As a social worker with Los Angeles County's Latino Family Preservation Project, Arlene Guzman tried searching for reasons why one young Latina after another was getting pregnant.
This girl comes from a dysfunctional family, Guzman told herself; that girl is an immigrant who didn't use contraception.
Then friends of her daughters--neighborhood girls as young as 14 whom she had watched grow up--began stopping by her house with babies.
Only then did Guzman come to the conclusion that she was dealing with "a kind of epidemic" that seemed to put her own daughters at risk.
"All the kids are doing it, thinking it's cool, how cute babies are," Guzman says with trepidation. "They don't even think about the consequences."
Though Guzman did not realize it at the time, what she was seeing was part of a nationwide trend that began in 1987, when the teen birthrate stopped declining and unexpectedly started climbing. But national rates were unremarkable compared to a handful of border states, notably California: While births rose in all ethnic groups, 75% of the state's increase in the late 1980s occurred in a group long ignored by national experts: Latina teen-agers.
"The increase in Hispanic births to teen-agers in California is really astonishing. It's driving the national figures," says Kristin Moore, director of research at Child Trends, a Washington-based nonprofit group that analyzes data related to children.
According to Moore, Latinas account for more than a third of the increase in teen births nationwide, although they comprise just 9% of all teen-age girls. But in Los Angeles County, 6,329 of the 8,814 girls age 15 to 17 who gave birth in 1990 were Latina, according to state figures.
Statistics suggest that the Latino birthrate in the county is now higher than in Mexico City, where the government has carried on extensive family planning campaigns.
Moore and other experts stress that Latina birthrates here are imprecise because no one has an accurate count of how many illegal immigrants live in Southern California. "Are more immigrants coming into Los Angeles, or are more Latinas having babies?" Moore asks.
But just as teen births soared in the late 1980s, immigration data reveal, Border Patrol apprehensions of illegal immigrants plummeted to the lowest in a decade. The reason: Fewer illegal immigrants crossed the border because of a 1986 law penalizing U.S. employers for hiring them.
For Dr. Claire Brindis, co-director of the Center for Reproductive Health Policy at UC San Francisco, the roots of teen-age Latina pregnancy go far deeper than immigration status.
"It's hard for Americans of means to understand this because they have power over their lives," says Brindis, who was born in Latin America and worked in Los Angeles clinics. "But when you're poor, when you feel powerless, that translates into an inability to assert control over your body. You go back to common, historical roots. To relationships. To family. And you can do that whether you're an immigrant or a citizen."
"Breeders," a local high school teacher called them.
The term sounded ugly, and she was nervous when it slipped out. Working at a large public high school, she says, she began hearing other teachers use the term two or three years ago to describe Spanish-speaking girls for whom school seems merely a waiting room before they go on about the business of childbearing.
"We (the teachers) just don't know how to reach them," confesses the teacher, who asked that her name not be used. "You can say 'breeders' is our perception of them, or you can turn it around and say that's the only thing these kids were raised for long before they got here."
Chances are that these girls never had the opportunity to watch an older sibling sit at a desk at night, switch on a study lamp and sweat over an algebra book. Many come from impoverished rural areas of Mexico, Guatemala and especially El Salvador, where textbooks, schools and even electricity were luxuries during the bloody civil war of the 1980s.
As children, these Salvadorans won sympathy from Americans by drawing crayon pictures of American bombs dropping on their homes and writing stories about watching their parents "disappear" at the hands of death squads.
Now, many of those children are growing up--in Los Angeles.
"Let me tell you what I've seen," sighs Dina Olivas, who works with pregnant Salvadoran teen-agers at Childrens Hospital in Hollywood through a program called Project NATEEN (Networking, Advocacy, Teaching, Employment, Education and Nurturing).
Back in the early 1980s, she begins, a mother would come to Los Angeles to earn enough money to send for the rest of the family.
By the time the children arrived in this country--often years later--they barely recognized their mothers. Stepfathers had materialized. Extended families were redefined to include strangers who shared crowded apartments. While such networks provided support for most, for some children they spelled abuse or molestation.
Often behind in school, they were also arriving at an awkward age: early adolescence.
Many Salvadorans proved to be among America's most industrious immigrants. But some boys opted to prove their worth with weapons of war on the city's toughest streets. And some girls wound up at home, tending younger siblings while parents worked.
Jean Yearout, who recently retired as vice principal at Fulton Junior High in Van Nuys, recalls watching many Latinas just "evaporate."
"Somebody would say they were 'in Mexico,' even if they weren't Mexican," she recalls. "Later, I realized that far more than those we knew about--and we're talking about dozens and dozens of kids--were pregnant."
By the mid-1980s, she says she knew of 12 to 15 pregnancies annually. The worse the poverty and the less the parents' education, she says, the graver the problems.
One seventh-grader got his high school girlfriend pregnant. When the girl, a star athlete, wanted an abortion, "he stepped in and threatened to beat her up if she got rid of his baby," Yearout says. The girl suffered a miscarriage.
In another case, she says, she found that a 13-year-old girl had been doing all the housework--from cooking to ironing--for her father and grown brothers.
"She had been the scullery maid for this family since she was a small child," Yearout says. "Is it any wonder girls in that situation don't know how to say no to a boy who wants sex?"
Another girl, a good student, had been molested by an uncle in El Salvador for years before her mother could earn enough money to send for her. When Yearout promised the girl she would help her talk to her mother about counseling, the mother surprised them both by revealing an even worse childhood: She had been sold into prostitution by her father at age 10.
Yet, amazingly, the mother had escaped and was holding a good job. And the daughter was headed for college.
Gloria Ornelas, program director of the Plaza Family Support Center in East Los Angeles, met many victims when she was visiting schools in the late 1980s to help prevent child abuse.
"The physical abuse I saw when I was going around to schools was shocking," she says. "A lot of older Salvadoran children were beating younger children. Their families had been exposed to so much violence, they had developed a way of blinding themselves to all the pain."
At each stop, she says, she would hear about a girl who was dropping out because she was pregnant. Only later did she realize that those individual cases were adding up.
"I wonder if any of us working in the field were aware of the dramatic change," she says. "I guess I was so close to it, I was just hoping that what I saw were isolated incidents."
At Childrens Hospital, Dina Olivas knew better. And today, because of the recession, she says, the problems seem even more profound.
"The teens are getting younger, the poverty is ever-increasing and the violence in the neighborhoods is just getting worse," Olivas says. "And they're not just immigrants. Many teens are just ignorant of how people get pregnant in the first place."
Many are also scared--so scared of being alone and of losing boyfriends that they are setting out to have babies. One 15-year-old Salvadoran girl Olivas counsels has attended 15 funerals--most of them of peers in Los Angeles.
"Motherhood is the only life-giving thing these girls know," she says. "Given their neighborhoods, some choose drugs, some choose gangs--and some choose pregnancy. When you think about it in that context, does choosing a baby at 15 really sound so bad?"
Children are beloved members of Latino families. Even parents who are furious at their teen-age sons and daughters for having babies generally offer love and support once the grandchildren are born.
The phenomenon of Latino teen births is immensely complex, with childbearing patterns varying according to socioeconomic levels, ancestry and number of generations in the United States. Women of Cuban descent, for example, have birthrates only a fraction of those of Puerto Ricans. By the second or third generation, like European immigrants before them, Latinas have about the same childbearing patterns as other Americans.
For that reason, the current wave of teen births is frightening to parents who worked hard to build better futures for their children only to find that their daughters--who may not even speak Spanish--may be in danger of bearing children as their grandmothers did, at 15 or 16.
At a recent gathering of parents at Euclid Elementary School in Boyle Heights, women nodded their heads gravely when asked if they had seen an increase in teen pregnancy in their neighborhoods.
"A lot of parents are working so hard to pay rent that they don't have time to supervise," said one parent, Maritza Salazar, 27, a Salvadoran-born mother who grew up here and has a 6-year-old son at Euclid.
Still, Salazar said, her mother worked when she was growing up too, and there were drugs and gangs as well. The difference? She had a career center to go to every day after school; now many such programs have been canceled. Her parents took her on car trips; now many parents can't afford the gas.
And sex among high school students is more common.
According to a 1990 report by the federal Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, 53% of Latino high school students--a rate almost identical to Anglos--reported having had intercourse. However, only six of every 10 Latinas reported using contraception at last intercourse, compared to seven African-American girls and eight Anglo girls.
Even if not married, a Latino father is expected to support his girlfriend and baby. But with 60% of Latina teen mothers now having babies outside marriage, breakups are inevitable. Many times a second baby comes along when the teen mother takes a new boyfriend and he says, "I love you and your baby . . . but I want one of my own."
"This sort of thing is a violation of (Latino) cultural norms," says David Flores, director of alternative education for the Los Angeles County Office of Education, which has instituted numerous new classes for teen mothers in the past year.
"It's non-traditional to be a single parent, to have children out of wedlock, to have sex if you're not married. All of these are cultural taboos," Flores says. "To violate them is a rebellious course, it really is--an attempt by young girls to break from their condition in life. To me, it is not only ignorance, it is a sign of just how truly powerless they feel--and a kind of declaration of independence."
Arlene Guzman, meanwhile, says many of the Latina teen mothers she sees are, in fact, rebelling against the traditional notion of marriage, in which women are subservient to their husbands.
"A lot of girls don't want to get married and live like their mothers," she says. "They're quite modern in that way. But they don't have a sense of going to college or becoming professionals, either. And they don't have a lot of self-esteem. So they fall right back into the same trap by doing whatever the guy wants."
And that includes going without birth control. On high school campuses, Latina girls often say, girls who carry contraception--who plan for sex--are "sluts." Those who happen into pregnancy are merely swept away by the moment or deeply in love.
Margaret Galloway, who directs a YMCA-sponsored infant care program for babies born to students at San Fernando High School, says many of hundreds of infants that she has cared for were born to teen-agers who had never talked about sex with their parents.
Some teen mothers had thought they couldn't get pregnant during their menstrual periods, Galloway says. Others thought they couldn't get pregnant "the first time." When it didn't happen the first time, she says, they assumed it couldn't happen at all.
"Ignorance," she intones, "is bliss."
But blaming teen pregnancy on old-fashioned parents is too easy. San Fernando High School is one of three high schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District that have school-based clinics.
After noticing an increase in births precisely nine months after each senior prom, she says, she started giving talks before each dance. When that still didn't seem sufficient, she started handing out condoms.
Two teen-age boys walked into her office as she spoke.
"Guys blew them up like balloons and popped them," recalled one, Oscar Vargas, 16. "If you're with a girl you know, with one girl, you're not gonna gets AIDS or herpes or anything."
With some pride, Galloway describes Oscar as one of two fathers who work regularly with their babies in the day-care center. When a visitor expresses dismay that only two of 30 fathers regularly visit their children, Galloway looks crestfallen.
"You don't understand," she says.
"We've been here 10 years, and these are the first boys we've ever had."