Struggles of a second generation: Mothers too young

Sisters Edelmira and Angela Marquez are teenage mothers, a particularly widespread occurrence among U.S.-born offspring of Hispanic immigrants.
By N.C. Aizenman
Friday, December 11, 2009

When the Marquez sisters set out to get pregnant, Edelmira was 14 and Angela was 15.

Having babies, the girls thought, would force their Salvadoran-born parents to stop trying to keep them and their teenage boyfriends apart.

Edelmira was the first to succeed, giving birth to a baby girl in the eighth grade. She regretted it almost immediately, and warned her sister not to get pregnant.

Angela, whose round, brown eyes and shy smile are so similar to Edelmira's they could almost be twins, stayed quiet.

"I didn't want her to know I was still trying," Angela recalls, sheepishly. "When I used to see my sister play with her baby, I was like, 'She's so cute; I want my own.' "

Shortly before her 17th birthday, Angela got her wish: a baby girl, just like Edelmira's.

Even as the teen pregnancy rate for other racial and ethnic groups has fallen substantially in the past 15 years, it remains stubbornly high among Hispanics. As many as one in four Hispanics born in the United States to immigrant parents gives birth to a child before her 20th birthday, according to a statistical analysis by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Child Trends, a nonpartisan research center. Only Hispanics who come to the United States as immigrants have a higher teen birth rate.

Teen parenthood often adds an extra hurdle for the offspring of Hispanic immigrants. Many are already struggling to get enough education to overcome their mostly Mexican and Central American parents' high level of poverty, limited schooling and lack of legal status.

The impact on the Marquez sisters, who were born in Maryland and live in Silver Spring, has been profound. Angela, 17, who dropped out of Montgomery Blair High School even before she became pregnant, has put off taking classes toward a GED until her baby is older. Edelmira, a 16-year-old sophomore, says she is determined to graduate. But she missed so many days of school last year that she didn't get full credit, and this year she has already been absent 15 days.

Both girls still have had an easier life than their mother, Ana Ayala, who dropped out of school in the fourth grade to help pay the family bills and was 16 when she left El Salvador to make the daunting illegal trek north. Now 39 and a legal permanent resident, Ayala has worked in a hospital cafeteria for a decade.

After years of straining to pick up English phrases from her bosses, Ayala can understand a fair amount. But when it comes to speaking English, her voice grows soft and her tone is tentative.

Her daughters navigate their American surroundings with the casual self-assurance of natives. If Edelmira wants to organize a day trip to the beach, she Googles the destination on one of the school computers. If Angela calls the cellphone company and gets the language prompt, her answer is a resolute "English!" And both sisters chose names for their babies that could have been plucked from the registry of a suburban country club: Edelmira settled on Ashley; Angela named her child Kimberly.

CONTINUED     1                 >

© 2009 The Washington Post Company