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Fertile Matters

Fertile Matters
The Politics of Mexican-Origin Women's Reproduction

An exploration into how Mexican-origin women’s reproduction has been stereotyped and demonized in the United States.

Series: Chicana Matters Series, Deena J. González and Antonia Castañeda, editors

January 2008
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221 pages | 6 x 9 |

While the stereotype of the persistently pregnant Mexican-origin woman is longstanding, in the past fifteen years her reproduction has been targeted as a major social problem for the United States. Due to fear-fueled news reports and public perceptions about the changing composition of the nation's racial and ethnic makeup—the so-called Latinization of America—the reproduction of Mexican immigrant women has become a central theme in contemporary U. S. politics since the early 1990s.

In this exploration, Elena R. Gutiérrez considers these public stereotypes of Mexican American and Mexican immigrant women as "hyper-fertile baby machines" who "breed like rabbits." She draws on social constructionist perspectives to examine the historical and sociopolitical evolution of these racial ideologies, and the related beliefs that Mexican-origin families are unduly large and that Mexican American and Mexican immigrant women do not use birth control.

Using the coercive sterilization of Mexican-origin women in Los Angeles as a case study, Gutiérrez opens a dialogue on the racial politics of reproduction, and how they have developed for women of Mexican origin in the United States. She illustrates how the ways we talk and think about reproduction are part of a system of racial domination that shapes social policy and affects individual women's lives.

  • A Note on Terminology
  • Preface
  • Acknowledgments
  • Chapter One. The Fertility of Women of Mexican Origin: A Social Constructionist Approach
  • Chapter Two. The Twin Problems of Overpopulation and Immigration in 1970s California
  • Chapter Three. "They Breed Like Rabbits": The Forced Sterilization of Mexican-Origin Women
  • Chapter Four. "More Than a Hint of Extraordinary Fertility": Social Science Perspectives on Mexican-Origin Women's Reproductive Behavior (1912-1980)
  • Chapter Five. Controlling Borders and Babies: John Tanton, ZPG, and Racial Anxiety over Mexican-Origin Women's Fertility
  • Chapter Six. The Right to Have Children: Chicana Organizing Against Sterilization Abuse
  • Chapter Seven. "Baby-Makers and Welfare Takers": The (Not-So) New Politics of Mexican-Origin Women's Reproduction
  • Epilogue
  • Notes
  • References
  • Index

Elena R. Gutiérrez is Assistant Professor of Gender and Women's Studies and Latin American and Latino Studies at the University of Illinois, Chicago.


Fertile Matters is an exploration of the ways we have come to think about the reproduction of women of Mexican origin in the United States. In particular, I look closely at one of the most popular and longstanding public stereotypes that portray Mexican American and Mexican women as "hyper-fertile baby machines" who "breed like rabbits." Although these labels have become colloquially acceptable, I use them to also signify the related beliefs that Mexican families are unduly large and that Mexican-origin women do not use birth control. By examining the historical and sociopolitical evolution of these racial stereotypes, I reveal a complex network of character, ideology, time, and place that has yielded the collectively accepted image of women of Mexican origin as prolific "breeders."


Chicana feminist scholars have previously documented the existence of this stereotype. However, during the course of writing this book, I was struck by the resilience of these images within public perceptions. For example, almost without fail, when I mentioned that I was researching the reproductive politics of Mexican American women, I received the response, "That is such an important topic. They have so many children!" Latino and non-Latino individuals alike often pointed out the "huge problem" of teenage pregnancy in Latino communities or commented that Latinas do not use birth control. Many asked me to explain why Mexican women have so many children. This widespread perception that Mexican women have too many children, and the belief that this reproductive behavior is a social problem that requires fixing, compelled me to continue trying to understand the sources and consequences of these ideas.


Although the stereotype of Mexican-origin women as perpetually pregnant is longstanding, our reproduction has been targeted for the past fifteen years as a major U.S. social problem. Newspapers carry headlines about the changing composition of the nation's racial and ethnic makeup, the so-called Latinization of America. Due to a higher than average birth rate among Mexican Americans and a steady stream of immigrants from Mexico, Mexican-origin people are the fastest growing minority group in the United States. As a consequence, the reproduction of Mexican immigrant women has been a central theme in contemporary U.S. politics since the 1990s.


There is no clearer marker of this phenomenon—that is, the construct of Mexican women's fertility as a social problem—than the passage of Proposition 187, proposed in 1994. The initiative, passed by California voters, was intended to take strong and deliberate measures to "Save Our State" from Mexican immigration. The campaign denied prenatal care and other social services to undocumented immigrants, specifically those of Mexican origin, and particularly women and children. Many of the proposition's backers identified pregnant immigrants as the problem, claiming that they come to the country illegally to have their babies on U.S. soil in order to achieve citizenship for their children and benefits—namely, access to welfare and other public services.


Although Prop. 187 was eventually overturned in 1996, its original passage demonstrated the growing public concern over the so-called problem of Mexican reproduction and the increased public support for proposals to stop it. While some scholars suggest that this recent focus on women signals a new twist in nativist and anti-immigrant sentiment, I demonstrate that public concern about the reproductive behaviors of women of Mexican origin has a much longer presence in the United States, beginning as far back as the turn of the twentieth century.


Throughout Fertile Matters I demonstrate the gradual crystallization of widespread interest in the reproduction and "hyper-fertility" of women of Mexican origin during the 1970s. My purpose is in large part to systematically document the development of discourse about women of Mexican origin as "breeders" over the second half of the twentieth century.


Another goal of the book is to demonstrate the impact that such discourses have on the reproductive experiences of the women themselves. Specifically, I examine the coercive sterilization of women of Mexican origin at the University of Southern California-Los Angeles County Medical Center (LACMC) during the early 1970s. My research reveals that the perception of women of Mexican origin as "breeding like rabbits" was manifested in the coercive actions of doctors and other health providers at LACMC who believed they had the right to sterilize women who, in their opinion, had too many children. The case of Madrigal v. Quilligan provides strong evidence that racializing images and beliefs were crucial factors in the abusive handling of these women, both during their deliveries at LACMC and in the Los Angeles County courtroom where their case was tried.


Since I began this project ten years ago, a growing body of literature has documented that reproductive politics are central to racial politics and vice versa. U.S. racial politics and all women's childbearing capacities have been intimately linked and manipulated throughout history. My research has shown that for women of color, racist stereotypes exist to justify the control of their fertility, and that activists in all communities have resisted accepting these images in their struggles for reproductive justice. However, we still know little about how these stereotypes work.


Fertile Matters intends to deepen public understanding of how the racial politics of reproduction have developed for women of Mexican origin in the United States. It shows that how we talk and think about reproduction is part of a system of racial domination that shapes social policy and impacts individual women's lives. And finally, it aims to convince readers that reproductive politics are indeed fertile matters for discourse and disclosure, not only for women of Mexican origin, but for all communities.


Chapter Overview


Chapter One provides an overview of the theoretical perspectives and issues that frame my analysis, primarily social constructionist approaches to the study of social problems, racial formation theory, and feminist studies of the racial politics of reproduction. I also sketch a general picture of the ways in which Mexican-origin women's reproduction has been racialized historically, particularly as they have been cast as "breeders."


Chapter Two presents the historical background necessary to understand the development of the social construction of Mexican-origin women during the second half of the twentieth century. Focusing on social concerns about overpopulation and immigration that developed after World War II, this account highlights the primary actors and institutions considered in the remainder of the book.


Chapter Three is an empirical case study of the coercive sterilization of Mexican-origin women at Los Angeles County Medical Center, and the trial of Madrigal v. Quilligan that followed. I focus on how the idea that women of Mexican origin have too many children led to the abuses that occurred in both the hospital and the courtroom.


Chapter Four examines the construction of the category of "Mexican-origin women's fertility" through a review of the development of social scientific interest in the topic. I critically assess the empirical findings of this research trajectory and suggest that this mode of inquiry plays a fundamental role in the social construction of Mexican-origin women's hyper-fertility.


Chapter Five is a case study based on primary analysis of the platforms of Zero Population Growth (ZPG) Inc., and its offshoot, the Federation of American Immigration Reform (FAIR). I highlight the interests of John Tanton, a former president of ZPG and the founder of FAIR, who was concerned about the "indirect effect" of immigration: the reproduction of Mexican women.


Through consideration of the published writings and public discussions of Chicana activists, in Chapter Six I show how they contest predominant characterizations of Mexican-origin women as breeders and develop a reproductive justice agenda that reflects their position as a racially oppressed group in the United States.


The final chapter discusses the centrality of the reproduction of Mexican immigrant women to more contemporary politics (the 1990s-present), focusing on the controversies over granting birthright citizenship to children born in the United States, changes in California over welfare reform, and the denial of prenatal care to Mexican immigrant women. These legislative and public battles not only represent the most recent incarnations in the lengthy historical trajectory of attempts to control Mexican-origin women's reproduction, but also indicate that the social construction of these women's fertility as a social problem has become institutionalized.

"I think what we are trying to show is that throughout the entire period that the doctors were not using medical reasons to perform these sterilizations, but were using social reasons. That is very pertinent to this case."


Attorney Antonia Hernández spoke these words as she implored federal district court judge Jesse Curtis to hear the testimony of her next witness. Along with co-counsel Charles Nabarette, Hernández represented ten women of Mexican origin filing a class-action civil suit against physicians at the University of Southern California-Los Angeles County Medical Center (LACMC). The plaintiffs in the case of Madrigal v. Quilligan, which was tried in 1978, accused the doctors of coercively sterilizing each of them between June 1971 and March 1974. Many alleged that hospital personnel forced them into signing consent forms while under the duress of labor pains, or that they were never approached and informed about the procedure at all. All of the women had various levels of English comprehension, and most testified that they did not understand that tubal ligation would irreversibly terminate their childbearing. The plaintiffs filed suit against state and federal officials, and the administrators and doctors at LACMC for violation of their constitutionally guaranteed right to procreate. In addition to financial compensation, the plaintiffs requested that the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare require federally funded hospitals to provide thorough sterilization counseling and consent forms in Spanish. On this, the sixth day of the trial, tension in the courtroom was high.


The contested witness was Karen Benker, a medical student at the University of Southern California Medical School, and an employee of the Women's Hospital of LACMC during the period when the alleged forced sterilizations of countless Mexican-origin women occurred. As the only witness who had observed the alleged coercive practices of the doctors firsthand and was willing to testify in court, Benker's observations confirmed Hernández's argument that the sterilization of her clients at this hospital was "socially motivated."


What Dr. Benker would share with the court could prove that the coercive sterilization of these ten plaintiffs was not incidental, accidental, or medically necessary, but was part of a concerted attempt by the doctors at the Women's Hospital of LACMC to reduce the birth rate of Mexican-origin women. Based on this testimony, Hernández would maintain that many of the physicians deceptively pushed women into sterilization in accordance with an attitude widespread in the hospital community that the high childbearing rates of Mexican-origin women contributed to many social problems and could be effectively remedied through sterilization.


I begin this book with an empirical case study of the forced sterilization at LACMC because it illustrates the convergent discourses around Mexican-origin women's fertility and the material ramifications of ideological notions of Mexican-origin women as "hyper-fertile" that surfaced during this period. The case of Madrigal v. Quilligan lucidly illustrates the central argument of this book: namely, that during the 1970s a confluence of ideas crystallized to construct the fertility of Mexican-origin women as a social problem to be remedied. These issues are part of a larger public policy discourse that has continued into the twenty-first century.


The Demography and Politics of the Population Growth of People of Mexican Origin


The 2000 U.S. census statistically confirmed that Latinos have become the largest racial-ethnic group living in the United States, totaling over forty million people. Between 1990 and 2000, the U.S. Latino population increased by 58 percent.


In what has been called a demographic revolution, Latinos were 12.5 percent of the nation's population in 2000, and are expected to comprise 25 percent of the U.S. population by 2050. An ever-increasing volume of academic study, public policy investigation, and social commentary addresses this demographic change. Due to both higher birthrates than the national average and continued immigration from Mexico, persons of Mexican origin represent the largest portion of the Latino population growth in the last thirty plus years. In March 2002, Mexicans comprised 66.9 percent of the Latino population.


Demographic and government interest in the birthrates of the Mexican-origin community have also grown steadily over the past three decades. In 1998, the U.S. government conducted a first-ever, multiyear analysis of Hispanic birthrates, which established that, even within the rising rates for Hispanic women as a group, women of Mexican origin display markedly higher rates of childbirth than other Latinas. Media coverage of the 1998 report by the National Center for Health Statistics publicized the "dramatic rise" in Hispanic births between 1989 and 1995, attributing much of this growth to the "soaring" rates of teenage pregnancy. Commentators expressed an almost singular preoccupation with the ascending birthrates of Latina teens (which notably overtook those of African Americans for the first time in history) and pondered the social and political ramifications of such a demographic pattern. One commentator from the conservative journal National Review warned,


For those who cluck cheerfully about the 'strong family ties' of Hispanic immigrants, the new figures are ominous: two-thirds of young Latina mothers have no husbands. . . . Because the Latino share of the population is expanding, any burgeoning Latino culture of poverty will make its impact widely felt. Thirty-three years ago Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-NY) gave a prescient warning about the breakdown of the African American family, for which he had no easy remedy. Now, thanks to feckless immigration policies, the United States is sowing difficulties which could prove of at least comparable scope.


Alluding to Senator Moynihan's much-critiqued analysis of black family life, which faulted the matriarchal family structure of African Americans as the core cause of their poverty, the above statements suggest a similar case for national action concerning the reproductive behavior of Latinas.


Social and political interest in controlling the fertility of Latinas is of course nothing new. Control of the reproduction of Mexican, Mexican American, and Puerto Rican women's reproduction served as a crucial tool of colonization and social repression of entire communities. Puerto Rico's population has long served as a social laboratory for the U.S. birth control industry, and ideologies of population control and economic development justified the massive sterilization abuse of Puerto Rican women. With 33 percent of Puerto Rico's women sterilized, and similar rates for Puerto Rican women living on the U.S. mainland, anthropologist Iris Lopez argues that the procedure has now become an institutionalized, or "medicalized," practice of women faced with limited options. She writes, "Once Puerto Rican women's reproductive decision-making is medicalized, they lose the ability to control their own fertility. . . . The medicalization of women's reproductive behavior infused and gave medical and state authority more control."


Other commentators similarly portray immigrant families as opportunists who are sapping social services and other scarce public resources. Public discourse surrounding California's Proposition 187 (passed in November 1994), a paradigmatic embodiment of contemporary nativism in the United States, provides a classic case in point. The fertility of women of Mexican origin assumed center stage in the debates surrounding this controversial proposition, which was a measure designed to deny undocumented immigrants access to education and health care services. Proponents of the "Save Our State" initiative persistently alluded to the high fertility of Mexican women as one of the primary problems with recent immigration from Mexico (births to Hispanic mothers outnumber all other groups in the state). The very substance of the policy prescriptions of Proposition 187 (which I explore in greater detail in Chapter Seven) assumes that the allure of social benefits (i.e., health care, education, welfare) is the driving motivation for Mexican women to cross the border to bear their children on U.S. soil.


Supporters of the anti-immigration proposition encouraged strict sanctions to deter migrants from coming to the United States and "stealing" health and social service benefits that were not rightfully theirs. Although the proposition's expressed goal was to halt all immigration, especially from Mexico, women were particularly targeted. Proposition 187 singled out "poor, pregnant immigrant women who, with their children, come to the United States to give birth in publicly-financed county hospitals, allowing the newborns to become U.S. citizens, and all their children to receive public assistance, medical care, and public school education."


Fear of the "Latinization" of California and the possible ascent of people of Mexican origin to political power has led to vociferous anti-immigrant and anti-Mexican mobilization in the state and in the larger Southwest, sentiments that are increasingly echoed across the nation.


Consider the message in Mexifornia, a book written by classics professor Victor Davis Hanson of California State University, Fresno. Published in 2003, the title reflects "the strange society that is emerging as the result of a demographic and cultural revolution like no other in our times." Hanson attributes a transformation of U.S. culture to a lack of assimilation by recent immigrants. At the heart of the complaint, though, is the ultimate culprit. Hanson bemoans that "every year the state must continue to deal with a succession of first-generation immigrant families with three to six children at or below the poverty line. Moreover, no advocate in the university promotes family planning as a means of economic self-sufficiency; there is no campaign in Chicano studies departments encouraging immigrant families to have only one or two children so as to ensure financial solvency." According to Hanson, the continuing immigration of large, poor families has led to an unassimilated class of Mexicans that is changing the very nature of the state of California.


Again in 2003, Samuel Huntington, a distinguished Harvard professor, received national recognition for his treatise on "The Hispanic Challenge." In Who Are We? The Challenge to America's National Identity, Huntington wrote that "the single most serious challenge to America's traditional identity comes from the immense and continuing immigration from Latin America, especially Mexico, and the fertility rates of these immigrants compared to black and white American 'natives.'" Huntington clearly identifies the growth of the Mexican-origin population as a very real problem for the United States. He further warns that if these "floods" of immigrants are not stopped, the country's cultural and political integrity will be endangered.


Some scholars suggest that the recent focus on women signals a "new twist" in nativist and anti-immigrant sentiment. However, criticisms of immigrant motherhood have prevailed in the United States since at least 1890. According to Katrina Irving, between 1890 and 1925 "all writers, no matter what their ideological position—nativism ('scientific racism'), American-ization, or cultural pluralism—drew upon discourses that articulated feminine gender in order to construct an immigrant woman who would, in turn, embody their particular version of the immigrant 'problem.'" In particular, nativists questioned the eugenic quality of children of very fertile immigrant mothers, predating contemporary concerns about the fertility of Mexican immigrant women. Later in this chapter, I will show that over the course of the twentieth century not only nativists, but some social scientists, members of the medical community, and population control proponents have expressed a similar racial anxiety over the reproduction of women of Mexican origin in the United States. First, I clarify my argument and review the major theoretical threads upon which my analysis is built.


The Tools of Social Constructionism: Situating the Fertility of Women of Mexican Origin


To explore the politics of Mexican women's reproduction, I draw upon the analytical perspective represented by sociological research on the social construction of social problems. Such an approach(well articulated by Malcolm Spector and John Kitsuse, and Joseph Gusfield, and perceptively deployed by Constance Nathanson) posits that it is not the putative social conditions that should be the focus of study, but the processes central to the definition of any social occurrence as a "social problem."


The construction of a social problem is a collective process within which individuals or groups define some set of putative circumstances as unduly problematic. While objectivists believe that social problems are literal conditions that pose a concretely real and objective threat to the good of society, social constructionists approach social problems from an alternative standpoint. Contextual constructionists argue that social problems do not objectively exist, but are fundamentally conceived by certain interests within a particular context; they are "constructed in the human mind, constituted by the definitional process." Proponents of contextual constructionism argue that it is impossible for any given set of conditions to be considered a social problem outside of its sociopolitical context, and thus historical analysis is necessary to any project engaging the construction of such a problem.


The epistemological approach offered by social constructionism relies on an empirical focus on the actors, historical moments, and interests that contribute to the construction of the fertility of Mexican women as a matter of public interest and concern. Moreover, in his thoughtful analysis of drinking and driving, Joseph Gusfield notes that "analyzing public problems as structures means finding the conceptual and institutional orderliness in which they emerge in the public arena. The public arena is not a field on which all can play on equal terms; some have greater access than others and greater power and ability to shape the definition of public issues." My research thus focuses centrally on those institutions that claim ownership of the problem of the fertility of Mexican women—that is, demographers, medical professionals, population policymakers, and Chicana feminists.


Accordingly, my intention is to "turn the camera around" to investigate those institutions, groups, and policies that have observed the reproduction of women of Mexican origin. Such a maneuver helps us shift the focus from attempting to unravel the "truth" of what is happening with the fertility and reproduction of women of Mexican origin toward an exploration of perspectives, interests, and policies that have played a role in creating "truths" about this topic.


A social constructionist perspective provides a completely different vantage point from which to engage the topic of the fertility of women of Mexican origin. In this vein, Sally Andrade, one of the first scholars to trace the biased nature of social science research about women of Mexican origin, wrote in 1982,


If one's primary interest were research on the family size of Chicanas, the primary question remaining to be clarified would be whether the cultural background or the educational status of Mexican American women is the more important factor in terms of understanding their fertility regulation attitudes and behaviors. If one wants to examine the implications of social sciences inability to confront issues of racism, sexism, and social class bias with reference to research on Mexican women, however, different questions emerge.


Thus, principles of social constructionism provide a useful corrective to most of the extant social scientific research on the reproduction of women of Mexican origin, which primarily attempts to document and understand their "unusually high rates" and focuses on the attitudinal and behavioral aspects of their family planning practices. Typically based on secondary analysis of quantitative data, such projects conceptualize the reproduction of Mexican-origin women as a culturally dictated behavior to be understood. These projects largely reinscribe the reproduction of women of Mexican origin as the primary locus of inquiry, and the women themselves as the principal unit of analysis, often ignoring the sociopolitical context within which the reproductive activities of Mexican-origin women occur. A social constructionist approach considers academic scholarship as complicit in the creation of ideas about the fertility of women of Mexican origin. As such, demographic research about Mexican-origin women's fertility is treated as a focal object of study in my analysis rather than as literature upon which my analysis is built.


Diverging from the previous social scientific research, in this project I argue that the important question is not how many children are born to women of Mexican origin or whether abortion intervention or birth control is practiced. Rather, I explore why the fertility of women of Mexican origin is in itself such a significant issue in so many sociopolitical discourses. This is not a study of the fertility of Mexican women per se, but an investigation of the sociohistorical context within which such a topic, and the structures that shape it, become significant.


Because such emphasis has been placed on enumerating and tracking the actual rates of fertility for Mexican-origin women (the number of children they bear), this project is particularly interested in exploring the concept of "fertility." Popular discussions of such a category are inevitably tied up with a host of other related issues such as reproductive behavior, birth control practices, and attitudes toward the family. This project will thus envelop any and all topics related to reproduction with respect to Mexican-origin women, and the terms fertility and reproduction will be used as synonyms throughout to encompass this variety.


Discourse, Ideology, and the Racial Politics of Reproduction


When anthropologists Faye Ginsburg and Rayna Rapp theorize the politics of reproduction—which bridges the micro-level of reproductive behavior and practices, and the macro-level of the politics involved in that process—they stress that reproductive issues are largely discursive terrain and that discourse analysis "can be used to analyze 'reproduction' as an aspect of other contests over hegemonic control." Since I am primarily concerned with the ideological construction of the fertility of women of Mexican origin as a social problem, this project pays considerable attention to discursive realms. Such a focus on discourse fundamentally assumes its political nature.


Moreover, my focus on the "ideological effects" of these discursive constructions implies that "these practices are always more than semiotic because they inscribe signs within social practices as a condition of existence of the meanings and subjectivities produced." Thus, discourse is also located in public policy, social institutions, and practices.


Racialized reproductive images about women of Mexican origin circulating in public discourse are central to this project. I am equally interested in how these ideological constructs are tied to structural and institutional modes of reproduction and racial control. Drawing from racialization theory, most extensively articulated by Omi and Winant, I argue that the social construction of women of Mexican origin as hyper-fertile is a racial project and that the discourse surrounding and constructing their reproductive behavior as problematic must be viewed as racially based. Omi and Winant define racial formation as "the historical process by which racial categories are created, inhabited, transformed, and destroyed," and as "a process of historically situated projects in which human bodies and social structures are represented and organized." Imperative to my perspective is the vigilant consideration of racial projects in both their ideological and structural nature. I argue that ideological representations of women of Mexican origin as "hyper-fertile" must not only be analyzed in their form and content, but additionally in their relation to the structural associations within which they historically emerge.


I further draw upon a growing body of critical analyses that argue that race and reproductive politics are fundamentally intertwined. Research since the 1980s has traced the systemic intrusions on the reproductive liberty of African American and other women of color and the historical control of fertility as a mechanism of racial domination and economic exploitation. Legal scholar Dorothy Roberts's treatise Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty deftly demonstrates that racial domination and reproductive control have been intricately tied throughout history. Central to her examination is how images about African American women render significant implications for their reproductive freedom. According to Roberts, "Regulating Black women's fertility seems so imperative because of the existence of powerful stereotypes that propel these policies; myths are meaningful as expressions of what we believe to be true; [and] have justified the restrictions on Black women's childbearing."


Other authors have documented how the development of racializing images and ideologies is central to the reproductive control of women of color. Sociologist Patricia Hill Collins has identified that "controlling images" such as the mammy, welfare queen, and Jezebel are historically deployed to devalue African American women. Collins's ground-breaking work theorizes how controlling images of African American women serve as "powerful ideological justifications" for class, race, gender, and sexuality domination. Stressing the ubiquity of these ideas in her now-classic treatise Black Feminist Thought, Collins writes that "schools, the news media, and government agencies constitute important sites for reproducing these controlling images. Scholarship has helped produce and disseminate controlling images." It is in these spaces where the discourse of reproductive politics is created and communicated.


Through the denial of black motherhood and the characterization of African American women as "bad mothers," the material deprivation of their reproductive rights to bear children has been symbolically justified. This dichotomization of good/bad, black/white motherhood is indeed a significant aspect of the racial politics of reproduction in the United States. However, in contrast to the depiction of African American women as neglectful mothers, historically and contemporarily, women of Mexican origin are more typically cast as overly identified mothers and reproducers.


The Politics of the Fertility of Women of Mexican Origin: Historical Antecedents


Women's procreation has been a subject of political interest from the time of the Spanish colonization of Mexico. Spanish colonizers claimed a state imperative to control the childbearing of native women. Because a growing California needed a Hispanicized Indian population, missionaries took affirmative steps to encourage reproduction. Historian Antonia Castañeda has documented that in addition to encouraging marriages of converted AmerIndian women and mestizo soldiers by offering bounties, colonial officials also brought niños and niñas de cuna (foundlings) from Spain to populate California.


Castañeda's research further demonstrates how women of Mexican origin first came to be depicted as hyper-fertile. In particular, impressions collected in the narratives of Euro-American pioneers (many of which were commissioned by Hubert Howe Bancroft during the 1870s and 1880s) provide some of the first documented characterizations of the Mexican family, which dominated subsequent histories of early California. According to Castañeda, descriptions of the patriarchal Spanish-Mexican family, their reproductive patterns, and family size abound in the recordings of Euro-Americans and elite Californios: "the texts described California women as 'remarkably fecund' and frequently commented that families were exceptionally large, with women bearing twelve, fifteen, and twenty children." These stereotypical narratives provided a foundation on which most of the history of Mexican California is written. However, the research of Castañeda and others has dispelled these common mischaracterizations, suggesting that there was significant regional variation in the size of Spanish-Mexican California families, many of which had much smaller numbers of children than noted in founding texts.


Accounts of the reproduction of women of Mexican origin in the United States continued into the twentieth century. For example, in 1929 Samuel J. Holmes, a University of California professor, posed a foreboding question in an article entitled "Perils of the Mexican Invasion," published in the North American Review: "At a recent state fair in Sacramento, California, when prizes were offered for the largest families, the first prize went to a Mexican family with sixteen children.... This excessive fecundity is of course exceptional, but it is indicative of the breeding habits of this class of our population. Is it not evident, then, that the Mexican invasion is bound to have far-reaching effects upon our national life?" Concerns about a possible "Mexican invasion" of the United States are clearly expressed here, with particular speculation about the resulting cultural effects on the nation.


From the beginning of the century into the early 1940s, growing nativist sentiment blamed Mexican immigrants for societies' ills and commonly bemoaned their fertility. In a 1929 issue of the Saturday Evening Post, the editor offered his opinion under the heading "The Mexican Conquest": "The very high Mexican birth rate tends to depress still further the low white birth rate. Thus a race problem of the greatest magnitude is being allowed to develop for future generations to regret and in spite of the fact that the Mexican Indian is considered a most undesirable ethnic stock for the melting pot."


This concern about the fertility of Mexican women was wholeheartedly adopted by those associated with eugenic efforts. Sociologist David Montejano wrote:


The outcry about social decay reached near-hysterical levels. Eugenicists pointed out with alarm that Mexicans were not only intellectually inferior—they were also quite "fecund." Imaginative calculations were formulated to drive home the point. C. M. Goethe, president of the Immigrant Study Commission, speaking of a Los Angeles Mexican with thirty-three children, figured that "it would take 14,641 American a three-child rate, to equal the descendants of this one Mexican father four generations hence."


Goethe, a Sacramento realtor, wrote in 1935, "It is this high birthrate that makes Mexican peon immigration such a menace. Peons multiply like rabbits." The social panic that eugenicists instigated often incited public outcries to deport Mexicans (immigrant or not); at times their messages were informed by germ theories and hereditarianism.


Alternatively, proponents of the Americanist agenda (1915-1929) believed that efforts should be made to assimilate the Mexican population in the United States. A growing body of literature has shown that these efforts primarily focused on the assimilation of Mexican immigrant women and their children into American culture. Historian George Sánchez has noted that for Americanists, motherhood represented "the juncture at which the Mexican immigrant women's potential role in Americanization was most highly valued." Ideas about fertility, reproduction, and motherhood all gained significant racial meaning within the process of Americanization, as female Mexican immigrants were believed to be the bearers and sharers of culture.


In her study of the Houchen Settlement, a "Christian Americanization" program run in El Paso, Texas, from 1920 to 1960, historian Vicki Ruiz argues that this and other groups like it paid particular attention to expectant mothers. Millie Rockford, who worked at the settlement, shared the logic behind this approach with Ruiz: "If we can teach her [the mother to be] the modern methods of cooking and preparing foods and simple hygiene habits for herself and her family, we have gained a stride."


In some cases Americanization policies bore important implications for the birth control practices of Mexican immigrant women. Americanists attempted to inculcate Anglo ideals of family planning and family size into the women's values in hopes of ultimately changing behavior as well. Efforts to transform the reproductive ideas and behavior of recent immigrants were fueled by nativist and Americanist fears of race suicide. According to Sánchez, "the nativists wanted to control Mexican population growth for fear of a 'greaser invasion,' while Americanists viewed unrestricted population growth as a vestige of Old World ways that would have to be abandoned in a modern industrial world." Regardless of their motivations, both nativists and Americanists centered their efforts on the reproduction of Mexican immigrant women.


More recently, social science literature on Mexican American women provides an acute example of these racializing images. Prevalent among depictions of Mexican-origin women in this body of research are assumptions that they are solely defined by their capacity to bear children. In a 1982 review of such representations in the extant social scientific literature, Sally Andrade wrote, "An exaggerated 'super-mother' figure emerges from a summary of the above impressions about Mexican American women: the unceasingly self-sacrificing, dedicated, ever-fertile woman totally without aspiration for self or initiative to do other than reproduce."


While dissimilar to the ideological constructs that shape the reproductive context for African American women, images of Mexican women as overly identified mothers are also embedded in a framework of racial domination. One important component of the circumvention of Mexican women's motherhood is the social construction of their hyper-fertility. Chicana feminist scholars have challenged these prevailing notions, showing that not only are these women complex in their identification as mothers, but that they are sexual beings who have diverse opinions regarding reproductive matters. Such efforts to deconstruct existing racist discourse and contribute to more accurate representations and analyses of the reproduction of women of Mexican origin are deliberately part of a Chicana feminist project. As Aida Hurtado explains, "Chicana feminisms proclaim that creating and controlling their own discourse are essential to decolonization. Passive silence has been the enemy that allowed others to construct who Chicanas are, what they can and cannot do, and what they are capable of becoming."


While scholars demonstrate the complex construction of racializing images and ideologies central to the reproductive control of African American and women of Mexican origin, less obvious are the ways that these images impact women's lives. I argue that beyond serving as key components of a "generalized ideology of domination," by which the oppression of women of color is justified, these notions are often manifested in social institutions and actors that construct individual experience. In this volume, I advance such an examination by considering both the discursive dimensions of fertility and reproduction as they pertain to women of Mexican origin and their circulation in policy and public attitudes—or rather, how these social constructions work.


Throughout the following chapters I explore ideas about Mexican-origin women's fertility in public discourse, assess the reasons for their deployment, and grapple with the relationship between "ideas" about fertility and the actual abuses enacted on the bodies of Mexican-origin women, including forced sterilization. I examine multiple forms of data (including written texts, oral statements, and other documents gathered through archival research) that construct social knowledge about Mexican-origin women's fertility. I empirically ground our notions of Mexican-origin women as "breeders" in historical context, and explore the implications of these ideas in the discursive practices of various social actors.




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