The State of Latin Couples

Back in the 1980s, none of Katherine Martinez’s elementary-school classmates had divorced parents. “At the time, it was just assumed you had Mami and Papi—married—at home,” says Katherine, Peruvian American and now 29. But by the time she became a New York City public-school teacher in 2000, she noticed a drastic change: “The majority of the Latino kids I taught were living in single-parent families.” The reality of the situation? 46 percent of Latino kids are born to unmarried mothers and births out of wedlock are increasing faster among Latinas than any other ethnic group. According to research commissioned by the Committee on Population (CPOP), Latinas are now living with their boyfriends more frequently than non-Hispanic whites or blacks.

Such changes and others will affect every aspect of Latino life and—as our population grows—every part of American life. In this series we examine some of the major shifts and trends occurring with Latino families today:

We’re Going It Alone

Almost one in four Latino families are currently headed by a single woman. The rate of births out of wedlock rose for all Latinos in the ‘80s and ‘90s, The reason? Experts believe there are three:

First, Latinas are working outside home more and attending college at higher rates than ever, giving them the economic independence to leave—or never enter—an unhappy marriage. “If I had gotten pregnant in another era, I definitely would’ve felt pressure to marry the father,” says Edith Gonzalez, 28, a single mother in Arcadia, California.

A second reason for the jump in out-of-wedlock births: new attitudes among Latino men, namely a decline in social pressure to marry a woman they’ve gotten pregnant. “Among the younger generation, the old way of thinking is gone—they actually see it as more normal not to marry,” says Ramiro Valle, 39, Mexican and a divorced father of two boys, 11 and 14, in Queens, New York. In contrast, when Ramiro got a casual girlfriend pregnant 14 years ago, “it never occurred to me not to marry her, even though I didn’t love her,” he says.

The third factor? Sociologists believe some of the rise in single-parent families is due to old-school Latino males struggling to accept new gender roles within the family. Bureau of Labor Statistics figures show that Latino men earn the lowest wage among all men, and Latino male and female average wages are the most equal of any ethnic group. “If the male was raised to be the primary breadwinner, this is upsetting,” says Abdín Noboa Ríos, Ph.D, president of a Washington, D.C., consulting firm specializing in Latino issues. This could account for the fact that in our community, one out of every three first marriages ends in divorce within 10 years.

Whatever the cause for the single status, there’s no doubt that mothers going it alone face greater challenges—and children often suffer for it. In 2004, just under 46 percent of Latino children in single-mom households lived in poverty, compared to just 17 percent of Latino kids in married, two-parent homes.

Still, studies show that children raised in peaceful single-parent homes may be healthier emotionally than those growing up with two parents who argue frequently, so this trend has a positive side. “I never regret the decision I made because I know I saved myself a lot of fighting,” Edith says. “Even though it’s hard sometimes, it’s good to be able to say, ‘I dated you, this happened, but I’m not stuck with you for the rest of my life.”