When she was a young girl in Mexico, Griselda Reyes Basurto went with her mother to visit relatives in the state of Guerrero. She found a different world there.
Back home in Oaxaca, they mostly spoke Spanish. In Guerrero, her relatives communicated in Mixtec, an indigenous language spoken mostly in Mexico and California. But most striking to Basurto were the women’s roles.
“Women are supposed to take care of their children. They’re supposed to take care of the house,” Basurto said. “They’re not supposed to look men in the eyes.”
The men told women what to do and they had to obey. “I saw that a man could go out and drink with his friends and when he came home, he could force the woman into sex and nobody could do anything about it. He was your husband and you had to do what he commanded.”
Basurto saw how hard her mother worked selling tortillas to provide basic necessities for her eight children. She also saw the abuse her mother suffered at the hands of her first husband.
[quote_center]Around age eight, she started to have different ideas about marriage, motherhood and the quality of life she desired. She made a vow. When she grew up, she would have no more than three children and only with a man who treated her like an equal. [/quote_center]
Now 28 years old, she lives in Ventura County in Southern California and is married. But as she swore, only has two children and with a man who respects her.
She’s devoting her life to improving women’s lives by helping to create what could be thought of as a radical health initiative—teaching Mixteco and other immigrants from indigenous backgrounds in Ventura County about their bodies and reproductive rights.
Conceived by the nonprofit Mixteco/Indígena Community Organizing Project, and funded by a grant from the Women’s Foundation of California, the new program is called “Cuidando Mi Cuerpo,” which in Spanish means “caring for my body.”
Its subject matter is simple: the anatomy of men’s and women’s bodies, how babies are made and an introduction to family planning. The program helps women claim their bodies, reproductive health and futures as their own.
The Power of Birth Control
In the United States, the birth control revolution of the 1960s allowed women to take control of their reproductive destinies. They could hold off on childbearing and make more deliberate decisions about their lives. High school and college graduation rates soared. They entered and stayed in the workforce. Reproductive freedom translated into economic freedom.
Basurto said it’s different in Ventura County’s indigenous communities, of which about 20,000 people are Mixteco, Zapotec and other indigenous origins. In general, sexuality and reproduction are not talked about in this rural community of low-income, undocumented farm workers. The reluctance is partly due to culture: Sexuality is a taboo subject. There are also language barriers. People in the community speak Spanish, but it’s often their second language—the primary languages spoken are indigenous.
In addition, many of the first generation immigrants had no exposure to standard sex education. There are stories of women who did not know they had received IUDs. In other cases, pregnancies may take young women by surprise.
“Women say, ‘I slept with this person and the next thing I know, I’m pregnant,’” said Vanessa Terán, program manager for the Mixteco/Indígina Community Organizing Project.
So Cuidando Mi Cuerpo began holding community workshops where they offer information about birth control and health insurance in Spanish, Mixtec or Zapotec. Trainers also recommend hospitals, clinics and other resources so community members can access family planning, abortions or seek medical help if they suspect sexually transmitted diseases. The program also teaches parents how to talk to their children about protecting their private parts and saying no to unwanted advances.
Basurto and Terán said for real change to happen, both men and women must be part of a cultural shift. Cuidando Mi Cuerpo’s educators are prodding the community in that direction by consulting with community elders to figure out how they can explain that both individuals are equal and have rights in a relationship.
[quote_center]“We knew it would be a hard conversation,” said Terán. “But the hard conversations are the ones that create movement, just like anything else in terms of civil rights.”[/quote_center]
No Different in the United States
When Basurto immigrated to the U.S. at age 15, she imagined the country as a beautiful place where justice ruled and there was no discrimination, especially toward women.
But once she got to Ventura, she saw the fear that Mixtecos in the U.S. live with, knowing they can be deported at any time. And working in the strawberry fields, she saw discrimination persisted even in California. Women farmworkers were consistently given fewer hours and paid less than men.
Basurto only has a ninth-grade education but through volunteering at Mixteco/Indígena Community Organizing Project (MICOP), she realized the power of information. Now she’s helping to bring feminism to an isolated community. She’s empowering women to understand that it’s a human right to decide whether and when to have children. She wants people to know through reproductive freedom, individuals, as well as the larger community, can assume control of their destiny.