“No Más Bebés,” a disturbing documentary about the coercive or non-consensual sterilization of Mexican-American women at a Los Angeles hospital in the 1970s, premiered yesterday, February 1, on PBS.
The film focuses on Madrigal vs. Quilligan, a historic lawsuit filed by 10 Mexican-American women who had been sterilized at Los Angeles County General Hospital after having emergency C-sections. Many didn’t know they’d been rendered infertile until much later and had signed consent forms in a language they didn’t speak—English.
We spoke with director/producer Renee Tajima-Pena, an Oscar-nominated Asian-American filmmaker and a UCLA Asian Studies professor, last June about the film when it premiered at the Los Angeles Film Festival. An excerpt from that interview:
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.