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Oregon Latinos Face Bigger Problems with Alcohol

Compared to other Oregonians, a lot of Latinos in Oregon don't drink alcohol. Yet those who do drink face bigger problems. Some of the reasons are cultural.  This is the latest in KLCC's series on health disparities amongst Oregon Latinos.

(Mariachi music)

In a ballroom in Salem recently, more than 400 Latino alcoholics and their families from around Oregon celebrated sobriety.  While fewer Latinos drink compared to others, those that do are 40-percent more likely to become alcohol-dependent, according to a study by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse. To find out why, counselor Aglahia Blanco says you have to go back to attitudes toward alcohol in Latin American countries:

"Alcohol is more available for kids. They don't have like in this country that you have to show an i-d in order to buy a drink,  you don't have to do that in our countries. It's more acceptable also.  It's funny on occasion when you see a kid drunk."

Blanco says almost all of her clients began drinking between the ages of 8 and 11.  Some, like Jose who came to Oregon from Mexico City, were sent by relatives to buy alcohol at an even earlier age:

"Algunas veces iba a tienda comprar cerveza a la edad de seis, siete años...."

Jose, an Alcoholics Anonymous member who prefers that his last name not be used, was first sent to fetch beer at the age of six.  His problem began in Mexico. The American Medical Association defines alcoholism as a disease with physical and mental components. Alcoholics have trouble controlling their drinking. On New Year's Eve morning in 2002, Jose went to a Portland restaurant for breakfast and drank beer:

"Choque mi carro y, gracias a Dios, no pasa mayor, verdad?..."

He crashed his car into a post. No one was hurt, but it took that crash and a judge requiring him to go to A-A to turn things around for Jose.

Hispanic women are less likely to drink and less likely to have alcohol problems than other women. Latino men have more problems and are more resistant to seeking help. Rudolfo, who moved from Veracruz to Fairview, would not admit he had a problem for years:

"I didn't want people to find out I was an alcoholic. You know, I was scared. For the Latino they have that macho man. They don't ask for help because they don't wanna feel like I'm a man I'm supposed to do whatever I have to do. If I go to my friend, if I go to my brother, what are they going to think about me? Are they going to think that I'm a girl?"

Not so long ago, for Juan Gonzalez, life was good.  Married, with children, he and his father ran a successful farm and construction equipment company in the Mexican state of Sinaloa:

"I had two houses, one on the beach and one a big, nice house, a boat, cars and trucks and other properties that I bought."

Then members of a Sinaloa drug cartel befriended and started buying equipment from him.  The cartel had used drug money made in the U.S. to buy farmland in Mexico. They continued getting equipment from Gonzalez, but stopped paying for it--a form of extortion that in itself  is one cause for emigration from Mexico:

"I couldn't get the money back. So my company was broke. My father got sick. He got a heart attack."

He lost almost everything, sold what he could, and left for Oregon, where he had a sister. Broke, without work, and missing his wife and kids, he drank heavily:

"This is the worst part of my life. I tried to kill myself three times. I did that one time in my sister's house--I tried to do that.  And she found me in the backyard."

Gonzalez got counseling, stopped drinking, eventually started a successful contracting company and made enough to bring his family here. Sometimes it doesn't turn out that well. It's common for Latino men to come here alone, leaving their family in Mexico at least temporarily.  That's a main reason that Latinos in Oregon have alcohol problems-the difficulty adjusting to a new culture, loneliness, depression. Counselor Aglahia Blanco says sometimes their leaving is a trigger for their kids to start drinking:

"I have seen a problem in generations. The father comes here, okay I'm going to the United States to provide a better life to you. But then they leave behind the son, the daughter. There is a feeling of abandon."

Then the son emigrates, already addicted to alcohol.

Copyright 2014 KLCC

Jacob Lewin
Jacob Lewin is a veteran radio journalist whose work has been featured on Morning Edition, Marketplace, the Northwest News Network, and Oregon Public Broadcasting as well as KLCC-FM/Eugene .