By Adam Gettinger-Brizuela
MA, CATC-IV, San Diego Fatherhood Network
There is someone very important missing from the lives of tens of thousands of Latino children in San Diego County: their father. Although Latinos are not the majority in San Diego County, our men are disproportionately jailed and imprisoned, so they make up the majority of the incarcerated population. Latino children make up the largest ethnic group of children removed from the homes and placed in foster care, often with families of a different culture. Drug use, which includes alcoholism, and violence, both of which lead to legal problems, divorce and homelessness, also plague our community. What has happened to us?
Latinos are by far the largest minority group in San Diego County. In the interest of brevity the term “Latino” will be used throughout this article. It is understood that the vast majority of Latinos in California are of Mexican origin. Whether we call ourselves “mexicanos,” “Mexican-Americans” or “Chicanos,” there is wide acceptance of the concept of one “Raza,” which does not exclude our Puerto Rican, Cuban, or Central and South American brethren. Although many us are proud that our physical appearance and mestizo culture evokes the heritage of the original nations of this hemisphere, we are also heirs to the conservative Catholic culture of Spain. For centuries, Spanish-speaking people have lived in powerfully-connected family groups, and fathers were the central figures in each “familia.” The Hispanic tradition of using both fathers’ and mothers’ surnames demonstrates the deep respect which Latino men and women have historically felt and demonstrated toward one another. Latino men were judged, in the eyes of their communities, not by how much money they made, but by how they treated their loved ones. Latino men have a long history of being devoted to their children, and it is only in the past few decades that the fabric of that devotion appears to have started to unravel.
For centuries, the vast majority of Latino men and women have married for life. Today, the Latino divorce rate is only slightly lower than the 50% cited for the general American population. Recent changes in our society have not always been beneficial for Latino men. Thousands of them lost their jobs in the recession and economic pressures are considered the number one cause of problems that lead to divorce. In addition, for many Latinos, anti-immigrant hysteria has created even more problems. Those members of our community who do not have the proper work or residency papers are being hounded by an increasingly racist climate. Even those of us who were born here, or have been “naturalized” (as if that were necessary for a human being) are being subjected to undue scrutiny and pressure these days. These social ills, which contribute to high rates of addiction, violence, divorce and homelessness, are also behind one of the great social tragedies of our time; millions of Latino children growing up without knowing their fathers. In San Diego County alone, tens of thousands of Latino children do not live with their natural fathers. Many do not know their fathers at all. Thousand of Latino children have been removed from both their parents and are languishing in foster care. There are not enough foster care homes licensed to Latinos. Amiable co-parenting by divorced parents is uncommon among Latinos.
So, again, the rhetorical question: “¿Que nos ha sucedido?” (What has happened to us?) There are social theories, of course, but what is clear is that many Latino family lives have been disrupted and dismembered. Perhaps the most important thing is not to lament the passing of the traditional strong Latino family, but the active intention to seek a solution to our contemporary reality. Does anyone seriously suggest that Latino men have stopped loving their children? The reason many of our men make the sacrifice of leaving the old country and coming to work very hard in a hostile, racist society is to provide a better life for their children. Tens of thousands of Latino men right here in San Diego, including those who are divorced, get up with the sun every weekday morning to provide for their children. Even among the most die-hard Chi-cano “vatos” we see the names of their “morritos” tattooed on their bodies. Fathers are absent from Latino families, but it is not for lack of love or concern.
In our work with the POPS organization and the San Diego Fatherhood Network, we have seen Latino men struggle with all their might just to be allowed to see their children. Some have taken on the ultimate commitment and become single fathers, stepping up when things go wrong for mothers, and keeping their children out of foster care. Case examples include men who have been attacked and battered by the mothers of their children, yet have full custody of the children given to those same violent women by the courts. Men, especially Latinos and other men of color, are generally considered too unstable and untrustworthy to be responsible for children unless they are part of a married couple. In many cases, children are removed from mothers who are drug addicts or have abused the children, yet their fathers are not even contacted, since they are not considered a viable placement option.
Not only do children suffer serious consequences from missing their fathers, men pay a heavy price for being excluded from the joy of fatherhood. It is well-documented that children of all ethnic groups do better in school, have fewer behavioral and discipline problems, are less likely to use drugs, bully, act out sexually or run away, if their fathers are in the home or maintain a relationship with them. Similarly, men who have no contact with their children are the most likely to engage in crime, active addiction, gang activity and violence. It should be obvious but it bears saying: Children need their fathers and fathers need their children. For the past two or three generations, children have increasingly been treated as property, usually of the mother, but sometimes of the county or the state. It is our contention as men who work with fathers that children are not property at all, but persons, with rights. Among these is the right to be known and loved by their fathers. Without it children can grow up feeling abandoned and unworthy. Little boys need to be taught how to act like decent men (and fathers) and little girls need to know how to be treated with love and respect by a man. No one can do this like Papa’.
Adam Gettinger-Brizuela is the Director of Paternal Opportunities, Programs & Services, (POPS) and Co-Chair of the San Diego Fatherhood Network.