Families Belong Together: A Reproductive Justice Story

by Elizabeth Ballew

I was left in a market place in Guatemala, Guatemala City when I was about 5 days old.  I’ll give you a minute to digest that sentence.  My adopted mother told me that she thinks that I was left in such a public place with the hopes that I would be found and placed in an orphanage to be adopted.  She came to this conclusion because she was told I was wrapped in several blankets in a busy marketplace. She said she never knew how my birth mother could have made such a decision and what heartache she must have gone through.  She wished she had a two-way mirror for her to look through so she could know that her daughter was safe and well taken care of here in the United States of America.  Now let that last sentence sink in….

Flash forward to the idea that children are being taken away from their parents, here in the United States of America, and come from the same country, where I was in that exact same position 38 years ago is sickening.  For families to feel they have no other choice but to make a terrifying journey across thousands of miles of harsh land just to be ripped apart once they cross the border is something that is beyond my realm of belief at this point in time.  

I have no idea if my birth mother was raped and couldn’t get an abortion so carried me to term and left me to find a better life. I don’t know if she died in childbirth and I was left because I was something that was too much of a reminder.  I don’t know if she was forced to give me up or if she gave me up because she couldn’t make a journey into another country with a newborn or if she simply couldn’t afford another child and thus gave me away. I could go on and on and have let myself do this, but in the end I don’t know why I was left in a marketplace and probably never will. What I do know is that she was not allowed reproductive justice for herself.  She was not allowed the choice to raise a healthy child in a safe environment on her terms. Guatemala in the 1980’s was a time of great civil unrest, that was caused by the United States of America. The country was dangerous for the indigenous Mayan, and thanks to my Ancestry DNA test, I know I am 96% Native American specifically from the Central American region where the Mayans of Central America come from.

Flash forward to today and as a mother I cannot imagine this choice, forced or not, that was made on my behalf.  I cannot imagine the ease with which it was done, or the copious amount of heartache it caused. I am hopeful that I never will know this choice, but again with the very real threat that stands against reproductive justice today, I cannot hold that as a guarantee as I once did just a few short years ago. I find myself crawling into bed with my 5 year old just to be able to feel his body warmth and I find that I cry myself to sleep because I have that privilege of being able to be with my own child in this country, knowing I am from their country. Most days I have a hard time watching the news, and want to just jump up and scream at the television. So I search for answers and what I found is that the answer is for us not to treat children and families like this to begin with and to donate to the groups that are helping out with legal proceedings so these families can be reunited and these children can begin healing.  The answer is ongoing for our politicians to reform immigration laws and policies to reflect human decency, not laws and policies that resemble a complete lack of a basic brain. The answer is reproductive justice for all as the lack of this is likely what caused many to flee their country in the first place.

I was raised by the most amazing people, both white, who didn’t teach me regularly about my birth country or culture. My mother was not overly religious when growing up, while my father was raised Catholic so in order for them to marry, she became Catholic. Not surprisingly, I was raised Catholic, thus not provided much in terms of sex education or how my body operated. I recall learning most about sex and my body from my friends and a sex education book that was given to me in the 5th or 6th grade. Unfortunately, my father passed away while traveling when I was 13 years old so the remainder of my upbringing was then burdened upon my mother. Since we were a middle class family in the suburbs of North Dallas when my father passed, I was fortunate enough to not have to move or downsize our home, as they had savings and had life insurance to cover the cost of my mother not having to work for about a year. Some would call that being blessed, lucky or well prepared…..I call it privilege. I grew up with privilege that others like me did not have available to them, as they did not have the advantages I recieved by being raised in a white household.

When I was in high school my mother very timidly asked me after a visit to my doctor if I needed to get on birth control.  I guess she knew I was sexually active but because of her religion, she did not phrase it as such but instead we said it was to help keep my periods regular and get my acne under control. This would be another example of the privilege I was afforded, as I was able to get and stay on birth control into my adult years.  Little did my mother know that at the time, she was providing me a foundation for reproductive justice by providing me birth control. Only later in life would I really learn what it meant to be on birth control and how this is viewed both negatively and positively for a brown woman in the United States. Women in general are treated negatively for taking control of their bodies but women of color are either hailed for “not adding to the problem” or heckled for “being a slut who obviously sleeps around”; both of these things have been said to me about my use of birth control. In my experience as a mother and a woman of color, when people look at me they don’t think, I hope she has 10 more kids, usually they think, I hope she doesn’t have ANY kids. With the recent headlines in the news today we see my country women and men arriving with the hopes that they would be granted some humanity as they escape from the horror of their homeland.  I want so badly for my fellow country women and men arriving to seek asylum to know the same grace and privilege that I was granted, rather than the intolerance I was shown later.

So, with all that is going on, and the feeling of hopelessness that is encroaching in on me, how do I make a difference….where do I even begin? How do I make a difference, especially since the climate of our country’s politics and people’s moods that we experience daily are at best, like a moody teenager going through puberty, and at worst, like that teenager being raped just after having had her first menstrual cycle. I will begin at the beginning and in telling my story I find that this is how I can help others.  By sharing my experiences, and my choices that I made, I hope that my story will encourage others to do the same.

I am Guatemalan American. I am adopted and a naturalized citizen of this country. I am a mother whose son will inherit a better world than the one he was born into. I am privileged in my life as it allows me to be a reproductive justice warrior.  I am a Texas Handmaid.

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