Today marks the beginning of Hispanic Heritage Month. Having lived in San Francisco’s Mission District for a time, I always loved the cultural vibe of its large Latino population. I remember taking a walk one day during Hispanic Heritage Month and seeing the parade on Mission Street with the amazing display of pride and beauty of Latino culture.
Photo Credit: One of the many amazing murals in San Francisco’s Mission District, The Mission Cultural Center for Latino Arts, San Francisco, CA, taken 23 February 2012 by Wally Gobetz: wallyg/Flickr/ CC BY NC ND 2.0
But in addition to the joy, we also have to acknowledge the shame that those of us who are not Latino share in the history of oppression and persecution. As much as I love California, it is not a state free of this shame. My intention for this blog post was to write about Latina women in the early 20th century (which I will still do at some point). But my research led me down a much darker path in California’s history: When the law of eugenics was embraced in 1909 and led to the sterilization of many Latino women and men.
Eugenics, for those who might not be familiar with the term, refers to the idea that it’s possible to create a perfect society (a super-society, per se) by taking measures and putting in laws to prevent those considered “undesirable” from creating more “undesirables.” If it sounds uncomfortably like something Hitler and the Nazi party would embrace, it’s because this is exactly what they did. To this end, one of the ways the Nazi party put this law into action was by legalizing sterilization. In the courtroom drama Judgment at Nuremberg (1961), there is a heartbreaking scene where Montgomery Clift’s character takes the stand and attests to the trauma and shame of being forced to be sterilized (you can view the scene here). This was a reality in Nazi Germany, but sadly, it was also a reality for the Latino community in California in the first part of the 20th century.
In 1909, the government passed a law legalizing sterilization of “undesirables” and California embraced this law, targeting non-white men and women, but especially its large Latino population. The theory was crime and poverty would decrease if these people were limited in procreation (sounds like something out of a bad sci-fi movie, doesn’t it?) In the first half of the century, nearly 60,000 people were sterilized in the United States, mostly in mental institutions and asylums where doctors had the decision-making power for those under their care. Many of these people were told sterilization was reversible to help persuade them to cooperate. About a third of these were in California and the majority of those were Latino men and women.
The Latino community in California began to fight back. For example, ten women in Los Angeles filed a lawsuit to gain compensation for being manipulated and coerced by hospital staff to get sterilized in 1975, though, sadly, they lost. Thankfully, the law was repealed, though not until 1979. In 2021, California set aside a budget of $7.5 million dollars exclusively to compensate families whose members had fall victim to the eugenics program.
If you’re looking for more of a glimpse of California history (the good, the bad, and the ugly), check out my Adele Gossling Mysteries series. Book 1 and Book 2 are both out and you can preorder Book 3 (coming out on October 29) here.
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