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PROFILE / David Hayes-Bautista

The Myth Buster

This sociologist's research challenges negative stereotypes of Latinos, demonstrating their strong family ties, work ethic and good health.

May 24, 1999|JOSE CARDENAS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

There's a typical approach to Latinos: the dysfunctional approach that stems from the '60s culture of poverty that posits that minorities in general are dysfunctional. To get funding for anything, we have to prove we are the most dysfunctional. But the more dysfunctional programs that get developed, the more we are seen as dysfunctional.

As I've looked at data of Latino behavior, what I've been noticing over the years--andI didn't notice this 20 years ago--is that Latinos are pretty functional: They work harder. They don't use welfare very much. They form strong families. They know how to take care of their health. They set up businesses.

--David Hayes-Bautista

*

One morning in 1990, professor David Hayes-Bautista felt uneasy as he drove down Beverly Glen Boulevard to his office at UCLA.

The longtime medical sociologist--then director of the university's Chicano Studies Research Center--was about to start an unprecedented statewide study on how California Latinos lived daily life.

As a young professor at UC Berkeley in the 1970s, he correctly had predicted a massive increase in the state's Latino population, at a time when it was believed widely that California's population growth was over.

In "Burden of Support" (Stanford University Press), a book he co-wrote in 1988, he argued that this largely young Latino work force eventually would play an important role supporting the baby boom generation as it reached retirement age.

But as his 1990 study got underway, Hayes-Bautista was concerned.

Since the days of the Great Society, a timeworn image had persisted of the Latino population as largely poor and uneducated, as problem people lacking a work ethic and family formation skills and suffering from high mortality rates.

The public policy that resulted--urged at least in part by an activist Chicano movement, of which Hayes-Bautista proudly was a part--had been designed to help alleviate the problems of this "urban underclass."

"I started worrying," Hayes-Bautista recalls. "Do Latinos work? Do they go to school? I didn't know. What if I prove the worst stereotype to be true? I should hang myself."

He began thumbing through fresh data from the Los Angeles County Health Department, and something caught his eye: Latinos had fewer heart attacks, less cancer, fewer strokes and a lower infant mortality rate than the overall population of L.A. County.

Later, he examined census data and found that, among other things, Latinos had been more involved in the labor force, percentage-wise, than any other ethnic group, had formed an above-average number of nuclear families and had lower rates of mortality in general.

It was just the beginning of an intellectual metamorphosis for Hayes-Bautista, a shift from the conventional focus on the internal problems of Latinos, publicly highlighted over the years by academics and politicians seeking funding for antipoverty programs, to a focus on what Hayes-Bautista views as Latinos' more common but largely unappreciated healthy behavior.

Now, at 53, Hayes-Bautista thinks a similar shift in paradigm is needed as we come to the end of a decade in which it has been debated publicly whether Latinos (including immigrants, who in L.A. County outnumber the native-born Latinos) can contribute to California in the coming century.

Focusing on the Community's Strength

"He's the preeminent Latino scholar in the United States," says Gregory Rodriguez, a fellow with the New America Foundation in Washington, D.C. "The view of Latinos among Chicano studies professors was pretty dismal: [held down by] a big white guy with a boot on our heads. But that says something about the establishment and nothing about the individual. . . .

"David turned the corner. In a very uncreative [scholarly] environment, he started talking about the ability of that head to move that boot."

Rodriguez, 32, first heard of Hayes-Bautista when, as a student at Berkeley, he read "Burden of Support." Later, he wrote newspaper articles and scholarly papers with Hayes-Bautista in L.A. for three years.

"Some people like him because he speaks to their ethnic pride, but he's talking about deeper things," Rodriguez says. "He literally made the transition from a health specialist, looking at Latino health in medical terms, to healthiness in behavioral terms, the capacity of Latinos to run society as they were becoming the majority."

Hayes-Bautista--now director of UCLA's Center for the Study of Latino Health, which he founded in 1992--speaks off campus as often as twice a week, sometimes for free, sometimes receiving as much as $5,000. Earlier this year he was asked to revise "Burden of Support" but declined, saying he'd rather write a new book reflecting all he has learned in the '90s. He says he is especially interested in being of service to politicians, especially those with large Latino constituencies.

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