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Living pro-vida

Shame and family silence lead many Hispanic women to abortionists, but a pro-life message may be making strides

Living pro-vida

Patricia Sandoval (Jeff Wales)

When Patricia Sandoval was a little girl, she used to sit in her Petaluma, Calif., backyard and write love letters to God, tying them onto a balloon and sending them into the sky. But at age 12, life grew difficult when her parents divorced. She also had her first ever “sex talk,” but not with her mom or dad.

One day, Planned Parenthood visited Sandoval’s sixth-grade class. After a graphic presentation about sex, Sandoval remembers a female representative told the class, “If you ever need anything, we are here for you.”

Sandoval’s parents immigrated from Mexico before she was born, and they only spoke Spanish. She was raised Catholic, the middle of three children, her father’s “princess.” Like many immigrant Hispanic parents, Sandoval’s father pushed the children to attend college and pursue the American dream. But when it came to discussing puberty, relationships, sex, or abortion, all Sandoval remembers is silence.

This same silence and pressure permeates many Hispanic households, even those with deep-rooted cultural or religious pro-life values.

Among other things, Sandoval learned from Planned Parenthood’s presentation at school how to have “safe sex.” But at 19 safe sex failed her, and she had her first abortion. Before the procedure, she says, she remembers a nurse telling her, “It’s not a baby … it’s a sac of tissue.” Sandoval believed her, and after two more abortions, she began working as a Spanish-speaking back-office nurse at Planned Parenthood in Sacramento. She says supervisors told her 90 percent of the clients were Latinos and spoke little English. She grew accustomed to a waiting room filled with 13- and 14-year-old Hispanic girls.

Hispanic women and their unborn babies account for more than 25 percent of all abortions in the United States, according to the pro-abortion Guttmacher Institute. More than a quarter of the nation’s Hispanic population lives in California, where 17 percent of the nation’s abortions occur with little restriction and in many cases with taxpayer funding. Pro-life voices are routinely snuffed by the media and pro-abortion advocates with a firm grip on state politics.

But the silence is breaking. In recent years, “pro-vida” Hispanics in California and elsewhere are becoming more vocal and organized. What started small, like pregnancy centers offering Spanish brochures and bilingual staff, is turning into growing outreaches aimed at educating and emboldening Hispanic families and communities.

Meanwhile, some Hispanic women are telling their abortion stories. They are breaking cultural taboos and exposing truth, even as they often face shaming and backlash from their families.

At Planned Parenthood, supervisors instructed Sandoval to keep girls from seeing ultrasound screens and, if they seemed hesitant, to tell them about her three abortions. She says they also told her to call the babies “it.”

Within a few weeks, Sandoval began assisting during abortion procedures. In the back room, for the first time, she saw dismembered arms and legs, bodies with genitalia, and heads with hair and mouths still open. She witnessed biohazard freezers full of bagged body parts. On her last day, one month after starting, she says she saw a giant petri dish filled with aborted parts of unborn 6-month-old twin brothers: “That’s when I faced the truth. I didn’t believe in God at that point, but I knew that I killed my three children.”

B Christopher/Alamy Live News

Pro-life demonstrators rally outside the Supreme Court. (B Christopher/Alamy Live News)

Facing the truth about abortion led Sandoval into three years of drug addiction, homelessness, and anorexia. At her lowest point, she sat on a curb sobbing. She remembers looking up at the sky, recalling her love letters to God and praying. Minutes later, a woman came out of a nearby restaurant, hugging her and telling her about Christ’s love and forgiveness. She gave Sandoval a meal and a ride to her father’s house. Soon after, Sandoval attended a post-abortion healing retreat, where she experienced Christ’s forgiveness. She also made a promise to be a voice for the unborn.

In 2007, Sandoval began telling her story. She has since written a book and shared her testimony more than 400 times across the United States, Europe, and Latin America. Last year, she traveled several times to Argentina and El Salvador and participated in media campaigns as these countries battled attempts to legalize abortion. In January, she’s slated to speak in both Spanish and English at the West Coast Walk for Life in San Francisco.

But Sandoval has paid a price for speaking out. She often has people walk out of her presentations, or call her a murderer. Family members have cut her off, even those who initially encouraged her abortion healing process. Sandoval says, “It is a very shameful thing in Hispanic culture to have an abortion, but it is even more shameful to talk about it. I’m known in my family as the girl who had three abortions.”

For this reason, many Hispanic women stay silent about their abortions, or they only share anonymously. Two post-abortive Hispanic women I interviewed said they have experienced healing and even engage in pro-life activism, but they still have not told family members about their abortions.

Hispanics have long-held cultural and religious opposition to abortion. More than 60 percent of Hispanics, and 54 percent of Latino millennials, think it is “morally wrong,” according to two recent Public Religion Research Institute studies. More than 50 percent think it should be illegal in “all or most cases,” a 2014 Pew Research Center study found.

For this reason, some refer to Hispanics as “the sleeping giant” of the pro-life movement.

But pundits err in referring to Hispanics as a “monolithic voting bloc,” said Tim Edson, the national field director for the Susan B. Anthony List (SBA). In the 2016 elections, SBA successfully targeted Latinos in states like Florida and Arizona with paid advertising and door-to-door campaigning, Edson said. The group surveyed Hispanic voters before and after engagement and saw an 11-point voter preference shift in favor of pro-life candidates in these states.

But in California, even as pro-abortion groups maintain a tight hold on state politics, many see emerging pro-life support, especially in conservative areas like the Central Valley. “The sleeping giant is waking up,” said Samuel Rodriguez, a Sacramento pastor and president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference. He predicts, “There’s about to be a significant pushback against California’s abortion-on-demand, and it’s coming from the Hispanic community.”

‘There’s about to be a significant pushback against California’s abortion-on-demand, and it’s coming from the Hispanic community.’ —Samuel Rodriguez

Within the last decade, pro-life groups and crisis pregnancy centers have made a concerted effort to reach Spanish-speaking women. Many now have bilingual staff, “Español” website tabs, and Spanish-language resources. In 2008, a Hispanic pro-life group and Mexican actor Eduardo Verástegui reproduced a widely circulated Spanish video originally made in the late 1980s titled “Dura Realidad,” or “Hard Truth,” which depicts fetal formation and contains graphic abortion images.

Some see a correlation with these efforts and a declining abortion rate among Hispanic women. Between 2007 and 2015, the abortion rate dropped by 30 percent, according to a new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

But the battle is still raging. In Los Angeles, nine Planned Parenthood centers operate within a 1-mile radius of a predominantly poor Hispanic neighborhood. Astrid Bennett Gutierrez grew up in this neighborhood, and in 2006 she opened the first pro-life clinic within that radius, called Los Angeles Pregnancy Services. She says the abortion industry “targets poor, vulnerable Latino women who feel pressured and shamed into abortion.” Gutierrez has become a key Latino pro-life voice, speaking regularly on the Catholic television network EWTN and at pro-life gatherings.

Two years ago, Gutierrez launched the Vida Initiative outreach. The group is targeting second- or third-generation Hispanic millennials with pro-life messaging, mentoring, and workshops on public speaking and sidewalk counseling. Gutierrez said the greatest challenge is “undoing the indoctrination that happens in schools and in mainstream media.”

Much of California’s Hispanic population lives within the Central Valley’s 450-mile stretch of flat and agriculture-rich land. In Visalia, one of the valley’s major farming outposts, Maricela Lupercio, 36, runs Latinos4Life, a Hispanic outreach of the Tulare-Kings [Counties] Right to Life (TKRL), with the goal of helping families “communicate about important topics like dating, sex and abortion.”

Tomas Ovalle/Genesis

Marciela Lupercio (Tomas Ovalle/Genesis)

Lupercio knows from experience the challenges Hispanic families face. Her parents immigrated from Mexico to the Central Valley, raising her and her four siblings in a traditional Catholic household, but “never any conversation about our bodies, sexuality, or how to have healthy relationships.” Lupercio began sneaking out of the house to have sex with her boyfriend at age 14, and from there, she says, she experienced a “downward spiral of unhealthy decisions and relationships.”

Lupercio started Latinos4Life as a 21-year-old newlywed and new mother with a passion to help Hispanic families. In 2006, she began making her own Spanish-language materials, attending community meetings, teaching parenting workshops, and setting up booths at local events.

Lupercio told me about one such event in November. Hundreds of Hispanic women filled a Visalia, Calif., convention center for an annual luncheon for female farmworkers. Dozens of vendor booths advertised everything from jewelry to funeral homes. Lupercio’s table was covered with babies—different-sized fetal and womb replicas and a basket filled with tiny doll-like babies marked “12 weeks.” “Little children always want to hold the babies,” she told me. The booth also had stacks of Spanish brochures and posters that explain in utero development and reproductive “Biology 101.”

‘Our cultural roots are incredibly pro-life, but with no education, no communication, and no support, abortion becomes a solution.’ — Maricela Lupercio

The Latinos4Life booth is now a familiar scene at farmers markets, festivals, health fairs, churches, and schools. Lupercio has focused on making connections and educating Hispanics about pregnancy, fetal development, and sexual exposure risks. Her group works closely with churches and local pregnancy centers. “Our cultural roots are incredibly pro-life,” she says. “But with no education, no communication, and no support, abortion becomes a solution.”

Maricela Silva, 46, saw a Latinos4Life display at her community college before she had told anyone about her three abortions. After this, she attended a post-abortion retreat and began sharing her story. At first, it was “painful,” and some of her family rejected her, but she says, “Every time I share it, it brings me more freedom.” Silva now runs TKRL’s “I Regret My Abortion” outreach and has joined Lupercio at Latinos4Life outreach events, offering post-abortive support.

Next year, a second Latinos4Life is slated to open in Bakersfield, Calif.

Meanwhile, Patricia Sandoval said the most rewarding part of sharing her story is when women tell her that she helped change their perspective on abortion. Sometimes she gets to hold a baby that she helped save. Last year, Sandoval married, and in May she will hold one of her own children for the first time.

—Read the next story in this Roe v. Wade special section: “Lost by choice

Mary Jackson

Mary Jackson

Mary is a graduate of the World Journalism Institute mid-career course and lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband and four children. Follow Mary on Twitter @mbjackson77