Second-generation Latinos struggle for a higher foothold

By N.C. Aizenman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 7, 2009; A01

Javier Saavedra slumped his burly frame into a worn, plaid couch in the cramped basement room he shares with his girlfriend and their 2-year-old daughter, his expression darkening as he ticked off all the wrong turns that had gotten them stuck below the economy's ground floor.

Raised by Mexican immigrant parents, Saavedra was a gang member by 13, a high school dropout by 16 and a father by 21. Now 23, he has been trying to turn his life around since his daughter, Julissa, was born.

But without a high school diploma, Saavedra was unable to find a job that paid enough for him and his girlfriend, Mayra Hererra, 20 and pregnant with their second child, to move out of her parents' brick home in Hyattsville.

Even the dim, wood-paneled room piled with baby toys and large plastic bags of clothing was costing them $350 a month.

"I get so upset with myself," Saavedra said. "I should have a better chance at a job [than our parents]. I want to be helping them with their bills, not them still helping me."

Millions of children of Latino immigrants are confronting the same challenge as they come of age in one of the most difficult economic climates in decades.

Whether they succeed will have consequences far beyond immigrant circles. As a result of the arrival of more than 20 million mostly Mexican and Central American newcomers in a wave that swelled in the 1970s and soared during the 1990s, the offspring of Hispanic immigrants now account for one of every 10 children, both in the United States and the Washington region.

Largely because of the growth of this second generation, Hispanic immigrants and their U.S.-born children and grandchildren will represent almost a third of the nation's working-age adults by mid-century, according to projections from U.S. Census Bureau data by Jeffrey S. Passel, a demographer with the nonpartisan Pew Hispanic Center in Washington.

Not since the last great wave of immigration to the United States around 1900 has the country's economic future been so closely entwined with the generational progress of an immigrant group. And so far, on nearly every measure, the news is troubling.

Second-generation Hispanics have the highest high school dropout rate -- one in seven -- of any U.S.-born racial or ethnic group and the highest teen pregnancy rate. These Hispanics also receive far fewer college degrees and make significantly less money than non-Hispanic whites and other second-generation immigrants.

Their struggles have fueled an outcry for stricter immigration laws, with advocates saying that the rapid increase in Latino immigrants and their children has strained the United States' resources and social fabric.

"The last 30 years of immigration have made our country more unequal, poorer than we would have been otherwise, more fractious and less cohesive," said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington, which favors tighter restrictions on immigration.

Supporters of Latino immigrants say that the newcomers and their children have spurred economic growth and contribute far more to society than they take from it. They also note that even a complete halt to future immigration would not change the footprint of the 15.2 million U.S.-born offspring of Hispanic immigrants already in the country.

Perhaps the only yardstick by which the second generation has achieved unambiguous success is the one that has stirred the most public controversy: English proficiency. Despite fears among some people that English usage is diminishing in the Hispanics community, census data and several studies indicate that by the second generation, nearly all Latinos are fluent in English and that by the third generation, many can't even speak Spanish.

The second generation's lack of success on educational and economic fronts is largely explained by their immigrant parents' extremely low starting point. Forty percent of second-generation Hispanic children are born to parents who never completed high school. Only 12 percent have a parent with a college degree or higher.

Saavedra's parents, who entered the United States illegally but later obtained legal permanent residency, didn't get beyond the third grade in Mexico. They were often at a loss when it came to helping him with homework. "They didn't even know how to get you the stuff you needed" for science projects, he said.

Although adding on a year or two of education beyond high school can boost their incomes, to be truly guaranteed a middle-class lifestyle, second-generation Latinos need at least a bachelor's degree -- a feat that the last major wave of immigrants, from Eastern and Southern Europe, took three or four generations to achieve.

"The second generation is doing way better" than their parents, said Ruben Rumbaut, a professor at the University of California at Irvine and a leading scholar on second-generation Latino immigrants. "But way better can still mean they are high school dropouts with 11 years of education, as opposed to their parents, with six years. And in this economy, an 11th-grade dropout is not going to make it."

Rage and remorse

Saavedra is determined to be the exception, although he knows it won't be easy.

The sun was burning down from a late-April sky, and Saavedra's brow filled with sweat as he mixed cement with a shovel at a Northern Virginia construction site.

When he was a child, his father would sometimes take him to sites like this in hopes of motivating the boy to stay in school.

"He used to say to me, 'What do you think is heavier: the pencil or the shovel?' " Saavedra recalled.

Still, this was the first work he had gotten in a month, and he seemed eager to show his gratitude to his girlfriend's Mexican-born father for taking him along. He sprang quickly to lug the heaviest equipment and joked in Spanish with the slender immigrant working alongside him.

"Somos como 'El Gordo y La Flaca' " -- We're like 'The Fat Man and the Skinny Lady' -- said Saavedra, referring to a popular TV talk show.

Yet for all his cheer, Saavedra knew that the one-day, $12-per-hour assignment to build a trash lot behind a hotel wouldn't cover his and Herrera's $106 cellphone bill.

And even Saavedra's outfit -- sparkly stud earrings, a basketball jersey that fell to his thighs and baggy pants that ballooned around his ankles -- broadcast his gnawing sense that he didn't belong among the crew of Mexican immigrants.

Technically, he is what researchers call a "1.5-generation" immigrant, because he was born in Mexico and moved to the United States as a 4-year-old. But with no memory of living anywhere other than Maryland, Saavedra considers himself, and tries to dress like, a member of the second generation.

He hauled an 80-pound bag of cement onto his shoulder and cracked a grin that was half-smirk, half-wince.

"It's times like these," he said, "that I think, 'Oh, man! Why didn't I finish high school?' "

The short answer is that he joined a gang and was kicked out of Bladensburg High School for fighting in his sophomore year. The long answer, Saavedra said, is that he was too filled with rage to put much stock in school.

The youngest boy in a family of seven children, he said he grew up fearing his father's temper and often felt ignored by his parents. "You know, like they'd buy [my older brother] Air Jordans but say there wasn't enough to buy them for me."

School offered little solace. As his family moved around Prince George's County, Saavedra passed through five elementary schools. Each time he started a new school, he said, "people tried jumping me and saying, 'Oh, you're the new guy.' . . . The hate started building up in my heart until I just got so tired."

By the time he got to William Wirt Middle School in Riverdale, Saavedra was an eager recruit for the Latino gangs that held sway there. He soon started his own clique of the gang Sur 13, transforming himself from his family's invisible youngest son to Casper, the nickname he chose as leader of some of the toughest guys in the neighborhood.

"All my life," he said, "I've always wanted to be known for something."

Hererra, who met Saavedra at a family party and started dating him in high school, said she wished the rest of the world could see the kind, thoughtful side of his personality he reserved for her. "Towards me he'd show emotion," she said. "He was always so attentive. . . . But towards everyone else, he'd just show anger."

Although Saavedra listened respectfully to her pleas to leave the gang, he didn't start reconsidering his choices until months after he had left high school. Without a diploma, he was cycling through low-paying, occasional jobs: cleaning carpets, driving for FedEx, working construction.

Friends started getting killed, including Edward Trujillo, a gang leader whom Saavedra had looked up to as a boy. He was gunned down on a residential street in the Riverdale area.

Saavedra himself narrowly missed being shot on four occasions. And he was constantly in brawls. "Some guy would call at 2 in the morning about a fight, and he'd be off," Hererra said.

Although Saavedra was not convicted of any crimes, he was picked up multiple times on suspicion of vandalism, assault and theft. Sgt. George Norris, a member of the Prince George's police gang unit, said he made a point of pulling Saavedra over for questioning and locking him up when possible. When Saavedra moved, Norris surprised him by turning up at the new address.

"I wanted him to know that wherever he went, whatever he did, I was going to be there," Norris said.

But after Saavedra decided to get free therapy from a local youth group, Norris also offered support, inviting him to speak at conferences and berating him when he showed signs of slipping back into gang life.

The hour-a-week therapy sessions helped Saavedra get more of a handle on his temper.

Perhaps most significantly, Hererra became pregnant and threatened to leave him if he didn't put the safety of their child first.

All in all, "it took him a good year to come around," she said. "He wasn't really changed until he saw the baby being born."

Progress and setbacks

Some weeks after the construction job, Saavedra lay on an operating table in Bethesda, tensing his torso as a doctor traced a laser over a tattoo of a teardrop just below his eye.

With funding from a local youth group called Identity, he had already had a number of his old gang tattoos removed, including the large, black SUR in gothic letters on his right arm, and the 13 written on his left. The teardrops would be the last to go.

"Without this on my face, I can probably get a better job," he said as he walked out of the doctor's office carrying Julissa's sippy cup in one hand and her pink diaper bag in the other. "I won't be getting pulled over for looking suspicious. People won't be thinking, 'Oh, he must've murdered someone.' "

Still, Saavedra said, he sometimes misses the status of being a gang leader. But he had recently hit on what seemed a perfect way to fill the void: a club of mostly former gang members who trick out lowrider bicycles with velvet seats, chrome wheels, twisted metal handlebars and plaques decorated with the gothic letters and fearsome imagery popular with Latino gangs.

Saavedra said he also hopes the club, called Street Nations, will offer his nephews and other young boys an alternative to joining a gang. "They like the gang lifestyle. But I be trying to tell them, 'It's not cool. If you want to be in gangs, later on you'll regret it.' "

A few days later, Saavedra took extra-small T-shirts printed with the Street Nations logo to give to his nephews at the club's first official meeting in a Riverdale park.

Hererra chuckled at the sight of the couple's youngest nephew posing for photographs next to the group's heavily tattooed, pierced older members. "Chris!" Saavedra shouted at the 8-year-old. "Stay in school and you get a bike!"

Saavedra and Hererra were trying to make their own educations a priority as well.

Despite her pregnancy, Hererra had continued to take classes toward a business degree at a Northern Virginia vocational college. Now 21, she hopes to graduate next year and get a job in human resources.

Saavedra had subscribed to an online course to work toward a high school diploma. His plan was to do a lesson a week on the computer next to his and Hererra's bed in the basement.

But Saavedra ended up whiling away his time updating the Street Nations Web site and chatting with other members on its message board -- "your Twitter," Hererra called it.

By summer's end, the online course was all but forgotten. FedEx had come through with a steady delivery job, and between the 12-hour workdays and evenings taking care of Julissa and his newborn son, Anthony Javier, so Hererra could go to class, Saavedra said, "I'm not even focused on my GED right now."

At $500 a week, his wages still aren't enough for the couple to get a place of their own. There are nights when Saavedra wonders whether they ever will.

"I try to stay positive," Saavedra said. "But sometimes inside me, I just feel like giving up and running away from this. You know, just getting lost. Honestly, sometimes that's just how I feel."

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