On the Rio Grande: A Texas story
Imagine if instead of shooting each other, biker gangs gave free rides to women in need of medical help?
Paula Saldana is at an immigrant rights rally outside a federal Texas courthouse, so there is some interesting background noise to our phone conversation. But she’s used to multitasking so she has no trouble simultaneously participating in the rally and talking with me about cancer, abortion and birth control.
Paula is a third-generation American, living in Brownsville, a community in Texas you’ve probably never heard of. “It could be another country,” she says. In 1994, when she was 16, she had a baby. “I had choices then. I had support from my mother, grandmother, and family, and lots of resources. I kept the baby, and I went to school. I got childcare through the school, and enrolled in a Planned Parenthood programme that supported teenage mothers and connected them with resources. They helped with daycare, graduation, applying for college, and family planning. I would tell my mum I didn’t need family planning, I promised not to do it again! But Planned Parenthood educated me, and I delayed my second pregnancy for seven years.”
That first baby is now 21, training to become a medical assistant, and she has three other children: “I had the opportunity to decide how many and when to have them.” They are growing up in an entirely different environment, where women don’t have the same choices. “Lots of changes have occurred,” Paula tells me. “Cancer screening, opportunities for school, contraceptive information, etc.—all disappearing. My position (community health worker) at Planned Parenthood was eliminated because of cuts. It’s very different for teenage mums now. No options. It frustrates me because when I go out and people say they want to be checked for cancer or get some birth control, I have no places to send them. The government took away anything to do with reproductive health.”
She still feels positive despite the setbacks she has seen. “I have seen the community mobilize and get empowered.”
Paula has three part-time jobs and is a volunteer promotora, or community health worker. She also volunteers with Nuestro Texas, a human rights campaign of the Center for Reproductive Rights (CRR) and the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health.
Southern Texas, along the Rio Grande next to Mexico, is one of the poorest areas of the US. Katrina Anderson, senior human rights counsel at CRR, works with the community through the Nuestro Texas campaign and explained some of the history to me: “There are lots of women living in colonias (unregulated settlements), neighbourhoods, off the grid. Land developers in the 1950s and 1960s wanted to sell cheap land and found immigrants to buy—they kind of swindled them. These communities have built up over time, and many still lack electricity and plumbing. There’s extreme poverty, very few social services, very little access to healthcare.”
“But we are rich in our culture, and proud of it,” Paula tells me.
“The only place where women could get preventive healthcare was at their local family planning clinics,” Katrina explained. “These clinics were small, nimble, and tailored to the community. After the Republican electoral sweep, the Texas legislature targeted Planned Parenthood as part of a broader attack on reproductive rights in 2011. The state legislature virtually eliminated its family planning programmes, knowing this would shut down clinics statewide. By 2012, dozens of clinics had closed statewide, but mostly in underserved areas.
“We were expecting to find a rise in unintended pregnancy, but we found so much more. One woman, a single mom, recently escaped domestic violence in Mexico with her daughter. She has seven lumps in her breast. She tried to get a mammogram, but couldn’t find anyone to take her. She can’t drive, she’s undocumented. She lives in fear of cancer and deportation, and worries about her daughter.”
Katrina, like Paula, is positive despite the fear and poverty in the valley. “Women are organizing and doing it so effectively, and taking enormous risks to speak out, educate themselves about their rights, hold meetings, arrange rides to clinics. It is an empowering leadership development model.” CRR helps provide a human rights policy framework. “We guide the international/national/ regional advocacy,” she explains, “but the women of the valley are the faces of the campaign, and they do all the work.”
In Brownsville, undocumented women are afraid to go to clinics because they erroneously believe that clinics might turn them into immigration authorities. They are also aware of internal immigration checkpoints. Even if they decide to go, transportation is difficult. They don’t have cars and there are few buses.
Meanwhile, around 400 miles to the north in Waco, some other Texans are making world headlines. The Bandidos and Cossacks, two biker gangs (technically “clubs”), just had a huge shootout. Several hundred bikers were arrested. I went to the Bandidos’ website immediately after watching footage of Paula teaching women about the female reproductive system and noticed that the handlebars of the masked leather-clad man’s motorbike on the home page look exactly like fallopian tubes.
Maybe we were wrong all along in our armchair analysis of men who ride large motorcycles. Maybe they’re not looking for giant penises. They want to ride giant uteri. If so, why not give up the macho posturing and spend some energy fighting for what’s important? Imagine if, instead of shooting each other and looking very, very stupid in Waco, the gang members rode noisily south, and offered the women of Brownsville free rides to the nearest clinics. The Bandidos specialize in smuggling drugs across the border. They’re skilled in transportation. Imagine those 170 men storming into the Texas assembly, led by the women of the comunidades (communities) demanding universal access to cervical cancer screening. Stranger things have happened, along the Rio Grande.
Sohaila Abdulali is a New York-based writer. She writes a fortnightly column on women in the 21st century.
Also Read Sohaila’s previous Lounge columns
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