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Latinas will soon lead the conversation about US abortion rights

Commentary: Conventional wisdom says Latinas, many of whom are Catholic, might agree with Republicans on abortion. But recent polling shows that isn't the case.
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(Emily Judem/GlobalPost)

NEW YORK— One of the most powerful women in the United States says the most powerful women in America now look nothing like her. She is Cecile Richards, daughter of famed Texas governor Ann Richards and current president of Planned Parenthood. She is tall and thin with a naturally blond pixie cut.

The women she says have the power to form a new narrative about American women look more like me—petite, light brown skin, and dark, long and unruly hair.

Latino women, says Richards, will lead the conversation about reproductive rights in the US from here, into the futuro. And though Richards says that for the majority of Americans the discussion is over about the unequivocal right to an abortion, sex education or birth control, there is a loud conservative minority who are trying to legislate away these rights.

Conventional wisdom says Latinas, who are more Catholic and more religious, might agree with Republicans on this, but according to polling by Planned Parenthood the numbers don't bear this out.

According to the poll, Latinas get just as many abortions, percentage wise, as their white counterparts. What’s more, 74 percent of Latino registered voters, men and women, agree that a woman has a right to make her own personal, private decisions about abortion without politicians interfering.

For pro-life Latinos, though, there is a new, and frankly dramatic, headline in their frontal battle to restrict access. Rai Rojas is the Director of Latino Outreach for the Right to Life national movement and he says "the most dangerous place for a Latino baby is in his mother’s womb."

That is chilling, but it's important to remember that Latina teens also have the highest rate of teen pregnancies, though over the past few years that number has been on a slow decline. Is abortion the reason? And how do we feel about that? Is this a win or a loss?

What remain constants for both Latinos and non-Latinos about abortion are the shame and the silence. But silence just isn't my thing.

I became a journalist to break the silence and tell untold stories. Sometimes, like when I wrote my memoir about becoming a mom to my US-born Latino children, the silence I broke was my own. As a result of that book I was often asked to speak about my own story.

A few years ago, I was asked to attend a Latina empowerment conference in south Texas and to talk about my story of coming to own power. I had been told several hundred high school girls would be there and I knew those were the ones I wanted to reach.

I wanted them to know that for me, like for them, it was not easy to grow up Latina in the USA. I wanted them to know that for generations we have been riding the line between our two selves.

There are our traditional, often Catholic, Latina selves—bound to our families—and conversely, our more independent and free thinking, open-minded, feminist, American selves.

At the conference, the teen girls sat in the rear of the auditorium, backs straight and strong, listening attentively. I had come to the conference early to hear some of the speakers. As I listened, I got confused.

Women were on stage telling their stories of personal grief and eventual triumph but it was also about how they'd suffered after having an abortion, but regained a sense of triumph now as soldiers for the pro-life movement.

I picked up the flier for the event and saw that among the sponsors for the day was a pro-abstinence organization.

So what to do?

I didn't want to be disrespectful but I also knew that in my core I believe in the healthy, though sometimes scary, debates that are the basis for our democracy. And I wanted the girls to know that having a different experience and a different point of view is essential, but so is not being afraid to express that point of view.

I wanted the girls to learn that lesson, too. So while I hadn't expected to talk about my personal story in this way exactly, I also had a story of grief and anguish and triumph and it too, in part, revolved around pregnancy, abortion, life and love.

I took to the stage and spoke. I told how as a Mexican immigrant girl in Chicago in the 70s I had seen graphic photographs in TIME magazine of women who had died from botched illegal abortions.

I spoke about being Mexican but also being a product of the American women's movement. That push for independence let my traditional parents allow me to go to college away from home. And while I was smart and well educated about sex, I became pregnant twice while in college, even though I was using birth control.

There was never any thought that I would follow through with the pregnancies. I wasn't in love, I wasn't getting married, I hadn't finished college, I was in the middle of my semester! It wasn't going to happen.

Having an abortion is no light matter. I was sad. But as a young woman I was also at peace with my legal and very private decision.

Years later, married and in love, I had two miscarriages and then I wanted a baby more than anything in the world. Seeing my immigrant paisanas in New York City who were facing uncertain lives but having babies out of love inspired me, and so we keep on trying. Now I am a mom to two wonderful teenagers.

I spoke about breaking my silence and breaking through fear.

My parents and my conservative Catholic family in Mexico had read my memoir and they accept me, not in spite of sin but because of love. And I am accepted by the man I have loved for 25 years, and by our kids.

Yes, I told the audience, I was a "success" story, but life is complex. We all make hard choices and the young women who listened needed to hear they could endure those choices—to feel their strength, to feel sturdy enough to make someone wear a condom, to say no, to have an abortion, or make the decision to have a baby.

But mostly, I wanted them to own their voices and their power as young American women.

When I finished speaking I wasn't sure what to expect, but I got a standing ovation. Then as I walked offstage, some teen girls came running to hug me.

“Thank you for speaking the truth to us and for making us feel strong enough to decide our lives for ourselves,” they told me through tears and abrazos.

Now, even though I have had abortions, I would, of course, never wish that on anyone. But I have met every kind of woman who has made that choice, from a mom with three kids to a scared teen and everything in between.

Their story, without fail, is the story of free women who are respected enough by everyone that they are given the right to choose and to make the choice that is right for them.

As more Latinas move into positions of power, I predict more of them will break through the silence and the stereotypes. And they will lead the conversation about reproductive rights—speaking without shame about the challenges life puts in front of us and the legal rights we have as Latinas, and as American women, to respond in our own very private ways.

GlobalPost columnist Maria Hinojosa is a regular contributor to the VOICES series on the GlobalPost commentary page. She is president and CEO of The Futuro Media Group, which produces LatinoUSA, the longest running Latino news program in America.

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This piece is part of a new GlobalPost Special Reports/Commentary initiative supported by the Ford Foundation called "VOICES." The mission of VOICES is to present the ideas and opinions of those who are less frequently heard in the media, including women, people of color, sexual minorities, citizens of the developing world and young people. These voices will consistently discuss topics important to GlobalPost Special Reports including human rights, religious issues, global health, economic inequality and democracies in transition.

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