Latino Heritage Month Meets Reproductive Justice & Sexual Health: Focus on Rigoberta Menchú Tum

Bianca I. Laureano

Third in a series about leaders in the Latino community whose work centers on sexuality, ethnicity, racial classification, and social justice.

For Latino Heritage Month I’d like to try to expand our understanding and conversations about Latino sexuality during this month. Read previous people highlighted: Gloria Anzaldúa and Eduardo Bonilla-Silva.

Dr. Rigoberta Menchú Tum
Nobel Peace Prize Winner, Activist


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Activist and Guatemalean k’iche’ woman, Dr. Rigoberta Menchú has been a figure of resistance for many people in the Americas, especially indigenous communities. As some people my age, I was first introduced to Menchú through her book: Me llamo Rigoberta Menchu y asi me nacio la conciencia/I, Rigoberta Menchú. An Indian Woman in Guatemala published in 1983 when she was in her early twenties (and published in over 10 different languages).

At the time that I was assigned to read her book, almost twenty years ago, I did not completely appreciate the work she had done so early in her life. There were times when I actually complained about having to read her text, and I think that may have been connected to my own ignorance about the various forms of oppressions that occur(ed) in the Americas. I was also not really trying to hear all the Simón Bolívar Pan-American ideologies because I thought it too easily excluded Pan-African ideologies and that meant excluding me.

Today, I realize that her story continues to remind us that young people are powerful, and able to create and achieve social change. Having survived the murder of her parents, the Civil War in Guatemala that lasted over three decades (1960-1996), taught herself Spanish and other indigenous languages, and being the youngest Nobel Peace Prize winner (awarded in 1992), Menchú is an amazing force for change. I’m reminded that youth can endure an amazing amount of terror and trauma and still heal. Often as adults, we need to remember this because sometimes we forget and project our ways of coping and healing onto youth, which may not be what they need.

As one of the founding members of the Nobel Women’s Initiative, Menchú is one of six women from all over the world who have received the Nobel Peace Prize. The mission of the Nobel Women’s Initiative is described as follows:

It is the heartfelt mission of the Nobel Women’s Initiative to work together as women Nobel Peace Prize Laureates to use the visibility and prestige of the Nobel prize to promote, spotlight, and amplify the work of women’s rights activists, researchers, and organizations worldwide addressing the root causes of violence, in a way that strengthens and expands the global movement to advance nonviolence, peace, justice and equality.  We accomplish this mission through three main strategies: convening, shaping the conversation, and spotlighting and promoting.

The Vision of the Nobel Women’s Initiative is a world transformed, a nonviolent world of security, equality and well-being for all.

She’s been awarded over 30 honorary degrees from universities all over the world. But most importantly, and how I see her fitting into conversations of reproductive justice and sexual health, is how she shared the story of her community in her autobiography and how she responded to the criticisms.

When anthropologist David Stoll decided to research and disprove some inaccuracies of Menchú’s story, his argument was set in the ideology that we can only speak about things we have experienced intimately. When Stoll discovered that some of Menchú’s testimonio was not completely true, he failed to recognize the importance of the collective narrative and testimonio. Menchú has stated numerous times that her story is the story of her people. I very much appreciate this response to his critique and it really has impacted my work in ethnography and research as well.

Although many may be on the same page with Stoll not recognizing the importance of a shared narrative, many of us still refuse to recognize how imperative it remains. I’ve noticed that when people share their own testimonios, even those that we know are not unique to just one person, people still attempt to debunk in those narratives. For some reason people have more to say about people’s personal stories than about any other stories. All I need to do is look at the articles I’ve written here where I’ve gotten the most responses and they are all personal testimonios.

How will our ability to do intake, research, and create programs for communities expand when we embrace the reality that for many people, sharing a narrative is also a way of sharing the story and history of their community? How will this bring up new challenges in how to embrace these shared stories? How can we do this yet refrain from essentializing a community and recognize the differences and complexities for each individual? Finally, when will we in the reproductive justice movement recognize that government violence is not something that happens outside US borders, it happens here at “home” too? We have a collective history of governmental violence and violation that we have inherited. How are we making sure we recognize this history and work to maintain such oppressions do not find themselves here again?

As Menchú has stated: “We are not myths of the past, ruins in the jungle, or zoos. We are people and we want to be respected, not to be victims of intolerance and racism.”

Foto credit: Fundación Rigoberta Menchú Tum

Commentary Race

The #Justice4Jamar Protests Are a Reproductive Justice Issue

Andrea Plaid

The media coverage and governmental responses to the protests in Minneapolis are missing the message that the community is protesting that the police shot Jamar Clark before he had his day in court as someone facing domestic violence charges.

The way the press in Minneapolis, Minnesota, initially reported the Twin Cities’ reaction to the police shooting Jamar Clark is “Black Lives Matter is acting up again—and for no good reason.” That narrative loses the message of why the community is protesting: The police shot Clark before he had his day in court as someone facing domestic violence charges.

In the rush to keep up appearances that the Twin Cities are progressive and “nice,” even as white supremacists further belied that notion by shooting five protesters on November 23, the media coverage and governmental responses are missing the fact that the protests are a reproductive justice matter.

Facts are still unfolding, but here is what has become apparent so far. In the early morning of Sunday, November 15, police and paramedics responded to a domestic violence call in North Minneapolis between Clark and his girlfriend, who lived in the area. The paramedics were giving medical treatment to the girlfriend. Clark, according to reports, tried to interfere with the her treatment. Onlookers say Clark was then handcuffed, a claim the police have denied. One of the two officers on the scene—either Mark Ringgenberg or Dustin Schwarze—allegedly shot Clark in the head. According to Clark’s father, James Hill, he was brain dead when he arrived at the hospital. His family took him off mechanical support on November 16. As of this article, Ringgenberg and Schwarze are on administrative leave.

Black Lives Matter Minneapolis (BLM-Minn) acted like a social media first responder on November 15, alerting its Facebook community of nearly 20,000 people about the shooting as members also used the platform to gather more information about the details from the people who live in the community. The chapter, along with the local NAACP, led a peaceful march and occupation of the 4th Precinct police station later on that Sunday and stated activists would stay in the building and on the property until five initial demands were met.

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These demands were to see footage from the incident; for an independent organization—not the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA), which is attached to Minnesota’s Department of Public Safety, also known as the police—to investigate the shooting; for the media to cover what eyewitnesses saw, not just the police’s perspective; for community oversight with full disciplinary power; and for police officers to live in the communities they serve. Thanks to laws advocated for by not only police unions, but also teachers’ unions and parents, this is not currently a requirement in Minneapolis.

On Monday, November 16, another mix of protesters—including leaders from Black Lives Matter and the local NAACP, other community organizers, and supporters—shut down Interstate 94, about a 30-minute walk from the 4th Precinct police station. Forty-three adults and eight youths were arrested, according to BLM-Minn, and they were released the next day.

Other Minneapolitans and St. Paulites who may not have been able to participate in the direct actions donated food, water, hand warmers, money, and other supplies.

And BLM-Minn ultimately boiled down their demands to three: a release of the footage from all of the available cameras that documented the incident on November 15, an independent federal investigation, and the immediate termination of the officers involved in Clark’s shooting.

So far, the Minneapolis Police Department refuses to release any videos from the paramedics’ vehicle, the Ames Elks Lodge across the street from where the police shot Clark, or any other cameras that could have caught the situation as it unfolded. Black Lives Matter did obtain footage from an onlooker of the cops’ treatment of Clark before the shooting. Minneapolis’ mayor, Betsy Hodges, and Minnesota’s governor, Mark Dayton, requested the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate the shooting. The Hennepin County medical examiner has declared Clark’s death a homicide. The local media is slowly changing its coverage, reworking police statements and tired tropes about BLM-Minn instigating violent demonstrations to include what eyewitnesses said about the unfolding events.

In the process, the police are maintaining that the protesters are acting hostilely, if not violently, even though the videos and photos repeatedly appear to show police acting out—including lying about the protesters being paid operatives, displaying a militarized show of force to remove the protesters from the 4th Precinct, and macing protesters. Journalists and other community storytellers have been arrested for covering what’s going on.

On November 20, Black Lives Matter reported on its Facebook page that white supremacists showed up to the 4th Precinct occupation—complete with one carrying a gun—and promised to show up at a candlelight vigil later this past week. The majority of the Minneapolis City Council is either silent or against Black Lives Matters’ demands, as of this writing.

Those are the facts so far.

As Black Lives Matter leaders and supporters have said locally and nationally, the police are killing Black people regardless of innocence or guilt. Clark was killed before he faced charges of domestic violence. The police accord the expectation to live and breathe to other people for the same crimes. Thus, the protesters and supporters feel the case should have been the same for Clark. Law enforcement, however, gave no regard to that. Constant law enforcement and extralegal threats, such as white supremacists, lessen the quality of life for individuals and for any family they want to form or have formed—a core tenet of reproductive justice.

And these threats from the cops and the racially driven citizen groups are bolstered by stereotypes about Black people, namely that Black men are only hyperviolent brutes and Black women are never victims worthy of genuine empathy. Clark’s girlfriend and sister are offered in the media as indictments of Black Lives Matter and the NAACP. Anti-BLM individuals state, under the guise of caring for Clark’s girlfriend, that BLM-Minn supporters are misguided in their protests because Clark allegedly abused his girlfriend, so, the subtle implication is that the Black women running the organizations are choosing to support the Black man over the woman. The naysayers also offer the video of Clark’s sister, Javille Burns, telling the protesters that their actions “have no goal” and are “pissing people off.” In doing so, they are essentially using her as a Trojan horse for their own racially couched arguments of BLM-Minn mindlessly defending “guilty” Black men and, more to the point, pointlessly disrupting the lives of Minnesotans to seek this unearned justice, which they perceive as “violent” even as the videos have shown the protesters staying peaceful.

Again, the protesters aren’t saying that Clark is innocent; they are saying that he didn’t deserve to die before he was able to have his day in court. Black female activists, from Ida B. Wells to Combahee River Collective members to Angela Davis, haven’t separated themselves from Black men or their defense of Black men dealing with the legal and extralegal system from their feminism. More importantly, none of the people raising these counterarguments are publicly offering help, particularly to the girlfriend they wish to use as a proof against the protests. As studies have proven, such stereotyping—like the belief that Black women don’t deserve genuine empathy—further impacts the lives of Black women as we navigate what Melissa Harris-Perry calls the “crooked room” of racism and sexism. We must deal with our familial, reproductive, sexual, and romantic lives in the midst of couched dismissal of our existences in order to serve as the so-called allies’ political counterarguments to those issues directly affecting us.

Yet, in all of this, very few in the media and government are addressing the systemic structures that allow the reproductive justice issues to fester in North Minneapolis and the state itself. That the Huffington Post and 24/7 Wall Street ranked Minneapolis-St. Paul as the third-worst city in the United States for Black Americans is, at best, met with white progressive hand-wringing and the weird double-talk that is the fine art of “Minnesota Nice.” More often than not, the reports and the statistics as to why the Twin Cities ranked so high—high unemployment, low median income, poverty rates, redlining then gentrifying communities of color, and disproportionately high rates of STIs—are met with relative silence, compared to the screaming outrage a person here sees as the reaction to the protests in North Minneapolis.  

Where reproductive justice is manifesting itself, however, is in the coalitions—which are deeper and broader than BLM-Minn and the local NAACP—that have come to support the #Justice4Jamar protests, with individuals across the racial and religious spectrums within and around North Minneapolis attending the protests and representatives from Indigenous, Asian and Pacific Islander (AAPI), and Muslim and Arab communities, among others, coming down to show support. Mayor Betsy Hodges may have run on a “One Minneapolis” platform, but she is showing so far that it’s a platitude and not a policy with regard to this situation: She endorsed the police’s behavior, it took her a few days after the shooting to request a federal investigation, seemingly only urging from protesters, and, when confronted about her responses, replied in double-talk. But there are Minneapolitans who are actually engaging in that promise.

Commentary Human Rights

12 Ways Young People Organized for Human Rights in 2014

Erin Matson

Contrary to a narrative that young people are apathetic or lazy or too busy texting to care about human rights, in fact young people are at the helm of the movement for justice for all people. I, for one, can't wait to see what they pull off in 2015.

It’s the end of the year, and thus the perfect time to reflect on the ways in which young people in 2014 led the charge for change in the human rights and justice movements.

1. Young people were at the forefront of racial justice activism in 2014. Throughout the history of this country, Black men have been killed at the hands of police officers, often while unarmed, in the name of “safety.” Safety for whom, we don’t know. But what made 2014 different was not the brutality of these murders. Nor was it the unwillingness of grand juries to indict in high-profile cases like the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner at the hands of law enforcement. What made this year different was a grassroots movement, largely led by youth organizers, flooding the streets in Ferguson, conducting die-ins in New York City, shutting down intersections in Washington, D.C., blockading freeways in Oakland, and walking out of classrooms around the country. Young people of color continue to be active leaders and participants in this work to declare that Black lives matter and that police violence must end.

2. Malala Yousafzai became the youngest recipient of a Nobel Peace Prize. Yousafzai, a Pakistani advocate for women and girls and especially access to education, was at age 17 awarded a Nobel Peace Prize for her activism, making her the youngest recipient ever. She began campaigning for education for girls at age 11, and first drew international attention after Taliban fighters shot her in the head. This year Yousafzai traveled to Nigeria, issuing an appeal for increased funding for education after more than 200 girls were abducted from a school by Boko Haram terrorists. Yousafzai’s bravery and moral clarity serve as inspiration to young feminist activists around the world.

3. United We Dream and immigrant youth demanded that the president issue an executive order on immigration. After foot-dragging that extended past the November elections, President Obama made good on a promise to issue an executive order extending relief to undocumented immigrants. The order protects up to five million undocumented residents, and especially the parents of children who have citizenship, as well as the parents of DREAMers brought to the country as children. As with other controversial executive actionsnotably one in which the president refused to extend religious discrimination into an executive order barring employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation by federal contractors—Obama was compelled to act because a left flank used direct action to inject clear moral analysis into the debate. Leading that flank was United We Dream, an immigrant youth-led organization that, among other direct actions, led activists to get arrested outside the office of Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV). In July, activists from the group were escorted out of the Netroots Nation conference while interrupting a speech by Vice President Joe Biden with the chant “stop deporting our families”; after a pause, the vice president encouraged the audience to applaud them.

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4. With one mattress, Emma Sulkowicz turned campus sexual assault into a striking piece of performance art. Sulkowicz, a visual arts major at Columbia University, turned her rape on campus into an unavoidable activist conversation with a piece titled “Carry That Weight,” in which she carried a twin-size dorm mattress around campus to draw attention the fact that her rapist, a fellow student, had not been expelled. Her piece inspired a Carry That Weight Day of Action on more than 100 campuses, with thousands of students carrying mattresses to call for reforms to the way colleges address sexual assault.

5. Know Your IX kept leading a grassroots movement to demand accountability on campus sexual assault. There is no one better to organize against oppression and injustice than those most directly affected, and the growing organization Know Your IX—a reference to Title IX, under which educational institutions receiving federal funding must address sexual assault as a civil rights obligation—does just that. The survivor-led and student-driven group, founded last year, remained at the forefront of efforts to inform students who have been sexually assaulted of their rights and demand that the Department of Education improve its enforcement of the law. These efforts played a clear role in a new national dialogue about campus sexual assault and the unveiling of the It’s On Us campaign by the Obama administration in September.

6. Young people participated in and led abortion speak-outs. 2014 continued to be a challenging year for abortion rights in the legislatures; as of December 1, states had enacted 23 new restrictions on abortion access. However, advocates are actively working to create culture change around abortion and break stigma through storytelling. Young people were among the 100 individuals participating in the first-ever live-streamed abortion speak-out hosted by the 1 in 3 Campaign, which is run by Advocates for Youth. Abortion speak-outs also occurred during in-person events on college campuses, including the University of Michigan, the University of Central Michigan, and the University of Central Florida, where hundreds attended.

7. Emily Letts filmed and shared her abortion, demystifying the process. Letts, a counselor at Cherry Hill Women’s Center in New Jersey, filmed her abortion and shared the video online, an act that showed a common medical procedure as it truly is. “I could have taken the pill, but I wanted to do the one that women were most afraid of,” she told Cosmopolitan. “I wanted to show it wasn’t scary—and that there is such a thing as a positive abortion story.” The video has been watched more than a million times.

8. Alex, an 8-year-old-boy, rapped about coming out as transgender to his mom. The confluence of rampant discrimination and inadequate legal protections for transgender people hits youth particularly hard; more than half of transgender youth will attempt suicide by age 20. But in one short viral video released by Camp Aranu’tiq, a camp for transgender youth, an 8-year-old boy named Alex seized a difficult narrative and turned it into a source for hope. His rap details his positive story of coming out as transgender to his mom, and ends with a call that “We all deserve freedom, love, and respect!”

9. Pro-choice students at Catholic-affiliated universities fought back against restrictions on reproductive and sexual rights, and free speech. One of the primary faces of today’s pro-discrimination movement is the religiously affiliated university. Playing a prominent role among those are Catholic-affiliated colleges attempting to hold a line for the archconservative U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. In 2014, students and their allies at these institutions fought back. In Indiana, three Notre Dame students using the pseudonyms Jane Doe 1, Jane Doe 2, and Jane Doe 3 joined a brief opposing their university’s lawsuit against the birth control benefit. In the District of Columbia, students from the group H*yas for Choice were removed by campus police twice this year for tabling in peaceful protest of the Vatican’s stance on reproductive rights and LGBTQ rights; these efforts have led the group to grow in popularity and size.

10. A Florida youth council fought for access to comprehensive sexual education, and won. The Broward County Youth Council, a leadership group of ten high school, college, and graduate students, fought long and hard to have the Broward County school board adopt comprehensive sexual education standards, and that fight culminated in 2014 with a big win. Students in the county will now receive medically accurate, LGBTQ-inclusive sexual education. As local student Keyanna Suarez told CBS Miami after the vote, “There’s not gonna be a taboo about anything. Everyone’s gonna be able to open up, ask questions, and get the info they need to make these decisions because some parents aren’t giving them the education at home.” Broward County is the sixth largest public school system in the country.

11. Colorado high school students walked out of class to protest a proposal to downplay the role of protest in U.S. history. In September, hundreds of high school students in the Denver area walked out of their classrooms in protest of a proposal to focus history curricula on topics that promote respect for authority. “I don’t think my education should be censored,” Tori Leu, a student who protested at Ralston Valley High School told the Guardian. “We should be able to know what happened in our past.” One month later, the Jefferson County School Board passed a compromise proposal that essentially overruled the proposed change.

12. The Harry Potter Alliance tackled income inequality with creativity. The alliance, which engages Harry Potter fans, used the recent success of The Hunger Games to engage young people in income inequality activism. The Odds in Our Favor campaign uses the #MyHungerGames hashtag to encourage people to share their personal stories about class-based injustice. The organization has also compiled pictures of youth using the story’s three-finger salute to protest income inequality.

Baker’s dozen bonus: Rewire continued to foster and share the voices of young people on the important issues of sexual and reproductive rights, health, and justice. As a proud servant leader of the Rewire young writers program, I would be remiss not to mention the commitment of this publication to young people. It was on full display in 2014.

In July, Associate Editor Regina Mahone traveled to Detroit to attend the Youth Sexuality Media Forum; you can read her resulting report on how the media can better cover youth sexuality here. President and Editor in Chief Jodi Jacobson spoke to 19 young reproductive rights activists from around the world at a Youth Champions Initiative in Palo Alto, and Senior Legal Analyst Imani Gandy and Investigative Fellow Zoe Greenberg attended in-person as well; you can read Imani and Zoe’s fantastic conversation with four of the youth champions here.

The participants in our young writers program receive mentoring, intensive coaching, and editorial support beyond the bounds of what traditional freelance writers receive, and publish pieces on Rewire at a competitive rate. What follows is just a small sample of what those participants published this year. Emily Spangler, a high school student in Illinois, wrote about how other young women can get involved in politics; Marcus Lee, a student at Morehouse College, discussed ways men can embrace a culture of consent; Erin McKelle, a student at Ohio University, took a look at the consequences of young people not voting; Lizzie Fierro, a high school student in Texas, spelled out how we can combat sexism in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) subjects; and Briana Dixon, a student at Spelman College, took a nuanced look at the news of a couple who sued a sperm bank after mistakenly receiving a Black sperm donor. (Insert group hug!)

Contrary to a narrative that young people are apathetic or lazy or too busy texting to care about human rights, in fact young people are at the helm of the movement for justice for all people. I, for one, can’t wait to see what they pull off in 2015.