No Más Bebés Screening and Q&A with Filmmaker Renee Tajima-Peña
On Tuesday, March 15, University of Michigan students, faculty, and community members gathered in the Rackham Amphitheatre for the screening of the documentary No Más Bebés, followed by a lively Q&A session with the Academy Award-nominated filmmaker Renee Tajima-Peña.
The documentary, first released in June 2015 as a part of PBS’s Independent Lens series, tells the story of 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 unknowingly sterilized while giving birth at Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center during the late 1960s and early 1970s.
The film itself takes an unflinching look at the ugly realities of racism within medical and legal institutions, while also capturing the resilency of both a marginalized culture and the individual women who, against great odds and with few allies, filed this monumental, yet almost forgotten class action lawsuit in 1975. The film’s gaze is recognizably feminist, emphasizing the role of the early Chicana feminist movement that significantly impacted contemporary reproductive rights.
Central to the storyline are two whistleblowers, a young, unlikely, radical Jewish medical resident, who first brought evidence against his colleagues and supervisors. The other, Antonia Hernández, the now nationally recognized civil and immigration rights attorney, who first took up the case right after graduating from UCLA School of Law while serving as staff attorney at the Los Angeles Center for Law and Justice.
By documenting those impacted through interviews and historical archives, the filmmakers give voice to the unsayable. Though many women testified, often their families were unaware due to familial and cultural shaming around infertility. In interviews, the women lament the children they never had, their grief permeating the veil between filmed subject and viewer. While the lawsuit, and its subsequent appeal were dismissed, the case ushered forth vital conversation about women’s bodies and racialized medicine. Improved policy and hospital proceedings soon followed including: the presence of bilingual literature, Spanish-speaking liaisons, and revisions to informed-consent policies.
Following the film was an informative Q&A session with filmmaker and professor, Renee Tajima-Peña. The audience seemed most curious about the tensions between Chicana feminist organizers, white feminists, as well as Chicano labor organizers, who both sidelined the needs of Chicana women during that time. Also of interest was Professor Tajima-Peña’s journey into filmmaking. Though she never attended film school, she felt passionately about human rights and aspired to be a civil rights attorney. It is clear in this film and others, that her work is largely informed by her interest in legal questions and issues regarding social injustice.
Most surprising was the early development of No Más Bebés. With her colleague Virginia Espino, Professor Tajima-Peña began the process of tracking down the surviving plaintiffs. This proved challenging having only old medical records and former addresses. Frequently, their investigative work led them to the children of the testifying women, who often knew nothing of their mothers' past political engagement. Though this case had national impact, Professor Tajima-Peña noted, the trauma and cultural stigma experienced by the women often resulted in secrecy.
Given the political climate of reproductive and immigration rights today, the story is relevant, potent and an eerie reminder of the continued fight for women’s bodily autonomy and security.
Community contributor CristiEllen Heos Zarvas is the Meetings and Special Events Assistant for the Institute for Research on Women and Gender at the University of Michigan.