I keep reading about the war on women that's happening now in America. It's awful, what's happening - government trying to take control over women's health, sexuality, reproduction, and freedoms. I hate it. But it's nothing new.
I've written a lot about my maternal grandmother, Celina, but I've never written about Jovita, my father's mother. Jovita was as different from Celina as possible. While Celina was bright and witty and full of joy, Jovita was uneducated, somewhat shy, and she had very little humor. This isn't to say that she wasn't a good person: she was, and she treated me well. Her life, though, was full of pain and tragedy. One of her earliest memories was of her father being murdered on the streets of San Juan, Puerto Rico. A terrible thing for a child to live with, and, in many ways, it set the tone of her life.
Jovita moved from Puerto Rico to NYC with her little boy - my father - in 1946. She was a single mother, when that was not an acceptable thing to be. She made her son the center of her universe, and worked at whatever she could find, to keep him fed and clothed and healthy. Usually piecework at factories, or cleaning homes and offices.
In 1963, my parents met and married, and my mother became friendly with her mother-in-law. One day, when my mother mentioned that she needed to see her gynecologist, Jovita revealed that she'd never been to such a doctor and had, in fact, never had a gynecological exam. My mother was shocked. She advised Jovita that it really would be a good idea to have an exam, and to start having them annually. Jovita agreed to go to my mother's doctor, Dr. Seissman. A few days later, my mother took her mother-in-law to the gynecologist for her first exam. My grandmother would have been in her 60s.
My mother waited in the waiting room while Dr. Seissman performed the exam. A few minutes later, my mother was called in to translate. Jovita, you see, only spoke a few words of English. My mother entered the examination room and found my grandmother sitting up, looking confused, and Dr. Seissman looking equally bewildered.
"Carmen," she said, "please ask your mother-in-law when she had a radical hysterectomy, and why it was performed."
This was news to my mother. She'd never heard about Jovita having had such major surgery. She asked Dr. Seissman if she was sure of this.
"Yes," the doctor answered, "I'm absolutely sure. She has no uterus. Nothing, at all. And it looks to have been done quite a while back. I'd like to know why this was done - does she have a history of cancer?"
My mother asked Jovita about it, only to have Jovita reply that she didn't know what a hysterectomy was, and that she'd never been sick in any way. My mother asked her about menopause, and Jovita answered that, a year or two after my father been born - when she was just 30 - all the woman in her neighborhood in San Juan had been ordered to a government clinic. She'd been seen by a doctor, and told that she'd need to have surgery. The reason for the surgery was never explained to her. Her permission was never asked for. She hadn't been sick. She'd been ordered, by doctors sent by the U.S. government, to have surgery. They were doctors. They were with the government. Of course she trusted their judgement. The next thing she knew, she was recovering from this mystery surgery that had left a large scar. The doctors told her not to climb stairs or lift anything heavy, and that she would be just fine. They hadn't told her anything else. They hadn't mentioned that her periods would stop, or that she'd never be able to have another child. They hadn't mentioned that they'd ripped her uterus out in a government-sanctioned effort to keep the women of Puerto Rico from breeding.
After her recovery, my grandmother noticed that her monthly period never returned. She assumed her "change" had come early, and never connected this to the mystery surgery she'd been forced to undergo.She was just about 30 years old.
My father's mother was a simple woman. She never had the chance to go to school. She was a functional illiterate who could read and write her own name, and little else. She'd been raised to respect and fear authority. When a doctor, let alone a government doctor, told her she needed surgery, there was never any question about what would happen next.
What happened to Jovita was not an isolated incident. She was only one of thousands - possibly a million - women n Puerto Rico that this happened to. It was part of a large-scale government eugenics program that continued in Puerto Rico well into the 1970s. It was part of the very war on women that seemed to be on hiatus for a while, but now seems to be back in full force.
I'm not writing about this to point out that this is just business as usual, and that there's no point trying to change it. I'm writing about this because it breaks my heart that my grandmother was victimized in this way, that her most basic rights were violated like this. I'm writing about this because it's 2012, and we're dangerously close to seeing this sort of thing happen AGAIN. Forcing a woman to be sterilized is no different than forcing a woman to carry to term a pregnancy that she doesn't want. They're both assaults on more than a woman's body, but on her personhood.
The people who say that the "war on women" is just a dramatic contrivance of the left are denying their own history. My mother made sure to tell us Jovita's story because we must make sure that story never be our story, too. Hell, no.