In a moving speech, Rio Grande Valley activist addresses reproductive justice, LGBTQ rights

Sofia Rivera Peña was a keynote speaker at Aqui Estamos 2017, the 3rd annual LGBTQ people of color conference in the Rio Grande Valley. In her address, Rivera Peña spoke passionately about growing up queer in the RGV, LGBTQ rights, and what reproductive justice means for low-income communities of color. Below is a transcript of her speech.

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Hello everyone, and thank you for sticking around.

My name is Sofia Rivera Pena. I grew up in Weslaco and McAllen. A little 8bit of La Joya and Mission too. Basically, I’ve lived all over Hidalgo County. I went to high school at Sci-Tech in Mercedes. Any Sci-Tech people in the house? Yeah… I chose Sci-Tech because I heard that’s where all the gay potheads went. And I was right! So basically I fit right in.

I spent my time preaching my vegan gospel and singing the praises of not shaving my legs or armpits. Instead, I shaved my head, started reading Dorothy Allison and listening to Bikini Kill. I started working at Planned Parenthood. I was clearly really angry as I started to understand the world a little better.

Now, you will NEVER hear me knocking anger. Anger is natural, it’s crucial, it’s sacred, it’s unquantifiably necessary for survival in a world that often doesn’t see our worth as LGBTQ people of color. But back in high school I really, really wish I’d had someone to help me scale my anger back a bit. I wish I’d had a mentor. I wish I’d had an adult who didn’t treat me with curious disgust when I would reveal my queerness. I wish I could’ve confided in someone about the prolonged abuse I was exposed to. I wish someone had told me, “Sofia you are not a gross abomination. You don’t need validation from these douche bag boys who are taught they are better than you despite not being anywhere near as cool and queer as you are. You don’t need those drugs. And you need to talk to someone.” I know that I could’ve been a queer youth who ended her life before she made it to 18. I almost was.

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And that’s why it’s such an intense honor to be speaking to you all today at Aqui Estamos, the Rio Grande Valley’s first LGBTQ conference specifically for people of color. I know this conference has already changed lives in the past two years. I hope that LGBTQ youth continue to look for positivity in their peers because we are often plagued by tragedy because of the world we live in. Whether it’s because of immigration policy, personal violence or abuse, environmental racism, the prison industrial complex, a person’s sexuality and gender expression is going to complicate those issues infinitely farther. Many of us don’t have family and so your community is your family. But I’m preaching to the choir at this point.

I’d like to let you know in advance that I may start crying because soy bien chillona and I’d like to thank you all for understanding that. And also I might keep reading off of my computer because I am actually very nervous. I’m nervous mostly because I am no different than anyone sitting here in the audience, and I don’t really like being on a stage that implies that we’re different. Anyone in here could be anyone in here, you know what I’m saying? And I hope that I can convey at this time we have together that any issue is everyone’s issue and also that violent policy, violent legislation, has no one effect. Violent immigration policy becomes reproductive terror, a literal war on bodily autonomy in every way, and we see it here in our precious borderlands. Environmental racism and poverty collide to create horrors, many of which we also see in our Rio Grande Valley.

We also see it around the U.S. in predominantly black communities like Flint, Michigan, and on Indigenous reservations. For us here in the RGV, Texas is notorious for trying to sneak in anti-abortion legislation at every turn. If you’re wondering what abortion has to do with anything I just mentioned, the answer is everything. Restricted migration, dangerous pollutants in our community, no access to reproductive services and few protections for the LGBTQ community in housing or the workplace: these are all attacks on our autonomy. These are attacks on our right to exist as who we are. That is violence.

In the Rio Grande Valley, we can say we are in a considerably conservative area when it comes to reproductive issues like abortion and contraception and sex-ed. But that’s many places around this country. There is not a utopic region somewhere, where anti-abortion policies are universally accepted as violent and portrayed as such in the media and in churches and schools.

Related: How to get an abortion in the Rio Grande Valley

Something I always ask people is, regardless of your religious or ethical objection or support of abortion, do you understand, can you conceptualize, or have you researched, punishment for abortion in the case that abortion is illegal? Can you conceptualize in your mind a world in which we incarcerate women for ending a pregnancy? A world in which we incarcerate women who attempt to end pregnancies and force them to give birth in prison? Because it’s already happening in the United States and all over the world. In my 14 years of experience as a pro-choice, pro-abortion, pro-bodily autonomy person in the United States, I have found that many anti-choice people here haven’t thought that far ahead. And many people whose pro-choiceness kind of ends at having the right to get an abortion also don’t think that far ahead. And we’ll get to that later because now I’m ahead of myself.

So yeah, I’m Sofia Rivera Pena. I live here in McAllen with my amazing 9-year-old daughter and my talented and beautiful girlfriend. I’ve lived in the Rio Grande Valley all of my 30 years of life. I used to do work with the brilliant Arjona sisters, Denni and Melissa Arjona, and many others in South Texans for Reproductive Justice between 2012 and 2015. I helped found Frontera Fund which is currently in its 3rd-ish year of operation. Frontera Fund is a practical support abortion fund which basically means we provide assistance in many forms for people who are either traveling into or out of the Rio Grande Valley for abortion services or obviously also Rio Grande Valley residents seeking services here. We also give special consideration and help to undocumented callers around Texas who are seeking services anywhere. Frontera Fund might provide gas cards or hotel stays or bus tickets. We sometimes give rides ourselves, to or from the local clinic.

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We also do what might be considered casework. We have walked many Valley callers through their first time riding on a plane to New Mexico or Colorado. We have found safe bus and car routes with no checkpoints for undocumented Houston and San Antonio callers traveling to New Mexico for their services. We might be the only ones our caller is confiding in about their abortion and are therefore also someone to express loneliness to or seek comfort or answers in, as well as clearing up more logistical questions. Thankfully, these callers have the compassionate staff at the clinics they are going to also counsel them and to walk them through the actual procedure and clinic stay.

Now, WHY was Frontera Fund created? Well, it’s a long story about one violent policy after another. I’ll start with one of the more recent legislative attacks on abortion and choice and lead us all into a web of violent policy that indeed affects us as Mexican-American women and people of color on the border. Here in the Rio Grande Valley, in our four-county area, we have ONE clinic that provides abortions. That’s the amazing Whole Women’s Health in McAllen. The clinic managed to survive the notorious “SB2,” a Senate bill that Governor Rick Perry signed into law in 2013, which resulted in immediate, numerous abortion clinic closures. Over the next three years, clinics around Texas would open and close as the different court circuits inside and outside of Texas volleyed back and forth the constitutionality of the abortion restrictions put forth by SB2.

Finally, in 2016, a supreme court ruling deemed much of the restrictive legislation unconstitutional, but not before it caused many permanent clinic closures and removed access to abortion procedures for countless Texans.

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In the Rio Grande Valley and really in all of Texas, access to reproductive health services is inseparable from immigration policy and from poverty. This is true for any region or country where abortion is legal. In the Rio Grande Valley, the legality of abortion is complicated by the U.S./Mexico border and the immigration checkpoint in Falfurrias. In fact, the legality of abortion is rendered irrelevant for many people who are often too poor, too afraid or simply unable to use clinic services. Maybe they are afraid because they don’t know that the clinic will not report them to immigration and customs enforcement. Maybe they don’t have transportation. Maybe they don’t have anyone to watch their children. Maybe their job barely covers living expenses, so even taking time off work is impossible, not to mention paying for childcare. So while Frontera Fund’s creation was spurned by the effects of SB2, the reality is that the attack on abortion access for poor or undocumented people has been happening since 1975.

Now let me stop there because numbers and legal talk can sound really boring. My intention is not to bore or depress you. Rather, I’d love for people to see pro-choice in a different light. And see reproductive justice as a  refreshing, relatable, attractive approach to activism and work.

Reproductive Justice is a term popularized by the organization known as SisterSong. The term was conceptualized in 1994 by a group of Black women who met during the International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo, Egypt. The term is not to be confused with “pro-choice” or  “reproductive rights” or “sex positive” or anything like that. “Justice” is the key word here. Officially, reproductive justice is defined as “the human right to maintain personal bodily autonomy, have children, not have children, and parent the children we have in safe and sustainable communities.”

So then, reproductive justice goes far beyond the right to have an abortion. Reproductive rights, not reproductive justice was achieved by Roe v. Wade. Roe v. Wade was the supreme court decision that gave people the right to access safe, legal abortion in the United States. The decision was based on the idea that a person has the right to privacy between them and their doctor. It was a victory that changed the United States and the world, but it was not based on the idea of human rights or bodily autonomy. And only three years later, because it wasn’t based on human rights, an amendment called the Hyde Amendment was passed. The Hyde Amendment, which has been renewed every single year since 1976, barred federal funds from covering abortion costs. That means Medicaid and government insurance, in general, could be used for abortion services. Now, who has Medicaid? Poor people. Poor people of color

In fact, after the Hyde Amendment passed, there were immediate consequences. For example, in our very own McAllen, a college student and mother named Rosie Jimenez, sought an abortion using her Medicaid insurance. When she was informed it wouldn’t cover the abortion, she sought to procure her services from a midwife in McAllen. However, she got an infection, and she died, leaving behind her 7-year-old daughter. She actually died in McAllen general hospital, the building that is now McAllen City Hall, which is caddy-corner now to the Valley’s one and only abortion clinic, Whole Woman’s Health. Rosie Jimenez was the first woman known to have passed away as a direct result of the passing of the Hyde Amendment.

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Rosie’s story is common around the world in places where abortion is illegal. So is the story of Purvi Patel who was incarcerated in Indiana for using misoprostol to end a pregnancy. In my recent research for a paper that I wrote about misoprostol, which is a drug that’s increasingly being used for safe, illegal abortion, I found that clergy and religious leaders around the world, and at one time in the United States, are strongly in favor of access to safe and legal abortion. The horrors of self-induced abortion these religious leaders witnessed in hospitals were enough for them to understand that making abortion illegal or hard to access doesn’t stop abortion. Many of them also say that just like a decision about your body should be private, and perhaps between you and a doctor, you also have privacy between you and God.

Something I need to touch on when it comes to reproductive justice and abortion is the history of ableism in the pro-choice movement. I don’t just mean accessibility issues at pro-choice demonstrations and meetings. I mean what can frankly be referred to as “eugenic thought.”

Everywhere around us, in and out of the medical setting, we hear language that poses disability as something that needs to be conquered and eradicated. We get the message that disabled lives are a burden on our society. This is literally the platform that many politicians use. Elect them and they promise they’ll remove funding for Medicaid and cut funding for disability services of all kinds. They’ll block all chances of universal healthcare. The disposability of differently abled bodies distorts the pro- and anti-choice movements in very serious ways. Prenatal diagnostics has made it possible for people to deselect and abort pregnancies where the fetus has signs of  Down Syndrome, for example, or spina bifida or muscular dystrophy.

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And what about the disabled women and people who are encouraged not to reproduce? Forced sterilization is a stark reality for disabled and immigrant women and people of color in the United States. So this narrative of choice and agency that the pro-choice movement espouses falls horribly short of true justice. In a world with reproductive justice, women and people with disabilities who can become pregnant wouldn’t think twice about having children. Their needs would be met and then some. Childcare facilities would cater to their children. Birthing centers and hospitals would know how to handle pregnant people with disabilities without extreme financial burden on the families.

You see how reproductive justice is more than ensuring that people have choice? Choice is meaningless without access and resources. Who cares if the clinics are open if people who want to have abortions can’t afford them or the people who do get them didn’t want to have them in the first place but because of their disability they are treated like they shouldn’t reproduce?

If you haven’t already, please do look up forced sterilization of immigrants in the United States. This is why I don’t ever entertain anyone’s pro-choice perspective if their argument is that population control is necessary. Some people may point to global warming and impending industrial collapse and say “overpopulation is the culprit.” This view is dangerously incorrect.

The true culprit is violence by policy. The pollution in Brownsville that caused babies to be born with their brains partially outside of their skulls in the early 1990s was not because our people were cooking tortillas with uranium. U.S.-owned maquiladoras in Matamoros were dumping waste into the river and it was polluting groundwater. In Elsa, in 1985, a pesticide manufacturer abruptly closed its doors and left all of the chemicals in silos, for many years. It was found by local high school student researchers that many residents in the area believed the high concentration of cancer cases were due to the chemical plant. But no study ever confirmed this and only in 2008 was the site declared officially “clean.”

It’s clear that these border regions are used by corporations and abandoned by U.S. policymakers and enforcers because their population is that of immigrants and many people here are poor. That means people here may not have been exposed yet to environmental activism in a way that centers their needs. They might not have time. They certainly do not have access to resources. Today, there is still a toxic benzene cloud, among other contaminants, flowing below the ground in McAllen. It is highly flammable and linked to leukemia. And yet we still have companies trying to move in LNG or liquid natural gas infrastructure to our beloved South Padre Island. It’s important to note that the efforts to resist LNG infrastructure is largely run by white non-Hispanic environmental justice leaders.  (A note from Sofia: I regret deeply not mentioning Bekah Hinojosa’s tireless work as the paid organizer on Sierra Club’s LNG campaign. Bekah is an 6th generation Valleyite and identifies as queer. I acknowledge this as an insensitive mistake and I’m deeply sorry. I’m available for any further comments or questions on any parts of my speech via email at snpena87@gmail.com.)

This is all to say that violent, neglectful environmental policies which further global warming and ignore human rights are infinitely more responsible for harm to this planet than the beautiful families across the world.

So yes, environmental justice is ultimately reproductive justice, too. So is prison reform. And immigration reform. And of course LGBTQ rights and justice.

Recently legislation was passed that makes it a-okay for religious institutions to deny LGBTQ potential-parents the right to adopt through their institution. Trans and LGBQ people still don’t have workplace and housing protections. The murders of Black and Brown trans women and men go uninvestigated. Sex workers, many of whom are trans and LGBQ people trying to make a living, are prosecuted for defending themselves, cannot seek help if they are assaulted and are forced to live in extremely dangerous situations. In some places, if a person has condoms in their purse, it can be used as evidence to arrest for prostitution. So-called bathroom bills are in legislative sessions all across the U.S. Make no mistake, LGBTQ people living on the margins in dangerous situations is because we have no protections at work or in housing. So when we say our lives are torn apart by violent policy, we mean it. It’s not an exaggeration and don’t let anyone tell you differently.

Anyway, I hope that I have shed some light on SOME of the ways in which reproductive justice activism can combat violent policies. Maybe you already do work that can be considered reproductive justice. Maybe you are starting to see the gaps in your organization or workplace that can be filled with justice more than anything. Many organizations, Frontera Fund included, are simply bandages covering one small piece of a very large wound. Many of us are simply gatekeeping money because we’re trying to funnel it in the right direction. Whatever we’re doing, it’s important to stay as close to the framework of true justice and humanity as possible.

To the LGBTQ youth and elders and everyone in between, I wanna say I love you and I’m here for you if you ever need anything. I’d like to point out that one study showed that trans people are needing abortions at the same rate as cis people, so if you need an abortion, I’m here for that, too. I myself am a lesbian who needed an abortion almost ten years ago. I am a survivor of abuse and rape, and I want everyone to know that because maybe you are, too. I know it’s so important to see yourself in others, and I see myself in all of you, and I’m so grateful.

Thank you again, everyone.