RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
In Brazil, there's been a demographic shift that has astonished social scientists. In 50 years, the fertility rate tumbled to fewer than two children per woman on average, lower than in the United States. Demographers say it's because the country is richer and more urban. But they also point to Brazil's hugely popular soap operas and their portrayal of small, glamorous families.
NPR's Juan Forero has the story from Rio de Janeiro.
JUAN FORERO, BYLINE: Veronica Marques has a husband, a nice apartment in a trendy district and a career she loves. Talking in a restaurant near her office in Rio, Marques explains that she's 31 and doesn't have children.
VERONICA MARQUES: I'm planning to have kids when I have a bigger career, when I raise more money and maybe when I have my life in another step.
FORERO: And when she does have kids, she says, it'll be two tops. Smart, educated, ambitious, Marques is typical of a growing number of Brazilian women who are focused more on their careers. If she does have two children, it'll be right in line with the average these days for a Brazilian woman. Barely two generations ago, it was six children per woman. Then the fertility rate in Latin America began to plunge - though it was most pronounced here in Brazil. The latest figures, in fact, show that the fertility rate stands at just under 1.9 children per woman, says Suzana Cavenaghi, a demographer in Brazil's census bureau.
SUZANA CAVENAGHI: There are a lot of reasons for that drop in Brazil and most of them has to do with the modernization, this new way of thinking. Women are modern and they take care of their own lives.
FORERO: Brazil's fast urbanization means millions of rural poor migrated to cities where big families are a financial drain. And in a country where abortion is illegal and the Catholic Church frowns on birth control, women have embraced family planning any way they could, says Cavenaghi.
CAVENAGHI: They have more to say about their reproductive lives than the men. Men interferes less in their lives than would in other countries.
FORERO: And there's another factor; one documented in studies by the Inter-American Development Bank and the University of Texas - the role of the telenovela or soap opera.
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FORERO: In "Fina Estampa," the most popular of Brazil's telenovelas these days, the characters are often rich and cosmopolitan and have few children, if any at all.
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UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Portuguese spoken)
FORERO: It's been a recurring theme in soaps for decades, says Maria Lopes of the Center for the Study of the Telenovela.
MARIA LOPES: (Portuguese spoken)
FORERO: She says there's no doubt that the appealing lives presented in the soaps play a role in the falling fertility rate. Other factors also are at play, including the expanding role in the workforce for Brazilian women, whose educational level has also soared. Still, it's not just the educated and affluent who've seen the fertility rate plunge. Demographers say they see it among the poor too, and in rural as well as urban areas.
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FORERO: At a new restaurant in a working class district on Rio's outskirts, the five women owners all came from big families.
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FORERO: Priscila da Silva chops tomatoes in preparation for the lunchtime crowd. She says times have changed.
PRISCILA DA SILVA: (Portuguese spoken)
FORERO: Before, I wanted four children, she says, and had even picked out names. But now I just want one, she says.
SILVA: (Portuguese spoken)
FORERO: It's too hard these days, Silva adds. You have to pay for schooling, for health care. There are all kinds of costs. And besides, she says, she's got a growing business to run. Juan Forero, NPR News.
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