News Column

Middle-class Hispanics Reassessing Family Sizes

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Ivonne Gonzalez is expecting her second baby March 8. The Simi Valley software engineer and her husband, Hugo, are already chasing one curly-haired toddler, Mikel, around the house.

The Gonzalez family is growing in a stable home, with two incomes and two completed educations, exactly as they planned.

"I have a master's degree in computer science," said Ivonne Gonzalez, 33. "I thought, 'I'll wait until everything is in place before I have my family.' "

She was born in Mexico and came to the United States when she was 12. Both of her parents had 10 siblings, but she and her husband decided a smaller family at the right time was the right choice for them.

Choice and circumstance may explain the results of a recently released study from the Pew Hispanic Center showing that both immigrant and native-born Latinas in the United States had steeper birthrate declines than any other demographic group from 2007 to 2010.

The biggest reason for the drop was likely the recession, but according to Gretchen Livingston, a Pew researcher and lead author of the study, there may be other circumstances at play, too.

"With increased (job) participation for women and higher levels of education, it was already declining before the recession," Livingston said.

The term "Latinas" covers women with roots in any of the Latin American countries, but the greatest birthrate decline was among Mexican-American women and immigrants from Mexico -- a 25.7 percent drop, greater than non-Hispanic whites, blacks and Asians.

"Our research suggests Hispanics were particularly hard hit by this (economic) trend," Livingston said. "The areas that had the largest (economic) decline were the ones that had the largest fertility decline, based on a number of economic indicators such as per-capita income, housing prices and unemployment."

States that did not fare so poorly during the recession, such as North Dakota, had little or no fertility declines. Big declines in fertility were found in states like Arizona and California, which were hit hard by the recession, researchers said.

Immigrant mothers led the drop, with about 63 births per 1,000 women ages 15 to 44 in 2011. The Pew study showed birthrates among Hispanics hit a 20-year low in 2011.

"Fertility is also declining in the source countries," Livingston said. "In Mexico, fertility has declined really rapidly. In 1960, women averaged more than seven children each. Now, it's 2.4 children."

Selfa Saucedo, public health program coordinator for the Ventura County Public Health Department, said there has been a push in Mexico to encourage smaller families.

"There are countrywide campaigns to rein in family size," Saucedo said. "In Mexico the campaign has been 'Smaller families live better.' "

'More hands to help out'

Jazmin Gomez, 28, of Santa Paula, said her mother came to the United States from Mexico, then gave birth to Gomez and her two siblings.

"I asked my mom why she didn't have a million kids," Gomez said. "She said she had to help raise all her brothers and sisters. She said that coming here, she was able to have her freedom."

Gomez has three children, the most recent addition being Elyse, 7 months old.

Large families are common in less industrial, more agrarian societies all over the world, according to Ena Valladarez, director of research for California Latinas for Reproductive Justice in Los Angeles.

"Globally, it's always been the case that when you have low-resource or low-income families, the more hands you have to help out, the more things get done," Valladarez said.

Dr. Marta Lopez-Garza, a professor of Chicana/o and women's studies at CSU Northridge, said: "In poor countries, there is a higher mortality rate among babies. Children were an economic advantage. They were another pair of hands in the field."

When an immigrant moves to a more industrialized nation, there tends to be a drop in family size. This trend has occurred with every group of immigrants -- Italian, Irish, German -- so it should be no surprise that it's happening with Mexican-American immigrants, Lopez-Garza said.

"When you become industrialized, it costs more to have a child because you have to put them through school. And you have better access to health care, so there is birth control and children are living longer," she said.

keeping the faith?

The drop in family size in a population that is largely Roman Catholic begs the question: Is artificial birth control being used, even though the Catholic faith forbids it?

"I'd like to think more women are coming into their own consciousness about what is morally right for them regardless of what religious systems say or do not say," said Lara Medina, a CSUN professor of Chicana/o history with an emphasis on religious history and spirituality.

Gonzalez made a decision to use artificial birth control, although she is Catholic.

"In my mind, they are two different things," she said. "One is what I choose to do with my body. The other is what I choose to believe."

Felicia Henry, 47, was born in Oxnard but her extended family is from Mexico. The mother of four believes Catholic women should be able to choose artificial birth control.

"It may be against our faith, but we have to be responsible to the children we have," Henry said.

Henry and Gonzalez are not alone. A 2011 Gallup poll showed that 82 percent of U.S. Catholics say birth control is morally acceptable.

Father John Love served as a pastor in Fillmore and is now pastor of St Mark's University parish at UC Santa Barbara. He said he has not seen a trend of dropping birthrates among the Latino Catholics in his church and is proud that they are following Catholic teachings on birth control.

"The church has not changed its teaching on the intrinsic evil of the use of artificial forms of conception," he said.

He said his Mexican-born and Mexican-American parishioners do not view a child "in terms of economics" and use natural family planning even when in difficult economic situations.

my generation

Henry said the Latina view of motherhood changes with each generation. Much of it is due to increased opportunities for education and shifting attitudes toward women in general, she said.

All of her younger cousins are going for advanced degrees. But when Henry attended high school in Oxnard in the 1970s, she remembers counselors using the word "if" rather than "when" in discussions about college.

"If you got through high school without getting pregnant, it was a big deal," she said.

Henry married her high school sweetheart in her early 20s and they had four kids.

"I remember thinking if I don't have a baby by the time I'm 19, it's too late," Henry said. "I thought I was so old and mature having my first child at 23."

Researcher Valladarez believes unplanned pregnancies will continue to drop with the Affordable Care Act because there will be more access to birth control for formerly uninsured Latina women, but there is one caveat.

"Undocumented immigrants were left out of that picture," she said.

The Great Depression saw a drop in birthrates, too, Pew researcher Livingston said, but then birthrates picked up and surged right into the baby boom years.

Livingston's research suggests there will be a rebound as the economy recovers, but she's not entirely sure we'll see the same numbers we saw in the 20th century because of the drop in birthrates in source countries.

Ivonne Gonzalez thinks she and her husband want more children, but she's not sure yet.

"Ask me again after I have my baby," she said.

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Distributed by MCT Information Services

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