Older, Wiser and Not Even 20 Years Old

Oscar Vargas, 16, isn't reluctant to talk about sex.

"It ain't a big thing anymore," he says. "It's just normal."

He and his girlfriend, Rosario Parra, started going together when he was 12 and she was 14. After a year or so, their friends began to talk. Why, they wondered, hadn't Oscar and his lady had a baby yet?

Oscar wanted to get a job first. His dad was rarely around while he was growing up, and he wanted to be a better father to his kids. But when Rosario got pregnant and wanted to keep the baby, he agreed. Another way to be close to your son, he figured, was to grow up with him.

"I know kids are doing it earlier now, but I waited until I was 14 to have sex," says Rosario. "I started wanting to have a baby after my friend got pregnant. She was going to be grown-up. It sounded so nice. I wanted a baby to take care of myself. If it was my own baby, nobody else could tell me what to do with it."

Oscar loves his 2-year-old son and takes turns watching him--even though running after toddlers "tires you out," he says. It's even harder now that they have a second child, 6 months old.

Though Rosario is on welfare, she plans to get her high school diploma because, she says, she doesn't want to work as hard as her immigrant parents. Her father is a baker and her mother an industrial laundress.

In the world of teen parents, Oscar and Rosario are a success story.

They aren't married, but they're in love and they've got a plan. He wants to go into the Marines ("They have good health care"). She wants to work as a mail carrier ("You get to work outside, and the pay's OK").

"My 14-year-old sister says she is not going to be stupid like me," Rosario says. "I love my baby, but if somebody asked me, I'd say, 'Wait, stay in school.' They tell you that at school too, but they always send older ladies to say it, so you don't listen to them."

"Everybody tells me, 'Have babies now, 'cause you die young,' " says Raul, a San Fernando Valley gang member who's already seen three of his siblings die--one by a bullet. "But I don't want to have kids yet. My parents told me to wait."

His parents, both immigrants, sacrificed a lot for life in this country, he says, and he doesn't want to add to their grief. He's practicing birth control.

"Teen-age birth control," he adds sheepishly. "Pulling out."

*

Elsa Linares was 12 years old and changing a diaper when she decided that if she was going to have to take care of a baby, it might as well be her own. The baby was her uncle, the youngest son of her 39-year-old grandmother.

Born in "Salvador," as she puts it in accented English, she was brought to the United States at age 2 by her mother.

Six years later, when her father could afford to come north, her mother had a boyfriend, so her father took a girlfriend. Both parents then began having children with their new mates.

"I remember just feeling so lonely," she says. "I thought how I wanted somebody I could love, someone to care about, someone who would always be there and always love me."

She ran away with a dental assistant, who was over 21. He convinced her she was too young to have a child, but they didn't use contraceptives the first few times. Later, they figured, she wasn't pregnant yet, so it was still safe.

She was 13 when she got pregnant. No one, not even her boyfriend, congratulated her. Only when she was enrolled in a seventh-grade class for pregnant girls did she find others who seemed to understand.

Elsa and her daughter, Karen, are living in Elsa's foster home. Karen's father wants to marry Elsa when she's 15, but she says she wants to hold out until she finishes high school. Her goal, she says, is to be a "mother-sister" to Karen, to share secrets as she and her mother never could.

Still, she says: "I wish I never thought about having a baby. I wish teen-agers never have babies."

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