Tragedy of all tragedy has happened. I stumbled upon an essay I wrote at the end of my freshman year of college. It’s not BAD, but it’s not great. Either way, the topic was something that really caught my attention this time around, because I think it might have helped lay the groundwork that got me out of California and across the country to the Bronx and Manhattan. This essay was written for an Argument and Research English class. We focused on the struggles with drugs, alcohol, and sex that young people face.
Love. Sex. Drugs. Trouble. Coming of age, wherever you are is tough. Coming of age in the Bronx? Even tougher. Within Random Family, Adrian Nicole LeBlanc offers an unbiased view into the lives of young Bronx teenagers struggling to grow up and mature. Unlike many similar books, her narrative avoids quoting statistics and professionals. Rather, it explores eleven years of their lives, and showing the problems that they encounter: teen pregnancy, unfaithfulness, drug use and distribution. Her account begins focused on the life of Jessica and her family, but it evolves into the story of a young Bronx girl: Coco.
In the beginning, Coco was different. “She wasn‘t a church girl and she wasn‘t much of a schoolgirl, either, but she wasn‘t raised by the street” (LeBlanc, page 27). She seemed to have more respect for herself than the other girls within the pages of Random Family. Coco seems to be better off, in a sense. She has an encouraging step-father, Richie, who warns her to stay away from the ‘normal’ lifestyle. He encourages her to “guard herself and aim for a better life” (LeBlanc, page 32). She even maintains a level of innocence that the other teen girls are missing. She was still considered a ‘virgin’ in some sense. Even though she has participated in intercourse, she still maintains the title of ‘virgin,’ because she refrains from having sex, even with her boyfriend. There is a flicker of hope for her, a chance at something better. She has a level of respect for herself in the beginning that is inspiring. I believed that she could actually make a better life for herself, even if the path were unclear.
But then, everything changes. When she starts dating Cesar, she seems to lose all resolve. For her role models, she looks to Lourdes and Jessica from Cesar’s family, neither of whom are worthy. She loses the title of ‘virgin’ forever when she begins to go out of her way to have sex with Cesar. Once she becomes pregnant with Cesar’s first child, she drops out of school and resigns herself to being a mother. She continues to have child after child, ending up with five by four different men. She doesn’t stand up for herself. And to top it all off, she never learns from her mistakes. While she tries some methods to get out, her overall way of life inhibits her ability to break the norm. She is stuck in her lifestyle and can’t break away from it. She continually destroys any chance she has for a better life, whether it be by being around people who have no respect for her and her family, or by not having enough faith in herself, or by not maintaining a career, or by trying to make everyone around her happy.
Coco was already weakened by “the fine light-skinned boy in the red-leather coat on the street below” (LeBlanc, page 28). She was stunned by Cesar’s appearance. She wanted him. “An agile boy with full lips, serious brown eyes, and a flat nose, who knew how to dress,” its no wonder Coco was immediately infatuated with him (LeBlanc, page 28). His amazing good looks definitely played a role in the weakening of her resolve. What girl wouldn’t have done anything he wanted her to? If Cesar had not caught her eye, if his looks hadn’t stood out to her, Coco’s entire life could have turned out very differently. But once he noticed her, any chance she might have had was pretty much over. Coco was too far gone. She was too excited that Cesar had noticed her.
“The smallest hope had a way of vaulting Coco into overdrive; just on speculation, she broke up with Wishman. She needed him out of the way in case Cesar wanted her” (page 30). Which it turns out, ended up being a good plan, because Cesar did want her. Though not for the reason she hoped. He wanted the challenge that she provided, the challenge of getting a ‘virgin’ into bed. And he does.
Coco gives into him and forever loses her ‘title’ as a virgin by willingly having sexual relations with Cesar, as well as with other men. Coco becomes completely wrapped up in her relationship with Cesar. She, like all other love-struck girls, stops focusing on the important things in life. “Coco headed for Cesar instead of classes” (LeBlanc, page 62). Coco willingly chose a boy over classes, and, I assume, over friends, judging from the fact that she changed her friend Dorcas just so that she could spend even more time with Cesar. Has she never heard of the phrase ‘bros before hos’ or the female version ‘hos before bros’? Your friends should always come first. Boyfriends, they come and go, as Coco is soon to find out. But your friends and family usually stick with you through the good times, and the bad. This was truly a part of her first mistake. By indulging in Cesar and putting all of her time and energy into being with him, she ignores people who could have potentially helped her climb out of the hole of poverty in which she has been raised. By choosing him over classes, she misses out on the education that could have gotten her somewhere great, that could have really made her something to be proud of. She loses out on the opportunity to be able to easily support her family.
When Coco participates in sexual intercourse with Cesar without using protection, she ends up pregnant, which “she hoped he’d feel was good news” (LeBlanc, page 84). His reaction leaves much to be desired, yet Coco seems indifferent. When he leaves, she follows and sees that he is off with his arms around another girl. And her response to this discovery was far from what I had hoped for. True, she did say that she died, and, indeed, a part of her did die (LeBlanc, page 85). She hid like a coward and accepted the fact that Cesar would be with other girls. She does not realize that she is more than capable of doing better than him. She is blinded to the fact that she deserves someone who will be faithful to her.
She should have marched up to Cesar and told him exactly why what he was doing was wrong. She should have seen that she was more than strong enough to leave Cesar now that she knows he is cheating on he. But she didn’t. She could have changed right then and there. She could have stood up for herself. But she didn’t, and by not doing that, she set herself up to be walked all over. Coco deserved the best. She didn’t deserve to have Cesar treating her like an old toy that can easily be replaced when a new one comes out. She deserved better than a cheater could ever offer her. She deserved a faithful partner who loves and cares for her, no matter what, through the thick and the thin. But she does not get that, because she could not stand up to Cesar when it mattered. Instead, she took it lying down, and it paved the way her life would end up heading.
Since Coco never realized that she deserved better than what everyone around her was getting, no one should have expected her life to go any different than anyone else’s life. But a flicker of hope stood within my heart. Even when, shortly after she had Mercedes (Cesar’s baby), she became pregnant with Kodak’s baby, I had faith. She had to realize that she did not deserve this, that she did not deserve men who treated her like dirt and garbage and had no respect for her. She would see that she deserved better. But then she saw Cesar again, and she fell for his good looks and smooth-talking all over again. She had no fight against his wiling ways. And once again, she ended up pregnant. Maybe now, with Cesar in jail again and three children for her to raise on her own, she would see that she truly deserved better, maybe she would stand up for herself, and show all of those male chauvinists in her life that she does not need them. But in the end, she merely accepts all of this hardship as the way things were done. Which, in a way, is sort of true.
According to an e-mail from Giraldo Rosales to the LCPP-listserv mailing list, “1 out of 4 Latinas in the US has a child before the age of 20.” The e-mail contains an article written by Elaine Rivera. The e-mail comments that although overall teenage pregnancy rates are going down, “Latinas continue to have a much higher birth rate than their black and white counterparts.” It offers the statistic that, according to the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, Latinas had 4,813 live births compares to 2,981 for black female teenagers, and 650 for white teenage girls. This high birth rate, the e-mail goes on to say, is the main factor in the Latina high school drop-out rate. Like Coco, many of the girls cannot find or afford adequate day care for the children they are having.
A study published in the Journal of Marriage and Family discussed the impact of variables relating to the family on a teenager’s sexual activity, more specifically within two ethnic minority groups. This study includes Puerto Ricans living within the Bronx, a minority of which Coco is a part. The study discusses how certain variables, such as family income, parental education, maternal marital status, maternal monitoring, and mother-adolescent communication, affect a teenager’s likelihood to participate in sexual activity. According to the hypothesis of the authors (Kim Miller, from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Rex Forehand and Beth Kotchick, both from the Institute of Behavioral Research and Psychology Department of the University of Georgia), teenagers with “less-educated and single parents, as well as those who live in families with low monthly incomes” are more likely to participate in sexual activity, particularly unprotected sexual activity (Miller). The study goes on to prove that increases in maternal monitoring, and general mother-adolescent communication lead to less frequent sexual activity and fewer partners. However, mother-adolescent communication about sexual matters has an “inconsistent association with adolescent sexual behavior.” (Miller).
This does not bode well with Rivera’s article. The Puerto Rican culture, and even the Latin culture in general, has “cultural taboos and religious restrictions that prevent them from either openly discussing sex, contraception, or choosing abortion if they get pregnant” (Rosales). Wanda Diaz, director for family health programs for the Committee for Hispanic Children and Families, Inc and one of the people interviewed for the article commented that “‘Sexual issues are not discussed in many Latino families…if they can’t talk about it at home, teens are going to talk about it with their friends and peers and they many not get the right information’” (Rosales). The article continues on to discuss that the strict gender roles cause teenage girls to believe that their only option upon becoming pregnant is to have the baby. Jane Delgado, the president and CEO of the National Alliance for Hispanic Health and the author of “Salud: A Latina’s guide to Total Health,” commented that that “educational futures can get easily derailed because of family pressures along with the lack of resources…there is this sense that once you become a mother all of a sudden you as a human stop existing” (Rosales). She also comments that “‘These girls don’t see a future, but a baby is a future and they feel like they’ve accomplished something when they do get pregnant” (Rosales).
This would definitely explain Coco’s exuberance when she discovers her pregnancy, and it would explain why she eventually did everything from dropping out of school to continuing to have children. But there are programs out there that could have helped her to make something special of herself. The New York State Office of Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention & Services (NYSAPPS) works closely with programs in New York State to help girls like Coco.
The NYSAPPS publishes an Annual Report/Data Book for every year. In the 2006/07 edition, they recognize that “unintended pregnancies or pregnancies at an early age often result in lost opportunities, perpetual poverty, and public dependence” (NYSAPPS, 12). They even go so far as to say that the health of a child born under such conditions is often much lower. These babies are at a higher risk for mortality. The NYSAPPS attempts to utilize different strategies to help meet the various needs of what they refer to as “at-risk, pregnant and parenting adolescents through 21 years of age” (NYSAPPS, 12). They have programs that offer one-on-one contact and group contact that range in length from a one-time meeting to on-going contact.
The NYSAPPS uses their community service projects to serve a variety of adolescents. Within the Bronx, 862 ‘clients’ were served by NYSAPPS-sponsored community service projects between July 1, 2006 and June 30, 2007, and 367 clients were enrolled by the community service projects during the same time (NYSAPPS, 24-25). Of these 367 clients enrolled, three were expectant parents (1%), and one was a participant with one or more children (NYSAPPS, 26). Of these people, 25% received TANF aid, another 25% received food stamps, and 100% received Medicaid (NYSAPPS, 27). This report alone proves that there are ways for Coco to have gotten all of the help she would need.
Within the Bronx, they sponsor programs through the Claremont Neighborhood Centers, located on 169th Street, and Planned Parenthood of NYC (PPNYC), located on Bleeker Street. Just as an aside, both of these programs are within one hour of each other, in heavy traffic. In addition, the report details the programs they sponsor within the Bronx.
The Claremont Neighborhood Center is fairly recently established, yet it still offers a mix of services seeking to fill the “gaps in unmet needs” (NYSAPPS, 45). Their programs include Family Support Systems Unlimited, Inc. (FSSUI), Inwood House, North Bronx Sports Association (NBSA), South Bronx Campus High School (SBCHS), and Renaissance EMS. FSSHI identifies and provides housing support and pathways to achieving increased self-efficiency. They encourage participants to complete high school, get their GED, or completion of vocational training. Inwood provides after-school programs, school counseling and summer camp options. NBSA offers an organized youth sports program to keep young teens off the streets and under the guidance of good, upstanding role models. SBCHS fosters “self-improvement, self-esteem and life skills” through its Taking Control of Your Life Health and Physical Fitness Program. Renaissance attempts to amplify the potential of inner-city teenagers in the areas of music, sports, and education.
PPNYC is considered to be the leading agent for community service within the Bronx. Their “Teen Advocate” program provides a venue for peer-to-peer transfer in information. This program also includes discussion groups where same-sexes congregate to gain the information and skills they need to make informed decisions about their sexuality, and to help avoid early, unwanted pregnancy. PPNYC also sponsors Big Brothers Big Sisters pf New York City, which provides a mentoring program that matches a new teen mother with someone who will support and guide her through the challenges of being an adolescent mother. Morris Heights Health Center has a program entitled the “Youth Changing Paths Program” to help pregnant and parenting teens to have and care for a healthy baby and to deal with the challenges of being a teenage parent.
Many of these programs, had Coco been aware of them, would have provided her with the necessary knowledge to have prevented her initial conception. However, she had said that she and Cesar had wanted the baby, and that that was why they hadn’t used contraception (LeBlanc, p 84). As such, one can assume that the programs involving abstinence and contraception would not have made any difference to her life. However, programs such as those provided by the Morris Heights Center and the Family Support Systems Unlimited, Inc. would have provided her with the necessary skills to be a successful teenage mother, and with the ability to expand out of the ‘hole’ of Bronx life. Had she used programs, such as these and the Thorpe house, effectively, and truly wanted change, she would have broken out. However, her time in the Thorpe house after she went homeless was not as successful as it could have, or should have, been. Coco was truly capable of being different. But the resources available to her she either was unaware of, or did not use effectively.
- LeBlanc, Adrienne Nicole. Random Family: Love, Drugs, Trouble, and Coming of Age in the Bronx. Scribner: New York. 2004.
- Miller, Kim S., Rex Forehand and Beth A. Kotchick. “Adolescent Sexual Behavior in Two Minority Samples: The Role of Family Variables.” Journal of Marriage and the Family. Vol. 61, No. 1. February 1999. Pp 85-98. May 14, 2008..
- New York State. Office of Children and Family Services. Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention and Services (APPS): Annual Report / Data Book 2006-07. GPO. 2007. <http://ocfs.state.ny.us/main/reports/AppsAnnRepDataBook06_07.pdf>.
- Rosales, Giraldo. “1 out of 4 Latinas in the US has a child before the age of 20.” E-mail to LPCC-listserv mailing list. August 2006..