The houses are crowded together along this flat, tree-lined expanse of suburbia east of Los Angeles, but that is no real problem for the Medina family. They like to be together.
When Lupe Medina moved here with her husband, Adolfo, and their children six years ago, "I was lonely," she said. She persuaded her mother to buy a house three doors away. Her sister found a place a little more than a mile away. And soon Medinas, Valdezes and Mejias circulated from one house to another as if their homes were almost interchangeable.
This is supposed to be an era of crisis for the American family with divorce rates sky high, children shuttling between broken homes, pre-marital pregnancy and abortion rampant. Yet throughout the West, and in any American city with a sizable proportion of Latino or ethnic Asian residents, a different drama is unfolding, with consequences for the future of family life nationwide.
Here in California, long a national leader in divorce, the climb in the rate of marriage breakups has stopped, at least temporarily. The annual California divorce rate peaked at 6.1 per 1,000 population in 1976 and was down to 5.1 per 1,000 in 1983, the last year for which figures are available. The national rate peaked at 5.3 per 1,000 in 1981, and the provisional rate for this year is down to about 5.0. Demographers offer many possible explanations: economic pressures, better marriage counseling, fewer people in the peak divorce ages of 15 to 24 and the tendency of a trend to run its course.
But new studies from Texas, Hawaii and California indicate that a much more lasting phenomenon may be having an impact: The massive influx of Latinos and Asians into the United States in the last 20 years appears to be thickening the soup of American values with a much more traditional view of family and marriage. With no end in sight to the largest flood of immigrants in a century, experts say the potential exists for a noticeable shift in the American view of divorce.
The assumption has been that immigrants would discard old habits once they sank deep enough into American culture. But according to reports by the East-West Center in Honolulu and the University of Texas in Austin, marital traditions among recent immigrants are proving unexpectedly strong. Divorce rates in Latin America and Asia have been generally lower than in the United States, apparently because of strict family-based value systems, such as Confucianism in China and Roman Catholicism in Latin America and the Philippines, buttressed by poverty and the demands of rural life.
Writing in the Social Science Quarterly, Texas researchers W. Parker Frisbie, Wolfgang Opitz and William R. Kelly report that no more than 22.5 percent of Spanish-surnamed women in any age group in the American Southwest in 1960 had been divorced or separated from their husbands, compared with a top divorce or separation rate of 26.6 percent for Anglo women and 45.4 percent for black women.
By 1980, after the Latino population had approximately doubled to 14.6 million, the difference in divorce and separation rates was even more striking: a top rate of 24.2 percent for Spanish-surnamed women in the Southwest, compared with 36.6 percent for Anglos and 49.3 percent for blacks in the same area.
Even allowing for different ages at first marriage and different socioeconomic status, the Texas researchers concluded that the odds for marital stability among Latino women were two times higher than for whites and four times higher than for blacks.
A study by four experts associated with the U.S. Census Bureau and Honolulu's East-West Population Institute show similarly strong family ties among Asian Americans. Among ethnic Chinese in 1980, 88.2 percent of children lived with both parents. For ethnic East Indians, the figure was 92.7 percent, ethnic Koreans 89.4 percent, ethnic Japanese 87.3 percent and ethnic Filipino 84.5 percent. This compared with 82.9 percent for whites and 45.4 percent for blacks.
The researchers -- Peter C. Smith, Robert W. Gardner, Herbert R. Barringer and Michael J. Levin -- noted that in 1980, 28 percent of black households and 27 percent of white households were what the Census Bureau called "nonfamily" units, composed of single individuals or unrelated people. For ethnic Vietnamese in this country, that percentage was 16 percent. For persons of Korean or Filipino descent, it was 17 percent, and for persons of Chinese descent, 21 percent.
"At a time when you are adding a significant number of people who are not ethnically prone to high divorce rates, you would definitely see that have an impact on the divorce rates, particularly in California," said Barbara Foley Wilson, a demographer at the National Center for Health Statistics in Hyattsville, Md. Latinos made up 19.2 percent of California's population and ethnic Asians 5.3 percent in 1980, and both figures are estimated to have increased. The Population Bureau, a private research group in Washington, D.C., has predicted that a majority of the state's population will be Latino or ethnic Asian by the year 2030.
In a survey of California residents completed this year, California Institute of Technology researchers Bruce Cain and Roderick Kiewiet found that 16 percent of their sampled blacks and 11 percent of Anglos were divorced, compared with 6 percent of Latinos and 3 percent of ethnic Asians.
Asked to explain the robust health of their 15-year marriage, Lupe Medina grinned at her husband. "I keep saying it's because he's so wonderful," she said. Then she listed their efforts to communicate, their sharing of duties, their mutual enjoyment of their children and their religion as important factors keeping them together.
In San Jose, Tenny Sin, 27, and his wife, Laura, 21, married last year, noted their parents' long, successful marriages and their own religion -- they met at the Chinese Alliance Church -- as factors in their favor. Laura said her parents were American-born as she is but retained a view of marriage that is central to family life in China. A divorce in the family is "a shameful thing," Laura said, and the fault of someone "not wanting to handle the responsibility." Her parents would never have considered divorce because "they wanted to prove their loyalty to the family center and the marriage."
Religious leaders in the Latino and Asian communities wonder how long this traditional family stability can last amid the pressures and temptations of modern American society. "We have a lot of single mothers that have gone through separation or not been married at all," said the Rev. Joseph D. Pina of St. Alphonsus Parish in East Los Angeles where the Medinas worship.
Yet the University of Texas study concludes that "without doubt, Mexican-American women continue to enjoy a 'stability advantage' in 1980 even though the preceding decade saw exceptionally rapid increases in the prevalence of divorce and separation in the total population. It is equally certain that the greater solidarity of Mexican-American marriages, relative to Anglos and blacks, has not diminished over time."
As a possible explanation, the Texas researchers cited Roman Catholics' disapproval of divorce and scholarly suggestions that "a familistic orientation emphasizing the maintenance of strong kinship ties, including the marital bond, is more typical of Mexican Americans than of blacks or Anglos."
Lupe Medina prefers to explain it in terms of their 13-year-old Oldsmobile and her decision not to go back to work. "We could have a new car if I worked," she said, eyeing a child eavesdropping from a hallway. "But in five years that new car would be an old car, and we could never come back to our kids and catch up on this time we missed."
Adolfo, 36, and Lupe, 37, both have grandparents who were born in Mexico. They were married Sept. 12, 1970, and have four children: Matthew, 13, Kristen, 10, Mark, 5, and Kerry, 4.
They wonder if the success of their marriage isn't due to a lucky matching of temperaments. When they began to date in high school, "our friends every other weekend would break up and have fights," Lupe said. "We went for three years straight and never had any of that type of problem, and we just knew our marriage was going to be the same."
But tradition, they acknowledged, also had a hand. They married in the Roman Catholic Church, which severely restricts worship by persons who divorce and remarry. They had the blessings of two sets of parents who now have a total of 80 years of marriage behind them.
The parish priest put Adolfo and Lupe through a required series of marriage-orientation meetings before their wedding and afterward had them host similar meetings for other young couples. "I learned a lot in those classes," said Adolfo, a soft-spoken man with a sandy beard who works as a construction project carpenter. "I realized then what it's like to get married, that you have to give and take." He also remembers that his father was "a good provider, . . . and that seemed to me a very difficult task because there were so many of us, 11 children. I remember the lean times, and he was always there."
There are no reliable figures on the religious preferences of ethnic Asians in America, but predominantly ethnic Asian churches -- particularly evangelical Protestant congregations -- thrive in California. The percentage of Christian Asians in the recent wave of immigrants is thought to be significantly higher than the small percentage of Christians among people now living in Asia. This may be partly because many Asians learn about America from Christian missionaries.
It was through his growing interest in Christianity that Sek-Yan (Tenny) Sin, the son of a Buddhist couple from Macao, met Laura Chan, the American he would marry. Sin had gone to high school in Hong Kong and then was accepted at Taft College in Bakersfield to pursue a business degree. Students he met there took him to some Protestant services, and a minister he met on a plane trip back to Hong Kong thrilled him with the prospect of a new life through personal salvation.
When he transferred to San Jose State University and met Laura at a local church, each represented families with long histories of marital stability. Laura's parents have been married 26 years and of her 13 aunts and uncles, three have been divorced. Sin's parents have been married 30 years, and there is one divorcee among nine aunts and uncles.
The Sins, married July 28, 1984, often have difficulty coordinating their schedules as he pursues a career in computer sales and she finishes her degree in graphic arts. But they said they are looking forward to having children. Sin hopes then to maintain the high Chinese standards of family responsibility he thinks have slipped a bit in his wife's family.
"I feel Americans really spoil their kids," Tenny Sin said. "When I first went to Laura's house I was shocked, because her mother did not ask them to do anything."
His wife's eyes widened, and she demanded an explanation.
"Well, she did do some things," Tenny Sin admitted, "but it was only because her mother had written out a schedule. She had to be reminded."
Some community leaders familiar with the Latin and Asian obsession with family wonder if it is always a good thing.
"I have real mixed feelings about the whole societal concept . . . you stay married for the kids," said the Rev. Charles Yue of the First United Methodist Church of Los Angeles. "I see couples that stay together for all the wrong reasons, and spousal abuse is not uncommon."
Father Pina noted that many of the couples he deals with, particularly recent immigrants, are "working so hard to earn money to feed their families that family life suffers."
Family histories kept by Americans of Latin American or Asian descent are often full of stories of marriages that survived extreme hardship and long separations. U.S. immigration laws in the last 100 years put many obstacles in the way of couples. Jennie Lue, 29, an occupational therapist in Orange County, has aunts, a grandmother and a great-grandmother who waited years to leave China and join their husbands in this country.
"Today, if you had to wait that long, no one would do it," she said. "It would be goodbye, I'm marrying someone else." Yet she agrees that tradition and family feeling have had an impact on her choices. Her parents always indicated that "they wanted me to find a nice Chinese boy" to marry, which is what she did.
In her family, marriage has been a durable institution. Lue's great-grandmother, Wong Loy Chek married Yee Fwee-Wo, later known as Jimmy Yee, in about 1892 and had two sons and a daughter before her husband left to work in America. Over the next several decades, money was found and visas secured for the sons to join their father, but poverty, immigration laws, war and revolution kept their mother from following.
In 1962, during a relaxation of the guard preventing escapes from China, she made her way to Hong Kong, where her husband flew to see her. "They both cried when he was wheeled into the apartment where she was staying," said George Yee, a Torrance, Calif., design engineer who is their grandson and Jennie Lue's father.
"She had said she refused to shut her eyes comfortably until she saw him. She died soon after that, and grandfather not too long after she did."
Such a tradition of fidelity and commitment has apparently softened the statistics on family dissolution here. It may also strengthen immigrants' ability to take hold of what American life has to offer.
Bruce Cain, of Caltech, outlined the economic advantages of the low Latino and ethnic Asian divorce rates turned up by his survey: Tighter families mean readier sources of income for new businesses, more hands to help at home, higher aspirations and demands on children. "We found, for instance, that 70 percent of Latinos hoped their children would go to college," he said.
Moving into the West and Southwest and major U.S. cities in enormous numbers, ethnic Asians and Latinos have often prompted fears of a new drain on government services, the creation of a new class of poor. Such fears overlook the fact that they are usually arriving not as individuals, but as members of new American families. In the process, Cain said, they reintroduce some old values to the statistical grid and, as a consequence, "should be moving up the socioeconomic ladder much faster than they would otherwise."