Identity

California’s Dark History of Forcibly Sterilizing Latinas

A new bill, which currently sits in the Assembly, would identify and compensate the survivors of California's forced sterilization program, which disproportionately targeted Latina women.

by Kimberly Lawson
Aug 16 2018, 6:39pm

Illustration by Eleanor Doughty.

In 1939, Andrea Garcia was committed to Pacific Colony, a hospital for the “feebleminded” in Pomona, California. There, according to records, the 19-year-old was labeled a “mentally deficient, sex delinquent girl” who came from an “unfit home”; authorities also wrote that she had an IQ of 46, which ranked her in the “high imbecile grade” and came from a family with “subnormal” members. She was recommended for eugenic sterilization to keep her from passing down any of these traits to children.

It’s unclear whether or not Garcia was actually forced to have the surgery: Although her mother sued the state of California and lost, the date of the operation is missing from her paperwork. Garcia died in 2008, without ever having had any children. Experts say, however, that the overwhelming majority of people who were recommended for sterilization were sterilized.

Mary Franco, another young Latina woman, also lived in Pacific Colony in the 1930s. In an interview with KPCC, her great niece Stacy Cordova-Diaz said Franco was diagnosed with "feeble-mindedness, tied to social deviance," and was forced to have her Fallopian tubes removed in a procedure called a salpingectomy.

The sterilization “really affected her entire life,” Cordova-Diaz said. Franco died in 1998. "She had gotten married, and when the man she married found out she couldn't have children, he left her. She always felt that no one ever wanted to be with her because she couldn't have children."

Between 1909 and 1979, more than 20,000 people were involuntarily sterilized while living in California state institutions for the mentally ill and disabled. (The state’s eugenic law, which was repealed in 1979, gave the legal authority to make those decisions to medical superintendents, or the people in charge of running these institutions.) That’s one-third of the more than 60,000 sterilization procedures that occurred in the United States during the 20th century. A 1938 pamphlet promoting the practice called these patients “insane” and “feebleminded,” and argued that allowing them to have children placed a “tremendous burden of mental disease, deficiency and dependency” on society.

"She always felt that no one ever wanted to be with her because she couldn't have children."

To recognize survivors of this dark history, state Sen. Nancy Skinner introduced the Forced Sterilization Compensation Act (SB 1190) earlier this year. The bill, which passed the Senate and now sits in an appropriations committee in the Assembly, would create a state-funded program to identify and compensate men and women who had their reproductive autonomy taken away from them by the state. Similar restitution programs were created in North Carolina and Virginia in 2013 and 2015, respectively. (Surviving victims in North Carolina are eligible for $50,000, while those in Virginia may receive $25,000.)

“For 70 years California sterilized individuals the State deemed unfit to have children,” Skinner said in a statement. “With this program, we can shed light on something that should never have happened, and offer some small solace to the people affected.”

Pamphlet of the Human Betterment Foundation via the Library of Congress.

In the early 20th century, 32 states had eugenic sterilization laws that were used to prevent individuals deemed “unfit” from having children. The eugenics movement gained momentum because scientists, doctors, and other influential people believed it was possible to improve the population through “selective breeding.” Even the US Supreme Court determined these state statutes were constitutional. “It is better for all the world if, instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind,” Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. wrote in a 1927 decision. “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.”

Among those 32 states, California stands out for the sheer number of coerced sterilizations it authorized, with the number peaking during the 30s and 40s. In 1939 alone, the state performed 848 operations—the highest number of recorded, state-sanctioned sterilizations in a year while the practice was legal.

Historians say there were 11 state institutions in which these sterilizations were occurring, including Sonoma State House in Eldridge (now called Sonoma Developmental Center, the facility is slated for closure at the end of 2018) and Patton State Hospital in San Bernardino.

According to a 2005 paper published in the American Journal of Public Health, California’s eugenic law remained in practice for so long because of the way the state defined sterilization. (For comparison, Indiana’s 1907 sterilization law—the first in the nation—was overturned in 1921.) Rather than portray these reproductive surgeries as “punishment,” California described them as “a prophylactic measure that could simultaneously defend the public health, preserve precious fiscal resources, and mitigate the menace of the ‘unfit’ and ‘feebleminded.’”

Alex Minna Stern is a University of Michigan professor of American culture and author of Eugenic Nation: Faults and Frontiers of Better Breeding in Modern America. She tells Broadly that when California passed the first version of its sterilization law in 1909, it was “under the guise of progressivism and public health.” She adds that this occurred during a time in which “a white elite that had transplanted itself from other parts of the country wanted to remake California in its image.”

“There was a mixture of outright racial class and disability discrimination that was part of the texture of daily life,” Stern says. One study that came out during that time period reported that California had attracted “a large proportion of immigrants of an undesirable type.”

Recent research confirms these eugenic policies were largely influenced by racism. A study published in April found that people of Latin American descent in California were disproportionately targeted for sterilizations: Latino men were 23 percent more likely to be sterilized than non-Latino men. For women, the likelihood was even greater: Latina women were sterilized at 59 percent higher rates than non-Latinas.

Eugenicists thought non-white people—and particularly those of Mexican origin—were, simply put, inferior. This anti-Mexican sentiment deeply penetrated public policy as discussions about how to handle the country’s growing immigrant population swirled (leading to, for example, "repatriation" campaigns during the 1930s and 40s that ultimately deported up to two million Mexicans and Mexican-Americans). As one researcher suggests, the decisions to sterilize certain patients may have been “specifically influenced by debates over what to do about the state’s growing ‘Mexican problem.’”

The reasons for how these people even ended up in these places, thus making them susceptible for sterilization recommendation, are varied. Some were teenagers who’d committed petty crimes, girls who were seen as “promiscuous” because they were having sex as teenagers, and boys who were thought to be “mentally perverted” because they had sex with other boys. There were also people who were suffering from mental health issues that today might be diagnosed as borderline personality disorder or schizophrenia, and children whose parents were too destitute to care for them. Once they were determined to be “mentally deficient” after taking a so-called IQ test, they were often recommended to be sterilized.

“It’s really important to note that the whole process of sterilization in these institutions was all about labeling,” Stern says. “We’ll never know if these people actually had these disorders or they suffered from mental health conditions or their IQ was 50 or 70 or 80. In a way, that doesn’t matter. The point is people were labeled and put into the system because they were seen as a threat and seen as defective.”

“Maybe some people did suffer from these issues,” she adds. “But it doesn’t matter whether they did or didn’t. They shouldn’t have been involuntarily sterilized.”

Postcard from Patton State Hospital in the 1910s. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

In 2003, California issued an official apology to the victims and families who suffered under the state’s eugenics law. Advocates say that SB 1190, if passed, will serve as an additional acknowledgement of the injustice inflicted upon thousands of people. It won’t, however, make up for what these survivors endured when their right to become parents was taken away from them.

The bill also won’t address people who were sterilized in other capacities, such as the incarcerated women who were sterilized in California's prisons without state approval between 1997 and 2010 or the Mexican immigrant women who didn’t realize or didn’t understand they were getting their tubes tied while giving birth at Los Angeles County Hospital in the 70s.

But, says Laura Jimenez, the executive director of California Latinas for Reproductive Justice, providing this compensation for survivors is a matter of reproductive and disability justice. The organization is a co-sponsor of the compensation bill.

To a broader degree, Jimenez says, the fight to recognize this history has important connections to political discussions happening in our country today, especially for immigrants and other marginalized communities. “The current leadership of this country is utilizing rhetoric and messaging that’s very similar to the ways that scientists and engineers of eugenics were doing so at that time,” she says. “If the president is saying, ‘Mexicans are rapists and criminals’ and all of these things, there’s an element there of him saying, ‘Being Mexican equals criminality.’ … It creates the idea that there is inferiority based on race and country of origin.”

“This administration is already showing its disdain for the bodily autonomy of people who can become pregnant,” Jimenez continues, pointing to, as just one example, the recent policy proposal that would restrict federally funded health care providers from even talking to a woman about abortion. “They are acting in a very scary manner right now and refusing to listen to women. It’s very scary.”

Today, few Californians have come forward to share their stories of being sterilized as a result of being institutionalized. (There is, however, a component in SB 1190 that would help with outreach.) Stern estimates that by 2019, when this bill would go into effect if passed, only approximately 631 survivors of this era will still be alive.

“Their stories are yet to be told in many ways and we hope to hear them,” says Stern, who has collected thousands of patient records and documents dating from 1919 to 1952 for research purposes. “From the historical record, we can reconstruct stories of marginalized people who were otherwise erased and were largely forgotten and remember them as more than numbers... We can restore some dignity to them, although we’ll never really know them as complete individuals.”

“Their stories are yet to be told in many ways and we hope to hear them."

One such patient is the subject of a 1938 letter written by the medical director of the Sonoma State House, asking a state government official for permission to sterilize a Latina girl because her father had refused to give his consent.

“She has been known to the Probation Officer since 1936,” the document states, redacting the girl’s name. “She has been sexually wayward and in the Detention Home because of recent thefts and also she admitted having gone to a hotel with a young man with whom she admitted sexual relations.”

The letter ends with a simple question that hardly reflects the magnitude of what’s being asked of the state: “Will you kindly let us have your consent?”