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Why did teen sisters seek to become pregnant?

Sisters Edelmira and Angela Marquez are teenage mothers, a particularly widespread occurrence among U.S.-born offspring of Hispanic immigrants.

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N.C. Aizenman
Washington Post staff writer
Friday, December 11, 2009; 12:30 PM

Post staff writer N.C. Aizenman discusses why two teen sisters from Silver Spring would decide to start trying to get pregnant at ages 14 and 15, and why the teen pregnancy rate for Latinas born in the United States remains stubbornly high.

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The transcript follows.

Aizenman's story about the Marquez sisters is the third in a series. For full coverage: Left Behind A Generation of Latinos Struggling to Succeed

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Colorado: Thanks for a fascinating story. I grew up in a working class town, and education always seemed like the ticket to a better life. I guess I still don't get why the girls feel like a baby would make their lives better, rather than going to school. Is it that they don't see a future in which they could get a good job?

N.C. Aizenman: The short answer for why the Marquez sisters felt it would be a good idea to get pregnant is that they hoped it would force their parents to stop trying to separate them from their boyfriends. But as I hope the article demonstrated, the larger reason is that having a baby didn't seem to derail any concrete alternate plan they envisioned for their life. Though adults around them speak often of the importance of "staying in school" from what the sisters described and from what I observed of their life, those adults very rarely spell out in detail what exactly a high school degree gets you. Apart from their teachers, they also know very few people who have gone to college. So the going to college seemed like an expensive option that other, wealthier people do, not something the sisters could picture themselves doing.

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Warrenton, Va.: When you write about "Latinos", "Latinas" and "immigrants" are you implying they are undocumented?

N.C. Aizenman: The term "Latinos" encompasses individuals born overseas, U.S.-born offspring of immigrants, and people whose roots in the United States stretch back for generations. Today's story is the third in a four-part series we are running this week on what's often termed "the second generation"--meaning U.S. born children of Latino immigrants. While Latino immigrants often get a lot of attention, their children already account for a substantial share of the population and will be an increasingly important segment of our workforce as they become adults.

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Gaithersburg, Md.: How typical are these two sisters of the Blair High School latino population? Did you have to search very hard to find a family that would illustrate this problem?

N.C. Aizenman: When searching for the right subjects to profile for this article I interviewed Latina's who were teen mothers throughout the Washington area, so I can't speak to how many there are at Montgomery Blair in particular. But I can say that it was not difficult to find girls in this situation given that as many as one-in-four U.S. born daughters of Latino immigrants gives birth to a child as a teenager.

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Arlington, Va.: Thanks for the great story today, and for chatting about it with us. Do you believe the high teen pregnancy rate among Hispanics is circumstantial (i.e., due to poverty, lack of education of parents) or is it part of the culture? If it's part of the culture, how can we as a society work to solve the problem without being perceived as insensitive to the culture of the people we're trying to help?

N.C. Aizenman: There seem to be quite a number of factors involved. But I think one thing the Marquez sisters' experience illustrates is that it's important to expand the range of realistic career options available to girls like them so that they feel they have more choices.

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education: Are there any current programs to curb teen pregnancy? Especially in the high schools with higher rates of pregnant teens. Sadly it seems as though the more you see a peer "okay" with having a baby, it encourages pregnancy - or at least - it doesn't seem to be a deterrent.

N.C. Aizenman: There are quite a number of programs in the Washington area to prevent teen pregnancy--ranging from sex education classes to workshops run by non-profits in conjunction with some of our school systems that target young girls while they're still in middle school and work on improving their self-esteem and exposing them to different career paths. However, clearly a lot more work is needed.

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New York, NY: Is this an issue of race issue, or is it actually a class issue?

N.C. Aizenman: While cultural factors play into all of our decisions, of course, I think to a large extent this is a story about socio-economic circumstances. Compared to U.S-born children of non-Latino immigrants, those born to Latino immigrants are far more likely to face disadvantages. To cite just one statistic: Forty percent of U.S. born children of Hispanic immigrants are being raised by parents with less than a high school education. The comparable figure of U.S.-born children of non-Hispanic immigrants is 6 percent.

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Washington, DC: It's interesting to see you mention that the sisters view college as expensive and out of reach. Compared to having a child, four years of higher education really isn't that expensive.

N.C. Aizenman: That would be an interesting math question to calculate. But in any case the girls' sense of what it takes to get to college and how you can pay for it if you can't afford full tuition is very vague. They have had very little exposure to discussions of the nuts and bolts of getting into and attending college. So they are making their judgments based on the limited information readily available to them.

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Takoma park: I live in this area.

I am a board member of a PTA that feeds Eastern Middle School AND Montgomery Blair.

The whole way of teaching, between the emphasis on raising school scores on standardized tests at the elementary and middle school level (students in the schools who have a language barrier do NOT get exempt from MSA testing indefinitely) and the "Everyone MUST go to college" mantra of the administration at the HS level, you end up with kids who see no real benefit to graduate or go to school unless they fit a specific criteria.

It is a problem that I discuss with principals at the ELEMENTARY level. They know that some of their kids are not cut out for college, but it is forbidden to discuss any other option other than college prep.

N.C. Aizenman: I find the question of whether schools should put more emphasis on vocational training and alternate career paths for students for whom college may not be a great fit very interesting. But for obvious reasons, it's also quite controversial.

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Washington, DC: While you were researching this story, did you read any of the sociological literature in the area? There are several books that I would recommend that highlight the issue of teen pregnancy and poverty. Promises I Can Keep by Kathryn Edin and Maria Kefalas is a great study of poor women of white, latino and black heritage, and why they chose (or consciously took no precaution against) becoming pregnant at a young age. The results they have indicate that the women felt there was no reasonable prospect for a better life for them (either they never imagined one, or if they saw it, they were sure it was out of reach), and have clearly picked up the lifescript that marriage is something only stable, middle class people have, and that a husband (or even steady boyfriend) is not necessary for motherhood, the only social role they feel is open to them where they can achieve something.

"Marriage and Caste in America", "Love, Drugs, Trouble: Coming of Age in the Bronx", and "American Dream: Three Families and a Nation's Drive to End Welfare" are all books that make the same point (directly or indirectly).

N.C. Aizenman: I read a wide range of literature on the subject in preparation for the article, including a lot of academic research. But there is a wealth of great writing on the topic. Thanks for alerting your fellow readers to some of it. One note about the steady boyfriend question: While neither of the Marquez sisters have gotten married, so far their boyfriends have remained very close to them and their children. So it's not necessarily always the case that Latina teen mothers end up raising their children entirely alone.

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Cumberland, Md.: When you write a controversial article such as this do you bother to read the comments on it and if so what do you think? Do you think that many of the negative comments are justified?

N.C. Aizenman: I try to look over as many of the comments as I can because The Washington Post's readers are some of the smartest, most informed people around, and I always learn something new. It's also helpful to get a sense of the range of opinions and reaction to our stories. That said, it does concern me when people allow their anger or frustration over an issue to spill into personal attacks on the individuals I write about. The Marquez sisters are not celebrities or public officials accustomed to being in the public eye. They are teenagers who very graciously allowed us all a glimpse into their lives so that we could better understand the situation of teen mothers, and whatever people's opinion of their personal choices I think they deserve to be treated with respect and sensitivity.

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Rocky Mount, NC: I am an ESL teacher who unfortunately deals with this problem all the time. I agree that Latino students don't see the reasons to graduate high school. I've noticed that many of my girls seem to have very distant relationships with their fathers. Although most have fathers in the home, many times the fathers work so much outside the home. I try to encourage my adult students to tell their children that they are important, so the girls don't look for an older "man" to make them feel special.

N.C. Aizenman: Thanks for your interesting comment. I'm including it here so others can read it.

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Washington, DC: I think the expectations of our families/communities have a huge impact on the decisions we make for ourselves. I grew up in an area where the expectations are extremely high. It is unacceptable not to think about college, let alone to get pregnant at a young age. I wonder if it's possible to raise the expectations of these young people in areas where the expectations may be very low, and whether that would make a difference in the goals and aspirations these kids have for themselves.

N.C. Aizenman: I agree that the question of how to raise expectations is a fascinating one. You might want to tune in Sunday for article four in the series, in which we look at what can be learned from second-generation Latinos who are highly successful despite the obstacles, and what it may take to help more of those coming up behind them follow in their footsteps.

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Silver Spring, Md.: My neighbor's daughter, age 17, had a kid a few months ago. I live in Silver Spring. One of these girls could be her.

I remember when she was 13/14 my wife, who is a teacher, said, "she is gonna be pregnant by the time she is 17, I bet you money."

But her sister two years older is a sophomore at college.

Your article paints with a broad brush and only supplies justification for peoples prejudices.

N.C. Aizenman: You raise an important dilemma that reporters like myself often confront. On the one hand when I learn that as many as one-in-four U.S.-born daughters of Latino immigrants becomes a teen mom it seems irresponsible not to write about it. Publicizing an issue like this can help foster a broad public discussion that can lead to creative solutions and positive change. And at the very least, ignoring the situation is not going to make it go away. On the other hand, writing about Latinos who are struggling risks minimizing the accomplishments of the many who do succeed and giving the impression that all Latinos are in the same boat. As a reporter my solution is to try to write with as much depth and sensitivity as possible about the struggles and then also write articles, such as this coming Sunday's piece, that shed more light on Latinos who are successful.

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Baltimore : For he PTA board member from Takoma: I have to agree with you that there has been too much emphasis on everyone going to college to "get ahead." When I was growing up in Baltimore (I'm 61), Mergenthaler Vocational High School (known as Mervo) was a highly regarded institution that prepared students (mostly male, I'll grant you) for jobs as auto mechanics, plumbers, electricians, sheet metal workers, etc. These were jobs that were (are) always in demand and pay good wages. It is a shame that our educational system (and our value system as a society) became skewed so that "working with your hands" became something to be avoided.

N.C. Aizenman: Another comment on an interesting--and controversial--side debate:

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Bowie, Md.: Just a different take on this story; I find it very depressing. My wife and I are unable to have children of our own, and due to a separate, unrelated set of medical issues are finding it difficult (but hopefully not impossible) to adopt. I have a hard time believing that these girls will have the capability and resources (emotional and otherwise) to give these children the upbringing they will need to be contributing members of society. I am sympathetic towards the toddlers, but worry about the direction in which our society is heading -- and this is of course compounded by the unfairness of life in general. I'm not sure I agree with what I perceive as the 'accepting' tone of the story, but it's an important one to bring to light nonetheless -- thank you.

N.C. Aizenman: I hope the tone of the article was neither accepting nor disapproving. I felt my role was simply to present as full a picture of the Marquez sisters' lives as possible and let our highly intelligent readers form their own conclusions and opinions. One other thought: While it's certainly true that the sisters do not have the financial and educational resources that better off parents do, as I hope the photo gallery makes clear, there is no question of their emotional attachment to their children. For instance, despite her regrets at having a child so young, Edelmira is extremely affectionate with her daughter Ashley and would never call her a "mistake."

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N.C. Aizenman: Thanks to all for the many comments and questions. I wish we could go on all day, but unfortunately we're out of time. Best wishes, N.C.

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Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


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