Era of prosperity largely skips Latino teens

Sex, alcohol use, and suicide attempts are rising for Hispanic youth at the same time rates of risky behavior decline for other ethnic groups.

Elmer, a teenager at Cesar Chavez High School in Washington, says he likes math and playing soccer. He also has another habit: smoking marijuana.

Claudia says the school's Brazilian dance programs are cool, but perhaps not as cool as the "skipping parties" she sometimes attends during the day, where she is given alcohol by older students.

While rebellion has been considered a teenage rite of passage since at least the days of Bob Dylan, risk-taking among Latino youths is up across the boards. And the fact that this is happening to the fastest-growing racial group in the US at a time when black and white teens seem to be easing up on the sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll, is of major concern to experts.

From underage drinking to sex to knife-carrying, Latino teens have been showing an increase in risky behavior during the past decade. A recent study by the Urban Institute, for example, shows that in 1997, nearly twice as many ninth- and 10th-grade Hispanic students were engaging in five or more risky activities as in 1991. That is compounded by the fact that Hispanic students have the highest high school dropout rate. The reasons range from a culture that places a premium on contributing to a family's economic well-being to the language barrier.

"If a 15-year-old student arrives in the US with no English skills, it is highly unlikely they are going to be able to learn English and keep up with all the rest of the material," says Carola Surez-Orozco, co-director of the Harvard Immigration Project in Cambridge, Mass.

And while a strong economy and better education have helped black and white students occupy their free time with tame activities, such as violin lessons and hockey practice, experts say Hispanic neighborhoods haven't reaped the benefits of prosperity. Considering this is the longest economic boom in US history, that lack becomes particularly troubling.

"Nationally, if you look at funding trends, there's very little money going into Latino communities," says Lori Kaplan, executive director of the Latin American Youth Center in Washington.

The government is taking steps to alleviate that. Last month, the White House initiated a 10-year plan to close the Hispanic student-achievement gap. As elections near, politicians are devoting more words, at least, to the Latino population.

While experts say it will take a greater concentration of money and political will than has yet been seen to help the Latino teen population, private efforts have achieved some success on a local level. For example, ASPIRA, a nonprofit Latino youth group, runs clubs in six cities where teens are given leadership positions, career and college counseling, and financial aid. The clubs also have programs for parents, which teach them how to discuss topics like sex with their kids.

The National Coalition of Hispanic Health and Human Services Organizations runs a Strengthening Family Curriculum that works with community-based organizations around the US to educate Hispanic teens about HIV, using theater.

Here in Washington, the Latin American Youth Center pays Hispanic teens to attend and help run a six-week sex-education program. "These are long-term commitments to working with youth," says Ms. Kaplan. "This is not an ad campaign."

While schools can help keep teens out of trouble, some 30 percent of the Hispanic population has less than a ninth-grade education, compared with 5 percent for whites and 9 percent for African-Americans, according to Population Bulletin.

This is not to say that education is unimportant to Latin American immigrants, says Ms. Surez-Orozco, but "they don't have that cultural bag of tricks available to middle-class American parents. They have no idea how to help their kid navigate the system of school."

Economics of education

"If a child knows how to speak English, that's it," says mother Irene Marquez-Garner. "Many Hispanic parents have to work two or three jobs, and they don't have time to supervise or further educate their kids."

That's true for some of the students at Cesar Chavez High. Instead of doing her homework, Felicita Garcia is busy making tortillas, under her mother's orders. And Elmer says he's not sure higher education is for him. "I'm not even sure if I'll go to college. I might just start working to support my family."

Poverty also plays a direct role in encouraging risky behavior, and more than one-third of all Hispanic families have incomes below the poverty line, according to the US government. Money, in fact, may be as much a defining factor as race.

"When there is a control for the socio-economic factors in statistical surveys, what you find is that the differences [among ethnic groups' behaviors] disappear," says Richard Jessor, professor of psychology at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

Parent Efrain Gomez came to the US when he was 15. "If I had had the chance to finish college I would have finished," he says, as he prepares to trim the lawn outside a building here. Mr. Gomez thinks part of the reason his kids smoke and drink is because "it's harder for Hispanics to find better jobs, to get through education - because college is very expensive. If they can't make it to college, then the only thing to do is be out on the street."

Teens want parents' input

Some students said they wanted more time with their parents to talk about these issues. Felicita, for example, complains that her parents don't talk about birth control or drugs with her. "They think that the way their parents raised them is the same way they should raise us," she says. Many are immigrants who "work a lot and get paid a little. It's a big mistake 'cause they don't have time for their children."

Some historians caution against lumping Hispanics together in one giant category, irrespective of economics, how long a family has been in the US, or country of origin. "It's a lot of people from a lot of different countries," says Joel Wolfe, a historian at Rice University in Houston.

Over time, Mr. Wolfe points out, Latino youths will likely surmount many of the challenges facing them, as have other immigrant groups, from the Italians to the Irish. In fact, he says, Latino teens whose families have been in the US for a number of years are already overcoming such difficulties. "One of the great myths is that certain model minorities didn't go through this," Wolfe says. "But historical research shows they did."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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