Mexican-American Teen in L.A.

Maria's daily routine reflects the better life her parents hoped for on entering the US

STEP into Maria Ibarra's living room and right away you notice two things: a traditional Mexican wedding portrait of her parents on the wall, and a large color TV in the corner. The two items are symbols of this 16-year-old's life, a swirl of cultures - Mexican and American. But instead of straddling two cultures, Maria has saddled the two. Like many American teenagers, she takes the bus to high school, works at a nearby shopping mall, watches TV, and talks a lot on the phone to her friends. But unlike many teens, Maria speaks a different language at home - Spanish - and almost all her friends are Hispanic.

Maria embodies the better life her parents hoped for when they toted her across the border as a one-year-old (today, all her family are legal residents). "They want us to have a better life growing up than they did," says the teenager, who wears a gold necklace bearing her name and a mane of wavy hair swept off her face.

Extremely important to her is "family" - a word that comes up time and again when a reporter asks about her hopes (to stay a family); her future (to someday have one of her own); whom she admires (her mother, Evangelina, and father, Luis, together for 17 years); and how she spends her free time (a lot of it with family).

All this makes her not-so-typical, Maria reckons. Unlike a lot of teens, "I enjoy being close to my parents," she says. Indeed, a family knit close is a Mexican value that the Ibarras hold tightly in this country where the "traditional" family seems to be disintegrating.

Other families break up because parents divorce or teenagers leave home, says Maria. "Everyone goes their separate ways.... I think I am one of the lucky ones."

Maria's Mexican-American mesh is also characterized by her family: She and her sister are citizens of Mexico, while her two brothers are American citizens.

The Ibarras live in a mixed neighborhood in a small and tidy one-story house in Pasadena: two bedrooms (for six people), a kitchen, a living room, and a small yard where their dog, Thunder, resides. The living room holds photos of first communions and family, a yellow rotary phone, and a VCR atop the frequently watched TV. Maria's father is a chef at an Italian restaurant. Her mother cleans houses a few times a week.

Most residents rent houses in this area, but the Ibarras are buying theirs. In a shared driveway sits a green 1976 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme, driven only by Mr. Ibarra.

Maria says she's extra close to her sister, Angelica, who's a year older than she. They have similar hair styles, "made" curly, and share a room and some of the same friends and clothes. When her parents aren't home, "sometimes we wrestle," says Maria, slightly embarrassed at her admission. She often reads to and plays games with her youngest brother Adrian, 6. There aren't that many young children in the neighborhood, she says - "I don't want him to be lonely." Then there's Luis - her 14-year-old broth er. "We always fight.

"My mother says we fight because we love each other more than anyone else," says Maria, translating her mother's Spanish. Maria cares for him and doesn't let him get away with things, says Mrs. Ibarra. Whereas Angelica is more openly affectionate, Maria is "strict with her attitude, strong in character." This particular evening Mrs. Ibarra prepares a Mexican supper of chicken, beans, rice, and fresh hot tortillas for her family and 2-year-old niece, Elizabeth. Maria finishes her meal first and then tak es over at the stove so her mother can sit down and eat. (See photo.)

One suspects her high regard for responsibility flows from her father, who insists that his children study hard for a stable future. "Life can be hard," Maria says, quoting her father. It's a reminder that seems to pervade in this household - how life could be.

Although school is important, "I don't like school so much," Maria says. "I'm going to school to succeed in life." An average-to-above-average student ("I get Bs and Cs"), Maria wants to go to "the nearest" college, if her family can afford it, and study law. She says she wants a good career so she can depend on herself and not someone else. Her dream: "to help people out."

`I WANT to change the way some people live," she says. "Some people are lonely. There are old people who are lonely because they have kids that ignore them.... On TV I see some kids don't have water."

Last year only 10 out of more than 100 Hispanic graduates of Maria's school went to college. But scholarships for Hispanics are there, says Sandy Soto, community assistant at Blair High School, and Maria could qualify, with her grades, she adds.

Maria knows she's not alone. Being Mexican-American is not so much a difference as a similarity here. It's as if the dual culture already existed: Hispanic-American culture is fast becoming a norm in California (the most populous state in the United States) where the minority has grown 70 percent in the last decade.

At the moment, Maria is saving some of her money for a visit back to her birthplace, Mexico City, to spend time with her cousin. (This will be her fourth visit.) "Did you catch that? That's money saved not for college," her father points out later with a little disapproval. Maria works 15 to 20 hours a week at a clothing store at a nearby shopping mall. "Spending" money goes toward clothes (she buys "normal" clothes - not always the latest fad), sometimes movies ("Honey, I Shrunk the Kids" was one of th e last ones she rented), ice skating (indoors), or taking her best friend, Susanna, out to a fast-food restaurant.

Her father does not let her date yet, which seems typical for a tradition-minded Mexican family. "I guess he wants us to be a certain age before we go on a date," Maria says, speaking for herself and her sister. Later, Angelica pleads with their father to let her stay at a church dance for longer than two hours.

Maria says she's happy her father is strict. She knows of girls who have had a lot of boyfriends and heard of a few who are now teenage mothers. "Being young is only once," she says during a conversation in her bedroom, painted a pastel blue. Later, Mr. Ibarra explains in Spanish that he isn't strict because he worries about his daughters, but because he wants them to study and stay away from bad influences, such as drugs.

When asked who her hero or heroine is, Maria smiles. "Lucille Ball - a great person, a great lady." Does Maria consider herself funny? "I think I am," she says adding that often she's clumsy. "Most humor comes from school; I cut loose at lunch," she says.

"She's really funny," says Maria's best friend, Susanna, during a lunch hour at Blair High School. "A lot of times she does things she doesn't even know are funny." About eight Hispanic girls meet every school day to eat lunch outside by the school's amphitheater.

Sixty percent of the student population here is Hispanic. Where are the guys? "No boys allowed in this club," quips Maria, making her friends giggle and chatter, part in Spanish, part in English. Lunch cliques seem to be designated by race and locations. "The blacks eat over there," says one girl pointing, "the whites over there." The Hispanic guys eat inside. There's also a "nerd" group. The "couples" go back by the pool.

By contrast, Maria is reserved in her classes. "I consider myself a quiet student," she says. "Even if I know [the answer to a teacher's question], I keep it to myself.... I dunno, I guess I'm shy." History and math are her favorite subjects. Not much goes on in her photo class - there's only one camera for students to use - so Maria says she often does homework. "Our school is poor," she says.

After school, if she doesn't have to work, Maria usually watches cartoons on TV. Her favorite evening shows include "The Simpsons" and "Babes." She says she doesn't favor any particular music, but listens to "whatever is on the radio. I guess I'd rather watch TV." She devotes one to two hours to homework a night.

On the outside, Maria seems unshakable, with a take-things-as-they-come attitude on her walk toward adulthood. Does she ever feel down-and-out? "No, I've never really gotten depressed," she says. But some things that irk her do surface at various times. During lunch she says she feels sorry for a man who is painting over graffiti. "Whenever I see that man, he always has a paintbrush in his hand - like it's attached or something." Later, she explains that there is "a little gang" in her school that's in to graffiti. "Why? I don't know why they do it. I don't enjoy seeing a whole place 'tagged up.' "

Also there are some students who "bum out." They care more about their friends than school and even if they're smart, they waste it and quit school. She knows a girl who recently dropped out. "I've been wanting to call her," she says.

Being a teen can sometimes be confusing, Maria admits, and there are limitations. On average, she gets in a fight with her Dad about once a month. But "I think it's harder being an adult. You're supposed to be more responsible and mature," she says.

Does she like being 16?

"Yeah, I do. ... growing up and finding new things out. Now that I'm 16, I'm happy the way I am. You can do a lot of things."

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