Teens and young adults gathered in the basement of St. Crispin's Friary to commit their lives to chastity before marriage.

A growing number of South Bronx teens heed abstinence message

About a hundred young Latino men and women sang hymns, feasted on empanadas and promised to abstain from sex on a Sunday afternoon in October at St. Crispin’s Friary on East 156th street in Melrose.

The pledge is part of the Corazón Puro (Pure Heart) program, a year-old initiative of the Catholic Church.  The pledge aims to encourage abstinence and reduce teen pregnancy, a problem in the South Bronx, which has the highest teen pregnancy rate in New York, and one that has hit the city’s Latino communities particularly hard.

The Latino population’s teen pregnancy rate is nearly double the national average, a May 2009 report from the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy found.  Only 48 percent of Latinos in high school abstain from sex, compared to 56 percent of their Caucasian counterparts, according to data from Child Trends, a nonpartisan research center.

The Rev. Agostino Torres, 33, a priest at St. Crispin’s who co-founded and leads the Corazón Puro there, said Latino teens in New York lack education about their choices.  His program provides information and a supportive environment for them to learn about abstinence, he said.

“The more they know, the easier it will be,” Torres said of the teens who attend Corazón Puro’s events.  “I was so surprised, when I first started giving talks, how many people came up to me and said, ‘I’ve never heard this before.’”

That’s how it was for Romina Castro, 19, of Yonkers. Castro said she did not realize abstinence would be at the heart of the lessons until she arrived at her first seminar. During a seminar that lasted for hours, Torres gave a lesson on the “theology of the body,” pulling in Bible teachings and stories from his own life. Castro stayed because she said the topics appealed to her.

Castro’s life did not always incorporate these religious beliefs. “I didn’t like Church for nothing,” Castro said. “I used to go to parties, smoke, drink, all that kind of stuff.”

After a confrontation with the law–her second–when she was 18, she decided to change her life, said Castro.  She started attending a church youth group, where she learned about Corazon Puro.

The seminars include lectures with titles like “Dating and Waiting: How to Protect Your Heart.” But the friary doesn’t just lecture the young people while they sit and listen. The sessions are punctuated by song.

“I love the music,” said Ericka Nelson, 23, of New Rochelle.  “It just brings you in step with the Lord.”

Corazón Puro is one of many church-based abstinence groups, part of a national movement that grew mostly significantly during the 1990s, said Jennifer Manlove, Director of Health Research at Child Trends. In 1991, 46 percent of the nation’s school-aged teens were abstaining from sex, according to the Child Trends data bank and surveys from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. By 2004, the percentage had grown to 54 percent before leveling off, Manlove said.

But Corazón Puro continues to grow, said Torres, at least in his bailiwick.  Seminar numbers ranged from 15 to 70 during the group’s first year.  This year, the first seminar attracted over 100 people, he said.

“Nationally, the abstinence movement is losing power, but on a local level it is still going strong,” said Jessica Valenti, author of The Purity Myth and founder and editor of the Web site Feministing.

Although Valenti says abstinence makes sense, particularly in a culture that encourages young people to begin having sex early-on, she criticizes the way the abstinence message focuses on women, saying it reinforces old stereotypes of a double standard.

The vast majority of Corazón Puro’s participants during its first year were, in fact, young women. At one retreat Castro recalled, there were 28 females and four males.  But the seminars have been redesigned to reach both sexes, said co-founder Odet Bisono, 48, of Queens.

Corazón Puro’s female members themselves are responsible for the shift, they say; they believe both men and women should abstain from sex before marriage.  Castro, for example, brought four young men with her in October.

And these young men were there for the same reasons as their female counterparts.  Alexis Torres, 18, said he did not like the direction his life was going, so he started going to church. The Yonkers resident will be starting classes at St. John’s University in January.

“I was about to quit high school completely, and I just started praying and putting my life together,” he said.   “It just started to happen.  Abstinence, this is stuff I’m praying about.  To see it happen, to see it become true, it was just amazing.”

A version of this story appeared in the Winter 2009 issue of the Mott Haven Herald.

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