Before a baby is born to a Latino couple these days, the baby's parents or grandparents often throw a baby shower inviting relatives, friends and neighbors. It's not unusual for the number of guests to reach 60 or more. This celebration often takes place regardless of how young the parents are, whether they planned to have the baby and whether or not they are married.
In my view, it is a lovely convention, reminding me of the African proverb that is used so much it has become a cliché: "It takes a village to raise a child." Some people see no reason why they should celebrate, however, if the child's parents are teenagers and/or unmarried. Isn't celebrating such births sending the wrong signals?
Liany Elba Arroyo understands why people outside the Latino community may ask that question. She manages the Latino Initiative Advisory Group at The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, and her answer is intriguing.
Latinos don't throw baby showers to celebrate pregnant teenage girls, she says. They know, perhaps better than many of us, the economic and social disadvantages that young parents and their children often face. In a recent Campaign survey, 95 percent of Hispanic adults said it is important for teen girls to avoid getting pregnant, and 96 percent said it's important that teen boys avoid causing a pregnancy. Eighty-nine percent said it would be easier for teens to postpone sex and avoid pregnancy if the teens were able to talk more openly with their parents.
Putting up party streamers and pouring punch doesn't seem quite right when a teenage girl gets pregnant. However, in predominantly Latino communities, here as well as abroad, 60 or 70 family members and friends may attend a baby shower, bringing gifts that will enable the new parents to better care for their new children. "It's your aunts, uncles and cousins wanting to make sure that the child will start off life with the things it needs," says Arroyo, who has a daughter.
"There's a difference between celebrating pregnancy versus the birth of a child," she continues. "You can be disappointed about the pregnancy but welcome the child with open arms. We want to make sure that the child is welcomed into the world, loved and cared for." Large baby showers are a relatively new phenomenon, says Arroyo, 38.
Arroyo's mother, born in Puerto Rico, attended an American high school and had a child at 19. "She felt the stigma," Arroyo says. "She ended up getting married and not finishing high school because pregnant unmarried girls did not go to school." While her mother did not receive a baby shower, Arroyo's grandmother made sure to be there for her mother and help raise her child.
The public shame her mother experienced is not as severe these days for young women in similar circumstances. Nor should it be, says Arroyo. But, she notes, Latinos are just as concerned as other Americans that too many young people are having babies too early.
"Why is it people think we want this to happen, that we want our girls to get pregnant?" she asks. "Maybe the large baby showers seem like there is an acceptance of teen pregnancy, but my grandmother came here with four kids under 12 as a married 30-year-old. She didn't want that for my mother and I certainly did not grow up thinking or seeing any adults in my community wanting their teenaged daughters and sons to become parents."
Latina teens have made progress in their rates of pregnancy, yet those rates are still significantly higher than the rates for teens in general. Could one possibility be the absence of a wider, robust conversation -- among Latinos as well as the public at large -- about the advances in newer methods of birth control that, when used properly, are virtually foolp-roof?
I was reminded of the sensitivity of this topic when I reviewed a transcript from National Public Radio's "Tell Me More." The show, which aired April 14 and was entitled "Why Do More Latina Teens Get Pregnant?", featured the president of a national Hispanic health organization and a Head Start teacher who had her first child at 17.
The 11-minute segment made only one quick reference to contraception, almost as an aside.