Era of Prosperity Largely Skips Latino Teens ; Sex, Alcohol Use, and Suicide Attempts Are Rising for Hispanic Youth at the Same Time Rates of Risky Behavior Decline for Other Ethnic Groups

Article excerpt

Elmer, a teenager at Cesar Chavez High School in Washington, says he likes math and playing soccer. He also has another habit: smoking marijuana.

Claudia says the school's Brazilian dance programs are cool, but perhaps not as cool as the "skipping parties" she sometimes attends during the day, where she is given alcohol by older students.

While rebellion has been considered a teenage rite of passage since at least the days of Bob Dylan, risk-taking among Latino youths is up across the boards. And the fact that this is happening to the fastest-growing racial group in the US at a time when black and white teens seem to be easing up on the sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll, is of major concern to experts.

From underage drinking to sex to knife-carrying, Latino teens have been showing an increase in risky behavior during the past decade. A recent study by the Urban Institute, for example, shows that in 1997, nearly twice as many ninth- and 10th-grade Hispanic students were engaging in five or more risky activities as in 1991. That is compounded by the fact that Hispanic students have the highest high school dropout rate. The reasons range from a culture that places a premium on contributing to a family's economic well- being to the language barrier.

"If a 15-year-old student arrives in the US with no English skills, it is highly unlikely they are going to be able to learn English and keep up with all the rest of the material," says Carola Surez-Orozco, co-director of the Harvard Immigration Project in Cambridge, Mass.

And while a strong economy and better education have helped black and white students occupy their free time with tame activities, such as violin lessons and hockey practice, experts say Hispanic neighborhoods haven't reaped the benefits of prosperity. Considering this is the longest economic boom in US history, that lack becomes particularly troubling.

"Nationally, if you look at funding trends, there's very little money going into Latino communities," says Lori Kaplan, executive director of the Latin American Youth Center in Washington.

The government is taking steps to alleviate that. Last month, the White House initiated a 10-year plan to close the Hispanic student- achievement gap. As elections near, politicians are devoting more words, at least, to the Latino population.

While experts say it will take a greater concentration of money and political will than has yet been seen to help the Latino teen population, private efforts have achieved some success on a local level. For example, ASPIRA, a nonprofit Latino youth group, runs clubs in six cities where teens are given leadership positions, career and college counseling, and financial aid. The clubs also have programs for parents, which teach them how to discuss topics like sex with their kids.

The National Coalition of Hispanic Health and Human Services Organizations runs a Strengthening Family Curriculum that works with community-based organizations around the US to educate Hispanic teens about HIV, using theater.

Here in Washington, the Latin American Youth Center pays Hispanic teens to attend and help run a six-week sex-education program. "These are long-term commitments to working with youth," says Ms. Kaplan. "This is not an ad campaign. …