Ariel Rodriguez is an Assistant Professor in the School of Community Resources and Development at ASU. His research focuses on safety, health and wellbeing of youth.

Only 9 percent of Latino children in the United States live in households with none of 22 "risk factors" compared with 37 percent of all children, according to the 2007 U.S. Census Bureau's American Community Survey. The risk factors include not being enrolled in high schools; living in household below the poverty line; foreign born children and parents; English language deficiencies; overcrowded households and more. In fact, Latino 8.6 percent of Latino children has eight or more risk factors, the highest of any group in the nation.

According to the Census report, 33.1 percent of all Latino children and 35.4 of African-American children in the U.S. live in poverty, compared with 20.7 percent for the country. Twenty-eight percent of Hispanic children live in a one parent household; 93 percent live with their mother only.

Ariel Rodriguez, the son of Cuban immigrants who was born and raised in Miami, Fla., fit many of these "risk factors" and statistics. He grew up in a low-income neighborhood where gangs were prevalent. He was raised by a single mother, a self-described "latchkey kid." He could have succumbed to any of many temptations and taken divergent paths.

But by 28, he had earned a doctorate degree and was an assistant professor at the University of Florida. He attributes some of his success to the positive male roles he encountered in after-school recreation programs, college athletics and other programs. He sees that kind of mentoring by male role models as an essential element in attacking the problems confronting young Latino males in America.

"Adults at home are very important, adults at school, adults in the community—very important in our development. Now, again who are adults at home? 1 in 4 of our Hispanic males is going to be raised by their single mothers. We are talking about role models. I love my mother and I know she did her best so I was one of these 1 in 4 but I didn't want to grow up to be like my mother. Not because of her job duties, I just didn't want to be a woman," Rodriguez said.

Rodriguez said he didn't see many Latino male teachers who could be role models. That's because fewer than 2 percent of all K-12 teachers in America are Latino males.

"In schools…who are our teachers? Are we seeing a boom in males in teachers? No, we are seeing an extreme decline in males that are teachers. Again, who are my role models?—Female teachers. Again, they did a great job. They were great teachers, helped me in educating me in so many ways but that is who my role models were."

"So where did I have role models who were actually men to help me understand when I grow up as a man, this is maybe something—this is maybe the way I would like to be? For me, obviously it came from recreation."

As one solution to the lack of positive male role models for young Latinos, Rodriguez said recreation "is a hook, it gets these kids there."

Recreational programs allow kids to interact with a mentor and peers in a positive setting and safe environment, Rodriguez said. They help deal with "unproductive time" in ways that allow youth to express themselves openly and creatively.

"In a lot of the communities—I know in the community I was raised, you didn't look for trouble, it found you. It was always there. So, what it does during this specific time is help develop competencies, skills, developments, other social competencies—how to interact with individuals in a positive way, constructive ways—rules and discipline." He said the safe havens provided by recreational programs give youth the opportunity to succeed."

"Very few of us or many of us were raised in communities where our expectations were to fail. That is what individuals thought we would do—we would fail. In this type of setting, we are finally in an environment where people actually expect us to succeed. This is one of the things that these recreation environments give us. They actually believe we can succeed."

The relationships developed by participants in recreational activities are important because ultimately, they don't want to let each other down, Rodriguez said. While these lessons in teamwork, discipline and mentoring can apply to all males, Rodriguez uses himself to describe how they can apply specifically to Latinos. "I know a lot of young men deal with the same thing that I dealt with—I was always angry. I was always so angry at everything, everyone—I didn't understand why. It helped me to really channel my emotions in a positive way. It reduced stress from the pressures that you have to succeed in whatever you had. It also helped me with self discipline—the self discipline that I learned through sports, through running, carried over to my school and then when I saw myself succeed there, then it carried over to my sports. I was able to learn self discipline—and a safe haven. I can't tell you how important it is. Yes, from going from my school to my house, that was a whole different story. But, in that time that I was in that school or wherever it was that I was recreating, I was in a safe place."

Discussion/questions from participants


PARTICIPANT COMMENT:

"I think it is not just recreation—we have to train the leaders and everything we do, we are teaching values. Don't say let's not just play soccer, we will teach you (values)."

RODRIGUEZ:

"I think what you raise is a very good point. I am happy that—a lot of our youth organizations continue to understand that the most valuable, in terms of assets…are the kids. So we need to continuously take efforts to do that. So we can't just grab somebody off the street and say okay you are going to be a coach."

ANA PEREZ, CENTRAL AMERICAN RESOURCE CENTER:

"One of the struggles we have in SFlatino males in Americaan Francisco is that there is no space… I think one of the biggest challenges is how do we bring the values that you are talking about, we have violence prevention programs, we know values that we are trying to teach our youth—how do we bring the values, have the open space and bring all of the cultural aspects to the program?"

RODRIGUEZ:

"There isn't that concerted sort of effort to really put that together and say if you participate in this program, not only are you going to get a recreation program but you are going to be infused with all these positive Latinos planting values that we have. If your child comes to a program, this is what they are going to get—you don't see that."