Editor’s note: This story was originally published in September, 2015. The documentary ‘No más bebés’ airs Monday, Feb. 1 on the PBS series ‘Indepedet Lens’.
For historian Virginia Espino, a turning point for women in the Chicano movement for civil rights was the revelation that Mexican and Mexican-American women from Los Angeles’ Eastside were being prodded into sterilizations while giving birth at the LAC + USC Medical Center in the late 1960s and 70s.
Espino’s research into the coerced sterilization of women in communities like Boyle Heights, Lincoln Heights and City Terrace and the role Latina activists played in bringing a landmark legal case against Los Angeles County is the basis of the recent film, “No Más Bebés,” which she produced, along with director Renee Tajima-Peña.
“No Más Bebés” (“No More Babies”) tells of how the women, mostly Spanish speakers, were asked to sign English-language consent forms for tubal ligations while in pain and awaiting emergency Cesarean sections at the county hospital. The practice was part of a national, federally funded push for birth control for women of color, inspired by the period’s Zero Population Growth movement.
The film screens this week in Boyle Heights as part of the Ambulante California documentary film festival. A free outdoor screening will take place at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 23, at Legacy LA, an advocacy organization for youth in Ramona Gardens, the public housing development where one of the women featured in the documentary lived.
Legacy LA is also steps away from the now-closed county facility known to locals as General Hospital, where the sterilizations took place and whose haunting images appear throughout the film.
Director Renee Tajima-Peña grew up in the LA area, but had never heard of the sterilizations until 16 years ago. “I had no idea this happened in Los Angeles,” she said.
Tajima-Peña, an Academy Award-nominated filmmaker and professor of at UCLA, first heard of the coerced sterilizations from Espino, who was her neighbor raising a boy the same age as hers in their Highland Park neighborhood. Espino had first heard of the sterilized women as a student at Claremont Graduate University, during a lecture by Chicana scholar Vicki Ruiz, a recipient of a 2015 National Humanities Medal.
“I grew up in Highland Park, my grandmother lived in Lincoln Heights, so the General Hospital was always a huge figure in my childhood and youth,” Espino said. “It was a place you passed on a regular basis and also a place that had a lot of mystery, so when I found out that these sterilizations had taken place during a time I was alive, I was pretty shocked, I wanted to learn more.”
The film interviews several of the major players in the case Madrigal v. Quilligan, a federal class action suit brought by 10 of the women against Dr. James Quilligan, then head obstetrician at the county hospital. Although the women lost the suit, it focused national attention on a little-known practice and changed the way consent was sought at the county hospital, including the introduction of Spanish-language forms.
Some of the most compelling testimony in the film came from Dr. Bernard Rosenfeld, a young resident doctor at the hospital who witnessed and documented dozens of the sterilizations and took his documentation to the Los Angeles Center for Law and Justice in Boyle Heights, where young lawyers Antonia Hernández and Charles Nabarrete took on the case.
Hernández, then a recent graduate from UCLA School of Law and now the president of the California Community Foundation, recalls in the film how she took on the task of finding and interviewing the women and asking them to participate in the lawsuit. All of the women in the lawsuit were from working class families in Eastside neighborhoods; none were on welfare or received public assistance. Many of the women had never spoken about their experiences and had kept them hidden even from their own family members.
Espino reflected on the impact of the revelations on the Chicano movement. “The Idea that women needed to be loyal to men in the movement was giving way,” Espino said. “Initially, women were trying to stay within organizations where both genders participated. [But] when the sterilizations hit the newspapers, they started to realize that they had different issues, and that the men were not necessarily taking up those issues. So they separated into groups that were female only.”
Groups like Comisión Femenil Mexicana Nacional and the Chicana Welfare Rights Organization began then to focus on issues like childcare, reproductive health, domestic violence and other gender-specific issues, the historian said.
Building on Espino’s research, the film highlights the role Chicana activists played in seeking justice for the sterilized women.
“I wanted to look at it from the perspective of resistance and activism,” said Espino. “I didn’t want to write a history that showed the victimization of women. I wanted to show how women fought back and to build on that legacy of Mexican women, Chicana women, as activists and as people who fought back against injustice.”
At the heart of “No Más Bebés” are the interviews with several of the women who participated in the lawsuit. Each tells how being sterilized at a young age changed her life forever. Most dealt with the cultural stigma and rejection that women who cannot bear children suffer in patriarchal societies.
“All these women in this case were pretty much forgotten for decades,” says Tajima-Peña. “The only people who really kept the story alive were a handful of scholars like Virginia, like Elena Gutiérrez and Alexandra Minna Stern, the chief historians in the film, and Vicki Ruiz.”
For the director, whose films have screened at major film festivals like Cannes and Sundance, being shown at the Ambulante festival is a perfect fit for “No Más Bebés.”
She noted that she and Espino are both activists; the influences on her include the student, independent film and community movements. She said she cherishes the informal atmosphere of the traveling documentary festival.
“Festivals usually attract hipsters, cinephiles, that kind of audience,” she said. “A film festival has this connotation of being intimidating.” In contrast, she says, Ambulante provides an informal setting for the film in the very community that many of the sterilized women called home.
“It’s right in their neighborhood, and we get to take the film back there,” says Tajima-Peña. “I think it’s going to be a different kind of feeling. It’s cool to show a film at a [traditional] festival, but this is going to be terrific.”
There will be two screenings of ‘No Más Bebés’ as part of Ambulante:
Wednesday, Sept. 23, 7 p.m. at Legacy LA, 1350 North San Pablo Street, Los Angeles, CA 90033
Thursday, Oct. 1 at 7 p.m. La Plaza de Cultura y Artes, 501 North Main Street, Los Angeles, CA 90012
Check out the full Ambulante schedule here.