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National Hispanic Heritage Month is observed from September 15 to October 15 and celebrates the histories, cultures, and contributions of American citizens whose ancestors came from Spain, Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central and South America.

The observation began in 1968 as Hispanic Heritage Week under President Johnson, and was expanded to a full month by President Reagan in 1988.

The month also marks the independence of many Latin American countries: September 15 (Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua), September 16 (Mexico), and September 18 (Chile).

Here are some little known facts about the people who celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month and some of their reproductive justice history:

1. Hispanic vs. Latino

Many people don’t know that there is a difference between these two words. The term “Hispanic” includes people with descent from most Latin American countries and Spain, but does not include Brazil (because this term is defined by language, and the official language of Hispanic nations is Spanish). The term “Latino” is based on geography and includes the country of Brazil — whose official language is Portuguese — and excludes Spain, as it is a European nation.

2. Introducing Latinx

The Latino community has recently adopted the term “Latinx.” In the Spanish language, most terms are distinguished by gender. For example: Niño stands for little boy, niña for little girl, and niños for a group of children. A single child is defined by their gender (using o or a), while groups usually use the plural of the masculine form.

But individuals no longer want to be defined by their gender. Instead of using the term “Latinos” to describe multiple people from Latin America, the gender neutral term uses an X instead of an A or O.

And because the Spanish language was adopted during a horrific history of colonization, Latinx is another way to reclaim an almost erased identity.

3. History of Contraceptive Testing and Sterilization Abuse

There have been many contraception advancements due to roles played by Hispanic women. Something very few people know is that 1/3 of the childbearing population in Puerto Rico was sterilized by 1965. One contributing factor was a lack of knowledge and effective forms of birth control at that time.

Not only were women offered very ineffective forms of birth control such as spermicidal jellies (today their effectiveness is 71%, which can increase with the use of another birth control method), but Puerto Rican women were also used to test early trials of different forms of birth control. When the Pill was introduced to low-income women there, it was 3 times as powerful as the Pill we see today. There were many uncomfortable side effects, and three deaths (which were never fully investigated). 

In the 1970s, California had one of the highest rates of sterilization in the country. The case of Madrigal v. Quilliga highlighted abuses against Mexican women in Los Angeles. In 1978, ten women brought a class action lawsuit against Los Angeles County - USC Medical Center for cases of sterilization being performed without informed consent or through coercion. These ten women and many more were told to consent to this operation while in labor. Many were given English forms that they could not read, told their baby’s life would be at risk, and/or were not told the operation would be permanent. The ten women lost the case, but achieved a victory when regulations were created to provide protections for women and families to make sure it never happened again.

We’ve come a long way, but there is still a lot of work to do in order to protect women and provide them with proper and respectful care.

-Bianca @ Planned Parenthood

Bianca is currently a Latin American studies Master’s candidate at University of California - San Diego studying reproductive justice in Latin America.

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