Patty Rodriguez was hardly prepared for the consequences when she began having sex. Her older boyfriend had her convinced that nothing would happen. Besides, many of her Parlier High School girlfriends were sexually active and they hadn’t gotten pregnant.
But now she tends to her 1-year-old son, Guillermo, in the brightly painted day care center, which opened about six months ago for student mothers like her. Thirteen other teen moms also use the facility in a small housing tract surrounded by fields of onions, grapes, tomatoes, cotton, peaches and citrus trees.
“It’s such a small community, and there’s nothing actually to do,” Rodriguez said, musing on why she and so many other young girls in the Central Valley town of 12,000 become sexually active and pregnant. “Everyone knows everyone, and I guess you can say they get comfortable with each other.”
The small farming towns such as Parlier, Earlimart, Porterville and Visalia that dot California’s San Joaquin Valley are among the world’s most productive agricultural communities.
But in these towns and more populous cities like Fresno and Madera, teenage mothers are bearing fruit of a different sort at an alarming rate.
The birthrates among teenagers in California’s great rural swath are nearly double the state and national averages, and in some instances they surpass those of poor countries such as Namibia, Haiti and Cambodia, according to recent studies.
The phenomenon is emerging as a key issue in this economically fragile region, rivaling air quality and transportation as major concerns, costing taxpayers millions of dollars each year and leaving generations of families in poverty.
The region’s mix of economic, demographic, cultural and geographic factors could not be better designed to result in teenage pregnancy, say experts.
Immigrant families work long hours for low wages in fields and packing houses. Young people have few recreational or work opportunities compared with their urban counterparts. An absence of rural public transportation further isolates them. Public and private social services, including birth-control programs, are underdeveloped.
The San Joaquin Valley also has the highest levels of poverty in the state, the lowest high school graduation rates and the highest rates of sexually transmitted diseases, all of which, researchers say, are linked to higher birthrates.
“From my experience, teens are not going to postpone giving birth if there is nothing else for them to do,” said Carmen Nevarez, medical director of the Berkeley-based Public Health Institute, which issued a study tracking birthrates in legislative districts and corresponding costs to taxpayers. “If it’s between having a baby and working in a packing plant, motherhood sounds pretty good to these girls.”
At a time when overall teen births in California and the nation are at historic lows, the numbers in the San Joaquin Valley offer a dramatic counterpoint.
The report from Public Health Institute, a nonprofit health policy research group, found that in state Sen. Dean Florez’s 16th District, which encompasses large parts of Fresno, Kern, Kings and Tulare counties, the 2000 birthrate for teenage mothers between the ages of 15 and 19 was 94.8 births per 1,000, compared with the state and national rate of 48.5 per 1,000.
That rate also was significantly higher than in some Southern states with traditionally high birthrates such as Texas (with a 2001 teen birthrate of 68.5 per 1,000) and Mississippi (with a rate of 66.7 per 1,000).
Although more recent international data is not available, the teen birthrate in Namibia and Haiti in 1995 was 81 per 1,000, and in Cambodia, 71 per 1,000.
The Public Health Institute report put the annual costs -- including lost income, productivity and medical care -- of teen births in California at $3.3 billion and in Florez’s district at $192 million.
Florez (D-Shafter) calls teen child bearing the Central Valley’s “dirty little secret” and said he has been working -- mostly in vain -- to get his legislative colleagues and the governor’s office to recognize the situation as a crisis. He is organizing a meeting on the issue in July and is working on legislation to increase sex education courses for high school students. He also wants to change the state’s per capita-based family planning budget so that more dollars will flow into sparsely populated rural areas with high teen birthrates.
“You’d think the number one commodity in the Central Valley is cotton or tomatoes, but unfortunately it’s teen pregnancy,” said Florez. “We’re so focused on economic development issues in the Valley, but as much money as we raise for the state, it goes out the back door when it comes to the amount of teen pregnancy.”
California 99 runs like a vein through the broad, flat Central Valley, and along its route are hamlets such as Selma, Lindsay, Cutler, Farmersville and Firebaugh, where teen birthrates run significantly higher than the state average.
The area is filled with Latino farm workers, along with large clusters of Hmong and Lao immigrants from Southeast Asia. Many of these households cling to cultural traditions where girls of 15 or 16 are considered marriageable, said Rosa Luna, manager for the California Health Collaborative’s Rural Teen Pregnancy Prevention Program.
Javier Solis said his mother, born in Mexico, married and got pregnant at 14 or 15. She tried to warn him away from unprotected sex so that he wouldn’t follow in her footsteps, he said. But the 17-year-old high school junior is already the father of two daughters, a 2-year-old and a baby born three weeks ago.
He, his girlfriend -- also 17 -- and children live with his mother in Fresno, and they struggle to find the money for diapers and other needs. Solis explains his teen fatherhood much as the girls do -- he just never thought it would happen to him. Now, the couple hope to finish high school, marry and leave the San Joaquin Valley because jobs are so scarce. Solis’ ambition to attend college is over.
“I was a little horny kid who didn’t think about what would happen, and now, boom -- this is the reality,” he said.
Patty Rodriguez, the Parlier teen mother, said she has been abstinent since having Guillermo. “I don’t want to do anything with anyone I’m not serious about.”
Normally a good student, Rodriguez, a junior, said her grades have suffered since Guillermo’s birth, even though she has the help of the day care center. The baby’s father wanted to marry her, Rodriguez said, so she made a forthright assessment of the consequences of leaving home. She lives with her mother, who works in a packing plant.
“If we got an apartment, I would be on my own all the time,” she said, as Guillermo, with pink cheeks and a mass of dark, downy hair, played in the nearby nursery. “I’m not ready to maintain a house, do all the cleaning, go to school, do the homework.”
She and the young man are no longer together, but he sees the baby a few hours a week and provides support, she said. Rodriguez wants to attend college and perhaps study to become a psychiatrist. But she admits that her concentration is faltering.
“My mom tells me if you don’t go to school you’ll end up working in the fields, and I just can’t see myself doing that,” Rodriguez said.
For fieldworkers in the Central Valley, the day can begin at 5:30 a.m., and, if cleaning cotton, might end at 2 or 3 p.m. If picking grapes or other produce, a parent might not get home until 4 or 5 p.m., leaving their children unsupervised for hours in a region where after-school programs are scarcer than in big cities and harder to get to.
From May to September, many male fieldworkers range up and down the valley following the harvest -- and sometimes leaving in their wake pregnant underage girlfriends.
In large cities like Los Angeles or Sacramento, Luna explained, young girls can get contraceptives and counseling in anonymous health clinics.
But in village-like Central Valley towns, accessing services is far dicier.
“A lot of them don’t want to go to the clinic because if a friend of a friend works there or an aunt or a cousin, confidentiality is big problem,” Luna said.
Up and down California 99, issues of personal responsibility and reproduction are aired in unexpectedly public forums. Amid the ramshackle barns and fragrant groves of peach blossoms, giant billboards dot the landscape touting religious observance, sexual abstinence and antiabortion views.
Sex education in schools is another matter. Although some church and school groups now address the issue with surprising openness, many other school boards and principals “don’t allow you to access students” for discussions of teen sexuality and birth control, said Dianne Costa, director of adolescent services for the Kings Community Action Organization in Hanford.
California spends an estimated $128 million a year in public and private money on teen pregnancy prevention services, and these efforts, argue many population experts, contributed significantly to the 40% slide in California’s teen birthrate between 1991 and 2000. Fear of contracting sexually transmitted diseases, especially HIV, also was a factor.
California dropped from the 11th highest among the 50 states to the 21st highest.
Declines were recorded in every racial and ethnic group, although Latinas, African Americans and American Indians have relatively high teen birthrates compared with Asian Americans and whites.
The birthrate in the Central Valley declined as well. But despite that dip, white, black, Asian American and Latino teens in the San Joaquin Valley give birth at a higher rate than anywhere else in the state, according to a report by the Public Policy Institute of California. Tulare and Kings counties have the highest teen birthrates, with Kern County ranking fourth-highest.
Studies also show that nearly half of the children living in the Central Valley live below the federal poverty line, that unemployment averages 6% above the state rate and that in some areas of the San Joaquin Valley the high school dropout rate climbs as high as 40%.
Costa and others said they are bracing for potentially program-threatening cuts in parenting teen and pregnancy prevention programs because of California’s fiscal crisis.
State officials, meanwhile, project teen birthrates will accelerate within the next three years, leading to a 23% increase statewide in teen births by 2008, because of the growth in the youth population, especially Latinas.
Such a trend could propel the San Joaquin Valley rates even higher, experts said.
At Parlier High School, 16-year-old Vanessa Ochoa said she wants to buck the odds. Her daughter, Alexa Romero, is 4 months old.
Ochoa complains about not being able to hang out with friends anymore, not even enough time now to put on makeup before heading out to school with Alexa. The day care center, said Ochoa, “has been a great help.” Before, Ochoa would probably have been put on home study.
She said she and the baby’s father are still together and he “buys everything for us.”
Her mother works long hours at a restaurant and her father at a packing plant, and Ochoa admits that, like many other adolescents, she took advantage of their absence to have sex. After she got pregnant, she tried to get her best friend to stop having sex, but, at 17, she, too, wound up pregnant.
“I would tell girls that no matter how it is, you can wait,” advises Ochoa, who wants to become a teacher. “I don’t regret having my baby but I regret [having sex], and if I could roll back time I would.”
Ochoa and Rodriguez said they want their experiences to help other teens. They and another Parlier teen mother, Veronica Arellanes, 17, recently organized a conference of young people from throughout the Central Valley to talk about teen pregnancy and other issues at Fresno City College.
“Sometimes I feel like it’s a dream,” Rodriguez said of her life now. “People tell my mom, ‘Oh, she’s not going to finish school, her life is ruined,’ and it makes me want to prove them wrong. I want to make my son proud, to say, ‘My mom was a teen mom, but look at her now.’ ”