In the News

Latinos and Reproductive Justice

Thursday, October 7, 2010
Maria Elena Perez
Milwaukee - Wisconsin Journal Sentinel

Betty and Ricardo, a married Latino couple in Wisconsin, recently spent two days immersed in reproductive justice issues at an advocacy and leadership institute in Milwaukee. I witnessed them and almost three dozen other leaders defy common stereotypes about Latinos and reproductive health issues.

Latinos in Wisconsin are the fastest-growing minority group, and local leaders like Betty and Ricardo are part of a national movement of community health workers, often called promotores, who serve as bridges between the community and critical health care services and resources. Now that role is expanding into the political arena, as promotores become vocal advocates for the needs of their communities. And it's not only women taking the helm. After the graduation ceremony, Ricardo committed to recruiting more men and declared, "Women are not in this fight alone."

This leadership and advocacy training, hosted last month by the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health, Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin and Proyecto Salud, represents a fast-growing trend that diverges from old approaches to the reproductive rights movement. Instead of viewing the issues through a narrow pro-choice lens, these community leaders view family and sexuality issues as foundational to social justice for Latinos.

This broader frame allows the reproductive justice movement to be inclusive of people who hold a range of feelings about abortion and who view being treated with dignity and equality as critical to reproductive health. Family matters such as when to have a child, when to use birth control and how to manage an unplanned pregnancy are linked to a complex web of personal, medical and social issues.

Latino leaders feel the urgent need to become more vocal. Last month's census data revealed that the percentage of children living in poverty is climbing higher in Wisconsin than across the nation, and Latino children are almost three times as likely to live in poverty in this state compared to white children. Latinos in Wisconsin have a dramatically higher rate of HIV infection compared to the rest of the population, and Latina teens give birth at a much higher rate than their white counterparts.

These challenges often are exacerbated by one simple reality: A high number of Wisconsin Latinos lack access to health care and useful information. For example, when last year's H1N1 flu pandemic broke out, Latinos contracted that flu in Wisconsin at three times the rate of the white population, with lack of access to the vaccination being a major contributing factor. Even when Latinos have access to services such as abortion and family planning, government regulations often create barriers that disproportionately affect the poorest residents, and the rules and regulations for eligibility can be deeply confusing.

New research from the National Latina Institute shows that these barriers to health care are similar for Latina immigrants across the nation. But new Latino-led momentum, new partnerships and new perspective continue to build in Wisconsin and nationwide. For example, this weekend Planned Parenthood and the Holy Angels Old Catholic Church are hosting their third annual Latino summit on "Breaking the Silence: Sex, Sexuality and Faith-based Family Dialogue."

A new reproductive justice movement is on the rise, and it reaches far beyond the traditional activist voices. The training in Wisconsin included Latinos from all age groups, widely varied educational histories, from diverse immigrant experiences. One woman was so inspired after the first day that she had a conversation with her son that night about her own reproductive health experiences and brought him in on the second day.

It's a vibrant movement bringing new perspectives and experiences to the table. That's good news for Wisconsin Latina\os and a hopeful sign for Latina\os nationwide.

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Latino summit

The third annual Latino Summit will be held from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday at Ascension Lutheran Church, 1236 S. Layton Blvd. in Milwaukee. It is free and open to the public.

Maria Elena Perez is director of Community Mobilization, National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health.