Latino Heritage Month Meets Reproductive Justice & Sexual Health: Focus on Sandra Cisneros

Bianca I. Laureano

In celebration of Latino Heritage Month, this is the fifth in a series about people 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, Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, Rigoberta Menchú Tum and Gwen Araujo.

Sandra Cisneros

Author, Poet

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You’ll hear a lot about Sandra Cisneros during Latino Heritage Month. I hope you hear even more about her every other month too! Cisneros has made a name for herself through her writing, storytelling, poetry, and testimonies. For many of my friends of various ethnic backgrounds, Cisneros’ poems and literature has affirmed many of our identities and choices we have made for ourselves.

I’ll admit, that when I read House On Mango Street I was much younger and did not appreciate the text upon first or second read. Her text was a part of a US Latino literature course and I remember thinking “why are all the authors Chican@ and only two authors from other countries?” This was a very usual space for me to occupy: trying to find myself represented in the texts we were reading. Yet, there were no LatiNegr@ authors on the syllabus at that time.

Not until I read Loose Woman: Poems did my love affair with Cisneros begin. When I knew I was to do this work in the sexual science field, I was very much alone. There were so many people who made assumptions about the work I wanted to do and how I wanted to create change within our communities. As I began to read Cisneros’ poems in Loose Woman, I realized that the stereotypes and questioning of my intentions was nothing new, but had occurred for generations to women, especially women of Color who challenged the ways we were socialized to examine and understand our sexuality.

There was power that I found in reading about the ideas, and the forms of resistance that Cisneros’ presents through her poetry. It was as if her words were a new weapon in my arsenal towards becoming the radical sexuality educator I desired to evolve into. Aside from having her books translated in over 10 languages, Sandra Cisneros represents resistance through creativity and spirituality, many things Anzaldúa wrote about creating.

Cisneros approaches the ideas of assimilation from a very different perspective than we hear about usually. The idea that any group of people is “better off” or more successful assimilating to a dominant culture, or a different culture (whatever it may be), is overwhelming. Almost all the research I’ve read that connects teenage pregnancy, STI rates, and sexual violence mention assimilation. This is especially true for Latin@s living in the US. This data always left me with the questions of: what about youth who grew up like me? What about youth who grew up to 4th and 5th generation families who are not Chican@?

I’ve always taught Cisneros’ book Loose Woman: Poems in my Women, Art & Culture and in my Human Sexuality classes. Not only does she give voice to lived experiences that are often demonized in some Latin@ communities, but also among communities that have socialized women to desire monogamous partnerships and marriage. Her poem “Old Maids” is one I reread often as a reminder that the choice I have made about partnering and marriage. She writes:


But we’ve studied
marriages too long—

Aunt Ariadne,
Tía Vashti,
Comadre Penelope,
querida Malintzín,
Señora Pumpkin Shell—

Lessons that served us well
Pg. 10 [italics in the original]

This poem speaks to choice, expectations, and wisdom. It is rare when critiques consider how observation may play a role in the choices some people make, especially women, in their choice to not partner in traditional ways. Cisneros discusses women from Greek mythology (Ariadne and Penelope), women from the Old Testament (Vashti), Nahua women from Mexico (Malintzín), and discussed in popular nursery rhymes (Pumpkin Shell) as people she and her cousins have observed.

Other poems I adore from this text include “You Bring Out The Mexican In Me” where her line “I am evil. I am the filth goddess Tlazoltéotl./I am the swallower of sins./The lust goddess without guilt” (p. 6). Her poem “Full Moon and You’re Not Here” I’ve literally recited to potential lovers as an important example of women of Color “controlling the gaze” and controlling our own sexuality. She ends the poem: “You’re in love with my mind./But sometimes, sweetheart,/a woman needs a man/who loves her ass” (p. 55).

I recall reciting the poem “Down There” about menstruation and claiming how “I’m artist each month” (p. 83) at a Latino Heritage Month event 7 years ago. The room was silent. What I most adore about Cisneros is her metaplasm, or word play, on names. In her poem “Loose Woman” she declares “By all accounts I am/a danger to society./I’m Pancha Villa” (p. 113). She feminizes the iconography of Pancho Villa, Mexican revolutionary, by claiming herself “Pancha Villa.”

The many ways Cisneros has made a space for herself in US Literature is something folks usually hear about. The many ways she’s moved conversations about sexuality, Latin@ sexuality, and our bodies as women of Color are often overlooked or a side or footnote. Yet, for many of us doing this work around reproductive justice, she gives us a form of art in amazing forms that represent, appreciate, support, and transmit culture. A culture where Latina sexualities are not dichotomies, centered in pleasure, expected and celebrated. This is my kind of party!

foto credit:© Ruben Guzman via Random House, Inc.

Analysis Sexual Health

Millennial Attitudes on Reproductive and Sexual Health Show Promise for Advocates

Elizabeth Dawes Gay

A new survey suggests that advocates have an opportunity to engage millennials in working toward unfettered access to reproductive health information and services.

This piece is published in collaboration with Echoing Ida, a Forward Together project.

Last week, the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI)—a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that conducts research to better understand debates on public policy issues—released its new survey, How Race and Religion Shape Millennial Attitudes on Sexuality and Reproductive Health. One of the largest of its kind, the survey sought to examine how race, religion, and politics shape young people’s attitudes on reproductive and sexual health, as well as on morality and stigma.

Millennials—young adults born in the 1980s and 1990s—came of age during a time when antibiotic-resistant sexually transmitted infections became a public health threat, racial disparities in reproductive and sexual health outcomes persisted, and politicians continued to systematically deny and attack their ability to access sexual health information and health care services, such as contraception and abortion. That may be why, when compared to the general public, so many of the 2,314 young adults ages 18-to-35 in the survey were less likely to identify with either of the two major political parties, and have a pessimistic view about the direction of the country.

Also, my generation is the first generation to have not known a world before the risk of HIV and AIDS became a widely known epidemic—a sobering reminder of the context in which today’s young people were born and still live. This could explain why 87 percent of millennials believe health plans should cover HIV and STD testing.

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Fortunately, the report suggests that millennial attitudes about reproductive and sexual health are promising, especially around sexual health education, contraception, and abortion. Further, the findings of this poll and others published recently suggest advocates have an opportunity to engage millennials—estimated to be the nation’s largest living generation—in working toward unfettered access to reproductive health information and services.

Sex Ed

Seventy-five percent of millennials surveyed support comprehensive sex education in public schools. They want accurate information about their bodies, about sex and relationships, and about how to protect their health. That’s a big deal because one in four of those surveyed were not taught any sex education, and, among those who were, four in ten said their sex ed classes were not helpful to them in making sex and relationship decisions. In a nation where half of states require health educators emphasize abstinence-only, our policymakers are clearly out of touch with what young people want and needcomprehensive sex health education that is scientifically accurate and teaches young people how to protect themselves and have healthy relationships.

SisterReach, an organization based in Memphis, Tennessee, focused on empowering Black women and girls around their reproductive and sexual health, also released a report last week that emphasizes the need for comprehensive sex education, especially in a state that promotes abstinence-only education. The report, Our Voices and Experiences Matter, found that misinformation often fills the gaps abstinence-only education leaves behind. According to the report, one teen in a focus group said, “Guys talk about trying to make their own condoms—Saran Wrap.”

The focus groups found that teens, their parents, and their teachers show a desire and need for curriculum that provides young people with scientifically accurate information and equips them to make healthy decisions.  The report concludes that Tennessee must change its sex ed curriculum and include input from young people, parents, and teachers.

Lack of appropriate and accurate sexual health education ultimately affects the health and life outcomes of the young people. For example, researchers found that young people who received comprehensive sex ed were less likely to report pregnancy than those who received abstinence-only education.

Contraception

According to the report, millennials want access to contraception even more than they want comprehensive sex education taught in public schools. More than half (55 percent) of those surveyed are opposed to requiring a prescription for emergency contraception. Seventy-eight percent support making all forms of contraception readily available on college campuses, and 82 percent think prescription birth control should be covered by health insurance. Additionally, 81 percent support increasing access to contraception for women who cannot afford it. The availability and affordability of contraception matters to millennials and a large majority—both Democratic and Republican millennials alike—believe using contraception is morally acceptable.

Support for the increased availability and affordability of contraception is nothing new. Specifically, a 2013 poll found that African Americans of all ages and religious and political affiliations overwhelmingly view contraception as basic health care that should be covered, along with testing for sexually transmitted infections and abortion care, by health insurance.

All of this recent research suggests millennials want to decide whether and when to have children, and want people to have ready access to the information and services they need to carry out their decisions.

Abortion

At first glance, survey respondents appear to be divided ideologically among religious and political lines when it comes to abortion, but a closer look yields some encouraging insights. Amongst all respondents, just over half (55 percent) think abortion should be legal in all or most cases and oppose making abortion more difficult to obtain. But those who know someone who had an abortion are more likely to oppose restricting access to safe abortion care. Among those who have had an abortion themselves, 73 percent oppose making it more difficult to access, and 79 percent say abortion should be legal in all or most cases.

Data from the reproductive health field confirm that individuals are willing to be non-judgmental and support those who seek abortion care. As recently as 2014, polling commissioned by the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health showed that—among Latino voters in Texas—78 percent agree that a woman has the right to make her own personal decisions about abortion, and eight in ten would offer support to a loved one who had an abortion.

These data, as well as other data in the PRRI report not covered here, demonstrate that individual reproductive and sexual health decision making is important to young people and that they value having access to helpful information and health-care services. In fact, millennials are speaking up online, in the streets, and even on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court to fight for the health care they need. As a generation that was born into a world with a growing number of health concerns and lives in a political environment that is hostile to reproductive health decisions, millennials recognize there is still a great deal of progress to be made. Our engagement, our advocacy, and our votes could turn the tide.

There will be opportunities to use this and other data to inform reproductive and sexual health policymaking. I hope those opportunities are taken and include the voices and perspectives of young people, because they could help improve the health outlook in the country for generations to come.

Commentary Religion

Beyond Choice: How We Learned to Stop Labeling and Love Reproductive Justice

Jessica González-Rojas & Kierra Johnson

It seems that mainstream reproductive health and rights groups are realizing the limitations of reductive labels like "pro-choice." And that's a good thing.

It’s only March, and already 2013 has been a year of change for pro-choice politics. In January, Planned Parenthood made headlines by urging people to “move beyond pro-choice and pro-life labels,” acknowledging that “these labels limit the conversation.” Big changes have been happening at NARAL too, as longtime leader Nancy Keenan stepped down to make room for younger leaders. The group welcomed a new president, Ilyse Hogue, who came from the world of online organizing.

Taken together, these changes seem to indicate that more mainstream reproductive health and rights groups are realizing the limitations of reductive labels like “pro-choice” and the narrow priorities and approaches that have characterized the most visible aspects of these movements for four decades. As reproductive justice (RJ) movement leaders, and leaders of organizations that represent young people and people of color, we applaud these shifts in language approach and leadership. We also recognize and thank our sisters and forerunners in the RJ movement for recognizing these limitations and forging new paths nearly 30 years ago.

As the recent PBS documentary MAKERS reminds us, women of color were excluded—and resisted exclusion—from the mainstream feminist and choice movements from the very beginning. In response, reproductive justice, as a concept and later a movement, began to take shape in the late 1980s as women of color created their own language and infrastructures to achieve health, dignity, and justice for themselves and their communities. “Not wanting to use the language of ‘choice’ because they represented communities with few real choices, they integrated the concepts of reproductive rights, social justice and human rights to launch the term ‘Reproductive Justice,’” SisterSong founder Loretta Ross once wrote. The term launched a diverse movement that today advances issues from sex education to environmental health and from immigration reform to birth justice.

To be clear, reproductive justice is not a label—it’s a mission. It describes our collective vision: a world where all people have the social, political, and economic power and resources to make healthy decisions about gender, bodies, sexuality, reproduction, and families for themselves and their communities. And it provides an inclusive, intersectional framework for bringing that dream into being. Reproductive justice is visionary, it’s complex, it doesn’t fit neatly on a bumper sticker, and it has a lot to teach us about how to be successful in a changed and changing world.

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For instance, embracing reproductive justice approaches has allowed groups like Choice USA to successfully engage, mobilize, and develop a diverse group of young leaders for 20 years, despite the misplaced handwringing about young folks’ supposed lack of engagement on reproductive health issues. Similarly, reproductive justice organizing and intersectional messaging has enabled the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health (NLIRH) to engage Latino/as of all ages to support access to affordable health care, including abortion, heath equity, LGBTQ health and rights, and dignity for immigrant women and families.

By moving beyond labels, we have also been able to get a stronger, clearer sense of where our communities and constituencies stand on important issues. An NLIRH poll that referenced abortion in a way that resonated with many Latinos found that roughly 80 percent of respondents would support a close friend or family member who had an abortion—even though many of those people identified as “pro-life.” Recent polling shows that nearly 70 percent of young people want abortion to remain safe and legal. To put an even finer point on the problem with “pro-choice” versus “pro-life” language, recent polling from the Public Religion Research Institute shows that many people of color identify as both “pro-life” and “pro-choice.” Choice USA long ago scrapped “pro-choice” as a required identity to attend trainings; instead they search for young people who were committed to reproductive justice values, regardless of labels.

For two decades, we’ve been successful in mobilizing Latino/as and young people—groups that have become increasingly coveted by pollsters and political strategists alike—precisely because we’ve been able to move past labels, speak their language (figuratively and literally), and meet people where they are. We’ve also learned to incorporate the cultural touchpoints, histories, and modern heroes that are relevant to these groups. A young person may not feel a strong connection to Roe v. Wade, but she may connect to Krysten Sinema or Samhita Mukhopadhyay. A Latina may not feel drawn in by the story of Norma McCorvey, but she may relate deeply to Dolores Huerta or Angy Rivera.

We often hear heartbreaking stories from women who must make tough decisions about their health, lives, and caring for their families. It’s not unusual for us to hear from a woman struggling to care for her children because she’s paid less than her male counterparts, a woman who can’t access abortion because she doesn’t have a clinic in her state, or a young queer person whose education is endangered by bullying at school. A reproductive justice framework acknowledges these real-life conflicts and challenges the structural barriers that perpetuate injustice.

Here’s the really good news: Although the reproductive health and rights movements are reorienting in search of new, more effective ways to engage the “emerging electorate,” that electorate is already living and voting based on its progressive values. Who was responsible for re-electing President Obama? It was widely reported that women, generally speaking, were responsible for Obama’s victory, but it was only because women of color voted in such high numbers that there was even an aggregate gender gap. Young people also played a critical role in the 2012 elections, including youth of color who turned out in record numbers, despite active suppression efforts. A recent Wall Street Journal poll showed that support for abortion rights in the United States is at an all-time high, and the researchers credited Black and Latino Americans for driving the upswing.

Young people and people of color will continue to play significant roles in the future of our movements and the future of our nation, and our experiences have taught us that reproductive justice-informed organizing and advocacy may well be the key to reaching them. It’s exciting to see how advocates are recognizing and adapting to the needs of our increasingly diverse audiences and to the complex world we inhabit. It will be even more exciting to watch as more people begin to engage more deeply with the framework, principles, and values of reproductive justice and to see how all corners of progressive activism and advocacy might benefit.