Hispanic Heritage Month, which began on September 15 and ends on October 15, is a time to reflect on where I come from, which for me, is a reminder that I owe a lot to my mother, a first-generation American whose family is from Mexico.
In addition to teaching me how to make her famous salsa recipe, how to dance, and that the toilet paper roll is supposed to hang over not under, she also taught me about love of community and being kind to others. As Catholics we always operated under the golden rule, “treat others the way you’d like to be treated.” She is the one who instilled in me that being part of a community is about caring for and supporting one another, whether it’s a family member, a friend, or neighbor.
I don’t often talk about my job with my mamá. Like many other Chicana feminists I know, we often operate under an unofficial “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. She knows that I organize and speak out around access to abortion, but she doesn’t ever ask me about it. It’s not that my mamá is against abortion. In fact, I know she feels how a lot of Latin@s feel about abortion in this country; she doesn’t fall into a typical “pro-life” or pro-choice label and instead holds complex feelings based on a variety of factors. Personally, she has reservations about abortion when it comes to herself, but at the same time she believes it is not her place to judge or condemn others. If anyone in her life wanted to seek an abortion, she would do whatever she could to support them.
I was very religious when I was younger, but my devotion began to break down in high school when I started to feel like I was being taught unfair and conflicting lessons about sex, sexuality, and abortion by faith leaders in my church. I had been led to believe that sex was sinful and that women who had sex before marriage were immoral—sluts. Things changed for me when, in tenth grade, my good friend told me she was raped at a party. My religious teachings about virtue and purity seemed to make so much sense until, suddenly, it was also so clear to me that what happened was not her fault. Shortly after that happened, I was chastised by my youth minister for having a conversation with another teenage girl about what “birth control” was (our school, and entire state really, had abstinence-only sex education, so it wasn’t really surprising that most young people our age were clueless about the ins and outs of sex). My real-life experiences were showing me that life is not lived in black and white, yet I was told sternly that speaking about birth control and sexual health wasn’t “appropriate” and these types of conversations should be left between a child and their parent—something that in actuality, at least in my community, rarely happened.
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I felt a similar discomfort about abortion. But slowly over time, the lessons I was being taught by my mother, such as treating others the way you want to be treated, started to make me reassess that. I did not want to be judged for the thoughtful decisions I made about my own body. I did not want to be stigmatized or shamed for my sexuality. And I did not want to judge, stigmatize, or shame others either.
I have a tendency to push people beyond their comfort zones. Knowing my mother’s complex feelings about abortion, when my parents came to visit me for the first time in Washington, D.C., which coincidentally was a big day for reproductive health, I decided to use that as an opportunity to finally have a talk about my abortion advocacy work.
The visit was the day that All* Above All, a coalition dedicated to lifting bans on abortion coverage, announced with members of Congress the introduction of the EACH Woman Act. The EACH Woman Act is a proactive bill to end the Hyde Amendment and similar restrictions on federal funding for abortion. Due to the Hyde Amendment, which turned 39 this year, people who have insurance coverage through a publicly funded health program, like Medicaid, can’t use their insurance to cover the cost of abortion. I think that a person should have access to safe and affordable abortion care regardless of their income or the type of insurance they have, so for me the introduction of this bill—the first of its kind—was a pretty big deal.
So there we were, my parents and I, eating some chili together at Ben’s Chili Bowl, when I told my mom that I was excited about this new bill because it would make a difference for so many people seeking abortion care. We talked about her religious upbringing and the things she heard about abortion in Catholic school. We discussed the concerns she had about why people choose abortion, and she admitted that she was unsure about the idea of Medicaid coverage. She also asked a lot of great questions like, “So if a woman doesn’t have the money to buy contraception and gets pregnant, and then doesn’t have the money to pay for an abortion…what is she supposed to do? Magically find money to raise a child?” (While my father was present, he did not contribute to our conversation.)
My mother may not feel comfortable with why someone might choose abortion, but to her it doesn’t make sense to deny access to health care just because of how much money someone makes or the type of insurance they have. And on this last point, we can agree.
My mother and I may not see eye-to-eye on everything, but I’m glad that she has taught me her values of support and kindness. These are the values that drive me and fuel the passion for my work. I am glad that she has shown me that I shouldn’t be afraid to ask questions, even if they are uncomfortable ones, and that I should always operate from a place of love.
She has taught me that we can respect a person’s ability to make their own life decisions without imposing our values and views on them. That we should each appreciate and respect everyone’s beliefs, especially when it comes to people we love. That all people should have the economic, social, and political power to live happy lives, and that all people should have access to information and resources to make healthy decisions about their bodies.
Back at dinner, I finally asked the question I’ve always wanted to ask my mamá but never before this moment had the right words.
“I know it’s easy to say that you wouldn’t judge when it’s talking about someone else getting an abortion… but what if it were me?”
Without hesitating my mamá said, “Raquelita, no matter what, it’s my job to always support and love you, and that has and will never change.”