THE BLOG
01/23/2013 05:40 pm ET Updated Mar 25, 2013

How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?

Fifty years ago Maria's "problem" was a would-be nun who wanted to marry a widower and become the mother of his five children. Today in the United States the problem is that the Von Trapp kids would more than likely be fatherless, and more and more Maria's are having children without getting married. The out-of-wedlock birth rate for Hispanic women in the U.S. reached over 53 percent of new births in 2010, according to the National Vital Statistics Report on Births: Preliminary Data for 2010. With Hispanic birth rates wildly outpacing the national average, this issue merits serious consideration given that out-of-wedlock births all too often go hand in hand with poverty, low educational attainment and propensity toward incarceration.

For many, the fact that more than 50 percent of Hispanic-American births are out of wedlock runs counter to the widely accepted association of Hispanics with traditional family values. So, where is the disconnect? Is there something related to Hispanic culture, or its loss, that is facilitating out-of-wedlock births? Does the Durkheim social anomie that occurs when one is uprooted from their culture change social norms on marriage? Maybe, but statistics would suggest that it takes a generation for that to take effect, as immigrant Hispanics are less likely to have children out of wedlock.

For native-born Hispanics, this cultural displacement has been described by Dr. Jesse Miranda, CEO of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, one of America's largest Hispanic Christian organizations. In a book review on the evolving Latino church in the U.S. he observed:

"It is about the growing second and third generations of English-dominant Hispanics who represent a kind of nepantla, an Aztec Indian word for both/and of the in-betweenness in American life. Memory and destiny frame the five paradoxes in the life of Hispanics of 'living in the hyphen,' that is, two languages (Spanish/English), two cultures (native/American), two philosophies (indigenous/contemporary), two strategies (traditional/missional) and even two religions (Catholic/Evangelical) competing as the twins in Rebecca's womb, constituting the challenge of ministering to future generations of Hispanics. The shifting notions of social and religious norms could be an intercultural dimension of the issue."

The bigger influence, however, is likely to be Hispanic-culture agnostic. When viewed in socio-economic terms, we see that out-of-wedlock births are higher among lower-income women, whether Hispanics or not. The rate of growth has been fairly astonishing in the U.S., climbing from an average of 5.3 percent of total births in 1960 to close to 40 percent of total births today. We see a similar rise in out-of-wedlock births over time in the UK and France.

Going hand in hand with this phenomenon is the overarching trend of the decline of marriage from 80 percent in the late 1960s to around 40 percent today.

The Pew Center has noted that Millennials (a large percentage of which are Hispanic) "value parenthood more than marriage" slightly more than Generation Xers, but that both hold this view as a generational value. A related Pew study explains the decline in marriage in part due to growing beliefs that marriage is "obsolete" as an institution.

Lastly, it is very apparent that sexual norms have changed dramatically in American culture. Today's popular culture is replete with examples of the new norm, whether it be MTV's 16 and Pregnant or the recently retracted All My Babies' Mamas from Oxygen network, centered around Shawty Lo's 11 children by 10 different women. A general de-stigmatization of out-of-wedlock birth pervades, and very few bat an eye at an unmarried (well, when the divorce becomes final), pregnant Kim Kardashian. We have come a long way since Murphy Brown.

Perhaps Hispanics are assimilating more than originally thought. The "problem" of out-of-wedlock births is often not seen as a problem and the issue does not only impact Hispanics (Maria). The question remains, however, without a revamping of the institution of marriage, or at the very least the stability and economic advantage it provides, where do we go from here?

Maybe the song about Maria should be from Green Day, where the narrator asks "Maria, where did you go?" One interpretation of the song says, "It's possible that Maria stands for anything good that disappeared into nowhere... The narrator is wondering where all the good stuff went and why."