The Legacy of LA’s Forced Sterilizations

 /  May 30, 2016, 10:26 p.m.

Gate article 1

On May 2, 2016, Movimiento Estudiantil Chicanx de Aztlán (MEChA) de UChicago and the International House Global Voices Lecture Series hosted a screening of No Más Bebés, a documentary on the coerced sterilizations of Mexican-origin women in the Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center in the 1960s and ’70s. Based on the research of producer Virginia Espino and brought to life by Chicago-born director Renee Tajima-Peña, the film details the Madrigal v. Quilligan lawsuit, in which ten women, led by Chicana lawyer Antonia Hernández, sued county doctors, the state, and the U.S. government - only to receive a ruling that denied that any rights had been violated. Poignant interviews, news clips, and medical documents call attention to the period’s disturbing political rhetoric on population control, the movement for reproductive justice led by women of color, and the case’s cultural, social, and psychological effects on the women involved.

After the May 2 Hyde Park screening, audience members participated in a moving discussion with Ms. Espino and Ms. Consuelo Hermosillo, one of the plaintiffs in the Madrigal v. Quilligan case. Ms. Espino, born and raised in Los Angeles, has worked as the program coordinator for Latina & Latino History at the UCLA Center for Oral History Research and as an associate professor at Arizona State University. Ms. Hermosillo, originally from Veracruz, Mexico, is today the head chef for her son Oscar’s string of successful restaurants throughout Los Angeles County.

The Gate had the opportunity to sit down with Ms. Espino and Ms. Hermosillo after the event to learn more about their experiences. They were joined by Ms. Hermosillo’s daughter, Yvonne García. The interview was made possible by the Gate’s partnership with the Global Voices Interview Series and can also be found on their website.

The Gate: Consuelo, you said that it was hard for you to be a part of the film, but you agreed to do it at the urging of your son, and that it’s been rewarding to get the responses from students and other people who are hearing about your story now. Can you speak a little bit more about how being part of the film has helped you connect with others?

Consuelo Hermosillo: I never had traveled to other places [before making the film], so getting to know different opinions helped me to learn that it's worth [sharing my story] to support the new generation. My granddaughter, she's seventeen years old and she told me that she was very proud of me. So that rewarded me a lot—the way my grandchildren expressed themselves when they saw the film. And also, the reactions of all the students, [and hearing] the questions [they ask], that really touches me. I wasn't expecting that. And every time [they ask] different questions, and every time I go to any event, I get support. So I know that what I'm doing, it's the right thing to do.

Gate: Virginia, you've been researching this issue for several years. How did you become interested in that topic?

Virginia Espino: I learned about it in graduate school. I was in my thirties, so I was much, much older than you when you learned about it. And I felt like it was something that we should start learning early on, that the younger generations should start hearing about this history as early as high school, and it should be part of the mainstream history, not simply something you learn because you take a Chicano or Chicana studies class or a women's studies class. Everybody should know this important history. It has implications nationally, so it's a story that impacts all women. I think it even has global implications when you think about what happens in other countries, like China and India, and other Latin American countries where women were forcibly sterilized, like in Peru.

So it's an important history that connects with a lot of people, and I wanted to write my dissertation on the topic, but I also didn't just want to write for a small community. Because when you write a book, it's very important work to write your history, write it down, [and] document it - what scholars do is valuable. But sometimes that story doesn't get out into the wider public, and so I've been able to show this film to communities that probably wouldn't read a text on this because they have other, more pressing, more urgent needs, like dealing with healthcare access, or just dealing with their daily lives putting food on the table. So I wanted to work with Renee on a film that would reach a broad and wide audience.

Gate: There were ten plaintiffs in the case, but there were four in the film, so I was wondering if there was a selection process, or if the other women just didn't feel comfortable sharing at this point. How did that happen?

Espino: We found contact information for six, and there was one who did not want to participate, who flat out said "I don't want more people to start looking for me." She was really worried about that. And then one just never responded to any of our attempts to reach her, so obviously she wasn't willing to participate. And a couple have passed away. So the ones we did find who were willing to participate are in the film. And then there's one [plaintiff featured in the film], Melvina Hernández, who was not part of the Madrigal lawsuit. She was part of another lawsuit--there were two lawsuits that took place around that same time, and they were all created by the same community of Chicano and Chicana lawyers. Richard Cruz was a Chicano lawyer at the same time that Antonia Hernández was a lawyer, and he filed a lawsuit for damages for three plaintiffs, and Melvina was part of his lawsuit. But her story was so compelling that we decided to include her, even though she doesn't really fit in the narrative of the Madrigal case.

Gate: Consuelo, on the drive from the airport, you mentioned that you had spoken to some of the other women after the screenings.

Hermosillo: Yes, I didn't see them for many, many years.

Gate: What was it like for you connecting with them?

Hermosillo: When we were downtown [for the premiere] we didn’t have the opportunity [to discuss the lawsuit] because we got together in the restaurant, but the little that I talked to [them], most of it I got back [to in] the film. Honestly, I realized that I'm lucky, because I was never bothered by my husband beating me or telling me...I was never abused in that way. Like I had been saying in all the interviews [in the film], I was one of the lucky ones, because one of them, her husband used to think that they did it on purpose. [He] didn't believe her. And seeing them again [after] so many years, I realized again that it was worth it - especially for them, the ones that got hurt more.

Gate: Was there any psychological or professional help for those women? Especially for the one woman who said she had attempted suicide, was there any support?

Espino: I don't think there was any support for the case, and I think the case was traumatic for everybody involved, because Antonia gave everything, and she is the one who encouraged the women to come out and be a part of this lawsuit, and then, when they lost, it was devastating for everyone. Carlos Vélez-Ibáñez, [the anthropologist who first documented the forced sterilizations], cannot talk about it without crying. He feels so guilty that his testimony was used against the plaintiffs. And so it was really hard to even get people to talk about it afterwards; I think everybody just wanted to kind of push it in, hide it, and just forget about it. When I went and approached Antonia Hernández about interviewing, way back when I was first writing about it, she didn't really wanna talk about it. And she agreed - I don't know why she agreed - but she was [clearly thinking,]  "Okay, now are we done with it?" you know, “Let's just be done with it, I shared my story.” So when we came back years later for the documentary, she told me, “You're not gonna give up, are you, until everybody knows about this story?” And so I said, "I'm sorry, but this is important - your role, the case - you know, even if it wasn't won, we should document that struggle, that struggle is so important. And we never learn about the cases that are lost, we only learn about the ones that are won. And what about all of those attempts where people actually tried to change something, that got close but they weren't successful?”

We don't learn about that process [of losing]. Parenting has taught me that sometimes it's not about the final thing that your kid does, it's getting there, that whole process of how you get there, and I think that's the really beautiful thing about this lawsuit. That coming together at that time and bringing all those people together. After [the lawsuit] ended there was silence, this huge silence, and we're just resurfacing that. And for some people it's still not comfortable. [One of the plaintiffs], she does not want to talk about it, it brought up too many painful memories that she wanted to keep buried, and she hasn't seen the film. Mrs. Hurtado, she's very open, her husband was supportive, she loves coming to the screenings and meeting people just like Mrs. Hermosillo, so I think that partnership made a huge difference in their healing.

Gate: Consuelo, what do you think are the steps forward for you, for healing? Do you think being part of the film has helped you? I saw on the film’s website that you've always fought on behalf of your community and your family, so can you talk about what your family means to you and what your goals are for the future?

Hermosillo: My family, it's everything to me. I've been very lucky to have three good kids, and beautiful grandchildren, and I think that's the reward that I get for whatever happened to me. It helped me heal a lot of things, you could see it on the morning when I had my granddaughter that day especially, memories came back, and I feel that every time I had grandchildren. Especially [with] the twins too, [my daughter Yvonne] has twins, I said that God is blessing us, God is blessing the whole family. So I feel that had helped me healing, and [so has] the process of supporting.

Gate: What have been the most memorable aspects of this whole process, of researching and then putting the film together? What have been the challenges and also your favorite memories, for each of you?

Hermosillo: For me, it was the day that they showed the film downtown, seeing all of my family and my grandchildren and my sisters and everything. I was very nervous that day. I was very nervous, because I didn't know what to expect.

Gate: And you said that no one in your family knew about it before?

Hermosillo: They never knew, [hardly] anybody knew that I went to court or that I had anything to do with the lawsuit. They probably heard it - even my brother-in-law, when he went and saw the film, he said "If I would have known that you were one of the plaintiffs I would've reached out to you." Because he was in Puerto Rico in 1972, ‘73, and he was studying Chicano studies over there in Puerto Rico. We talked for about three hours and he said that he was very proud of me, and that made me feel good that day. He said "Cuñada (sister-in-law), really, I'm very proud of you. I never thought you were one of them. Why didn't you reach out to anybody in the family?" I said, "I don't know; I felt like I've done something wrong." I still ask myself - I didn't do anything, now I know it - but at that time, that's how I felt.

Yvonne García [Consuelo Hermosillo’s daughter]: I think the fact that they didn't win, also, was a big factor for everybody just shutting down. They kinda went like, "Look, we did nothing wrong, be quiet, go home." I vaguely remember asking my mom, “Why did you get your tubes tied?” We asked her at one point when I was married with my kids, and I wanted to know why she didn't have any more kids. And she said, "Oh I got my tubes tied." And I thought, “That's so weird,” because back in the day, women found some sort of birth control, and they just didn't have any more kids. But it was rare that they would tie their tubes, and she never told the story. She just vaguely said, "I went to the hospital when I had your sister and they tied my tubes," and that was it. And then later on, the boys, my boys, were like, “Why didn't you tell us?” And I said, “Because she never said anything, she never wanted to go into detail about it with us.” So I mean, I knew that her tubes were tied, but I didn't know the magnitude of everything, I didn't ever know anything about [the coercion or the lawsuit].

Hermosillo: Yeah and people automatically assumed after a C-section, “She has her tubes tied.” You know, that's the way it was, and I don't know if it's still like that, because the doctor used to say that by the fourth one, it's kind of risky. But no, there were plaintiffs [who] had five [children], one of them had four or five, and they proved that you could have more than one, especially if you're 23, 24. You know, the age, they assumed later when years passed, but I never sat down and talked to nobody, even the one that was taking care of my kids. Joyce Armenta and Lupe - they didn't know, they thought I was going to work [during the lawsuit], they didn't know. I used to catch the bus on the corner and go and come back really fast. That's one condition, like I told you, I didn't wanna come out on the TV; I didn't wanna come out on the court or nothing.

Gate: What would you say has been the most rewarding part of making this film?

Espino: This has been such a rewarding experience because the process of making it was very difficult, very painful, and at times I felt like maybe we were not doing the right thing because, for example, Mrs. Hermosillo was hesitant to participate, and so I was uncomfortable. But the documentary filmmaker was like, "We've gotta have her voice because it's important, you can't tell the story without letting them tell it from their own words." We had court records, we had articles, but we needed to see their face, their emotions. That's how you convey it to people who might not really care about these kinds of things. And I think that's the beauty of what [the film’s director,] Renee Tajima-Peña does, is to bring people in front of the camera and get them to talk about these very, very painful things in a way that helps everybody. I think we're helping a lot of people by sharing this story and educating and informing them. We put the human touch on something that people just read about in newspaper articles, or talk about in political circles. We've actually humanized it, so that's been the most rewarding part of it.

Gate: Is there anything else either of you would like to share?

Hermosillo: I was thinking right now, I never even thought about it, but I started thinking right now - How old are you Yvonne, 44? If she wants to have a baby, she can have a baby, that's her decision. That's an example that it doesn't matter what age [you are], it's yourself that has to make [that choice]. And I told my husband the other day, I said "Imagine Yvonne, she still could have a baby, really?" Dad didn't even, you know, I mean, she's not planning to have kids, but just the idea of knowing that it's her decision, if right now her husband after 25 years of marriage, tells her "Hon, the kids are big, they're leaving home, can we have a baby?" I mean, that's beautiful. That's something that only God could give you and they could decide about, that's what I was thinking.

García: A lot of people ask me, "How come you haven't tied your tubes?" and I say, "I don't know, I just haven't." I just - it's just a choice that people make, and it's not that it'll make me feel any less, I kinda just don't wanna have to go through the procedure if I don't have to. It's just scary for me, you know. I think for a lot of people, when people first hear about No Más Bebés, they're kind of like, "Well what are you talking about?" When they actually see it, they realize the magnitude and the difference that this - what they did in court - made. I mean it moved something, it made a movement. It made people more aware at that time. And maybe it died out after a while but I think doing this film just makes people feel that they do have a choice and they could speak out, and be more aware when they go to the doctor, and what their choices are, even if they don't have health insurance. People still to this day will go to the doctor, and even with Obamacare they don't have insurance and they don't speak English, you know, so they don’t know what their options are, and I think this movie is a good education for students, as well as people who just go and see it. I felt it should have been at the movies, for a while, at least at the theaters.

Espino: Right now, we're working with Gil Cedillo - he's a city council member in Los Angeles, and he represents my district in Highland Park, and there's an old theater in Highland Park, the Highland Theater. We're trying to get a free screening there for May. Getting the film into theaters is very political, and it’s about resources. It's a film that's important to a large audience, but not that mainstream audience that will put money out to have it in the theater. They didn't think anybody was going to show up to our screening in June at the film festival. They asked us if we could fill 200 seats, and I just laughed because I have 300 people in my family alone. I was like "Yeah, I think we can."

So just getting word out, that continues to be our challenge, is getting the word out, and having people see it, and having people come out. Usually when we have our screenings we get a really good turnout but I don’t think we’re going to make it into any theaters any time soon. But hopefully Netflix picks it up so that people can watch it and stream it.

García: Netflix and Hulu would be great, because I see a lot of documentaries on those all the time.

Espino: We also have a Spanish translation. We need to get that out so that Spanish-speaking people can watch it, and so that we can start showing it in Latin America.

Gate: Are you working on any other projects related to this?

Espino: We did have an idea for a digital archive. We purchased all the court records. When I was first doing the research, I couldn't find any of the court documents because I was told they were lost, or stolen, or misplaced. And so years later, when we were working on the film, I went back to try to track those down, because I had never seen any of those consent forms. I had never seen any of that when I was doing my original research, and they found them, so we had the whole thing photocopied--it was like a thousand pages--the court records from beginning to end. We had them photocopied and digitized, and we'd like to make those available so that students can do their papers, they can do research [about this case]. There's so much information there because it's the testimony, it's the doctor's testimony, it's an explanation of what the lawyers were arguing and why they were arguing it, it's very interesting. Also we have a lot of audio and video interviews that didn't make the film, hours and hours. To make those available for students and researchers is something that Renee and I have been trying to do at UCLA.

There are also new stories that are emerging. We met a young woman from the Hmong community. That’s an Asian American community in Fresno, and she told us that her mom was sterilized in the 90’s, right after she was born, and for those same reasons. The Hmong community is very similar to Mexicans as far as their love of family, their appreciation of family, and they're also looked at as people who don't really contribute to society, so her mom was pressured into sterilizing because the doctors told her that, economically, she wasn’t going to make it if she had more kids, and it was better for her to terminate the ability to procreate. So she wrote her dissertation on that topic, and we'd like to record some of those other stories that happened, just to show how it affects many different people. It doesn't just target one group, it targets a lot of different people for different reasons.

The image featured in this article is licensed under Creative Commons. The original image can be found here.

Maya Ruiz


<script type="text/javascript" src="//" data-dojo-config="usePlainJson: true, isDebug: false"></script><script type="text/javascript">require(["mojo/signup-forms/Loader"], function(L) { L.start({"baseUrl":"","uuid":"d2157b250902dd292e3543be0","lid":"aa04c73a5b"}) })</script>