When the data for 1999 teen-birth rates are released, Jennifer Cordova will be among them. But when the 18-year-old new mother talks about the future, she sounds like anything but a statistic.
"I'm going to provide this child with the very best life I can," says Ms. Cordova, who is working to finish high school while taking care of her six-month-old son. "I want to go to college and pursue a course in forensic science."
Cordova's experience is but one snapshot in the developing picture of Latina teen motherhood in America. While teen birth rates are down among all ethnic groups, according to data released early this week, they have dropped most slowly and remain highest among Hispanics.
The reasons range from limited access to health care to the cultural importance given to motherhood. In turn, providing Latina youths with the necessary skills and motivation to delay childbearing into their 20s or beyond often means pitting the pressures of an urbanized society against the social and religious values of traditional agrarian cultures.
Because of that, say experts, the problem is more complex than mere number crunching. Yet the recent statistics provide both an indicator of what has been accomplished nationwide and a road map of where progress is still needed.
"It's a breakthrough, absolutely," says Aracely Panameo, executive director of the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health, speaking of the continued drop. But "the message to parents, educators, and policymakers is that we need to continue and to not underestimate the power of young people to make the right decisions when they are given the skills and opportunity to do so."
Overall, America's teen-birth rate dropped 2 percent during 1998 - the seventh consecutive year of decline - according to figures released by the National Center for Health Statistics. Among other things, the continuing reduction is attributable to "less sex, more contraception, a fear of AIDS and [sexually transmitted diseases], [and] a robust and healthy economy," says Bill Albert of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy in Washington. The teen birth rate among African-Americans, for example, has dropped 26 percent so far this decade. By contrast, teen births by Latinas have fallen only 12 percent.
In much of the Hispanic world, says Ms. Panameo, there's a status and respect that goes with motherhood. "[It's] the highest thing a woman can aspire to," she says. "Early childbirth doesn't mean it's unintended, unwanted, or out of wedlock. Oftentimes that pregnancy tends to give that adolescent a focus."
"We are raised with a sense of self for the sake of the community," she adds. "The fact that a child has become a parent [means she] has become a better person - and productive."
Indeed, in urban barrios, where high-school dropout rates can near 50 percent, motherhood can give a teen girl a sense of worth. It offers "an adult identity - when you haven't any hope of becoming a doctor or a lawyer," says Faustina Nevarez, head of the department of obstetrics and gynecology at Kaiser Permanente's Los Angeles Medical Center.
In many ways, Dr. Nevarez sees the success of sex-education programs. Also, a majority of California's Latino parents consider teen pregnancy a big problem, she says, and "are more likely to bring their teens in to discuss contraception than they were 20 years ago."
But there also remains a certain ambivalence to the use of contraception in the Latino community, observers say, as well as a bias against abortion. Besides, it's one thing for a teen to know what to do and another to be able to afford to do it, Nevarez adds, noting that Latinos are the largest uninsured group in California.
Some observers point to a kind of fatalism among adolescent Latinas - a feeling that their lives might be cut short by inner-city violence, so going to college and postponing a family is a waste of time.
Many teens, says Nevarez, are "happy to be pregnant. If they realized what happens to teen women who become pregnant, they wouldn't be so happy. A college education doubles your income during your lifetime. Most of these women won't achieve that."
Cordova is determined not to be in that category. Thanks to local programs, she is able to raise her son and complete her high school education. But the lack of affordable day care makes things difficult. "Kids are great," she says, "but they're better when you're ready."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society