Filmmaker Renee Tajima-Peña was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary for her film Who Killed Vincent Chin?, which aired on PBS back in 1989. She’s hardly sat still since then; her films have premiered at Sundance, Cannes, San Francisco International, New Directors/New Films, Toronto, the Whitney Biennial and other festivals around the world. And as she tells it in the interview to follow, when something shocks her, makes her angry, and fascinates her, Tajima-Peña won’t sit still then, either.
Her film No Más Bebés was born from shock and anger, but also the determination to make a balanced film about a little-known but landmark event in reproductive justice, when a small group of Mexican immigrant women sued county doctors, the state, and the U.S. government after they were sterilized while giving birth at Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center during the late 1960s and early 1970s.
When did you first learn of this story about the women who went through the unwanted sterilization at LA County-USC Medical Center? Were you familiar with other cases like this happening elsewhere?
I knew about the sterilization of Puerto Rican women. It was a massive number. A study in 1968 found that over a third of Puerto Rican women between 29-40 years old were sterilized. Like many other people, I learned about that history from Ana Maria Garcia’s classic documentary, La Operación. It was made over 30 years ago, around 1981, and it’s still one of the only films about unconsented sterilizations in the U.S. A really powerful film.
I grew up in the Los Angeles area, but I had never heard about the L.A. County Hospital case. We’ve been doing a lot of screenings, including right here on the eastside [of L.A.], and most people are shocked to learn of the story. Even family members of the plaintiffs either didn’t know what had happened, or the full impact of what happened.
I first heard about this case from our producer, Virginia Espino, who’s a historian. We’re neighbors and our kids are the same age. We used to have play dates when they were little, and we’d talk about our work, and Virginia told me about her research on Mexican American women who’d been sterilized at L.A. County Hospital. Our neighborhood is just a few miles from there, so it was amazing to me that I’d never heard of the sterilizations.
The story really struck me in a very visceral way because at the time I was a new mother, and I was in such baby bliss about the whole experience of pregnancy, childbirth, and being a parent. I embodied every cliché about the joys of motherhood. So when Virginia told me about women who’d been sterilized without their consent, it hit me in the gut. I couldn’t imagine having that taken away from me. I make films when something pisses me off, and this pissed me off. Of course, once you start researching and talking to people, you always realize there are different layers to the story, there are complexities and shades of gray, and competing perspectives. But at the start of a film project, there’s often just the outrage.
They ultimately lost the Madrigal vs. Quilligan court case but do you think having this film made helps them feel a sense of justice after all?
I can’t honestly say. Can a film help to bring a sense of justice or — and this is a word I hate to use — closure? They lost something that is so fundamental to their humanity — the ability to have a child. The idea of family, and the investment we make in imagining a child, trying to get pregnant, building a home, the planning and care and love, it’s at the core of being a parent. One of the mothers, Melvina Hernandez, told us that she and her husband waited several years to have a second child. They wanted to be financially secure, and they understood it was healthier for the second baby if they were spaced apart. So a few years after giving birth to their first child at the hospital, they decided the time was right to have another baby. But Melvina couldn’t get pregnant. She went to the doctor and found out she was sterilized. How do you make up for that kind of loss?
I think it does make a difference that their voice is finally being heard. Four of the mothers came to the premiere of the film at the Los Angeles Film Festival, and they brought their extended families. The response from the audience, and from their families, was powerful. At the premiere, the sister of one of the women stood up during the Q&A and said she had no idea, and now she understood what [her sister] went through. It was incredibly moving. We were worried that they might be unnerved being on stage in front of a big audience in a theater, but they were as funny and moving as they were on camera. They’re really rock stars with an audience!
I know the film took awhile to complete; what were some of the challenges and obstacles you had to overcome to tell this story as a finished film?
This story had been almost forgotten for decades, and just a handful of scholars and activists like Virginia had kept it alive. When we started looking for the mothers, we had a really hard time tracking them down. No one had talked to them in all these years, and all we had to go on was the old court record. So we literally walked the streets and knocked on doors trying to find them. Someone told us Dolores Madrigal went to mass every Saturday at a church in Mid-City [L.A.], so we’d just go there and wait for her and ask if anyone had seen her. Of course, when you do that, you have to do a lot of groundwork first, like letting the pastor and the people who work there know who you are so they don’t think you’re a bill collector or stalker, while at the same time maintain the woman’s privacy.
Luckily we live on the eastside, and we’re close to the neighborhoods where the women lived at the time so we didn’t have to travel far. We also have two friends who are private investigators, and they were invaluable in helping us find the surviving plaintiffs. Some of the women had already passed, like Mrs. Acosta, who had a very tragic story. When she went to the hospital to give birth, her baby was stillborn. And then she was sterilized.
Once we actually found some of the plaintiffs, the real challenges began. The women were reluctant to revisit that time in their lives. They had tried to move on, with varying degrees of success. Mrs. Madrigal’s family had really been torn apart by the sterilization, and you can see how that trauma lingered all these years with her and her sons. Other women had very supportive husbands, and they’d been able to move on. But even they were reluctant to go back to the past.
Virginia, in particular, spent a lot of time gaining their trust. Also, their children made a huge difference in convincing them to go on camera. Most of their kids and extended families had no idea [these women] had been sterilized, even 35, 40 years after it happened. Consuelo Hermosillo told us she would always avoid baby showers when she was younger. She couldn’t take the inevitable question, “When are you having another?” Frank Cruz, who was the only TV reporter who covered the trial, talked to many of the women at the time. He told us that it was extremely difficult for them to be exposed in public forum. There was the shame of talking about such private matters as reproductive organs and sterilization, and having lost their ability to have children. So it took a lot of courage to even participate in the lawsuit in the first place, much less agree to be interviewed so many years later.
Fast forward to when we approached the plaintiffs for interviews. They often asked their kids for advice on whether or not to participate in the film. It was often the first time the kids learned about the story. They knew that something bad had happened and that for some reason there were no more babies in the family. When their mothers told them about the sterilization, they finally understood what that buried past was all about. Also, they were immensely proud that their mothers had stood up for justice, and against some of the most powerful institutions.
These were mostly immigrant women who didn’t speak English; they were factory workers, domestic workers, homemakers. And they brought suit not only against the doctors and the hospital, but challenged the county, the state, and the federal government. When their kids found out that their mothers were a part of a historic case, they encouraged them to go on camera and tell their stories.
The other difficulty was in the filmmaking process itself — trying to tell a compelling story about people’s lives, but also represent different perspectives and address the complicated social contexts to the case. So much was going on at that time — what Elena Gutierrez, who is interviewed in the film, calls a “perfect storm.” There was the fear of a population explosion overwhelming the planet, attitudes towards immigrants and the idea that Mexican women were hyper-fertile “breeders,” the suspicion that poor women were having babies to collect welfare checks. And then there was all the funding for family planning programs. These were good programs that provided contraception to low-income women who might not have access to reproductive care otherwise. But as the civil rights attorney Joseph Levin said in the film, there was also the possibility for abuse.
We also didn’t want to make a film about saints and martyrs. The women, like Mrs. Hurtado, are really funny, vital, what Virginia calls chingona Chicanas. People at screenings always tell us they expected to see some sad, sober Documentary, and they’re surprised there’s more than that to the story, including humor. But that was a real balancing act, melding together an examination of a legal case with the human story.
Another thing we dealt with is the inclination of making a film about a case like this is often to situate good guys and bad guys, heroes and villains. I think that kind of paradigm can be flawed, and doesn’t get at the truth in all its complications. Blaming it on a boogeyman absolves us all.
The bottom line is, who controls my body? Who controls a woman’s reproductive decision-making? There’s a complex intersection of attitudes, policies, laws, ideals, the public and the private. In the filmmaking, I wanted to use the suspense and drama of the unfolding legal case between the mothers and the doctors as the driving narrative, but along the way delve into those complexities.
And was it hard to get doctors and medical interns who were connected to the hospital at that time to talk as well?
The defendant doctors were pretty cooperative about going on camera. We told them we wanted their side of the story, and I think we accomplished that in the film. You can’t really tell this kind of story about a contested history and a legal case without talking to both sides. But this was a real Rashomon-like situation, as many legal cases are. It reminded me a lot of my experience making Who Killed Vincent Chin? which was also a civil rights case, where broader social conflicts in the public sphere collided with private encounters between individuals. Something happened in the maternity ward, and the way the mothers and the doctors perceive what happened are so disconnected.
What do you hope people take away from watching No Mas Bebes?
For one thing, this is not a film simply about the past. Up until as recently as 2010, incarcerated women were being sterilized in California prisons without the proper approvals, and some without consent. Even beyond the issue of sterilization, I think what’s important is the larger question: who controls my body?
That’s why the story of the Madrigal 10 resonates today in the conversation around reproductive justice. The plaintiff’s lawyers, Antonia Hernández and Charles Nabarrete, argued that a woman’s right to bear a child was constitutionally protected under Roe v. Wade. They filed in 1975, only two years after the Roe V. Wade decision. I think that’s really significant, that at a time the dominant narrative of reproductive choice and rights was being constructed around abortion, they were framing it as the right to have a child, as well as the decision to not have child. The reproductive justice groups have really worked to change that conversation in more recent years.
And who has a voice in those debates around reproductive rights? Forty years ago, the women of the Madrigal 10 were among the most at risk for losing their rights. They were Latinas, predominantly low income and Spanish-speaking. But even within the women’s movement, they weren’t being heard. That’s been the case with poor women, then and now.
During all the recent controversy about funding for Planned Parenthood, I’ve watched so many television pundits on all the news channels — CNN, Fox, MSNBC, on and on. But I can’t remember a time when a woman who actually uses those clinics has been asked to sit at the table and weigh in on the debate. I don’t presume those women would speak with one voice; I’m sure they’d have a whole range of opinions and beliefs about abortion, and contraception, and reproductive rights. But they are the most directly affected, and for that reason they strike me as the most important people to hear from.
One thing Virginia Espino has said, is when we talk about issues like overpopulation or when we talk about anchor babies and immigration, that there’s a human being on the other side of that conversation. In the film we wanted to get inside the lives of the women who were sterilized and humanize the people behind the trial.
People may see this as something that happened a long time ago, but do you think it could happen again? Are there better measures in place nowadays that give women more rights and do hospitals do a better job at clarifying their procedures for immigrants?
As a result of this case, and other legal challenges and protests around the country, there were reforms instituted such as informed consent procedures and waiting periods for sterilizations. In California in 1979, the state senator who represented the eastside, Art Torres, introduced legislation to overturn California’s eugenics statutes.
Today there is more of a focus on cultural competency in health care, and diversity in the workforce. At the same time, the battle over reproductive freedom is as heated as it has ever been. With regards to immigrants, in a lot of places undocumented women don’t have access to reproductive health care. Can it happen again? Just last year it was reported that a prosecutor in Nashville was demanding that women have sterilizations in exchange for plea deals.
What are some of your other favorite and/or most influential documentary films?
That’s a long list! When I was just starting as a filmmaker, I was really inspired by Harlan County U.S.A and The Times of Harvey Milk. Those films inspired me as a human being, period. I also really liked films that didn’t follow the rules and are very raw and intuitive, emotionally and formally, like Tongues Untied or A.K.A. Don Bonus, which helped to pioneer camcorder diaries, and Silverlake Life: The View From Here which was also a diary film that took you inside people’s lives — interior lives as well as events — like senior year of high school or the impending toll of HIV/AIDS. So those are the kinds of films that really got to me when I was starting out, and those are the kinds of films that I still gravitate to.
What projects are you working on next?
Two interactive projects: one is an offshoot of No Más Bebés, which I’m producing with Virginia Espino, and also a Minecraft project, of all things, about Japanese American World War II internment camps and the Angel Island Immigration Station. Those projects have been really fun, it’s meant recalibrating a lot of the storytelling and formal intuition of long-form documentary. When I finish those I’m hoping we’ll start production on a PBS series on Asian Americans that I’m working on with CAAM and WETA. That’s something I’ve wanted to do for about twenty years.