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A startling trend in state’s drownings

 A beginner's swim class at the Lynn YMCA in June.
A beginner's swim class at the Lynn YMCA in June. Timothy Tai for The Boston Globe

A little girl who loved the color purple. An avid fisherman who cast his line into lakes and ponds, rain or shine. A janitor enjoying a warm summer day.

All lost their lives in accidental drownings in Massachusetts, heartbreaking tragedies that loom over every summer. But these victims are also part of a disturbing and largely invisible trend: They are all immigrants or their children.

Immigrants are far more likely to drown in Massachusetts than the general population, according to a Globe review of death records from 1999 to 2013, the most recent available. And their children are at even higher risk.


Since June, as temperatures have soared, at least five immigrants have drowned in Massachusetts, according to relatives and state officials.

“People born outside of the US are definitely overrepresented in the drowning deaths,” said Carlene Pavlos, director of the Department of Public Health’s Bureau of Community Health and Prevention. “The department is really committed to ending health inequities. Drowning is one place where we are seeing those.”

The Globe found that immigrants accounted for 124 of the 662 drowning victims in Massachusetts during that 15-year period. Most were adults. Put another way: Immigrants were 42 percent more likely to drown than the general population.

For children of immigrants, mostly US born, the gap was even wider; they represented 52 of the 136 young drowning victims, the Globe analysis found. In overall risk, children of immigrants were 64 percent more likely to drown than children from non-immigrant families.

Water-safety experts say the reasons for the higher rates among immigrants are probably similar to those for black and Hispanic residents, such as having a fear of the water or lack of access to swimming lessons. Black and Hispanic children are far less likely to know how to swim than white children in the United States, according to a 2010 study by the USA Swimming Foundation and the University of Memphis.


But few state or federal health officials have studied drowning deaths among immigrant families, who are from nations as diverse as Laos, Guatemala, and Liberia. In Massachusetts, children of immigrants are not separately discussed in the state’s annual child fatality report. And water safety tips had not been available in other languages. Last week, the state produced a tipsheet in Spanish.

A boy played on the rocks of the shore at Walden Pond in Saugus.
A boy played on the rocks of the shore at Walden Pond in Saugus. Keith Bedford/Globe Staff

For several immigrant families, it has been a tragic summer.

On June 19, Jose Angel Capellan Rodriguez, 13, drowned in a Saugus reservoir; officials said he and his family were from the Dominican Republic. On July 6, Kelly Berrouette, a 20-year-old born in Haiti, according to his obituary, drowned in the Stony Brook Basin in Waltham. On July 16, Wilver Perez, a 30-year-old Guatemalan man, drowned in Deerfield. Two days later, , Roberto Martinez, a 35-year-old father from El Salvador, drowned at Breakheart Reservation in Saugus.

Last week, Marilyn Joseph, a 48-year-old woman originally from Grenada, according to her nephew, drowned in a pond in Otis. State Police said witnesses pulled her 13-year-old son from the water; he survived. The deaths are all under investigation, but no foul play is suspected.

State officials point out that Massachusetts has one of the lower drowning rates in the United States, with 30 to 60 deaths a year. Nationwide, federal officials say, about 3,500 people drown every year, about 10 people a day.


But drowning remains one of the leading causes of accidental deaths among children in Massachusetts. Every year, dozens of people are taken to the hospital after near-drownings in the state, with some suffering permanent brain injuries.

And water-safety experts say immigrants face distinct challenges. Many speak different languages, including Haitian Creole and Somali. Immigrants from island nations may not have learned to swim because their homelands were ravaged by poverty, disaster, or violence. Others are from areas where water-safety rules are not strictly enforced. Several of the recent victims were swimming in areas where signs said swimming was not allowed.

In Canada, concern that immigrants were drowning at higher rates spurred the Lifesaving Society to survey immigrants’ swimming skills in 2010 and 2016. The surveys revealed that immigrants and their children, including affluent families, were less likely than native-born Canadians to know how to swim.

Yet the surveys showed that immigrant families still planned to spend hot summer months on the water, according to the society, the lead drowning prevention organization there.

As a result of the surveys, the society expanded efforts across Canada to teach all children to swim. The society had already translated water-safety information into Hindi, Chinese, Farsi, and other languages.

“The United States and Canada, we’re both countries formed by immigrants and there are new immigrants coming all the time,” said Barbara Byers, the society’s public education director. “We just have to recognize there are many ways they have to acclimate and become American. And this is one area.”

Byers said she has urged schools to teach swimming, pointing out that they devote time to football and other sports programs.


“They can live their whole life without playing football,” she said. “You need to get some instruction to be safe in the water.”

Audrey Jimenez, branch executive director of the Lynn YMCA, said she hopes to expand free and low-cost swimming lessons in the city, where one-third of the residents are immigrants and over half the public school children speak another language at home.

After Jose Angel Capellan Rodriguez drowned in Saugus, Jimenez said a teacher at the Breed Middle School in Lynn invited her to give a water-safety presentation in English and Spanish to students and parents. And the Y is offering free swimming lessons to eighth-graders at the school, which Jose attended, in addition to its regular low-cost programming.

Jimenez said the YMCA teaches lessons that students can use year-round, such as avoiding walking on icy ponds in the winter and always swimming with a buddy. She warns them that many drown quietly. To avoid panicking, she said, they can float on their backs.

Jimenez said her best friend drowned when they were 10 after falling through an icy pond in Connecticut. Unfortunately, she said, drownings continue.

“In the back of your mind you’re saying, ‘Could this have been avoided?’ ” Jimenez said. “And in your gut you know the answer.”

Ramcis Villar-Bueno, 12, swam with a bar float during a beginner’s swim class at the Lynn YMCA.
Ramcis Villar-Bueno, 12, swam with a bar float during a beginner’s swim class at the Lynn YMCA.Timothy Tai for The Boston Globe

Maria Sacchetti can be reached at maria.sacchetti@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @mariasacchetti