“No Más Bebés,” a new documentary about Los Angeles County General Hospital’s sterilization abuse against Latinas, is set to premiere at the Los Angeles Film Festival this month. The film tells the story of Madrigal v. Quilligan, a historic lawsuit filed by10 Mexican-American women who had been sterilized in the early ’70s after having emergency Cesarean sections.
Some of the women didn’t know that they’d undergone tubal ligations until Antonia Hernandéz, a Latina lawyer just one year out of law school, began contacting them. She’d gotten their names from Bernard Rosenfeld, a young white L.A. County resident who witnessed and condemned the abuse. Their suit named the hospital, the residents who performed their procedures and the state and federal governments.
“No Más Bebés,” which will also air on PBS‘ Independent Lens sometime this year, features interviews with six of the plaintiffs, and the doctors, lawyers and reporters involved in the case. I spoke with director/producer Renee Tajima-Pena, an Oscar-nominated Asian-American filmmaker and UCLA Asian Studies professor. Below is an excerpt of our conversation, edited for clarity and length.
Why did you decide to make “No Más Bebés”
Virginia Espino, [my co-producers], and I are neighbors and we have two kids about the same age. We would have play dates and talk about our work—she’s a historian, one of the few who have researched this case. I grew up, like Virginia, during the era of Roe v. Wade. I grew up middle class and I assumed I would have a right to an abortion and that was the whole linchpin of reproductive rights, but I never considered the possibility of being denied the right to have a child. …It was a real shock to me that [these sterilizations] had happened. And I knew about the whole eugenics period, but we were talking about the 1960s and 1970s, not the distant past. We decided, “Let’s do this.”
This year is the 40th anniversary of the lawsuit—they filed the case in 1975. There is [also] this revisiting of women’s reproductive rights and, more importantly, reproductive justice [today]. The most important point of the film is the idea of the framework of reproductive justice, that a woman has a right to not have children if she chooses, or to have a child and raise that child in dignity. This is a far cry from the way I understood the whole question of reproductive rights. There was this generation of largely women of color like Helen Rodriguez-Trias in New York, [who] were really talking about reproductive justice many, many years ago. Of course they were pretty much ignored, even by mainstream feminists. Even today, the needs and the voices of poor women, immigrant women and women of color is sometimes neglected.
What was it like interviewing the women who were involved in the lawsuit?
The women were amazing. They are special women in that they agreed to join the case. If you look at the context of the 1970s, they were all immigrants, they were all wives [and] mothers and most of them worked in factories. Others were housewives. To come out publicly, at a time when Mexican-Americans really had no power in the city, and to talk about being sterilized was really brave. One of the mothers, Maria Hurtado, was so great because she breaks all the assumptions that someone would have of a woman of her generation. She liked to dance, talked about how sexy her husband was, she was at home in her own skin. They were like our own families.
A number of political tensions regarding this issue are addressed in the film—tension within the Chicano civil rights movement and within the feminist movement. What did you learn about those tensions from making this film?
This whole idea of the reproductive justice framework is to make sure that people listen to the needs and the voices of poor women, women of color and immigrant women who’ve been marginalized. This film was set during the whole formation of Chicana feminism. It’s like the [the women were in a] triple bind; they’d been marginalized within the feminist movement and the Chicano movement. You have all these young people [involved in the case] who became community leaders. The case was a real touchstone for people who were in their 20s, and who got involved and threw themselves into that fight.
Do you consider yourself an activist filmmaker?
I came up in the Asian-American independent film movement, which is really connected to activism. I always saw my role as telling the stories that activists could use in their work. Or just telling stories to get people talking, to raise consciousness. When you’re a filmmaker the way you tell the story doesn’t always conform to the party line; you tell what you see as the underlying truth and represent people’s voices. I always try to talk to everybody. I think that people make the mistake of saying that a filmmaker’s work is the be all end all. Film can’t do what academic research can do [for example]. Not every filmmaker is an organizer. But everyone has their role to play. I don’t think that films create social change. People create social change.
Watch the trailer: