans are becoming more open to discussing sexual issues. Consider, for example, "Youth in Ecstasy: A Novel of Reflections on Premarital Sex," a best-selling novel that focuses on a promiscuous youth named Efren. Even though sexual issues are treated with candor, the novel concludes that the safest route to a fulfilling sex life is monogamy.

The novel's author, Carlos Cuauhtemoc Sanchez, 28, is the principal of a Mexico City high school. Cuauhtemoc Sanchez says he sees a marked difference between the values with which he grew up and those of today.

He wrote this modern-day parable because "the values of Mexico's youth are being lost in a very accelerated fashion." He mostly blames external influences--especially those of the United States, as transmitted through movies, television and music.

The change in attitudes about sex coincides with a freer social climate for Mexican women. Between 1970 and 1990, the number of working women more than doubled, according to Mexico's National Institute of Statistics, Geography and Information. Increasing numbers are embrace feminist ideals.

"It is the women who are becoming more liberal. A woman with an education is no longer likely to accept a man who tries to impose conditions for marriage," says Lupita's boyfriend.

Fans were scandalized when pop star Alejandra Guzman dropped from sight last year to have a child out of wedlock. Now, Guzman has made a smashing comeback with a new album, appropriately entitled "Libre," or "Free."

So why is it that opinion polls show the majority of Mexicans, both young and old, favoring traditional family values and believing that premarital sex for minors is immoral?

Alma, a college senior in philosophy, attributes the discrepancy between belief and behavior to hypocrisy.

"Having sex with your boyfriend is all right if you're careful and don't advertise it to the world," she explains. "I would bet that many young couples have sex but they don't tell anyone about it. The moment you do, you debase yourself, especially if you are a woman."

"When you are speaking about social attitudes, you have to distinguish among socioeconomic levels," notes Dr. Graciela Hierro, head of the ethics department and director of the Gender Studies Program at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. "What is true for a middle-class university student may not be true for a factory worker."

In fact, the working class tends to be more conservative in its attitudes toward sex, along with relatively well-off social climbers. The reasons, of course, are different.

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