Latino History Month #4

For the fourth and final installment of the “Latino Like Me Presents: Latino History Month 2010″™ series I wanted to go into the past to provide you a historical primary source that is both a window into our collective past as well as our collective present.

And so we turn to the legendary Bernardo Vega.

Born in Puerto Rico, in 1885, Vega worked as a tobaquero, a cigar maker. Tobaqueros were skilled workers on the islands of the Caribbean, as well as a highly politicized class. In each workshop a man called “El Lector” was paid to read newspapers and political treatises to the workers, providing them something of a sustained education as they rolled their hand-crafted cigars.

In the late 19th century, when Puerto Rico and Cuba were both Spanish colonies, tobaqueros were among the first migrants to the US from the Lain American Caribbean. They settled in parts of the US South and Northeast, and helped organize political groups to agitate for an end to Spanish colonialism. The groups they established became the roots of future Puerto Rican and Cuban communities for the next century.

In 1916, Vega became part of that community when he arrived in New York City.

What makes Vega an important figure is that he wrote about his life experiences. Published after his death, The Memoirs of Bernardo Vega is less a personal story of one man than a record of early 20th-century Puerto Rican life, in particular in the mainland US. Among the more exciting elements of his text are the detailed descriptions of this early community, both passionate about their island home as well as the political realities of daily life in the belly of the US empire.

Vega, like other politically-minded people, had ideas about the world he witnessed, many times identifying and analyzing important issues facing Latinos in the US. This passage, from that seminal text, is one example:

The constant growth of the Puerto Rican community gave rise to riots, controversy, hatred. But there is one fact that stands out: at a time when there were no more than half a million of us, our impact on cultural life in the United States was far stronger than that of the 4 million Mexican-Americans. And the reason is clear: though they shared with us the same cultural origins, people of Mexican extraction, involved as they were in agricultural labor, found themselves scattered throughout the American Southwest. The Puerto Ricans, on the other hand, settled in the large urban centers, especially in New York, where in spite of everything the circumstances were more conducive to cultural interaction and enrichment, whether we wanted or that way or not.

Vega’s analysis is perceptive and, on many levels, true.

In this time period, and for the next two generations, Puerto Ricans were concentrated largely in one urban center–New York. The “impact” they had on affairs in that city (and somewhat beyond) is partially a result of their concentration, but also a result of their political and cultural organization. Even when their numbers were few, Puerto Ricans came to the US and set out to do the work of community organizing, and they were successful.

The fact that much of this organization took root in New York city–the most important city in the US–provided other advantages. New York’s position within US economic, political, and cultural matters only increased throughout the 20th century, and by having a voice within the Big Apple, Puerto Ricans had a voice in the nation writ large.

Where Vega missed the mark is in his lack of acknowledgment of one key difference between the migration of Puerto Ricans and the millions of Mexicans in the Southwest. Puerto Ricans migrated to the US as citizens, vested with full political rights upon their arrival. This isn’t to say they did not face harsh racism and multiple forms of discrimination. But, as voters, they could garner the attention of politicians in ways that Mexican Americans could not.

Ethnic Mexicans in the Southwest were numerous and diffuse, but they were also clustered in key urban centers. By 1930, Los Angeles had become the second-largest Mexican city in the world, second only to Mexico City itself. But in the early 20th century, most in the ethnic Mexican community were first-generation, non-citizen immigrants.

As the number of US-born Mexican Americans came to represent half and, then, a majority of the population as a whole, they did so with the largest share of their population under the age of 21. For much of the century, then, ethnic Mexicans were primarily a non-eligible to vote majority population. Accordingly, as late as the mid-20th century, Mexican Americans struggled to exert any political force at all, living as they were in a political system that had little motivation to cater to them.

My analysis is not meant to disparage Vega as much as to point out the people we call “Latino” and “Latina” have much in common, as well as much that distinguishes their historical and present-day realities. Citizenship and regional migration patterns are but two. We could also have discussed gender, race, nationality, class and a host of other forces which have carved out divergent experiences.

The final lesson is not a pessimistic one. This “diversity within commonality” is at the heart of Latino America. It is the source of a tremendous opportunity for us all to learn about the contours of US imperialism in “on the ground”, concrete ways. It is also an opportunity for us, as Latinos, to better learn about ourselves and, in the process, create something new.

The US national project has been simultaneously tragic and hopeful. Far from a fulfillment of its most enduring ideals, the US–as experienced by indigenous Americans, African slaves, and waves of immigrants–has been as much a story of conquest and oppression as freedom and liberty. But the space between those two poles, the lived reality of millions of us now and then, continues to breed a hope that something better can be realized.

The hope of this something better requires a deliberate and purposeful re-imagining of ourselves in ways that incorporate difference, acknowledge past and current struggles, and embrace true equity.

This is the example we set as Latinos in the US. We forge a pathway to this new nation by our current struggles to do exactly the same within our own “community.” The mere fact that this word can be used to describe us–however conditional it might be–should be embraced as a sign of hope for everyone.

We have been so important to the past of this nation. We are vitally important to it if it is to have a future.

What is the “truth” about teen pregnancy and Latinas?

A couple of years ago, I started seeing some online news articles reporting on the rate of teenage pregnancy among Latinas.  What jumped out at me were the figures: over 50% of teenage Latinas, these articles claimed, had unplanned pregnancies.

Why did I find this startling? Well, as a Latino who knows lots of Latinas (many of whom are teens and many more who were) I just didn’t see this number playing out in real life.  Even in the grocery stores and shopping centers of East L.A., I never saw anywhere close to half of the teenage population of Latinas having babies.  Having family members who work in inner-city, Latino dominant schools, I also knew they didn’t see these kinds of figures playing out before them either.

The lesson here is, if the figures seem unbelievable, they probably are.

I am a historian, not a demographer or a public health official, but here is what I know.

1. The article I first saw, and ALL of the rest who cited this outrageous figures, got that figure from an organization called the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy.  This organization seems to be good and interested in promoting both meaningful solutions to major social conditions and the creation of sound public policy, but that’s all I know about them.  That, and they have a board made up of high profile, though largely non-scholarly, figures.

2. The organization does not make it easy to find their facts and figures, but when I find similar numbers in their reports it is not accompanied by a methodology of a) what data they collected; b) how they collected it, and; c) how they analyzed it.  For other documents they produce, their data is collected by extrapolating from phone surveys and the like.

3. When you go the “Hispanic” data provided by the Office of Minority Health & Health Disparities, which is part of the Centers for Disease Control of the federal government, and you look at their most recent reports (like table 5 on this page) you do NOT get anywhere close to the same figures as are reported by the above “campaign.”

The OMHD reports that, in 2005, for every 1000 “Hispanic” women between the ages of 15 and 19 there were 183.1 births (statistically).  That’s made up of a the combined rate of births for 15-17 year olds (48.5 per 1000) and 18-19 year olds (134.6 per 1000).  That’s 18.31%.

So What Does This Tell Us?
The National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy said only that 51% of Latinas will be pregnant—at least once—before they turn 20 years old.

The official government data don’t suggest this is true, but they don’t outright disprove it.  The government (at least in the data I quoted above) only compiles the number of “live births” to “Hispanic” teenagers.  But, unless you think that about 30% of those Latinas resort to abortion, or think that there has been a huge spike in the rates for Latina teen pregnancy on the order of 100% in the last three years, then you have to conclude the figure of 51% is bad.

It’s 18.31% according to official figures for live births, and likely 20-25% or thereabouts for pregnancies overall.

The question then becomes, how can this organization be so off?  Well, there is the possibility they are not.  As I said, I don’t know and can’t seem to find out how they came up with their figure.  The figure may have been misunderstood by some news agency and then promoted virally in news articles over the years.  It may be from some study I don’t know or can’t find.  It can even be from the data I have found, but that I misread.

Or the organization may be wrong of may have been duped.  They frequently cite a study conducted for them, based on the data from a scholarly article published in 2006, “Disparities in Rates of Unintended Pregnancy in the United States, 1994 and 2001” (by Lawrence B. Finer and Stanley K. Henshaw and from Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health, Vol. 38, No. 2 (Jun., 2006), pp. 90-96).  I read that article, and it provides figures similar to the above ones from OMHD (although it doesn’t not provide the data for unplanned pregnancies by age and by ethnicity together).  It does not prove the 51% figure. The study they commissioned from this sound scholarly article may have been flawed or, worse, intentionally fabricated.

There could be flaws in my own analysis, too.  As I said, I am just a historian (a damn good one) and not a statistician or public health demographer.

Let me suggest, another possibility: they might think they’re right but just can’t see they aren’t.  When presented with these figures, they might have run with them as a good tool to employ in fighting teen pregnancy overall, and especially within the Latina population.  That is their crusade and purpose.

They never questioned the data because, like many in institutions of power or representative of those institutions, they naturally assumed Latinas are more fertile and experiencing these high rates of teen pregnancy.

I don’t know.  But I’d welcome any suggestions, criticisms, or further information.

The “Border Beat” (June 24, 2009)

Time for another run-down of some of the Latino-themed stories you might have missed in the last two weeks.  Damas y caballeros, the BORDER BEAT!

• “Sotomayor & Identity Politics” (The Nation)
Just a taste, really, of the buffet that is the blogosphere and the chatter about Sonia Sotomayor and “identity politics.” Along with the frequent discussions about Sotomayor and affirmative action, they generally help us to see the chronic ignorance of the mainstream on issues of race and power.  Here, we get some links to an alternative and the proof bearing pudding, so to speak.

• “Third year of fewer illegal immigrants caught” (Houston Chronicle)
For you “data queens” out there: some figures on the declination in the immigrant flow measured by border apprehensions. For you humanists, the comments offer proof that “border-militia radicals” are not “data queens.”

• “Border Companies Thrive on Mexican-Americans” (NY Times)
A rabid form of racial nationalism (like we have here in the U.S.) is not very compatible with free-market capitalism (like we have here in the U.S.).  Oh, irony!

• “Payments for Injuries to Workers Here Illegally” (NY Times)
Unauthorized immigrants face a host of legal barriers which discourage the protection of the rights they do have.  As workers, for example, they are more prone to abuse, physical injury, discrimination, and a violation of labor laws.  This story, from New York, describes the successful defense of the rights of “illegal” workers using the U.S. Courts as a tool for justice.

• “Utah Latinos learn details of new immigration law, SB81” (Salt Lake Tribune)
I’m prone to posting articles dealing with Latinos in Utah. Someday, when they takeover the state and overcome the minor theocracy they’ve established there, I want to be remembered as one of those visionaries who saw it coming. Right now, fodder for the future takeover as Utah decides to racially profile Latinos.

• “Sotomayor Shaped By Her ‘Nuyorican’ Roots” (NPR)
Well, it’s a bit strange to me, but a lot of people still don’t see Latinos as “people.” Stories like this background piece on Supreme Court Nominee Sonia Sotomayor help with that, to be sure. Of course, I’m more interested in the word ‘Nuyorican’ becoming part of the mainstream.

• “Court backs LAPD immigration policy” (SF Chronicle)
A recent court decision defends the practices within local law enforcement agencies which do not comply with federal laws on immigration as part of their law enforcement duties. This has the potential to translate into precedent defending the right of cities to declare themselves “sanctuary cities.”


• “In the Coachella Valley, hope withers on the vine” (LA Times)

And the “can’t miss” story of the week comes from the Los Angeles Times and details the continued injustice in the fields of the Coachella Valley.


Same-Sex Marriage and a Latina on the Supreme Court

Today has been a big day in legal news, though not an entirely surprising one.

In a move everyone expected, the California State Supreme Court upheld the legality of Proposition 8, the anti-same-sex marriage act passed by voters in November 2008.  As they declared the legality of the measure and the manner of it passage into Constitutional law, they also upheld the legaility of the more than 18000 marriages which took place between the time the same court made same-sex unions legal and the voters disagreed.  You can read the story here.

This is a sad day for the cause of equal rights, but there have been many such days in the history of this nation.  Progressive movement forward has never been a foregone conclusion, it has always come from the deliberate and focused action of groups of people engaged in movement.  For this issue, there was no broad-based and collective movement before November 8, 2008.  There is now.  I doubt my 3-year old son will reach kindergarten before there is a voter-mandated change in the Golden State.


Today also marks a moment of tentative success of movements past with the nomination of Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court of the United States of America.  If her nomination is confirmed by the Senate this fall, Sotomayor will become the first Latina to serve on the highest court of the land.

There is a long road ahead of the successful nomination of the Bronx-born, Nuyorican to the Court.  But it is a reflection of the success of generations of people who actively fought for recognition, representation, and a chance to participate as full members of a society.  It is the product of movements for change, ones that desired Latinos or Latinas in positions of power and ones that fought for bigger and more systemic changes.

One step backward, a small shuffle forward?