Why Are Young Latinas at Risk? : NPR

Latina girls are one of the fastest-growing groups in the country, and they’re in trouble. New research shows they are more likely to drop out of school and to use drugs. And one in six young Hispanic women attempt suicide. Why are the statistics so grim?



This is TALK OF THE NATION. I’m Lynn Neary, in Washington. Neal Conan is away.

A new federal study about high school students sheds like on a trend that the Hispanic community has long been aware of. Compared to black and white males and females, high-school-aged Latinas are the most likely to attempt suicide and to experience long bouts of depression.

Other studies show young Latinas also have the highest teen birthrates and the second highest high school dropout rate. Cultural clashes with parents, social isolation, and poverty are part of the problem. Today, young Latinas: why are they at risk, and what can be done about it?

Later in the hour, we’ll talk to musician Raul Midon about his music, but first, young Latinas. If you are a young Hispanic woman who remembers her high school years, we’d like to hear about your experience. Or if you work with high-school-age Latinas, we’d like to hear from you. Our number in Washington, 800-989-8255. That’s 800-989-TALK. Or send us an e-mail to

Our first guest is Elaine Rivera. She’s a reporter for WNYC, and she wrote a four-part series in the Hispanic paper El Diario/La Prensa. She joins us now from NPR’s bureau in New York. Thanks so much for being with us, Elaine.

Ms. ELAINE RIVERA (Journalist, El Diario/La Prensa): Thank you for having me.

NEARY: Let’s talk about this. Describe how serious this situation is for high-school-aged Latinas.

Ms. RIVERA: Well, I think Dr. Luis Zayas, who you may be talking to later, put it the best: it’s a public health issue. You have a demographic – thousands of young women who are facing many, many obstacles. They’re dealing with the highest teenage pregnancy rate. They’re dealing with – as a result, they’re dropping out of school, and there’s tremendous pressure on them to take on adult responsibilities before their time.

They many times serve as surrogate mothers in their homes, and so – there’s also this – and it’s usually first and second-generation Latinas – so there’s also this sense of lack of identity. They don’t know who they are. They’re not part of their parents’ tradition, but they don’t really feel American. So you have a lot of young women out there who are feeling hopeless.

NEARY: But, you know, there are a number of immigrant communities in this country where what you just said – which might describe a number of different immigrant communities when you say that they’re sort of caught between, I guess, the old world and the new world on some level, that they have cultural tensions. What’s the difference – what makes it so much more pressured for these young Hispanic women?

Ms. RIVERA: Well, that’s correct. I think identity is very important. I think, you know, first generation, what it’s like, you know – what is being an American? That applies to many groups. Philip Roth, the author, he wrote about that a lot.

But I think what’s happening with young Latinas is it’s a confluence of factors. You have – there’s tremendous pressure put on them that many young teenagers don’t have to face, particularly this role of surrogate mother. Now I – my understanding is – I think, when I came across the research – Asian-American girls also have a high rate of depression. There’s different factors there. There’s a tremendous pressure to, you know, to succeed and excel at school.

But with young Latinas, it’s more they have to adhere to traditional values of the traditional culture that their families come from, and then there is this lack of discussion about sex education, and then there’s the pressure of religion. Many Latinas grow up Catholic, so there’s this notion of, you know, you – if you don’t talk about sex, you don’t have sex – which, you know, we know is not true. But – so, but once they become pregnant, abortion is, you know, just – it’s a tremendous taboo.


Ms. RIVERA: It’s seen as, you know, a sin, so you – so they’re faced with all these contradictions.

NEARY: Yeah. I guess what I was most surprised by, to hear about in your reports, was this very high attempted – this high rate of suicide attempts among young Latinas, and how do you account for that?

Ms. RIVERA: Well, it’s – it is perplexing, and I’ve, you know, I’ve been trying to do this story for six years. The numbers have always been there. This has been going on for decades, and no one – the national mental health community for the most part, I think, has ignored it. Dr. Zayas, who is now spearheading this research for the National Institute of Mental Health, he’s studying this. He’s going to do a five-year study. But as to why, this is the question that needs to be answered. I can’t say for sure. I do think it’s all the factors that we just discussed that put tremendous pressure on these young women before their time.

NEARY: Yeah. What are some of tensions that develop? As I understand it, sometimes when these young girls attempt suicide, it might be because of a conflict they’re having with their parents. What kinds of conflicts are we talking about?

Ms. RIVERA: Usually with their mothers. It’s that they’re growing up in American society where there’s tremendous freedom, tremendous. There’s absolutely tremendous freedom for young people. But their parents, who come from traditional cultures, basically say that they see those freedoms as, you know, they see it as a way of self-destructing, that they’re going to become rebellious, that they’re going to become sexually promiscuous.

So they tend to fight because their parents really don’t understand what it’s like to grow in contemporary American society. And usually the father’s role – and I don’t mean to generalize – but it tends to be that he goes out, he’s the breadwinner, and the mother deals with all the issues at home. And they’re the ones who confront, you know, the daughter about the way she’s dressed, who’s she’s going out with, whether she can have, you know, she can go out and stay with her friends, you know, until 11 o’clock. So there’s great suspicion on what we see in America as just regular teenage activity, so, you know, they end up clashing.

Ms. RIVERA: All right, let’s see if we can get a call here from Cheryl(ph) in San Antonio. Hi, Cheryl.

CHERYL (Caller): Hello. Thank you very much for even discussing this topic, and also thank you for taking my call. I’m now in my 30s, but growing up and during my high school years, my parents, they would not – neither one of them had graduated from high school – and the only thing that they would tell me as far as academic support, they would tell me as long as I got my high school diploma, I was fine.

Whenever I would express to them that I – my desires and for doing a college education, they would tell me, well, good luck in finding that money. And, you know, they would also made it clear that that was more of a luxury, that wasn’t a necessity.

As in regard to the sexual activity and the teenage pregnancy, I was the only one out of my group of friends who actually went and got on birth control before deciding to become sexually active.

NEARY: And these were all Latinas?

CHERYL: Yes, ma’am, they were. And they were all unwed mothers by the age of 20. I’m the only one out of my high school friends who got married in the mid-20s, and, you know, I’m in college now. I’m just doing it, and I’m also married, and then I decided to have children. I’m the only one out of that group.

NEARY: What was the taboo against contraception? I mean, why…

CHERYL: Well, it was like you were saying, that it’s – what is was thought is that if you didn’t talk about it, then the young girls would not, you know, do it. No one – it was – whenever I told my mom that I was considering going on – getting birth control – and at the time it was mainly just to get my (unintelligible), you know, regulated, and plus my cycles at that time were horrible. And I had read up that being on birth control, you could get them regular, and they wouldn’t be so bad. But my mom said, oh, no. You know, if you get on birth control, you’re going to become sexually active. I didn’t do – officially get on birth control until two years later when I decided that I was ready to enter a sexual relationship.

NEARY: So I guess you’re not surprised when you hear the statistics we’ve been hearing, or this study seems to be confirming a lot of what your own experience was.

CHERYL: I am not surprised at all, and I encounter a lot of people who are my age who have the same experiences. And it’s rare now that you find actual Latina women who are not single mothers at my age.


CHERYL: You know, who did not become single mothers during their teenage years, which I find very depressing, even now. And it just makes me very sad to know that even in this time, this year, that people are still encountering those same cultural barriers and the fact that we do not encourage our young Latina women to become educated, to go out there and pursue a college education. We do not encourage them to protect themselves sexually, you know, be it against pregnancy or – and even against STDs, because it’s a big no-no.

And to do anything outside of that – even back then when I was growing up, whenever I would tell my friends that I wanted to go and get a college education – you know, I would share with them my dream – I was being told, oh, you’re – that’s – you’re not acting, you know, Latina. That’s not being – you’re wanting to go outside your race. They would say you’re wanting to be white.

NEARY: Oh, Cheryl. Well, thank you so much for calling us with your story, Cheryl. And I just…

CHERYL: Thank you. Have a good day, and thank you again for discussing this topic.


CHERYL: It’s really important

NEARY: OK, thanks so much. And Elaine Rivera, I just wonder if you can respond to that story because it seems to concern – confirm so much of what you have written about, and interesting I thought what Cheryl was saying there at the end, which is that when she expressed the desire to go on with her education, to wait until she got married and got pregnant, she was told you’re not being Latina.

Ms. RIVERA: It’s such a common story. It’s – yes, it’s absolutely true. I’ve heard her story over, and over, and over again. There is, again, this emphasis on young Latinas to follow the traditional role, to be caretakers first. Yes, if you want to finish high school, that’s good. But the most important thing is to help your parents, help your brothers, help your family, and if you have children, you become a mother and that’s it.

NEARY: Do these issues play out differently for first and second-generation Hispanic women?

Ms. RIVERA: Well, it’s primarily first and second generation. I think by the time you get to the third, fourth generation, there’s so much assimilation that has taken place. Now, also the other issue is that many of these young women, they’re English-dominant. They’re growing up in this country.

NEARY: Right.

Ms. RIVERA: They’re not – there’s this assumption that they are looking at Spanish-language TV. They’re not. So there’s this lack of validation that’s taking place. They don’t see themselves.

NEARY: All right, Elaine, we’re going to continue our discussion when we return from a short break. We’re talking about some of the problems facing young Hispanic women today and how to help them, and we’re taking your calls at 800-989-TALK. I’m Lynn Neary. It’s TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I’m Lynn Neary, in Washington. We’re talking about some of the troubling trends uncovered among high-school-age Hispanic girls in recent studies. As we mentioned, the problems include suicide, teen pregnancy, depression, and school dropout rates, just to name a few. So why are young Latinas more at risk, and what can be done about it?

If you’d like to join the discussion, give us a call at 800-989-TALK or send us an e-mail to We’re especially interested in hearing from those of you who work with high-school-age Latinas, and also young Hispanic women. My guest is Elaine Rivera. She’s a reporter from member station WNYC in New York.

And joining us now is Luis Zayas. He’s a professor of social work and psychiatry at Washington University in St. Louis. And he began noticing the high rates of attempted suicide among Latinas decades ago. He joins us now from the studios of Washington University at St. Louis, Missouri. Thanks so much for being with us.

Professor LUIS ZAYAS (Professor of Social Work and Psychiatry, Washington University): Well, thank you for inviting me.

NEARY: How do you explain this high rate of attempted suicide among young Hispanic women?

Prof. ZAYAS: Well, we – I think Elaine has given us a great overview of what the situation is. But if you think of the issues of culture and immigration and acculturation as one stream coming together with issues of a family’s functioning that’s associated with this immigration process and acculturation process, and then we think about young women themselves. What are the adolescent developmental processes that young women go through? When you bring these together, we have among Latinas, a particular set of circumstances that may be what explains some of the high rates of suicide attempts among them.

NEARY: What’s a typical scenario that you might encounter as a doctor?

Prof. ZAYAS: OK, well, over the years – and I’m talking going back at least to the late 1970s – the typical profile was that of a 14/15-year-old Latina who was – who attempted suicide through typically the ingestion of pills, whether it was a family analgesics or some kind of sedative that was around the house, often associated with a prolonged and intense conflict with parents, often around issues of a boyfriend or sexuality.

And whether it was a boyfriend or sexuality, or both, I think what they really spoke to was the issue of what a teenager needs, which is a sense of autonomy and growing independence while still being attached and related to the family.

NEARY: Now as I understand it, there’s also a sort of cultural resistance to the idea of therapy, in terms of getting help for these girls.

Prof. ZAYAS: Well, that’s partly true, Lynn. The fact is that among perhaps the older generation, therapy and telling ones problems to someone outside the home or outside the family is really not encouraged. The younger generation, however, have been more exposed to, both here in the U.S. and in Latin America, to the notion of therapy and psychiatric care and mental health services.

So among the younger group, there’s a much more willingness to talk to a counselor at school, a social worker at school, a psychologist at a clinic, and talk openly. That’s been our experience in doing this study because after all the girls that we are studying are girls who have attempted suicide and who we find in mental health clinics, and they are very open with their therapists.

NEARY: And why – I mean, how do you explain the difference between young Hispanic women, young Latinas, and women of other ethnic backgrounds, why there seems to be a higher rate among the young Hispanic women?

Prof. ZAYAS: Well, that’s the key question. You’ve asked the key question, and that’s what we’re trying to understand. Elaine pointed this out. It has to do partly with the issue of the traditional culture, the way the girls are socialized in their – in the Hispanic culture, in most Hispanic cultures -around issues of deference to family, being much more demure than the male who’s encouraged to be more independent, where the socialization toward adulthood is really towards parenthood – which might even explain something about the high rates of pregnancy among these girls. But the sense that what you’re growing up to be is to be a parent and that, as a result, the girl may be expected to spend much more time in the home while her brother, for example, may be allowed to be out in the world expressing his independence in many different ways.

And so she’s at home, as Elaine pointed out, taking care of the children, being socialized to the traditional role. And that’s why I think that we may be seeing this among Latinas in a different way than we might in other groups that don’t necessarily hold the same traditional values. That’s not to say that other traditional cultures don’t have very prescribed roles for the female. It is just that the way that it’s expressed in the – in Latina cultures may be unique.

NEARY: And that would probably explain why the rate of attempted suicide is higher for young Hispanic girls, Latinas, rather than young Hispanic boys.

Prof. ZAYAS: That’s right. And the Latinas have overall the highest rate of attempts of any group whether it’s male or female. If you think about 8.4 of the students having a reported attempt, one or more attempts, in the preceding year compared to 15 percent of Latina teens, you see that it’s quite a difference.

NEARY: We are talking about Latinas at risk. If you’d like to join our discussion, the number is 800-989-825. We’re going to take a call now from Jose(ph) in Chicago. Hi, Jose. Are you there, Jose?

JOSE (Caller): Yes, I’m here.

NEARY: Go ahead.

JOSE: Yeah, I wanted to thank you for taking my call. Yeah, I had a few issues about some of the comments that were made with regards to the – I’ve been working in a high school where – it is in Chicago where it’s 95 percent Hispanic students. And I’ve been there about 13 years now.

And in the 13 years that I’ve been there, I’ve actually never heard of anybody committing suicide. And it kind of struck me kind of hard that, you know, that they would think that there would be a high suicide rate in the Hispanic community where we don’t really see it in our community, and our community is basically all 95 percent Hispanic. And I was just curious where they get the figures from.

NEARY: What kinds of problems do you see, Jose? Or do you see any of the problems we’ve talking about, the…

JOSE: Oh, yeah, definitely. The high rate of pregnancies, that’s a big problem. It seems like some of the girls, it’s – to them it’s kind of cool to be pregnant now. They even have a pregnancy teen club at our school. You know, I mean, that’s how, you know, how things just kind of changed a lot. When I first started there 13 years ago, you wouldn’t see that. (unintelligible)

NEARY: Let me ask Dr. Zayas to respond to your first point now about the fact that you haven’t seen this high rate of suicide, or attempted suicide. We should out we’re talking about attempted suicides here.

Prof. ZAYAS: Thank you, Lynn. That’s exactly the point. I think Jose raises a very important point and a distinction that we’ve got to make between the high rate of attempted suicide versus death by suicide. In fact, for death by suicide, in actuality, a Latino youth and African-American youth have among the lowest rate of death by suicide. However, Latina girls in teenage years have a highest rate of attempts from other girls, and in fact, young Latino men also have higher rates than other young men.

So we’re talking about attempts and not necessarily lethal, although many require medical attention. In fact, Latinas attempt suicide at rates that would require – that require medical – more medical attention than other groups. But he’s right. We’re not talking about the suicide, the death by suicide. We’re talking about attempting, so he wouldn’t be seeing the high rates of suicides in the Latino communities. He’s absolutely right.

NEARY: Well, young Latinas also have the second highest high school dropout rate that’s surpassed only by Latino boys. And joining us now to discuss this is Anne Driscoll. She’s senior researcher at the University of California at Davis, School of Education, and she joins us from the studios of member station KXJZ in Sacramento, California. Thanks for being with us.

Ms. ANNE DRISCOLL (Senior Researcher, University of California at Davis): Thank you for having me.

NEARY: What’s behind these very high dropout rates for young Hispanic girls?

Ms. DRISCOLL: I think your previous callers have touched on a lot of the issues. One issue that I would want to bring into that mix is the high rates of poverty among Latino families, and we know that poverty and parental education in particular are some of the strongest predictors of whether or not a student – a teenage themselves will graduate from high school.

A lot of Latinos and Latina girls come from families where the parents haven’t graduated from high school, and so the parents themselves have less familiarity – given a lot of them are immigrant parents – with the U.S. system. A lot of the times they can’t advocate for their children in the schools. And sometimes among immigrant kids there is a language barrier as well.

So there’s this – other shows and other reports have talked about the achievement gap between African Americans and Latinos on one side and Asians and whites on the other. And a lot of that is due to poverty among kids of color.


Now what about language? And I think we, maybe – do we need to make a distinction between first and second generation Hispanic girls or some – we have many who’ve been here for four or five generations. What’s the distinction? How do you look at that overall, and is there a difference between those who’ve been in the country for a long time, those whose parents or grandparents were here?

Ms. DRISCOLL: Well, there isn’t particular language barrier for students who have been born here, particularly if their parents have been born here. For students who are immigrants, however, who come here without speaking English -and a lot of times given that most Latinos come from countries that are also developing countries – they might not have had a strong educational background in their country of origin if they came as young kids or as teenagers.

So they’re going to fall behind partly because they don’t have the language skills. They have to acquire them while they’re also trying to keep up in terms of content with their classmates who do speak English. So a lot of students end up being discouraged and give up and drop out, because they aren’t getting the content and also they’re not being integrated very well into their schools.

NEARY: We’ve been talking about the fact that there’s a high birth rate among young Latino girls. Obviously, that must play into or feed into this high drop out rate from school.

Ms. DRISCOLL: Definitely, as Elaine was saying earlier that the birth rate does lead to drop outs among Latino girls. When the Latino girls does become pregnant, even though that’s not – she wasn’t supposed to be having sex in the first place in a lot of cases – once she becomes pregnant, the shift in terms of how her family looks at her and how her community looks at her is now that she’s going to be a parent that is her priority. And therefore, leaving school to stay home and take care of your child is what is expected of you.

In comparison, we know that there are also high birth rates among African Americans – although those rates have come down dramatically recently – a lot of African American girls who get pregnant, have a child, and then return to high school and that’s much less common Latino girls.

NEARY: Elaine Rivera, who’s a reporter for WNYC and who has written a series on the subject is still with us. And Elaine, I’m wondering why is this problem getting attention right now. Obviously, from what you’ve all been saying, these are issues that have been around for a while.

Ms. RIVERA: Well, why is it getting attention now?


Ms. RIVERA: Well, I’d like to believe it’s because of my series, but…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. RIVERA: …again, as I said, I’ve tried to get this story out for six years. I started connecting the dots around 2000 when I saw the numbers for attempted suicide. Then I saw all this data on the teenage pregnancy rate and the high school rate. And clearly, I think, you know, the census numbers are showing that the Latino population in this country is just exploding. One out of every four women in the United States by 2050 will be of Hispanic descent.

So, I mean this is an important issue anyway, but when you have those kinds of numbers, you know, and you have people like Dr. Zayas who’s been, you know, he’s been saying look we’ve got to pay attention to this. So, I think all those factors are a reason why people are starting to look at this.

NEARY: Elaine, thanks for joining us today.

Ms. RIVERA: Thank you.

NEARY: Elaine Rivera is a reporter at WNYC and you are listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Dr. Zayas, do you see – your studying this, you’re trying to, you know, figure out the reasons why there’s this high rate of suicide attempts – do you have some ideas about solutions for this?

Dr. ZAYAS: Well, yes. I have some ideas and they’re not new innovative ideas. They’re simply making the right interventions at the right time. And for the phenomenon of suicide attempts and the kind of pressures that young girls -Latinas – are going through with their parents, typically in the home, the middle school years is the best place for us to begin to intervene.

To have guidance counselors and social workers attentive to this problem and the kinds of issues these girls face. To bring in the parents and to help the parents understand what their daughters are going through with respect to the girl’s development, the sort of peer pressure they face, and so on. When parents are brought into school – and in the Latino cultures there’s a high level of respect, as in many cultures, to education and educators, and, in fact, they tend to defer to educators – that would be a place to start.

I’d like to just go back a moment to Professor Driscoll’s point of view, I think the issue of poverty is an important one. Associated with that, of course, is a lower educational achievement of these parents who are immigrants, coming with low educational achievements. In fact, among the attempters, it’s the U.S.-born Latina who is more likely to attempt than the foreign-born often become – and that’s a phenomenon onto itself that we’ve got to understand.

That it’s the girl here – the U.S.-born girl of immigrant parents – who finds the greatest level of stress. We think that in the middle school years that, because of the thrust of puberty, and the changes, and the social changes, that the girls begin to feel the greatest level of pressure.

NEARY: Let’s see if we can get one more call in fro Lizzette(ph). She’s calling for Florida. Hi Lizzette.


NEARY: Go ahead.

LIZZETTE: Ok. I’m glad that you took my call. Ok. My family, my mother and father are both Cubans. They came here to the United States in the ‘50s before, you know, communism took over the country. And I’m first generation here and I’ve always been encouraged – I was always encouraged to continue my education. So, I mean, I can’t really understand what they’re saying. That – maybe it’s because – I mean every family’s different.

NEARY: Right. Well…

LIZZETTE: I was always encouraged, you know, to continue my education and all, and I do the same with my two daughters.

NEARY: All right. Well, that’s great. Thanks so much for calling in with that perspective, and I think perhaps, what Lizzette is pointing to is that there probably – you can’t completely generalize. That obviously there are different ways that parents – individual parents handle this situation. Dr. Zayas?

Dr. ZAYAS: Yes, indeed. We’re also talking about different socio-economic groups that immigrate and the conditions under which they immigrated, and so perhaps Lizzette’s parents were among those in the Cuban migration refugee group that brought a different social economic class to the U.S.

NEARY: And Anne Driscoll, just briefly I wonder if you agree with what Dr. Zayas was saying about attention being paid at the middle school level in particular?

Ms. DRISCOLL: I think that’s very true. I think we know that – well, we do know that when girls drop out of high school – or drop out of school, they’re more likely to drop out early, before 9th or 10th grade than to drop out later. We also know that, as Elaine referred to earlier, is that girls aren’t supposed to have sex and therefore they don’t prepare for it by having contraception. I think the first caller talked about that, nicely.

So they’re less likely to prepare for having sex by having contraception available when they do. Therefore, they’re more likely to get pregnant and drop out and follow that pathway. And that tends to happen with younger girls who have less judgment than older girls do – Latinos and other girls.

NEARY: All right. Thanks so much for joining us, Anne Driscoll.

Ms. DRISCOLL: Thank you.

NEARY: Anne Driscoll is senior researcher at UC Davis School of Education. We were also joined by Professor Luis Zayas, professor of Social Work and Psychiatry at Washington University in St. Louis. When we come back we’re going to talk with singer and guitarist Raul Midon and we’re going to hear a song or two. I’m Lynn Neary. It’s TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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