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Early Childbearing among Mexican-American Young Women: Place Matters


Compared to all other racial and ethnic groups in the United States, Mexican-American adolescents have by far the highest rates of early childbearing. Within the public health literature, these disproportionately high rates have generally been explored as a function of acculturation, which is described as a process involving the cultural, social, and psychological changes that take place post-migration. In order to elucidate acculturation's effect, specifically on the reproductive health and behavior of Mexican-Americans, this construct has received great attention from public health researchers examining disparities in early childbearing among the this population. Yet within sociology, where the Mexican-American immigrant population is also studied extensively, the focus is on the role of post-migration contextual factors (e.g., limited educational opportunities) and how these factors - as opposed to individual-level characteristics like acculturation - are related to the high rates of early childbearing.

Reflecting the sociological emphasis on the importance of structure, this dissertation considers the contexts into which the Mexican-American children of immigrants settle. While acculturation may play a role in creating risk, this process does not occur within a vacuum. These young women are exposed to specific contextual factors that may create a risk environment for early childbearing and related sexual risk behaviors. Thus, the goals of this dissertation are: to suggest that a consideration of context be further incorporated into public health investigations of the disproportionately high rates of early childbearing among Mexican-Americans; to illustrate how Mexican-American young women experience context as a risk for early childbearing, specifically at the neighborhood-level; and to determine how Mexican-American young women themselves conceptualize contextual risk as a driver of the disparate rates of early childbearing among their population.

In order to achieve these goals, I conducted three studies that focus on 2nd generation Mexican-American young women. This research includes: (1) a systematic literature review synthesizing the empirical evidence on the relationship between acculturation and early childbearing among this population; (2) a mixed methods study using focus groups and participatory photography to determine what neighborhood context is and how it is experienced by this population, with the aim of learning what neighborhood-level factors might influence risk for early childbearing; and (3) a small pilot study using focus groups to determine how this population conceptualizes their risk for early childbearing across neighborhoods in Alameda County, California. In the first study, I found that the research on acculturation and early childbearing among Mexican-Americans is inconclusive due to issues related to sampling, measurement, insufficient use of theory, and an absence of a consideration of context. Findings from the second study demonstrate that as part of their neighborhood context, Mexican-American young women experience racism and discrimination, gangs and violence, and limited opportunities for upward mobility, all of which are associated with the health of adolescents. Finally, in the third study, the young women identified individual, family, and community level factors - all supported by the literature on risks for early childbearing - that they believed to vary across neighborhoods, possibly influencing the disparate rates across the county.

The data collected from these studies highlights the importance of neighborhood characteristics as they influence risk of early childbearing among this population, demonstrating that contextual factors should be considered when investigating the high rates of early childbearing among Mexican-Americans. Moving forward, researchers investigating early childbearing among this population may benefit from an incorporation of neighborhood-level characteristics as potential risk factors for early childbearing among Mexican-American young women.

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