Why Are We Surprised? Latin@s, Reproductive Health & Abortion

There are so many stereotypes that people have about Latin@s, our sexual experiences, practices, and decisions. As a member of this community and someone from the Caribbean I have a few ideas on how these stereotypes have emerged and how they have been linked to reproductive health and justice. It is clear from reports by the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health  and the California Latinas for Reproductive Justice  that we are collectively working to change and challenge these stereotypes. A recent report by the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health http://latinainstitute.org/Latinopoll demonstrates that a majority of Latin@s (over 70%) believe that a woman has the right to make her own personal, private decisions about abortion without politicians interfering.

Remembering how I was trained, by racially white professors and Latin@ ones, the idea of “cultural values” that Latin@s have and hold true I continue to struggle with. Some of these “cultural values” are connected to ideas that stem from colonization, others from social sciences such as anthropology and sociology where our communities were “observed” and have become truth we are continuing to deconstruct, challenge, and recreate. If you’re not clear on what some of the texts that created this about us consider Oscar Lewis’ La Vida, and Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s The Negro Family (because Latin@s come in all colors!) to start.

And yes, there are times when I’m being flip in this article, something I don’t often do, so hopefully you can pick up on the sarcasm (a coping mechanism for many of us myself included) and differentiate between that and the larger topic/ideas.

Top Stereotypes On Latin@s connected to Reproductive Health

Stereotype: Latin@s are all Catholic.

No we aren’t. Many of us may identify with and practice Catholicism, but many of us do not as well. Latin@s are a diverse group and assuming we all hold the same spiritual beliefs and practices is erroneous. The history of Catholicism in the Americas is connected to exploration, conquest, colonization, and revolution.  This is why we see many religions that are connected to Catholicism but also connected to indigenous and African ritual practices (when this occurs it’s called syncretism) and religions, such as Candomblé, Santería, and Vodou.  All of these religions Latin@s are known to practice. We also practice a range of spiritual belief systems that many of you have heard before such as Judaism, Islam, and some of us are even atheists. Not all of these religious belief systems have the same perspective on the body, reproduction, family, contraceptives, pregnancy, termination, and power. To ignore this is to ignore our humanity.

Stereotype: Latin@s value family soooooooo much.

Sure we do, but not any more than any other ethnic group. The fact that this has been labeled a “cultural value” and the terms familialismo and familialism has been overly used to understand and connect with Latin@s is a testament to how this has become a stereotype that is systemic. What this “cultural value” ignores is the chosen family that many of us create and the extended family we go to seeking support and help because we are under-resourced. It also ignores the abuses, assaults, violence, rape, and throwing-away* of children that does occur in some Latin@ families. This stereotype is the reason why we rationalize the high teen birthrate among Latin@s without being critical of systemic issues at play. There is also limited examination into how a pregnancy for a young Latin@ may be connected to safety. Some youth do carry a pregnancy to term so that they can give the illusion they are heterosexual as so many people assume only heterosexual people become pregnant and want families.

Stereotype: So many Latin@s are (undocumented) immigrants.

And so many of us are not. How quickly we forget that what we know today as the US-Mexico border was more Mexico than US. To this day I meet people who have no clue that Puerto Rico is a colony of the US and thus we are “granted” US citizenship. Plus, many folks have no idea that Cuban immigrants are granted refugee status which offers benefits some US citizens have a tremendous challenge accessing. All the stories of  “terror babies”  and “anchor babies”  portrays undocumented immigrants in the US are primarily Latin@s. What this stereotype is really connected to when it comes to reproductive health and justice are ideas that people who migrate from the Americas or Caribbean are so “traditional” (read: conservative, primitive, and sheltered) in comparison to folks in the US. If these are the stereotypes (as if none of the cities in any of the countries in the Americas have wealth of any sort similar to capitalist ideas found in the US, or that people don’t evolve if they live in a particular part of the world) that people hold and connect to our ideas of reproductive health and justice, the “rational” connection would be that ideas of abortion, contraceptives, and family planning are what we in the US would consider “oppressive” and “patriarchal,” and “un-feminist” which automatically means anti-choice. This is also where an assimilationist perspective would chime in and say “Latin@s are pro-choice because they’ve lived in the US and been exposed to modern ideas.” Yeah, this is condescending and leads to the next stereotype.

Stereotype: Assimilation and/or Acculturation is why we see Latin@s more pro-choice

Yeah, not really. This ignores the fact that people all over the world, not just Mexico, Central, South America and the Spanish-speaking Caribbean have been practicing herbal remedies and care for terminating a pregnancy. Maybe they don’t call it “abortion” or “terminating a pregnancy.” Maybe they call it “making your period/menstruation come.” Let’s not try to start history when the US comes into play. Let’s remember that many countries existed long before they were “discovered” and that starting history at a particular time/place may erase and ignore a long history and legacy of supporting women, families, and choice. Many folks resist and actively challenge assimilation and acculturation because they choose to hold onto what they know and value. Others openly begin the assimilation and acculturation process and that is their choice, but it must not ever be a requirement, especially for self-determination.

Stereotype: Latin@s are curvy and voluptuous and “naturally” built for giving birth.

Our bodies must be made for breeding if we are built in a particular way. Aside from this being so closely connected to eugenics, it’s ridiculous. Just as we are diverse in belief systems we are also diverse in body shape and size. This stereotype assumes that a “real” Latin@ looks a particular way, which always leads to a problem of exclusion. Through migration, slavery, exploration, and travel there has been inter-mixing of communities and cultures and to assume we look a particular way erases this history.

Stereotype: Latin@s get sterilized so they don’t have to worry about pregnancy, so why would they care about abortion?

Now this idea may not be the most popular, but the stereotype is connected to many things: sterilization rates in the US (forced and consensual), assumption that sterilization is an approved from of contraception (which connects to stereotype one about religion), and a disconnect to the topic of abortion. Without going too in depth on the history of forced sterilization in the US in communities of Color and those with different abilities,  I will share that longitudinal research has been conducted with Puerto Rican women who have grandmothers and mothers who were forcibly sterilized and daughters have chosen this method as a form of contraception. Author and scholar Iris Ofelia López uses the term “agency within constraints” in her book Matters of Choice: Puerto Rican Women’s Struggle for Reproductive Freedom, to describe how our various identities are connected to the systems of oppression we live in and how we find self-determination to survive and live the lives we desire for ourselves. Some people do choose sterilization as their contraceptive method of choice, but that does not mean we all do. Choosing this method also does not mean we completely disconnect from the communal struggle and desire to live life on our own terms and to experience pleasure and happiness. Just because someone chooses a particular option does not mean they are instantly no longer a member of their community.

Stereotype: Latin@s are hyper-sexual and passionate.

No wonder we have so many high rates of unplanned pregnancies because it is believed we are always having (unprotected) sex all.the.time. Just look at the way we dance, or how we get dressed to go out, we are exuding sensual passion we want to share consensually with another person. These stereotypes make Latin@s seem as though we are always already sexually available (and consenting). Some of us do have active sexual experiences on a daily basis; some of us are still virgins; and some of us experience times of celibacy and abstinence throughout our lives (which is closer to a inter/national “norm” if there is one). I struggle to think of one current media representative that is Latina that we see who does not support this image. Now, this may be true for many, but offering only a one-dimensional representation supports this stereotype and some may read that as permission to base ideas on our reproductive health and choices.

Stereotype: Latin@s are mostly heterosexual, that’s how people get pregnant anyway!

It’s a struggle for many providers, educators, and those of us working in the field of sexuality and sexual health to actively remember that we do not need to identify people based on their behaviors alone. Asking folks to self-identify also contributes to providing them care and support. This stereotype is connected to ideas that the Latin@s who experience pregnancy are exclusively heterosexual and thus they are not questioned beyond current partner status. This stereotype impacts the services Latin@s (and all pregnant people) experience and need. Yes, sperm and a mature egg are needed for pregnancy to occur, but assuming that those people who contribute those are always going to be male and identify as men and female and identify as women is wrong. This excludes intersex people and creates more barriers for transgender people and those who identify as gender queer to really find quality reproductive health care.

*”throw-away” is a term used to describe youth who are homeless or in the foster care system who were “thrown out” of their home of origin. This may happen for various reasons which may include an unplanned pregnancy, coming out as not heterosexual, identifying as transgender, identifying a family member as an abuser, to name a few.

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