For many of us Family Life and Human Sexuality is a topic surrounded by an aura of personal convictions, myths, and even old wives’ tales; many parents distrust this kind of teaching and would rather see the schools stay clear of it. For all these reasons, Family Life Education and Human Sexuality must be discussed knowledgeably, with sensitivity and honesty. Introducing such a topic in the curriculum poses a problem of values, since our students come to our classes with a set of values which might or might not be shared by the teacher. The problem is compounded when, to different values one adds a different language and a different culture.
Our objective was to write a curriculum tailored to the needs of the Hispanic teen-ager. We chose to put a special emphasis on pregnancy because our school, Polly T. McCabe, works with teen-age mothers, and also because we felt that many teachers know very little about the pregnant teen-ager herself, as she usually leaves her school to come to us, returning only after her baby is born and everything is back to “normal.”
Our unit will include a cultural background for the teacher as well as a step-by-step description of a mini-course on human sexuality with an approach geared to students from a Puerto Rican background.
We have “gleaned” our background information in various ways. We tried to diversify our sources so that we might get a more complete picture. We interviewed our Hispanic students as well as professional Hispanic women in the community. We also did some book research. We set out to find answers to such questions as:
—How the young girl feels about premarital sex.
—What they expect of marriage and married life.
—Sex roles in child education
—Conflict between parents and children faced with the issue of pregnancy.
—Nutritional habits during pregnancy.
—Feelings about contraception.
The first part of our unit is a summary of our findings. The second part contains our mini-course, detailed lesson plans and suggested activities. It was written with this sobering thought in mind: classes in family life education and human sexuality are not going to eliminate teen-age pregnancy, but can provide the healthy environment teen-agers need to obtain positive information regarding their own sexuality.
Background for the Teacher
Just as there is no typical American family, there is no typical Puerto Rican family; wide differences exist in the way they feel about the education of their children, religion, food, and even women’s liberation! As you read the following, please consider that it is not meant to be a portrait of the “average Hispanic teen-ager” but rather that
elements of that portrait apply to every Hispanic teen-ager, and, allowing for variety and differences, that she will recognize a little bit of herself or a friend or cousin in it. Regardless of how she feels about her culture, whether she embraces it or rejects it and tries to become more americanized, it is part of her—especially in our country where, even after three or four generations, one can still proclaim “I’m Italian” (or Irish, or Russian), and people will tell with some pride what percentage of each ethnic group they embody, she will always be Puerto Rican.
As descendant of immigrants or recent immigrants ourselves, we all know that the most obvious index of americanization is the degree of fluency in English. It seems that Language is Culture and that with the language one absorbs (or gets absorbed by?) the values, the way of life of a nation. Former generations of immigrants tried their best to become Americans, adopt the American way of life and get on with it. But, judging by the size of the Hispanic language problem, it would seem that they are not as willing to become part of our “Melting Pot.” The island is close by, when difficulty arises here they can always return “home” for a while, sometimes only to feel homesick for America . . .
Because of this situation, their culture is a colorful medley of the old and the new, the stringently conservative and the modern (i.e., the American). These differences are particularly obvious in child rearing and can produce many clashes within a family where the generation gap is not unlikely to be widened by the fact that the children become americanized much quicker than their parents, simply because they spend a good portion of their time in school.
Since we are most concerned with the teen-age Hispanic mother let us now look at some of her attitudes about her sexuality.
Dating: The majority of Puerto Rican girls are sheltered from the outside world. Traditionally a girl is brought up to become a wife and mother, a boy to become a “Macho,” a male, the one who takes charge. This pattern is most apparent in the home of first and second generation American Puerto Ricans, among this group parents are usually more permissive with their male children, who are allowed to spend a lot of time in the street whereas little girls are expected to stay home and concentrate all their efforts on their duties. Very early a little girl is given responsibility for the care of younger siblings, she must also share the cooking and house cleaning with her mother and sisters. The double standard is even more obvious in the attitude of parents towards babies and young toddlers, a little boy is allowed to walk around naked from the waist down and everybody seems to be proud of his genitals, “What a ladies’ man, what a little stud he already is!” are not unusual comments. A little girl on the contrary is always reminded to cover herself and be modest and chaste, as she grows older she is constantly reminded to protect herself against men, her male relatives watch very closely over her and make it their duty to guard her virginity which is equated with her honor and the honor of her family. Under these circumstances it is not surprising that she is rarely allowed to go out unescorted or have a boyfriend.
By the time she becomes an adolescent, the girl is faced with a great dilemma: at school, she sees the American girls who seem so free to flirt and interact with the boys, she knows they date, sometimes more than one boy at a time, at home she is subject to the strict rule of her parents. Were she to disobey them and see a boy, it is not unlikely that her mother will take her to the hospital to have a virginity test.
At this point she is equally frightened and intrigued by boys. Time and time again she has been warned that men will take advantage of her if she allows it, but she also knows that she is expected to get married and have a family. So at 14 or 15 a girl may very well be thinking of marriage and her parents usually do not discourage her, they might even feel somewhat relieved if they feel that their daughter’s “honor” is getting more and more difficult to defend. The choice of husband is usually not as clear cut and may be the cause of much distress. Since the girl cannot date, her choice is limited. If her family is religious she might meet a suitable young man at church, he might then come to her house on an official visit (he makes his entry, “hace la entrada”) and hopefully be accepted as the one and only suitor, even though he may very well be the first one, the young people are now “novios” (steadies) and the young girl can have no other male friend and is thereby considered to be engaged to be married.
In the old days in Puerto Rico, a girl had many occasions to meet suitable young men, there were chaperoned parties, and walks in the evening. These evening walks are still a tradition in small towns and villages and still follow the same scenario: one gets all dressed up (to be noticed), then one starts the walk with one’s friends, arm in arm, and the young men do the same. The “Paseo” (the place where the walk is taken) may be a popular avenue, the public square, or any public place. The young people walk up and down a few times, each time the girls pass the boys, the boys throw “piropos,” gallant compliments (these can be daring, poetic, sometimes quite inspired depending on the talent of the author), the girls feign indifference for a few days to show that they have “respeto” (dignity), then smile at the boy of their choice thereby allowing him to start his courtship.
Unfortunately this sort of thing has all but disappeared here in America, the streets are considered unsafe, no one knows anyone and a public place here does not provide the kind of supervision it did back on the island. The girl is therefore left without much of an alternative. She cannot be chaperoned efficiently so she has to be restrained in other ways: early curfews and frequent lectures and warnings that she should behave properly. Under these circumstances dating can only be furtive and clandestine, a situation all too conducive to sex.
When the girl gets involved with a boy, most of the time she does not have the sophistication that comes with dating frequently. During our interviews with our young mothers, I was surprised to notice that they never mentioned petting when they talked about their relationship with the boy. After probing, they always insisted that novios must “respect each other;” I suspect this is the only way they know to remain in control of the situation. Obviously
had not and felt that they should have known better. They also said almost unanimously that they had been carried away by passion, “an extreme attraction that could not be resisted” as one of my students put it. As most of them were now married to their boyfriend, the baby seemed to be a source of pride and joy, for them most of the distress was done with, being married assured them the respect of their family and they felt sure their husband would take care of them and the baby. This sense of safety had not always been there and dating days were always remembered as times of great anxiety. In some homes discipline is so stringent that girls have been known to run away with their boyfriends because they were late to go home and too afraid of the consequences.
When a girl runs away (the Spanish expression is “se fue,” “she left,” or “se la llevo,” “he took her away”) she goes and lives with her novio. This is usually helped by the fact that he is sometimes ten years older than she is. Because of the clandestine character of her position, she is trapped. Her escapade has caused a scandal in her family, her parents are furious and they either ostracize her (for a while, until the fury dies down) or push her into an early marriage. One mother caused such a row after one such incident that the police were called. The young man, warned that he could not get away with taking away a girl of 14, promised marriage. All tempers quickly cooled down and the parents allowed the girl to stay with him.
Away from home, the overprotected girl is sometimes in dire straits, especially during the time of “cold war” with her family. This period is almost a necessity as all parties must prove that they have “respeto” (again; pride, dignity) and will not give in. During that time she is unable to get advice from Mami (her mom), sometimes she is unable to speak enough English, and becomes totally dependent on her husband—they are now consensually married—for guidance. Even if she knows about contraception, the chances that she will be able to get it are very small: her husband does not look upon contraception as his problem, neither does he like the idea of her having so much control if she uses it.
She herself is embarrassed to talk about such things, let alone go to a clinic (without Mami) and get help from a male doctor for again she only thinks of males as sexual beings, i. e., aggressors and feels very threatened, almost panicked, during a gynecological examination. She is convinced that she is in danger of being raped since getting undressed and exposing her body (legs wide apart!!) is bound to unleash this male lust she has been warned about. A feminine exam is for her not only scary, it is indecent. One of our students asked us once if the doctor “took a pill” before he examined women. The question puzzled us a bit so probed and asked what kind of pill. She then explained, “Well, you know! so he won’t get horny!” Nothing we said could really convince her that her fears were unjustified.
How the girls feel about premarital sex: An overwhelming majority feel that premarital sex is wrong. They believe very firmly that they should wait until after marriage to have sex. The loss of their virginity is felt by them as well as by their family to be a loss of honor and purity. “A girl who gets married dressed in white and is not a virgin, cheats herself and cheats God,” a student told us. Sex and marriage are inseparable for these idealistic young women, and as soon as they have relations with a man they consider themselves married and always refer to him as their husband. The fact that consensual marriages are common practice among the Puerto Rican only reinforces this conviction.
Our young mothers usually explained their “fall” as the result of an excess of passion for the young man. Casual sex is contemptible to them but love, described by them as an irresistible force, was a good excuse.
In his article “Courtship in Puerto Rico: an Institution in Transition” Reuben Hill gives an insight into this excess of romanticism:
The systematic postponement of involvement until one has played the field is discouraged in Puerto Rico . . . Relatively little time is lost in exploring persons as possible companions or friends before becoming identified as “novios” . . . The Puerto Rican system (of courtship) is not concerned with providing opportunities for testing the compatibility of temperament by offering unsupervised periods alone during which quarrels and heated discussions might occur.
The novios usually idealize each other and it is therefore not surprising that the girls themselves feel that dating is synonymous to being engaged, for them there can be no such thing as being just friends with a boy, they cannot have a “let’s try this and see what happens” attitude. In fact their standards for themselves are so high that they expect to make the right choice the first time and once and for all. They might envy the freedom (apparent or real) of the American teen-agers but they often accuse them of being loose.
These feelings were the strongest among the girls in our study who were least fluent in English. As fluency increased (usually these girls were at least second generation Puerto Ricans) the intrasigance of the feelings decreased also, premarital sex was acceptable in some cases and the loss of their virginity was not as tragic a thing.
Pregnancy: A first pregnancy and its outcome of delivering a healthy infant is an experience most women, regardless of age, find difficult to forget. So it is with adolescents. The reasons for teen-age pregnancy are numerous, prevention is difficult, consequences can be tragic. The statistics are staggering, but we are not going to do a theoretical study of the “epidemic,” we are going to share with you
the girl we see every day, the pregnant adolescent.
To adequately discuss the myths, taboos, and cultural overtones of the pregnancy, labor and delivery of the Hispanic teen, we must take a brief look at her “American sister.”
Most of the young pregnant girls that we see at McCabe are frightened, anxious, and bewildered. A girl may wear many masks and can at times hide behind a false bravado. She is faced with an upheaval to her whole being, the body she has been becoming familiar with has suddenly betrayed her. The fear that some experience is debilitating. The fear has been caused by many things, her family and/or friends have still not accepted the fact of her pregnancy, tension runs high. She has an exaggerated fear of her labor and delivery, other delivered women have unloaded their “horror stories,” some with a “you’ll get yours” attitude, others with a natural feeling of wanting to make their labor and delivery experiences more interesting with a few embellishing details.
This fear is not a positive condition. It will not make her run from the delivery room to a birth control clinic begging for services to prevent another pregnancy, she will not “think twice” the next time. Adolescence has a fantastic quality about it: pregnancy will not happen if she thinks it won’t, even when this magical formula has failed her before, she will try it again!
The fear has to be diminished for her sake and the health of her growing fetus. The teacher’s personal feelings have to be
in order to help her through this experience.
The Hispanic pregnant teen also has fears but they are somewhat different. She is usually married, contractually or consensually, if not, she will be soon after she finds out she is pregnant. This fact takes the edge off the uncertainty, the isolation a pregnant teen usually experiences. Marriage, even when it has been expedited, has made her respectable again. Because of the marriage factor, pregnancy is a normal consequence, she has been expected to be homemaker ever since she could reach the kitchen stove, being a wife and mother is not such a great change. But this does not eliminate the fear of labor and delivery. She knows she must face this alone. Her mother probably has told her of her own experiences, which have not been positive. Until a few years ago medical care was not very available in rural Puerto Rico, a woman often gave birth at home with the help of the local self-taught midwife, the women were unprepared, almost totally ignorant of what was happening to their bodies and full of myths that have been passed down. The fear of dying in childbirth is therefore not only compelling it is also based on a sad reality. The young girls feel much more secure in a U. S. hospital, they believe the doctors are good, helpful and know what they are about, hospitals and medical care are close by and this also alleviates the anxiety.
However, some anxiety still exists and the abundance of myths surrounding her do nothing to ease her mind. We have compiled a small sample of the myths that we found most relevant to our topic, all of these should be taken into consideration when teaching to Hispanic students, and the teacher should be prepared to tackle them.
: There is a snake, native to Puerto Rico, a big, short snake that attacks people but won’t touch virgins. It will just turn away and go back to the fields when a virgin crosses its path.
This poetic myth, similar to the European myth of the Unicorn (who could only be tamed by a virgin), is characteristic of the Cult of the Virgin so common in Catholic cultures. The girls themselves are most often baptized with the names of the Virgin: Maria de los Milagros, Mary of the Miracles; Maria de los Dolores, Mary of the Pains; Maria del Rosario, Mary of the Rosary; Maria de las Mercedes, Mary of the Graces, etc . . .
: A woman must not have sexual relations with a man during that time or she will infect him.
Every culture has a variant of this myth, one way or another the message is always the same: women are impure during their period.
: Eating urges must be indulged or the baby will be born with birth marks. If a woman craves white rice her baby will be born with a white head, if she craves coffee he will be born with a black head.
This strange myth is explained by the fact that many shades of skin can be found in the same family, and genetics can very well play tricks and produce a light-skinned baby from darker-skinned parents or vice-versa.
Angry thoughts should be avoided because they harm the baby.
A pregnant woman must never ridicule a deformed or handicapped person or her baby will be born the same way.
: It is harder to give birth to boys.
This probably stems from the belief that it is
to have boys than girls, who, because they are to be watched so carefully, are more trouble. It is almost logical that something better should be harder to get!
: A woman has to be treated very well after her delivery or she will go crazy.
This is an exaggerated version of the post-partum blues, but may not be as outrageous as it first appears. These ladies had swarms of children and needed all the tender loving care they could get after the birth of yet another child.
During forty days after her delivery a woman should stay in bed and be fed chicken broth and malt beer (a non-alcoholic beverage).
Broth is believed to contain the best part of food, it is supposed to be the most nutritious, more nutritious than the meat itself.
: Puerto Ricans are vehemently against it and equate it with the loss of the virginity for the girls.
: Although this practice is disappearing because belly bands are hard to find, you never know what an overzealous grandmother can think of: Belly bands were wrapped tightly around the navel area of a newborn “to prevent hernias” but they never did anything but prevent the navel from healing properly.
The Black Stone
: Usually worn on a bracelet or a neckchain, the charm takes the form of a clenched fist made of black stone. It is supposed to ward off evil spirits and counteracts the effects of the evil eye. A baby should always wear one of these charms as he is very fragile and so lovely that he will excite jealousy and attract the evil eye.
This myth is not to be taken lightly; we all have our little superstitions. Some would never drive without St. Christopher on their dashboard, others wear a cross to Chase the devil or vampires or what have you. These are small things and tolerance is the best approach.
Our list of myths is far from being exhaustive, the teacher should be aware of these because they are the most common but should also listen and learn from the students. Each family has its “favorite” beliefs, its special versions. Human imagination is boundless and will find an “answer” to every puzzling question.
This background is only an introduction to an ever-changing culture. Literature on this subject is available but tends to be out-dated and meager. Our best information came from direct contact with the Hispanic people, only by interacting with them were we able to internalize the information about their culture. In teaching the following lesson plans, the teacher should take all the background information into consideration and be ready to adapt his/her lessons to the climate of his/her class.