By José Bayona
When Roxana Penagos emigrated from Santa Cruz, Bolivia, to New York in April 2001, one of her goals was to finish high school. She was 15 and healthy, but her life took another road few months later. Instead of opening a school record, she established a medical record with an obstetrician at a hospital in Queens when she found out she was expecting.
“After I got pregnant I never went back to school,” says Penagos, 24, a full-time mother who lives in Flushing, Queens, with her husband, a security officer who works for Rite Aid, and their three children, Joseph, 7, Ashley, 4, and Angela, 18 months.
Penagos never planned to become a mother at 15. She knew about contraceptive methods but “at that age you don’t think in the consequences; only in the moment,” she says. “And later you don’t know how to handle your problems. I was really scared.”
After giving birth to Joseph, Penagos not only put aside school plans, but started a period of discovery. She had to learn step by step, and by herself, how to be a Latina teenager immigrant mom, undocumented, and who didn’t speak English. “When you are a young mother society doesn’t treat you well. Even in the hospital you cannot take out your own son if your parents or an adult is not there.”
Penagos’s mother, who still lives in Bolivia, was the only family support the teenager mom had back then. When Joseph was sick, she either prayed or made a long distance call to her mother to ask for medical advice. She didn’t know that her son – a U.S. citizen – could be eligible for a medical insurance. “As a new immigrant you think the law here is the same than in your country, and if you don’t speak the language, you feel more isolated.”
Today, Penagos “gets by with her English,” she says. She is making plans for the future, but knows she has to wait years to achieve them. “I want to raise my children and teach them what is good and bad, and that everything in life has its consequences,” she says. “I want to study languages afterwards, but first I have to get my high school diploma. If I could, I’d do it now, but I have to wait until they grow more and go to school.”
Every year, the number of Latina teenager immigrant mothers in the United States, like Penagos, grows steadily. Most of them postpone or give up high school or college education and have to raise a child by themselves. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, Latina teens give birth at a higher rate than that of white teens. A report issued by the center last January, shows that white mothers under the age of 20 had a birth rate of 9.4 percent compared to Latina teens whom had a birth rate of 14.3 percent.
Silvia Henriquez, executive director of the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health, is pretty familiar with stories like Penago’s. Her organization works to overcome the structural barriers that Latina teen moms face when they try to access reproductive health services, and to create information specifically for the Latino community on how to have safe sex, healthy relationships and to navigate the health care system.
“The ‘one size fits all’ messages in campaigns preventing teen pregnancy are just not working to the full extent,” says Henriquez. “We need to take in account all of the needs of the community and we have to look at its diversity.”
Henriquez notes that the high rate of Latina teen pregnancies can be devastating for the Latino community in the future if there is not assistance in place when young Latinas do decide to become mothers. “They need resources to be able to be a parent and have access to health information,” she says.
In New York City, the National Latina Institute works with teen moms in the five boroughs. Experience tells Henriquez that even though this is not a rural area where health services are often scarce, there is still a lot of work to be done. “One of the challenges Latinas face here is the lack of adequate reproductive health services in many of the city’s clinics. We still find that in every community whether Latino or Asian,” she says.
In the last 20 years, the majority of immigrants have come to this country from Latin America, and it is estimated by the U.S. Census Bureau that 40 percent of the Latinos in this nation are foreign-born. Haydee Zambrana, executive director of Latin Women in Action, a nonprofit organization based in Corona, Queens, has spent the last two decades working with that immigrant population. She agrees with the fact that high Latina pregnancy rates will have an adverse impact in the community at long term.
“Our population continues to increase. Children having children. They are 15 or 16 and overwhelmed by the responsibilities of being parents themselves,” says Zambrana, whose organization provide, among other services, immigration advice and advocacy for families whose children has been removed by the NYC Administrations for Children’s Services. “Because of that looming situation we also see a high incidence of Latino children in foster care.”
Zambrana also highlights another naked truth. Latinas immigrants living in impoverished communities are less likely to receive reproductive health care, contraceptives or sex education due to the lack of culturally and linguistically appropriate services. Her years of work in Corona further confirmed to her that most of the Latino immigrant families choose not to talk to their children about sex.
Angélica Acosta, 24, did not have to emigrate to the United States to corroborate Zambrana’s last asseveration. Acosta’s parents never talked to her about sex when she was a teenager in her native Cali, Colombia. At 15 she found out she was three months pregnant but didn’t know how and why. She ran away from home and ended up living at the home of her boyfriend’s grandmother.
“It was a very difficult time, but I survived,” says Acosta, who now lives in Jersey City, N.J., with her husband, Jorge Acosta, and their three children, Sebastian, 9, Shaiel, 4, and Sara, 3. “Today, I have a better communication with my parents but I wish they would have told me everything that happens when you have sex.”
Acosta’s venture from Colombia to the United States started seven years ago when she graduated from high school and discerned an uncertain future there as a young mother –her boyfriend was killed six months after she gave birth. She had to leave Sebastian, her son, with her parents for five years until he was granted a U.S. immigrant visa two years ago.
After a tortuous trip through various countries, she finally arrived here and reunited with her future husband, whom she had met the year before in Colombia. “I thought about going to school back then,” says Acosta, who was 18 at that time. “I studied English for some months, but I stopped because I started to work and didn’t have time.”
Two years later her first daughter, Shaiel, came, and the following year Sara did. Family obligations increased, and school prospects decreased. “Right now, I don’t have any plans to go to college. I want to learn more English and support my sons while they are in school,” says Acosta. “I am happy of being a young mother, and I’m glad I had Sebastian when I was a teenager because that experience made me grow.”
As for the future, Acosta wants to open a small child care business and help her husband, who works as a limousine driver, to open a limousine service company. “For now, I just want to work,” she says.