Commentary Abortion

The People of Color Activists Whose Voices Are Too Often Missing From Stories About Texas’ ‘Orange Army’

Shailey Gupta-Brietzke

As we mark the anniversary of Texas' omnibus anti-abortion bill being signed into law, much of the focus has been on Austin-based reproductive rights organizing and the work of white women in largely white organizations. Here are some of the the stories of activists of color whose voices have been missing from many of these conversations.

July 18 marks the one-year anniversary of Texas’ omnibus anti-abortion legislation, HB 2, being signed into law in Texas. After reading many articles, interviews, and histories about what happened last year, and how it is remembered, I realized that something was largely missing from these pieces: the voices and stories of activists of color.

Much of the attention has focused on Austin-based organizing and the work of white women in largely white organizations. In critiquing the political action and call to arms last summer regarding abortion access and clinic closures, several folks brought honest concerns about the lack of visibility of people of color and people from outside Austin as well as a lack of coordination with organizations and groups run by people of color. But these concerns were not new to statewide organizations, partisan politics, or reproductive health movements in or outside of Texas.

In seeing media focus again on the stories, work, and histories of Austin-based organizing to ensure abortion access for the entire hugely diverse state, I wanted to make sure that a few of the voices of activists outside of Austin were highlighted as well.

As Texas and Texans have been fighting back against these harmful abortion restrictions and the effects in their communities, I decided to reach out to a group of activists around the state, from El Paso to Denton to Houston to San Antonio to the Rio Grande Valley. I interviewed people who self-identified as activists in many senses of the word—they are speaking about abortion access to people they meet, registering people to vote, organizing political protests, funding abortions, and building coalitions and relationships across issues. These activists, who are mostly life-long Texans, also self-identify in a number of different ways: Black, African American, Latina, South Asian, queer, female, cisgender, or immigrant.

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Several activists pointed out that their calendars are filled from week to week with feminist gatherings and groups, which has increased substantially since last summer. With the use of social media specifically connected to this movement, many are finding new groups and like-minded individuals in their communities every day. It is clear that activism around reproductive health, sexuality, and access to abortion is alive around the state of Texas.

Just this past month, there have been protests of the Hobby Lobby ruling, feminist reading group meetings, and feminist tweetups in multiple cities. Houston-based Latina activist Amanda Williams, who sits on the board of the Lilith Fund, a local abortion fund, says, “we have to find each other outside of Austin,” and she is right. We do, we are, and we have.

I asked the activists whether they had concerns about the movement last summer, whether they voiced them, and whether or not they have seen change. Some were hesitant, but many voiced the importance of hearing from people of color, especially those outside of Austin. It was clear that many lived experiences and voices were missing from the testimony in legislative hearings, from the words spoken by Congress members, and even on social media. This was upsetting, because the conversations happening in the media and in politics weren’t reflective of the people who would be most affected by the abortion access crisis. One of the major themes throughout these interviews was the lack of recognition of privilege—last year and even today.

Nancy Cardenas, a 23-year-old Latina activist from the Rio Grande Valley (who now lives in Austin), testified eloquently and bravely at many of the committee hearings last year. At those hearings, she repeatedly heard, “Doesn’t the Valley care about the effects of anti-abortion restrictions?” Cardenas told me, “The simple act of being able to stand and protest on behalf of an issue that we care about so much is a privilege in itself. … [W]hile we’re all protesting at the capitol, there are certain issues that are exclusive to marginalized communities like the Rio Grande Valley.” There were significant barriers that people in the Rio Grande Valley (RGV) faced to come and testify to have their voices heard, and there were not many who could overcome those barriers. Even politicians and advocacy groups did not do an adequate job of ensuring that the issues unique to the RGV were addressed—issues such as the effects of immigration checkpoints, difficulty with travel, lack of monetary and financial resources, and language barriers.

Annette Torres, a Latina who has lived in the Rio Grande Valley and El Paso, felt like her “concerns were [her] own bias.” As a person of color, I know what she means. Often times, our lived experiences and identities are not included in the work of the movement, or they are included superficially. She said, “I never think that it’s enough. When you’ve lived so far [from Austin], for so long, any mention or thought is applauded. That is our downfall.” Clearly, the issues affecting these other regions of Texas were neglected, because activists from those areas were not able to provide information, gather stories, or share the additional difficulties these laws would impose in their own words.

The political conversation has rarely been inclusive and representative of women of color’s voices and perspectives. Although we have allies who understand the issues and try to make a stand, it’s often not the same as uplifting the people and the voices that abortion access directly effects.

More media focus has come to the Rio Grande Valley recently; however, it’s not RGV-based people doing the speaking. Melissa Arjona, a Latina activist from the RGV, says that “I’d also like to see Valley people doing some of the storytelling as well.” Arjona goes on to point out that even though the Rio Grande Valley faces significant barriers to abortion access, so does Laredo (a border town on the bank of the Rio Grande River in the southwest part of the state), but little attention is given to that community, even though many of the barriers are the same: distance, immigration checkpoints, lack of available transportation to make the 150-mile journey to San Antonio, and limited financial resources. Arjona notes that many people and politicians “intellectually know about the barriers that people in the RGV face, especially now that the media [has] been doing more features on the RGV, but it’s hard to get a grasp of the actual scope.”

“The checkpoints and the Border Patrol presence are hard things to wrap your head around unless you’ve actually seen them and seen how intimidating they can be,” she said. And she is right. The experience of living in the RGV has value to this conversation, and it shouldn’t continue to be left out of the conversations about abortion access in Texas.

Lindsey Rodriguez, a Latina activist who lives and works in San Antonio, where she serves aspresident of the Lilith Fund, pointed out, “If activism is a job that means you have to be able to show up in another city on a weekday on short notice, it’s never going to reach the people who need it most.”

For anyone outside of Austin, political activism at the Texas legislature is a privilege; the simple act of sharing your story or lived experiences to the Texas legislature is a privilege. Those who don’t have that privilege bring significant value to the work of the abortion access and reproductive justice movement in Texas. It’s not that important work isn’t being done in other communities, or that residents there don’t care about the impact of anti-choice restrictions—rather, they don’t have the privilege to drop everything, get in the car, drive for many hours, and wait at the capitol to have their voice heard. Even many of the activists I spoke to couldn’t drop everything and go to Austin. They had other commitments, like work, school, or child-care, or they just couldn’t commit to drive hundreds of miles to Austin.

Although there have been a lot of words written, speeches given, and panels organized about abortion access in Texas, it feels like we’ve been hearing all the same things from all the same voices for the past year. Amanda Williams told me, “We haven’t been creating a chance for other voices, we have been going to our go-tos.

“We are missing certain stories. When the same people write and tell the story about access for abortion in our state, we are missing out on really important stories,” she added.

Williams’ critique is not unique. Nancy Cardenas also told me that she’s asked far more often whether she knows someone who can speak about abortion access in the RGV or Texas, rather than if she is available to do it herself.

As with many activists, Cardenas believes it is important for the abortion access movement in Texas to be intentional about including “people of color and communities struggling with representation [because they] are often left out of the conversation.” And if we fail to be more inclusive, “we are not doing our movement justice.”

For systematic change, there has to be a substantial shift in the power dynamic.

Imagine if the abortion access movement is a small dining room table. Several people sit at the table pretty regularly; they are the easily recognizable faces of abortion access in Texas. This is the table where opportunities show up, decisions are made, and platforms are built—the history of the abortion access movement lives at this table, and the future of abortion access lives here too. The people at the table need to recognize and appreciate the value of diverse voices, and create welcoming space at the table for those other people and voices to be heard. The space has to be positive and welcoming, and it has to be created from the current people at the table. People have to pass on opportunities to have their voice and perspective heard to someone who has something important to say but hasn’t yet been heard—someone who is speaking about their work in Dallas or Houston or El Paso, and who is speaking from their lived experiences.

People have to recognize the value in many voices of this movement, and how that makes our movement grow stronger—not divides or weakens it. We have to recognize that to fight back against these truly harmful abortion restrictions, we have to have a movement bigger than Austin, bigger than the Texas Democratic Party, bigger than all the current people at the table, and bigger than the roar at the capitol on that hot Texas night that shut it all down. Then, we will truly have the power to fight back.

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