Virginia Espino discusses how she discovered her hometown's dark history of forced sterilization in grad school and how life lead her to make her first documentary about the untold injustice with Renee Tajima-Peña, which continues to add to the ongoing conversation of reproductive justice.
Can you share some of your personal story and how growing up in LA influenced you and the research work you do?
It’s an LA story, the sterilizations took place here. I grew up in Northeast LA, a different experience than growing up on the East side. The LA county hospital where the sterilizations took place is used by all of Los Angeles, and it was one of the few stories that connected me to that area. In the ‘80s and ‘90s when I was going to school, and even today, the assumption is that if you’re of Mexican-American heritage, you’re from East Los Angeles, which is just not the case.
This story really drew me to that place that was kind of mysterious to me. I didn’t learn about it until I was in graduate school--and when I did, it was really shocking to me that a place so close to where I grew up had this horrible tragedy. I didn’t know anything else about it and I felt like this was a story that needed to be shared on a large scale. So that’s why I made it my dissertation topic.
What were your goals in producing No Más Bebés? And why did you want to tackle this topic in a documentary format?
I learned about the story from my history professor, a Chicana herself, one of the first Mexican-American women to become a PhD in history. She brought in a cohort of Chicana grad students at the Claremont Graduate School, and I was one of her first. It was her job to make sure these stories were told, and I felt like I was standing on her shoulders in moving this story forward. She would offer up a lot of stories that people had not heard about, and she was innovative in her approach to teaching history because she used sources that at the time were not considered fully legitimate like oral history, which is much more academically accepted now than it was back then when she first started. It was often the only way to learn of certain histories because of the lack of documentation. The other element of hers that was influential to me was her emphasis on public history. She understood that sometimes people aren’t interested in reading the full monograph, so how do you reach those people? We started to study the different methods of history presentation through her class.
Then by coincidence, Renee Tajima-Peña, the filmmaker, is my neighbor. I probably would not have made a documentary if it weren’t for the fact that she was my neighbor and we met because we both had small children. Good fortune on both of our parts, and for the women who participated in the film. Many of the women experienced a shift in their views of themselves, and the views that their communities and families had of them. It’s been really rewarding.
Can you talk about what oral historians do, and the relevance of their techniques to documentarians, journalists, and others?
Oral history is very different from documentary filmmaking. The ethics are different, and very different than journalism. My husband’s a journalist so I’m very familiar with his best practices, and they’re not what an oral historian would do. An oral historian is more akin to a sociologist or anthropologist who has to follow a particular protocol to protect their subjects. There’s a whole rigorous process that takes place if you plan to use interviews in any of your research. That’s not the same in documentary filmmaking or journalism. For example, my husband, a journalist, would go out, get a quote, a name, and be done. Whereas in oral history, there’s a whole process of getting to know the person, explaining what your work is, showing them how it’s going to be used, getting them to sign over legal agreements, allowing them to review the transcript, etc, because it’s more linked to academic research.
In documentary filmmaking, you do have some of those protocols in place, where you need to get subjects’ legal agreement and explain the process, but they don’t get to go over the material. In documentary filmmaking, you don’t want them to tell you the story until the camera’s rolling. It’s a little bit more controlled and more expensive. Your window of getting the material is much shorter as well. The idea of having people tell their own story, that’s what’s very similar in both oral history and documentary filmmaking. It’s about having people tell their own stories in their own words, and talk about exactly what they witnessed. What was their experience? What did it mean to them? How did it feel?
What unique perspectives or training did you and your filmmaking partner/documentary director Renee Tajima-Peña bring to the project?
Being from a Latina community in LA, being from Mexican-American heritage, and having grandparents who are immigrants all informed my understanding and my knowledge as an insider. It was very easy for me to get to know the plaintiffs and gain their trust. It helped the project in opening that door, and quickly. The trust was established very, very fast. I was able to stay friends with all of them, and I feel like they’re part of my family now. As far as the filmmaking, that’s definitely Renee. I learned a great deal from her about filmmaking and what it takes to get people to talk. I conducted the interviews in Spanish, and she in English. I definitely learned a lot about her technique, and the comfort level she’s able to develop with so many people in the room.
Can you discuss why the story of forced sterilization of Mexican-American women in East LA has gone untold for so long?
The story was buried history that you would not find in history books, until people started to rescue it, and say, “This has happened.” We learned about one of our plaintiffs through her son who’d taken a Chicano Studies class at the University of California, Santa Barbara. His professor taught on the subject, and he saw his family’s name and thought--could that be my mom? It was, and he kept her secret until we knocked on their door asking if they wanted to participate in this film. He was the biggest advocate for her to participate--she was very hesitant. When we screened at the Los Angeles Film Festival, one of her sisters in the audience stood up and said “I can’t believe you never told me.” It was something that the plaintiff felt she had had a part in, and it wasn’t until she saw how people were reacting to her story did she realize it wasn’t her fault, but that of the doctor, hospital and all the circumstances surrounding her surgery. Many of the first scholars in Chicano history were men, and this wasn’t an important narrative to focus on in their work. They were trying to cover a lot of territory, making up for a lot of lost time.
What relevance do you see in the case of forced sterilization documented in No Más Bebés to the current fight for reproductive rights?
At the time of the case, you didn’t have women talking about the right to procreate. When the women in the film filed their lawsuit, they filed under Roe v. Wade, they were looking at their right under privacy. They were saying they’d been denied the right to privacy to terminate a pregnancy, or the right to privacy to determine how many children they wanted to have, whether that be one or ten. That was very new and hadn’t been fully explored in scholarship until the film. Renee and I have been educated by reproductive rights advocates that we’ve worked with on the difference between having a right and actually having justice. We all have the legal right to an abortion, but do we all have access? Can we pay for it? Can we find a clinic nearby? Those kinds of privileges. Advocates also talk about it not being simply a question of reproductive choice, but having the multitude of choices, and determining for yourself what you want to do.
The white women’s Feminist Movement was really looking for everything on demand. Sterilization on demand, abortion on demand, birth control on demand. The idea that if you wake up and you feel like you really want this sterilization right now, you should be able to go have it. Latinas were saying “Wait, hold off.” Some women were being abused by having this surgery pushed on them. Latinas wanted a waiting period between somebody being asked if they wanted this surgery, and the time that it’s performed. This lawsuit amplified that conversation and it continues to grow and amplify and expand. In the '90s, African-American women created the term ‘reproductive justice’ in response to some similar things that had happened in their communities. Now it’s a term heavily adopted by organizations like Planned Parenthood, trying to understand what it means, bringing that framework into their work. This film is part of opening that conversation.
How do socioeconomic, cultural, and political factors continue to affect women's reproduction, particularly Latinas, in the United States today?
Dr. Elena Gutiérrez, a friend of mine, wrote the book Fertile Matters that looks at reproductive issues from a sociological perspective. She documents how sociology has demonized Mexican-American women as hyper-fertile and for not being responsible in practicing family planning and in having more children than they can afford. These negative stereotypes about Latinas affect the kind of care they’re given. Not their behavior, because like all of us, their behavior is autonomous. The decisions we make is what we think is best for ourselves. Some say, “Research shows that an educated woman has less children.” To me, that doesn’t really matter. It’s not the question of should they have less or more, but are they making that decision for themselves? Reproductive justice is talking about child care, education, safe communities, healthy communities, not focusing on fertility rate or use of birth control, but creating healthy societies.
What was the most difficult part about making No Más Bebés for you?
Trying to wear the hat of the documentary filmmaker, and really going for the story. As an oral historian, I’m more inclined to not get the story because I don’t want to push the person too much. The hardest day of filming for me was when we took the plaintiffs to the LA County Hospital and revisited that scene. I was very nervous because nobody knew how they would respond and the only two women who decided to go were the ones who were very comfortable with us, and seemed somewhat healed from the experience through the love of their family, and in some cases religion. Still, you don’t know what triggers a feeling. It was a very powerful thing that had to happen. Renee was very smart in wanting to get some example of what that trauma looks like. We were very surprised when one of the plaintiffs broke down in tears because she was so strong in the interviews and so casual. It really hit home for me, the importance of the documentary film genre, and not preparing people for what they are to expect. Letting the story unfold before you and having the cameras there to document it.
The women were very open and candid with you in recounting their experiences. How did you earn their trust and access to their stories?
It was pretty instantaneous, I felt like I had met people I had known forever. When I first met Dolores Madrigal, the lead plaintiff in the case, it was almost like meeting a long lost relative, or an old friend. Maybe it’s because I had read about her and carried her name with me for so many years. I don’t know why she felt comfortable with me. The plaintiffs call me friend, and I think it’s just because I speak Spanish, and I have the insider cultural norms that are very familiar to them. There are people who can traverse that and can tell others’ stories, but in this case I feel I was really an asset in this project in being able to gain their trust so quickly and so deeply.
No Más Bebés shines a light on the issues that arise when doctors dealing with unfamiliar populations, and how people with dated views/ideologies execute their personal beliefs onto the lives of their patients. How can we combat this?
The film has definitely highlighted and awakened some universities who have medical schools to use it as a tool in training their medical students. I’ve been contacted by a professor at the University of Michigan who wants to develop a curriculum about reproductive justice for her medical students so that it becomes a tool in bringing up these issues. It’s a tough problem to combat because there are so many communities in the United States, Spanish-speaking being only one. How do you address every single population in health care? Maybe gaining some sense of ethical standard, trying to find translators, finding ways to communicate non-verbally. I’m not sure what the answer is, but there needs to be more of an effort instead of viewing these patients as undeserving because they’re in a public facility.
How has the public responded to the film? Specifically, what are students saying when you present the film on college campuses?
We’ve been screening at universities across the United States, usually huge crowds, primarily Latino/Latina crowds, sometimes diverse. Many feel like for the first time, they’re actually seeing people they recognize on the screen, telling real stories, telling real histories. In No Más Bebés, you really get into the life experience, emotion, family, of uncommon heroes, everyday people. It’s almost like giving people a present of seeing themselves or people they know--their mother, aunt, grandmother on the screen. It’s very empowering. When we bring the plaintiffs for Q and A, people line up to hug them, thank them, and sometimes unload their own stories of trauma. It’s been a very powerful experience.
Are you working on any other films or projects now?
I’m teaching at the University of California, Los Angeles, and East Los Angeles Community College as an adjunct professor. I’d like to do some publishing of the work around the film, and write about my experience in meeting the plaintiffs, maybe document some of their life history that hasn’t been talked about, some of their activism. They all have incredible stories about how they fought for their children in education, how they got involved in their community for the benefit of other people. That’s what I’d like to highlight and work on next.
Charlotte Abel is an undergraduate student at California Polytechnic State University San Luis Obispo studying Sociology and Media Arts, Technology & Society. A passionate feminist and storyteller, she strives to study and document both the beauty and injustices in the world through education and art activism.