Jeanette Alejandro and Victor Orellanes shortly before the birth of their daughter, Chastity, about a year ago. Jeanette was 15 at the time. Victor was 14.
September 30, 1979
Text by Francis X. Clines
Photographs by Mary Ellen Mark
Just as everywhere else, there are loving hordes in the Fort Greene slum of Brooklyn who strike back at life with their own fecundity. Individuals find each other and reproduce and mark their existence with a new human.
New to the hard life on Adelphi Street in Fort Greene is a baby named Chastity. She is a year old, born out of wedlock to Jeanette Alejandro and Victor Orellanes, two youngsters of sweet dark beauty. They became couple after they first met three summers ago, when Jeanette was 13 and Victor was 12. They combined in a twist of innocence and passion that the young mother says she will always hold dear. The pregnancy began after a year of such cleaving on the far side of childhood, and never was Victor so tender again, Jeanette says, as when they awaited Chastity together.
Now that the love is easing and Jeanette is 16, she has been forced to move with Chastity from Victor's parents' home, where there was discord, and go back to her own mother five flights up from Adelphi Street. This girl does not talk in terms of being unmarried and does not regret how passing love can be, but Jeanette says it would have been good to finish the eighth grade and try high school.
Jeanette gazes at Myrtle Avenue from her Brooklyn apartment.
If only from her physical experience, Jeanette feels entitled to speak with wisdom. She tells her younger sister, Rosa, who is 15 and big-bellied herself now with child, not to drink all that sugary Pepsi while she watches television. Rosa smiles somewhere between maternity and her own childhood, distracted by Lonnie, a tall, handsomely burnished young teen-ager who impregnated Rosa and who nuzzles her tenderly as the soap opera drones on during his visit.
The erotic sight of Lonnie and Rosa, touching and smiling, staring slowly at each other is remarkably similar to the tender weeks of a year or so ago when Jeanette and Victor lolled together, curled on the ripest edge of fruitfulness. "Oh, was I pregnant," Jeanette says. "I was disgusting big. My stomach couldn't stretch no more."
All the children are by the television set - Chastity, Jeanette, Rosa, Lonnie and the unborn. The glass screen with the moving picture seems far away from them. The soap-opera characters and their problems seem too imbued with causation to be plausible in the apartment on Adelphi Street. The girls' mother, Ada is down on the stoop, watching the street scene as if it were television. She has no complaints. She enjoys baby Chastity. She says Rosa's addition will be no burden, and hopes it will be a boy. "Baseball player," says the smiling 36-year-old grandmother, who looks strong and slim and cynical as a jockey.
These days both Jeanette and Rosa are telling their younger sister, Annette, who looks old for her 11 years, to beware of the fact that there is more to boys than their looks and the dreamy moments of meeting.
"I tell her," Jeanette says in the firm new voice she has developed for baby Chastity. "The other night I heard some guy on the phone with her. I warn her. I warn her good."
Whatever the missed advice about the blinding speed of reproduction, the three Alejandro sisters seem close. Jeanette's secret pregnancy was first spotted by her little sisters. Jeanette found a note on her dresser: "We know what's up with you, From Your Friendly Neighborhood Spies." The note is sheer girlhood, a bit of tattle about a valentine, with no intimations about the raging biology of this : life.
Jeanette (right) mugging in her room with kid sisters Annette (left) and Rosa.
Jeanette adopted a dog during her eighth month, then gave it away after birth.
The sidelined mother-to-be watches Victor dancing with her sister Annette.
Jeanette is beautiful. Her dark eyes are very honest in answering questions about what it's like to be an eighth-grader who misses three menstrual periods. "My friend explained how it goes and how I could go to the clinic at Cumberland Hospital. I wasn't scared," she says. "I wasn't worried at all. I just thought: 'I hope the baby will be O.K. and I won't be too fat.
Chastity is O.K., she says, although slow in walking because of a turn in her foot. Jeanette exercises the foot the way the doctor at the clinic showed her.
As complacent as Jeanette is with her situation, she agrees that something remarkable is happening in her social circle. All the girls she knows from J.H.S. 294 and the Fort Greene park on South Elliot Street have become pregnant lately, symptoms of what professionals are calling the No. 1 population-control problem of the nation (see box on page 48).
"All my friends," she says, and slowly recalls each of those now with child. "There's Miriam, and Wanda, Rosa -this is another Rosa - and Elizabeth -she's only 13- and Lori, the one on Clermont. I knew kids who were pregnant in the sixth and seventh grade, too.
"I guess everybody wants a baby," Jeanette says as Chastity whimpers for something in her mother's hand. "I don't know why.'
Jeanette looks at Chastity, so freshly demanding. "Probably to fill in their life. They feel so bored. They got nothing to do with this life."
She instantly denies this was the case for her. "My life isn't empty," Jeanette says. "This was an accident, that's all." She stares at the curly-haired accident, baby Chastity, who plucks endlessly at the mother. The baby is voracious in investigating the life of the apartment to fill in her own existence.
For a strange moment in the apartment, as Jeanette smiles so satisfied and Chastity gurgles and reaches and Lonnie senses his satisfaction in Rosa's belly, reproduction seems spontaneous, as easily hatched in the romance of light rays from the television set as in fleshly intercourse.
During early labor at Cumberland Hospital, Victor is a tense but sympathetic presence at Jeanette’s bedside, lending her what comfort he can. Later she and the baby moved in with Victor's family.
Soon, Jeanette says, Victor is moving away to another neighborhood, a better area, because of his father's job. "I don't mind. We had our love. There are others." Her eyes are clear and steady. Childhood is ending.
The baby became a constant element in Jeanette’s life. Above, when Chastity was only a few weeks old, she carries her daughter home after an evening at a party in the neighborhood.
The merest mention of the notion of planning gets the first negative tone from Jeanette on her current life. "Victor and I planned - I moved in with his family -and look what it got me," she declares with a bitter nod. "Victor got out of hand,
started acting tough and not respecting his father."
Jeanette does not talk of men in general terms, and she dismisses with a disbelieving smile the idea that in different ways there can be a male edge in life, and she has felt its sharpness. But each male she mentions- Victor, his father, her own absent father - sounds mercurial in her descriptions, willful, unpredictable, unavoidable. She remembers very well how kind Victor's father could be, taking them all into Manhattan on the subway for a grand time at the Puerto Rican Day parade. That was last year when Victor's affection seemed to grow with the pregnancy, when he had a busboy job after school and put aside money for her, when his father was high-spirited. "His father hit the numbers five days in a row, won something like a thousand dollars," she says. "It was good."
Trying to accustom himself to his new paternal role Victor takes on the feeding of his daughter.
At a neighborhood sweet-sixteen party which Victor attended with Jeanette he cavorts on the dance floor with another celebrant.
But then after she and the baby moved into the father's house, she saw the older man in his own self-controlled world, "locked up in his own room, just like always, fair when he wanted to be." She remembers how Victor began challenging the older man in little ways, finally pricking the father one day into stating his sovereignty in terms of Jeanette. "Victor's father shouted, 'She is not my business. I want her out of my house! "
It can only be a suspicion, but that moment is recalled so crisply, with her dark eyes set afar, as if looking directly back to it, that the forced retreat from her new family to the old life of Adelphi Street may be for Jeanette a bigger event than any other, bigger than the yielding to Victor, bigger than the creation of Chastity. And she talks of it tightly, as the inevitable result of "planning."
"When you have all planned something," she explains, "then it can blow up in your face and spoil the whole thing. I don't want to plan. If something good happens, it happens."
By Jeanette's account, the next great step toward independence in her life will come in two years when she is 18 and the welfare bureaucracy breaks her and Chastity out of her mother's welfare check and opens a new account, for a new generation. "I want to get out on my own," she says. "I want to see what it's like to live alone. The separate check will help. They give you enough, and if I don't like it, I can move back in here. "
Pregnant now herself, Rosa sits with her boyfriend, Lonnie, at her baby shower.
Jeanette and year-old Chastity provide company for each other nowadays.
Somewhere out beyond the apartment on Adelphi Street there undoubtedly is a disapproving, unimpoverished chorus waiting to condemn Jeanette for the implications of her comments on public treasury and private morality. But if you linger awhile, there is morality aplenty to be heard in the girl's observations about the present and the future. For one thing, she emphasizes that her mother takes her welfare "the right way," with no man in the apartment unofficially, to siphon or fatten the welfare check. There is honor in this, the daughter says, and practical wisdom in going manless. "This way, she can't get into trouble."
And there is morality to be had from the church, according to the latest resolutions of this young mother. "I'm going to get Chastity to go to mass on Sundays and talk to the father for religious instruction," Jeanette promises. "Soon as she is bigger. I only went on special occasions: Mother's Day, Easter. I want Chastity to do the communion. I never did."
Jeanette says she is religious enough to believe in the sanctity of life, to never have considered abortion when Victor impregnated her. She remembers a Father Murphy at Sacred Heart church down Adelphi Street where she used to go to fetch holy water for her mother. He always asked whether he would be seeing her at mass. That could be the difference for Chastity, Jeanette says now.
Why do such matters always rest with a man? Jeanette doesn't seem to understand the question. Again: Why is it you who yields to Victor, the boy-become-man? Why is it you who moves at the demand of Victor's father?
"You do what you got to do for a man," Jeanette says, echoing something - what? Fossilized intuition? A Rodgers and Hammerstein lyric? "You just do what you got to do. You got to please the man."
Across the way, Lonnie is well pleased as he nestles Jeanette's pregnant younger sister. The television soap opera involves a frowning woman's hope to attract a male doctor. Things are getting to seem too clear and simple in the apartment on Adelphi Street.
Jeanette's best friend is a woman, not a man. She is Evelyn Charo, a young mother on welfare who lives over on Kent Avenue, near Myrtle Avenue. "Evelyn's great," Jeanette says. "She's got five kids. She's 29, but she's like one of us teen-agers, friendly and joking. I can tell her all my problems."
The girl met the young woman in her fateful summer, when Victor was playing handball in the park and first seemed attractive. As her friendship with Evelyn was growing over on Kent Avenue, her love for Victor was beginning over at the park. Evelyn has a boyfriend here and there and still seems in control, according to Jeanette's description. Evelyn gives her a sense of having a strong friend in life. "She's the one I trust, the one I go to."
Jeanette scoffs at the question of whether she is so influenced by her friend that she herself could wind up at 29 with five children on welfare.
"You kidding?" she answers. "Five kids? No way. I don't want that to happen to me."
What guarantee does she have if she doesn't plan? "You take your protection and hope nothing happens," the girlish mother replies. "I'll know what to do. I won't get involved seriously. I'll see a lot of guys. I'll decide when it's right to settle down."
For all of Jeanette's talk, the sense of childhood continues strong in the apartment. It seems stolen from Jeanette before her time and crushed to an essence that suffuses the rooms of her girlhood, the rooms where her own child reaches for her now.
"I haven't missed anything," Jeanette insists. "I can get a baby-sitter and go to the movies or go roller skating or visit my friend Evelyn."
A big night out now for Jeanette is to take an F train to the Park Circle rollerdrome on Ocean Parkway and disco-roller skate for hour after hour. "I didn't even know how to roller skate when I was pregnant," she says, as if explaining how the stages of life can only come one by one.
'When Chastity gets bigger, I'm going to take her with me disco-skating," Jeanette says, her eyes so big and serious that they hint at how great the girl's devotion could have been for a boy.
"Yeah," she says to a sudden question, "1 know it's past. Victor's hanging out with some bad guys now."
But she has memories that cannot be denied. "It was a good feeling," she says. "Victor was there when I needed him. He worked and gave me what I wanted."
Before Victor there was another male who had moved on from Jeanette's life. "He is always such a serious man," the girl says severely of her father. He moved out years ago, but before he left, Jeanette formed the image she has of a man sitting in a chair staring, "a serious man."
"He lives with his other wife now and his son, my stepbrother," Jeanette says.
A year and a half ago, on Father's Day, when Jeanette says she was stretched to bursting with the baby, she decided it was time to let her father know he was going to have a grandchild. This was the happy time when Victor paid such close attention and they were optimistic about establishing themselves with Victor's family.
Her father lived over on Hoyt Street. She walked over in her maternity outfit and presented herself.
"He didn't say nothing," Jeanette says, frowning. "He's a serious man. He just stared at his TV."
That was it, she recalls quite exactly, nothing more from the man. 'You ask him a question, he shakes his head. That's it. A serious man."
Chastity was born the following month, weighing in at 7 pounds 11 ounces. “Chastity only wants me -that makes me feel good," Jeanette says.
The girl talks of going back to school, of trying to get a job someday. She talks of trying to get her mother to put aside money from the welfare check to buy a stroller. Then she will take Chastity on the trips she has been imagining, to the Aquarium in Coney Island, to some museum in Manhattan, down Adelphi Street to the church.
Jeanette is so innocent that mother and daughter seem excellent company for those outings. She thinks there will be plenty of good life for her and for Chastity in the years to come.
"I only knew Victor three years," she says, as the baby tugs at her. "And look what happened in three years."
All the children - Chastity and Jeanette, Rosa, Lonnie and the unborn - stay by the television set. Downstairs, Chastity's grandmother stares out from the stoop, and over in the Fort Greene park a fresh crop of youngsters is staking out whatever fun is to be found, seeking out one another in the Fort Greene horde.
A National Epidemic of Pregnancies
Many of Rosa’s and Jeanette's friends are pregnant today. Jeanette: "I guess everybody wants a baby."
Every year, more than a million girls from 15 to 19 years of age - plus another 30,000 from 10 to 14- become pregnant in this country and three-fifths carry through to birth. The result is 600,000 new babies, about half of them ultimately born in wedlock, according to one recent study. One of every three of the pregnant teen-agers has an abortion - a category of abortion that has been steadily rising - and the remaining pregnancies end in miscarriages. It is no longer valid to assume that the poor and members of minorities make up the bulk of these statistics; whites and the middle class generally are strongly represented.
After years of studies and warnings, the Federal Government finally launched an Office of Adolescent Pregnancy Programs a year ago, starting it with a fund of $1 million In grants. Immediately, 4,000 community and government agencies across the country requested applications. "We were overwhelmed," says a spokeswoman for the office, which requested a $60 million grant budget for the coming fiscal year, but will get $17.5 million , at best, under a pending congressional compromise.
The Planned Parenthood Federation of America describes teen-age pregnancy as the nation's leading population-control problem. Various studies have been focusing on the urgent need for educational remedies rooted in a simple distinction -teaching youngsters the difference between love and sexual appetite. But the distinction proves difficult for many communities to acknowledge in a formal, well-run school curriculum and to present early enough to be effective.
"If we are going to talk about preventive measures, then we have to talk about preadolescence," says one leading professional, Dr. Mary S. Calderone, president of the Sex Information and Education Council of the United States. To attempt to reach the adolescent with information on sexuality and birth control, Dr. Calderone says, "is too little too late." -F.X.C.
Francis X. Climes writes the "About New York" column for this newspaper.