Go Forth & Multiply, Latina

The consequences of teen pregnancy

By Mary Helen Ponce
Published on LatinoLA: July 23, 2003

Go Forth & Multiply, Latina

He is a professor of sociology at a prestigious eastern university, a local boy who did his parents - and community - proud. During holidays, Christmas, for example, he visits our parish to take part in the Sunday mass. Today being Easter Sunday, domingo de Pascua, "Father Joe" (as I think of him), resplendent in an ivory chasuble, is officiating at the Spanish mass. During the sermon, rather than flip through the church bulletin, or slip a piece of gum in my mouth, I sit back. Father Joe is muy articulate; he deserves my full attention.

His homily - short and succinct - is not the usual rhetoric heard during Holy Week, nor of the Resurrection, let alone sin and damnation, but what he perceives is a Latino societal problem: teenage pregnancy!

I'm impressed at his courage in attacking this issue. Few (if any) clergy discuss the high incidence of pregnancy among young, single women. Few, if any, dare preach against the dictums of the Roman Catholic church, which still today denies women participation in the priesthood, let alone issues of birth control. Certainly not to an audience of Spanish-speaking folks, many of them immigrants, for whom four or five children is the norm.

Just now Father Joe is on a roll; his high-pitched voice -- all emotion now -- resonates inside the church. His face is flushed a deep red. The statistics he quotes are frightening. Nationwide, teenage pregnancy among Latinas, he expounds, is higher than that of any other minority.

The topic of Latina teen pregnancies, unwed mothers, and/or welfare mothers is not conducive to today's Easter celebration, one that reeks of fecundity: eggs (ova) and bunnies. But Father Joe is not your usual priest, but an academic, a Jesuit. Un jesuita. A member of the Catholic intelligentsia, church radicals who in the 1700s were expulsed by a Pope who feared their power -- and intellect. The man at the altar is homo sapiens, thinking man, a prelate voicing his concern with our Latino youth. A voice in the wilderness.

'm disappointed to note he does not segue from teen pregnancy to human sexuality, abstinence, let alone birth control. He may be a Ph.D., but underneath his chasuble beats the heart of un catolico, for whom papal edicts must not be contradicted, certainly not in public.

The Spanish-speaking community in this parish is very active; numerous programs cater to those for whom el ingles is a foreign language. In fact, on the first Sunday of each month, el padrecito asks all the children to join him at the altar, which soon fills with children, and parents with babes-in-arms. The kiddies enjoy being "up there" with the priest, a kind man for whom the words "birth control" will never stain his lips. Did not Christ suffer the little children?

And yet I'm bothered by what Father Joe has said. More so because last fall I attended an educational conference specifically geared to Latina high school students of the greater San Fernando Valley. Over 500 girls - 99% of whom were Spanish-speakers - were exposed to professionals Latinas, accomplished women considered role models in their respective fields. The students attended workshops that focused on the arts, business, education, jurisprudence, mass communications (print media and TV) and the social sciences. I spoke on literature and writing.

As I looked over the jam-packed auditorium, at the young and pretty girls who filled the seats, I was filled with pride, but also a deep sadness. Why? Because if statistics like those quoted by Father Joe about Latina teenage pregnancy continue to rise, three out of five students present, or 300 girls will drop out of school due to an unwanted pregnancy.

Never realize their potential.

And that is a serious loss.

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