- The Washington Times - Monday, March 12, 2007

RICHMOND — It starts out like most fotonovelas, which are Hispanic comic books with themes often centered on love and betrayal: Teenage “Yaneth” is at a picnic when she spots handsome, raven-haired “David.” She nabs his number and afterward, playfully sends him a text message.

A few pages later, Yaneth isn’t smiling. She’s in a car alone with David, who’s actually a man in his late 20s. He’s demanding sex, and the 14-year-old is scared.

The Virginia Department of Health hopes readers will want to find out what happens next to Yaneth, and to many real-life Hispanic teens like her.

The health department spent two years developing the comic book to combat statutory rape among Hispanic girls — put at higher risk, some say, by limited understanding of American laws and Hispanic cultural mores that condone May-December relationships.

“Gracias Papa: A fotonovela about a young woman, an older guy and a loving father” will be distributed across Virginia starting in April. The health department already has received calls from interested health care workers in Illinois, Arizona, Indiana, Pennsylvania, Florida and Tennessee.

The effort stems from Virginia’s “Isn’t she a little young?” statutory-rape campaign, a 2004 project employing everything from billboards to napkins bearing the provocative question.

Robert Franklin, a health department male-outreach coordinator, immediately got requests to translate the materials into Spanish.

“Getting males to challenge their peers about having sex with teens is hard in any culture,” said Mr. Franklin, who felt a one-size-fits-all approach wouldn’t work. “I can’t just translate ‘Isn’t she a little young?’ into Spanish.”

Mr. Franklin instead began targeting Hispanic men through Spanish-language radio ads. When he realized he was only addressing part of the problem, Mr. Franklin searched for ways to reach Hispanic teens.

He turned to fotonovelas.

Popularized in Latin America, fotonovelas use photographs of live actors instead of drawings and illustrate soap opera-like stories. The books have caught on among health care agencies as a hip alternative to stiff brochures about diabetes risks and other medical issues.

Mr. Franklin is tackling a tougher topic. A white male who speaks no Spanish, he’s boldly challenging the older man/younger woman relationships many Hispanic immigrants consider normal.

Asks Yaneth’s mother in one panel, speaking to her older husband: “How is this different than when we got married?”

Hispanics led the nation in teen births in 2004, with 82.6 per 1,000 girls ages 15-19, according to September data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The national birthrate per thousand girls that age was 41.1.

CDC data shows Mexican and Puerto Rican girls at an especially high risk.

Both groups have settled in Virginia. The state had double-digit drops in births among black and white girls ages 15-19 from 1990 to 2003, while births rose 50 percent among Hispanic girls in that age group, according to the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy.

Health officials say it’s difficult to figure out who’s fathering their children.

In 2005, state police made 127 arrests for statutory rape, defined in state law as carnal knowledge of a minor younger than 18.

But experts warn that statutory rape is often unreported. Many Hispanic teens, meanwhile, are reluctant to identify their children’s fathers, often an indicator of an inappropriate sexual relationship, Mr. Franklin said.

“The younger the female, the less likely people were to give the father’s age,” said Mr. Franklin, who studied hospital delivery forms to estimate over half of Hispanic teen mothers in Virginia were sexually active with adult men.

Most Hispanics don’t condone “viejos verdes,” Spanish slang for older men who prey on girls.

But in the rural Latin American towns where many immigrants originate, it’s not uncommon for a man to date a girl, especially if he’s a family friend, said Carmina Oaks, executive director of the Latino Resource Center in Jackson, Wyo. Police there have seen more than a dozen statutory rape cases in recent years, most involving Hispanic victims.

Miss Oaks organized a community workshop on the topic and is interested in Virginia’s fotonovela.

“In a lot of places, it doesn’t matter the age,” said Miss Oaks, who Is Mexican. “If it’s your best friend’s son, he could be maybe 10 years difference, the family are OK with that.”

In the fotonovela, David works for Yaneth’s father.

Often immigrants come from countries with few or no statutory-rape laws and “don’t know that a four-year difference or a six-year difference would [have] a legal implication for them,” Miss Oaks said.

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