“I can’t say I hope you enjoy the movie, but I hope it is something you can engage with,” filmmaker Renee Tajima Pena, stated while introducing her documentary, “No Mas Bebes”.
Orton Center fell still and quiet on Tuesday, Oct. 26 as the film began. Its story addressed a hidden truth of American history: forced sterilization of immigrant women. Sterilization is a medical practice that involves tubal ligation, or the tying and cutting of a woman’s fallopian tube.
The documentary was heart wrenching. It unabashedly and directly represented the deep emotional wounds the women of the film carry. The film presented the issue comprehensively, fueled by Pena’s personal anger and frustration. The film featured a variety of voices, including immigrant mothers and their families, doctors, and attorneys. Pena intentionally designed the film to oppose the identification of its characters as clear villains and heroes positioned in diametric opposition.
“We are all subject to culpability,” she said. With this awareness, she chose to focus on the nuanced contributive conditions that have allowed for this practice.
The film’s analysis of the issue underscored Paul Elrich’s book, “The Population Bomb”, for stimulating public anxiety in the 1970’s. The book discussed pressing environmental and social issues, particularly in their relation to population and global consumption of a rapidly growing human population. Elrich prophesied nothing less than disaster, and eyes searching for solutions settled on poor immigrant women. In the context Elrich established, the quantity of children these women birthed was alarming, and sterilization was a means of preventing what was perceived to be the source of an urgent problem.
The film further explained that this issue impacted poor communities of various ethnic backgrounds, but immigrant women, likely to not speak English, were especially vulnerable. These women could not discern the content of the contracts handed to them, and officially–but ultimately non-consensually–signed for the approval of sterilization. Furthermore, translators skewed the meaning of the word ‘sterilization’. The women in the film understood it to be ‘a cleaning’, but after the operation, left the hospital never to birth another child. Some women understood the procedure to only involve tying the fallopian tube and assumed its reversibility.
The doctors, Pena shared, did not have a problem sitting before the camera and telling their story. Conversely, it was difficult to film the immigrant women who had stayed quiet for so many years. These women had felt that their sterilization was the end of their lives. Their spouses, unwilling to have the trauma publicly known, encouraged their silence. The women’s children acted as representatives for their mothers, speaking English whereas their mothers could not. For some, they did not learn of their mothers’ sterilization until they were adults.
While the documentary largely focused on California, forced sterilization has been active in other states as well. All of the cases across the country have garnered momentum towards reform, including the requirement of contracts to be written in both English and Spanish and at a reading level the patient can understand.
The material discussed in this night’s event provided the audience an opportunity to “rethink the history we think we know,” Leela MadhavaRau, the Associate Dean of Campus Diversity and Inclusion, stated in her closing remarks.