Film is a powerful tool for reexamining social issues and injustices of the past. Creating work about our own experiences is empowering for communities of color that have been locked out of mainstream film, media, and other historical narratives. When we make this type of work, we’re not only honoring the hardships and triumphs of those that came before us, but also contextualizing inequality we still face today.
I spoke with award-winning filmmaker Renee Tajima-Peña, a founding member of CAAM (formerly the National Asian American Telecommunications Association), about her most recent documentary, No Más Bébes (No More Babies). The film premieres on PBS’ Independent Lens on February 1, 2016. The audience meets and learns the story of ten Chicana women who underwent forced sterilization procedures after giving birth via cesarean section in the L.A. County Hospital in the early 1970s. The film chronicles the resulting class-action lawsuit (Madrigal v. Quilligan) and shares stories from the families, lawyers, doctors, county officials and journalists who were all implicated and invested in this often lesser known but massively important reproductive justice case.
Tajima-Peña has a keen eye for finding and helping convey these socially salient stories. Her works include the Oscar nominated film Who Killed Vincent Chin?, My America…or Honk if You Love Buddha, Labor Women, The New Americans, and Calavera Highway. She is a professor and the Director of the Center of EthnoCommunications at UCLA. Her co-producer for No Más Bébes, Virginia Espino, is a historian at the UCLA Center for Oral History Research.
Tajima-Peña shares her thoughts on the film’s importance, the state of independent film in communities of color, and the reproductive justice movement.
Tell me a little bit about yourself as a filmmaker and scholar.
No Más Bébes brings my filmmaking full circle because the first film I ever made [as a director] was Who Killed Vincent Chin? which is also about a civil rights trial. The heart and soul of that film was Lily Chin, the older immigrant woman and the mother of Vincent Chin. In No Más Bebés, again the heart and soul is the “Madrigal Ten,” as we call them. The women who sued everybody. They sued the doctors, the hospital, the county, the state of California and the U.S. government. I’ve been making films for a long time between Who Killed Vincent Chin? and this one but they all center on stories of injustice and social issues, primarily about immigrant communities, Asian American and Latino.
What spurred you to make a film about this topic?
My neighbor and friend, Virginia Espino, is the other producer. She researched the story for her PHD dissertation for many years and really dug in to the history of what happened. Except for a handful of scholars like Virginia it was pretty much forgotten for decades. We’re neighbors and when our kids were really small we had play dates and we’d talk about our work. She told me about this research and I was just flabbergasted. I knew Puerto Rican and Native American women were forcefully sterilized but I had no idea that it happened here at home–I grew up around Los Angeles and we live just a few miles from the same hospital. At that time I was in this state of bliss of having gone through pregnancy and child birth and having a little kid so in that moment of being a mom imagining losing the right to have a child hit me in the gut. It was a powerful revelation and we thought someday we have got to make a film about this.
It’s horrendous and so personal. It really hits you.
Yes. I had the same reaction first hearing about Vincent Chin’s killers getting probation and a fine for killing him. It hit me in the gut. As a filmmaker, when I actually went out and started talking to people on both sides of the case and researching stories things, what seemed to be a simple open and shut scenario started getting very complex. In the 1970s there was hostility toward immigrants, people thought poor women had babies to get on welfare, and there were fears of the population explosion. All these attitudes existed in the minds of Americans and created this environment for sterilization abuse. Ultimately that’s what really interested me about the story.
Were people hesitant to speak with you and bring up this history?
The mothers were reluctant because no one had spoken to them about it. It was so traumatic they had to try to move on. Even their kids had no idea what had happened. But when we talked to the mothers they often consulted their kids about whether or not to participate in the film and the kids would just tell them, “please, go on camera and tell your story.” They knew something bad had happened but didn’t know what it was and then decades later, when they’re all grown and have children of their own, to find out their mother had been sterilized brought a lot of things together. They understood what was happening in the family and they were also really proud that their mothers were part of this historic lawsuit. Virginia, as an oral historian, developed very trusting relationships with the women. They felt comfortable telling their stories.
I was struck by the use of historical footage and home videos. It helped underline how personal the stories are. Was it difficult to access?
Most of the footage was shot by Chicano filmmakers during the 1970s, many of who came out of the EthnoCommunications program at UCLA. It was their affirmative action program that was seminal in producing a new generation of filmmakers of color. In the face of nobody else filming their communities it was these young Chicano filmmakers, like their Asian American counterparts of the time, who wanted to film stories and capture authentic inside perspectives from their communities. I was able to see view this work at UCLA because of Chon Noriega’s work compiling films from the past 60 years or so with the Chicano studies research center. They were shot in Boyle Heights, East L.A., the same neighborhoods the women were living in. It was a real treasure to find. Communities of color were neglected or written out of history. But the fact that these young filmmakers were going out there and were from these communities… I love that material. Without it I don’t know what we would have done. Sitting down and looking through hours of this footage makes me appreciate the formation of independent film, particularly the Chicano, Asian American and African American indie movement. I appreciate that they shot and that someone preserved this footage. That’s what CAAM is trying to do with Asian American footage. That’s our history.
Can you tell me about your thoughts on being an Asian American making this film about and interacting with a Mexican American community.
I always work with people from the community I’m picturing or documenting. I’ve always done that. Even with Asian American films it’s a collaboration. And because I grew up in L.A. with the Asian and Latino communities living in close neighborhoods, there’s always been a little bit of overlap. Virginia and I both still live in North East L.A. so it’s kind of like filming in our own backyard. But I really believe it’s important for people within a community to document their own stories. It doesn’t always happen like that and I really think I can’t make any of these films without partnering with somebody.
2015 marked 40 years since the lawsuit. What significance do you think the case and now this film hold all these decades later?
The linchpin really is reproductive justice. The way the white mainstream feminist movement has framed reproductive freedom is about whether women can get abortions or reproductive health care. But reproductive justice asks if your class, race, gender and immigration status all impact whether you truly have that access and truly have the freedom to make your own decisions. That’s what this film is about. Because of their race, being working poor, being immigrants, because of language and cultural barriers these women could not exercise control of their own bodies. That was yesterday and today. Reproductive freedom is really focused on abortion because that is something middle class women have been concerned with. But for poor women and a lot of poor women of color it’s not only having the right to not have a child but to have a child and raise that child with dignity.
Which themes were most intriguing to you as the filmmaking process unfolded? Were you surprised by anything that came up?
Yes, conceptualizing reproductive freedom in a different way. It was really a revelation to understand that reproductive freedom also means the right to have a safe and healthy pregnancy and childbirth and then to raise that child. For a lot of women that’s not a given. Another thing that struck me was that for the mothers, though they were all traumatized by what happened to them, they’re not victims. They are really strong women. They were factory workers and homemakers and moms and a lot of them had very traditional marriages but they were also everyday activists. That’s what Lily Chin became. She was just a woman who was forced in to this moment of history and she stood up and led. It was similar for these women. Also the people involved in the case were from the Chicano community as it was beginning… There were journalists and lawyers who were completely energized and mobilized for justice. You look decades later and they have taken up really important leadership positions but at that time they were just young scrappy people who came out of these communities and wanted to stand up on behalf of them.
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For more information about the film, visit the website.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.