As a Peace Corps Volunteer in Central America, I lived for two and a half years in the port town of La Ceiba, nestled between the towering Cordillera Nombre de Dios mountain range and the Caribbean Sea, on the north coast of Honduras. I made many good friends. One of my dearest and most memorable was Lidia, a waitress at a hole-in-the-wall café to which I rode my bicycle every morning for a papaya liquado (smoothie).
As I came to know Lidia, I learned that she was a single mom. This was very common in Honduras. Often I’d see a young, pregnant woman, little more than a girl herself, and ask about her absent boyfriend or husband. A pregnant gal wasn’t considered as pretty, and that ever-harder-to-hide, ever-growing belly represented a commitment all too many young cads would rather pass on, preferring instead to seek out new conquistas and aventuras.
“Se fue,” the expectant mothers would tell me, even before I learned enough Spanish to know what that meant: “He left.”
Not in Lidia’s case though. Her husband didn’t leave her; she left him. I never met the guy, but from what she said he was a drunkard and a good-for-nothing, so she threw him out. Now she was supporting their young son solely on her modest wages and tips as a waitress at a humble establishment in the second-poorest country in the hemisphere. It wasn’t easy.
One day we were strolling along the sandy beach, right beside the shimmering Caribbean. I asked Lidia how many siblings she had. When she replied, “Do you mean living, or in total?” I had time to brace myself. “Well, both,” I answered.
The 29-year-old Lidia told me she had 17 siblings in total, 15 of whom were still alive, including a one-year-old brother. Obviously, her mother didn’t believe in birth control, trusting instead that God would decide and God would provide.
Not Lidia. She had stopped at one. And she had dumped a man who was a user and an abuser, rather than staying stuck in a dead-end marriage as earlier generations of women had out of a sense of duty, propriety, economic dependency or harsh social mores.
“Lidias” abound throughout Latin America. The continent-wide total fertility rate (TFR) has dropped by more than 50% over the past several decades. Replacement-level TFR is 2.1 (or a bit higher in developing countries). According to the Population Reference Bureau’s 2013 data sheet, Mexico’s TFR is now 2.2, the Caribbean’s 2.4, Central America’s 2.4 and South America’s 2.1.
This fertility decline and concurrent empowerment of women represent phenomenal and positive social change. They benefit families, prospects for economic development and the environment. They also benefit the United States, by reducing migratory pressures on our own borders.
The good work of NGOs such as the International Planned Parenthood Federation and the Population Media Center, as well as certain renegade priests and nuns (who defied the Vatican’s anti-family planning dictates) and evangelical Christian missionaries supportive of family planning and reproductive health, needs to be recognized and applauded.
I lost touch with Lidia years ago, but I will never forget her spirit and her courage at facing up to the tough hand that life had dealt her. She struggled to make the best of things, for herself, her son and her society. To Lidia, to other “Lidias” throughout the continent and to those men who supported them or got out of the way, I salute you.