While her 4-month-old son Yobel sleeps in the middle of the day, 18-year-old Yudeiqui Brito Guzman, who goes by Ariza, sits and feeds her daughter Aleini outside.
Ariza, who lives in the mountainous region of San Cristobal, Dominican Republic, known as Jamey, spoons rice into the 3-year-old’s mouth during the bright December day.
It is Christmas Eve, and the energetic child hops off the red, plastic chair and scampers to the family’s latrine—a luxury in the mountain—just 10 feet from their pastel pink and green home.
As one of the few pregnant teenagers in the area to finish high school, Ariza places the bowl on the ground and lifts her elementary English book, something she has been reading to better grasp the language. She begins to utter rudimentary expressions, until whimpering is heard from her half-wooden, half-cement residence.
She takes a deep breath, sighs, and tends to the infant.
“I’m here alone and I have no one to help take care of my children,” said Ariza, who begins her day at 7 a.m. to prepare breakfast for Aleini and Yobel.
Her partner Yosandi, 19, visits Saturday through Monday when he is not counting oranges at the market for work. Because he only makes about 5,000 pesos—roughly equivalent to $113—each month, Ariza’s parents sometimes send them money.
“It is not enough—what he gets at work—but we make everything possible to cover the kids’ needs,” she said.
Her parents, who now live in Uruguay, were livid when she became pregnant. Her father took it the worst.
“He told me I had to leave home to live with my husband,” she said, bouncing Yobel in her lap. “My mother… felt so sad due to the fact I was just 15 years old, and my grandparents were very mad at me.”
While Ariza’s elders were distressed, they never gave her a proper sexual education, a common theme among adolescent mothers in the Dominican Republic.
As 18-year-old Maria Luisa Rodriguez, who goes by Yajaira, the mother of 2-year-old Omar, put it: “My mother's advice was, 'Don't be with too many boys.’”
Yajaira, who is five months pregnant, now spends her days taking care of Omar with her roommate, 18-year-old Yanilda, the mother of nearly 2-year-old Yason. Yanilda is also pregnant with her second child.
Ariza said she wants to reverse this taboo and will someday enlighten her own children. She has thought about it a great deal, but does not know how or when to inform her daughter about sex.
“I don’t know what to tell her or which age is appropriate to [prevent] my daughter from becoming a pregnant teenager,” she said. “I would like to tell her to use condoms and contraceptives whenever she starts having sex, but I don’t know [if] it will be good or bad to tell her all [that.]”
And if Aleini does become a pregnant teenager, Ariza hopes she will follow in her footsteps and complete school.
“I felt bad, because I wanted to finish school before getting pregnant,” she said, explaining the struggles of expecting while in classes. “The most difficult part of being a teenage mother is other people gossiping and their opinions. Also going to school feeling all the pregnancy symptoms, nausea, vomiting.”
Until Aleini grows old enough to have that conversation, Ariza will continue to occupy her day by cleaning the home and bathing her children.
While she is more educated and financially stable than other teenage mothers, most of whom never graduate from high school and live with their parents, Ariza said: “I’m not proud of being a young mother.”