Appearance on Latino USA on NPR

I’m so pleased to have been interviewed by Maria Hinojosa for Latino USA on NPR. Please listen to our conversation about Latina Sex Stereotypes:

For Latina women it can often seem like there are only two types of representation they see in the media. They’re either sexy and “spicy” or religious and family oriented. But is that really the case?

Latino USA host Maria Hinojosa speaks to writer, poet, and sex columnist for Cosmo for Latinas, Erika L. Sánchez about growing up in a “traditional” Mexican family while being an American girl, feminism, and facing fear.



Article on Latinas Leaving Home to College, NBC Latino

More Latinas leaving home for college


5:00 am on 08/16/2013

Gaby Ramos, 21, decided to move away for college against her parents’ wishes. “Having a Hispanic family, you’re expected to stay home until you get married. I knew my parents would freak out. They didn’t understand why I needed to move out.”

Ramos, who is from Chicago, attends St. Xavier University on the south side of the city. She says she could have commuted to college like her brother, but felt that she needed to become independent. To ease her parent’s anxiety, however, she compromised by going home every weekend.

“I work at admissions and I know a lot of Latino families who don’t let their daughters live on campus,” Ramos says. “I think in a way it’s kind of hindering them. You’re not going to live with your parents forever. Why not try it during college? I think it’s an experience that everyone should have. That way you would see how you could be on your own.”

RELATED: Latinas leaving the nest sooner than men

Latinas are obtaining a higher education more than ever. In 2010, Latinas earned three out of every five associate or bachelor’s degrees granted to the Latino population. And according to the 2011 census survey conducted by the Pew Hispanic Center, 17 percent of Latinas (ages 25-29) have at least a bachelor’s degree, compared with 10 percent of Latino males.

Not only are Latinas becoming more educated, they are also becoming more independent than their male counterparts. According to a study by the Population Reference Bureau (PRB) in 2007, before the recession, 12 percent of Latino men returned home. The figure has now grown to 21 percent. For Latinas the figure only increased from 9 to 11 percent.

Estela Sanchez, 19, who attends the University of Texas at Arlington, was the first girl in her family to move out on her own. She says that because she’s first generation, her parents had no idea what college was going to be like. Although the idea of a girl moving out to attend school was foreign to them, they became very supportive of her choice. “It was in order for me to see what’s out there and for me not to take everything they’ve given me for granted,” Sanchez says.

Like Ramos, Sanchez had to agree to go home every weekend, but after a while she realized that she was missing out on events at her school. Sanchez says that living in dorms has helped her get involved on campus and meet new people.

In a study of Latinas and higher education, graduate researcher Andrea Gomez Cervantes found that while Latino families did encourage their daughters to attend college, they are often expected to stay closer to home to help their families. Family support was clearly significant for Latinas when making decisions about college.

Though her parents’ support was important to her, Martha Ruvalcaba, 19, says she decided to dorm at the University of North Texas because they were so strict. Ruvalcaba says that Hispanic parents are often too overprotective of girls. “I feel like they see girls going away to college as pretty much opening the door to sex and drugs.”

Ruvalcaba also had the option to stay home and commute, but decided not to because she wanted independence from her family. “I needed space so we could both grow,” she says. But like the other girls, she too had to promise to go home every weekend.

“They eventually accepted it and helped me out and were really good about it,” she says. Though Ruvalcaba would recommend living on campus to other Latinas, she thinks it’s important that they talk to their parents first.

“Living in the dorms opens your eyes to different cultures and you see so many different things,” she says. “I really like meeting new people and learning on my own and having my own responsibilities.”

Article on Abortion Rights Campaign, NBC Latino

Latinas part of “new generation” of abortion rights activists


by Erika L. Sánchez
11:22 am on 07/28/2013

This Tuesday several reproductive rights organizations came together in Washington D.C. for the launch of All Above All, a new campaign aimed at ensuring low-income women can get safe, affordable abortion care, including working to restore public insurance coverage.

“All Above All stands for women who are struggling to get by, to ensure that they too can make their own reproductive health decisions without political interference,” says Kierra Johnson, executive director of Choice USA. Johnson says this campaign is not only about abortion access, but about improving health care in general. “We need to open up all the different options to our communities,” she says.

“We’re targeting the new American electorate. We wanted to stop playing defense and be proactive,” says Jessica González-Rojas, executive director of the National Latina Institute of Reproductive Health, who says the campaign is seeking to support young people and women of color in particular.

RELATED: Strong emotions as Texas passes controversial abortion bill

González-Rojas says that Latinas already have a hard time accessing adequate health care without the added obstacles stemming from recent clinic closures throughout the country. She says that many Hispanic women also have language barriers and immigrant women face additional challenges because of their legal status. Latinas are more likely to experience unintended pregnancies and have the highest rates of teen pregnancy, and are the group at most risk of being uninsured.

In addition to creating awareness and visibility, one of the main objectives of the campaign is working to repeal the Hyde Amendment, which was passed in 1977 to restrict Medicaid coverage of abortion.

RELATED: Roe v. Wade 40 years later: Latinas weigh in on abortion

The original amendment only allowed federal funding of abortion in the cases of rape, incest, and life endangerment. The restrictions have been modified several times throughout the years, and as it currently stands, only allows federal funding for abortion in cases of rape, incest, and life endangerment, which is now restricted to “a physical disorder, physical injury or physical illness, including a life-endangering physical condition caused by or arising from the pregnancy itself.” The restrictions will also continue under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.

“The Hyde Amendment has been used as a tool by politicians to prevent women from making decisions about their health care,” says González-Rojas.

Jessica Arons, president of Reproductive HealthTechnologies Project, believes that not challenging the Hyde Amendment has been a disservice to the reproductive rights movement. She says the idea for the All Above All campaign began a few years ago when several reproductive rights organizations came together to reassess the debate.

The National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health, Choice USA, Black Women’s Health Imperative, The Center for Reproductive Rights, and the National Council of Jewish Women are just a few of the organizations that are taking part in the campaign.

Johnson says that in her work at Choice USA, she sees a lot of diverse college students eager to participate in the abortion debate. “They are excited to champion abortion coverage for low-income women,” she says. “Young people have been looking for a platform.”

The campaign, which uses bright colors and encourages supporters to post “selfies” on their Facebook page, is geared toward a young demographic. “We are engaging a new generation of activists,” says Arons.

“These are the organizations that are lifting up the voices of a diverse constituency,” says González-Rojas. “This is about creating excitement. We’re really thrilled about this campaign taking off.”

Article on Latina Teen Suicide, Al Jazeera

Suicides highlight plight of Hispanic teens

Chicago, United States – The manic depression that gripped young Christine Ruiz had grown so acute by the time she had reached high school she was suicidal.

She began self-harming and abusing alcohol and painkillers but, despite the alarming decline in her mental health, everyone around her assumed she was just a typical angst-ridden Latina teenager.

Self-harm seemed like a way for her to take control. “I always felt like I wasn’t in charge of my body,” Ruiz says.

Her troubled story offers insights into why Hispanic teenagers have one of the highest teen suicides rates in the United States.

It’s [depression] a public health issue and it has real psychiatric and behavioural consequences, including suicide.-Dr Lisa Fortuna, director of Child and Adolescent Multicultural Health Research at the University of Massachusetts Medical School

According to a 2012 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 13.5 percent of Hispanic female students in grades 9-12 admitted attempting suicide – significantly higher than their black (8.8 per cent) and non-Hispanic (7.9 percent) peers.

Dr Rosa Gil, president of the Comunilife non-profit organization, which runs the Life is Precious programme for suicidal teens, warns that a staggering 17 percent of Latina adolescents in New York are actively considering suicide.

Many experts believe that the burden of adapting to a new culture faced by these girls – many from migrant families – is contributing to soaring suicide rates.

“The girls get acculturated much faster than their mothers,” says Gil. “Because of machismo and marianismo –  the veneration of feminine virtues – young women are raised to be docile and dependent. This creates conflict for girls who are more acculturated.”

Research in 2011 suggested better communication within Latino families can decrease the likelihood of suicide – an objective at the heart of the Life is Precious programme.

“We’re cultural brokers,” says Gil. “We try to explain to the mothers that girls in this country are more independent. We are trying to bridge the relationships between mother and daughter.”

Bullying in the US

Bullying and abuse can also raise the stakes. According to one study, Latina girls who have been bullied are 1.5 times more likely to attempt suicide.

Psychiatrist Dr Lisa Fortuna, the director of Child and Adolescent Multicultural Health Research at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, says bullying has become a major issue.

“I see a lot of kids, Latinos included, who develop significant depression because of chronic harassment,” she says. “It’s a public health issue and it has real psychiatric and behavioural consequences, including suicide.”

For Yeli Zivkovich, everything changed at the age of 14 when she was sexually abused by two female classmates.

At high school she remained friends with her abusers – a relationship she describes as “Stockholm Syndrome” after the psychological phenomenon whereby hostages empathise with their captors – while enduring vicious gossip.

By the time she was 19 and still deeply troubled by her experiences, she was working in a dead-end job, had fallen into serious debt – and was suicidal.

“I didn’t get the guidance I needed in high school,” says Zivkovich, now 27.

Dr Gil believes bullying has become a major problem in the US.

“We have seen an increase among the girls we serve in the Life is Precious programme. In New York three weeks ago, a 12-year-old committed suicide because of bullying and family issues. The girls are getting younger and younger.”

The environment many of these Latina girls grow up in can be a factor in their depression.

Christine Ruiz, now 27, believes her small agricultural town – 95 per cent Latino and with little to offer – deepened her desperation.

Dr Azara Santiago-Rivera, national director of the Chicago School of Professional Psychology Latino Mental Health Initiative, says: “We are focusing all of our attention on cultural dimensions and family relationships and overlooking important environmental factors.”

“If we’re going to design intervention that’s effective, we need to look at family and environment.”

Stigma of mental illness

The stigma of mental illness in the Latino community – and the shame associated with their condition – may also prevent girls from seeking professional help.

Patricia Valoy, 26, says she grew up knowing that her maternal grandmother had committed suicide, but her entire family always denied it. “There’s a stigma,” she says. “They say she was poisoned.”

When as a teenager she became depressed and suicidal, her family discouraged her from discussing it.

“What happens in your house, stays in your house,” she says. “The family unit is so important in Latino culture, and anything that can break that down is considered taboo.”

The media plays a very important role in prevention [of suicide]. We need to teach our communities what to look for.-Dr Rosa Gil, president of the Comunilife

Research conducted through the New York State Psychiatric Institute found that there is greater stigma towards mental illnesses among non-whites, including Latinos, who often seek help from family members or priests before turning to professionals.

The Latino community also lacks mental health professionals equipped to deal with its specific needs.

“Quite often, clinicians who are experts in their field forget that acculturation is an important factor,” says Santiago-Rivera.

“We don’t necessarily assess language and identity issues. It’s not that clinicians aren’t interested in them, it’s that they’re not integrated into their assessment process.”

A 2012 report found that many Latinos attribute poor access to mental health services to shortages of bilingual and bicultural professionals, a lack of educational programmes for youths, and deficiencies in culturally sensitive services.

There is also little awareness of mental health issues in the Latino community.

“The problem doesn’t seem to be going away,” says Dr Gil. “The media plays a very important role in prevention. We need to teach our communities what to look for.”

Dr Fortuna believes there is now an urgent need for a national, culturally-specific campaign and the media should encourage parents to understand the problems faced by their bilingual and bicultural children.

“We need to be speaking frankly and having conversations early to develop emotional literacy,” she says.

Op-Ed on Texas Abortion Bill, The Guardian

I’m tired of people telling me what to do with my body


I’m a Mexican-American daughter of immigrants, and like many Latinas, I grew up being taught that I have little control of my body. Traditional Mexican culture teaches us that sex, masturbation, abortion and even birth control are sinful. And although my environment taught me that sexual women were whores, I felt sexualized by men in my community at a very early age.

The anti-immigrant and anti-Latino rhetoric in the United States then tells us that our bodies are dangerous – we are darkening the American population through our anchor babies and general fecundity. Ironically, the US government perpetually restricts our access to birth control and abortion, so we often have little control over our reproduction. Like so many women of color, I grew up confused by all of these frenetic and contradictory messages. I grew up feeling like my body was literally up for grabs.

Last week, despite a marathon filibuster, the outrage of reproductive rights organizations, and crowds and crowds of pro-choice demonstrators at the state capitol, Texas passed one of its most stringent abortion bills in the United States. The new bill, SB5, will ban abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy and force many clinics that perform the procedure to upgrade their facilities and be classified as ambulatory surgical centers. Doctors will also be required to have admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles. These new requirements will cause the closure of 37 of the state’s 42 abortion clinics, so abortion will essentially be banned in the state of Texas.

The message is clear: our government doesn’t care about women’s health. Politicians can say all they want about trying to protect women from the evils of abortion clinics by enforcing these new standards, but most of us aren’t buying it. While the rich will continue to have safe access to abortion as they always have, poor women of color will be the ones who suffer. Women in the Valley and West Texas will have to drive hundreds of miles to get to an abortion clinic. Latinas along the border will be the most affected.

Sadly, these kinds of measures aren’t anything new to women of color. Our bodies have always been policed by our culture and by our government. A new study from the University of Michigan found that in the last century, patients with Spanish surnames in California psychiatric institutions and homes for the developmentally disabled were disproportionately sterilized at rates ranging between 20 and 30%. Another recent report found that the California prison system sterilized as many as 250 women from 1997 to 2010.

The US government has also admitted to the forced sterilization of Black and American Indian women. Between 1973 and 1976, Indian Health Service regions sterilized 3,406 American Indian women without their permission, and between 1929 and 1974, North Carolina sterilized about 7,600 people the state decided were “feeble-minded” or undesirable, many of which were poor black women. And these are only a few examples. If I wrote every instance in which non-white women were treated like they were subhuman, I would get a serious case of carpal tunnel.

It’s incredibly confusing to be a woman in a country that simultaneously tells you not to “breed” and restricts your access to birth control and abortion. Who the hell understands you, America?

This bill will cause a new kind of desperation for “undesirables”, for the women who already live on the fringes. Many even fear women will travel to Mexico for the abortion pill. I’m dumbfounded by this. Because my parents left Mexico to provide us with a better life, the idea of people crossing the border to Mexico for any sort of healthcare is absolutely mind-boggling to me. I grew up believing that this was the best country in the world, and despite all of my gripes, I thought there was no better place to be a woman. I resent that all these new anti-choice bills are making me question my once unwavering faith.

Although SB5 is inhumane to all women, it will disproportionately affect Latinas, the ethnic group with the highest teen pregnancy rates, the most likely to be uninsured, and the hardest hit by the wage gap. I can’t help but fear what’s in store for us next. How can we not take that personally?

In many ways, very little has changed since I was a girl. It’s 2013 and I feel as unsafe and frustrated as ever. Like so many women, I’m tired of old men telling me what my body means and what it can and can’t do. I’m tired of the whole world deciding what’s best for me and I wonder if my country will ever trust me with my own body.

Article on Nonprofit Circle de Luz, NBC Latino



Organization makes college dreams for young Latinas a reality

For Rosie Molinary, growing up Puerto Rican in Columbia, South Carolina was challenging. She says that during this time, there weren’t many Latinos around. After she went away to college, she realized she wanted to give back to her community.

“I got my undergraduate degree and became a high school teacher, so I was really interested in teaching in the inner city and working with low-income and immigrant families,” Molinary says. “I realized that the particular thing I was passionate about in my classroom was helping young people find their voice.”

Molinary then went on to get her Master’s of Fine Arts in creative writing with that intention in mind. During that time she wrote a collection of essays and poems that were about ethnic identity, body image, beauty perception,  and her coming of age experience.

On her book tour for Hijas Americanas: Beauty, Body Image, and Growing Up Latinas, Molinary visited many high schools where she had the opportunity to talk to many young Latinas.  “Those girls talked about their dreams,” she says. “They wanted to become veterinarians and doctors and dance teachers and all these really awesome things.”

But Molinary says that the statistics about college completion rates and teen pregnancies really started to haunt her. “I felt a real responsibility about the disparity between dreams and numbers,” she says.

“It [Circle de Luz] was born from a group of us just being uncomfortable with that disparity.”

RELATED: Teen Hispanic birthrates declines 40 percent

Molinary says that what distinguishes them from a typical nonprofit is that they provide the girls with a minimum of a $5,000 scholarship to help them with their education. The funds are raised by a group of women who are willing to contribute $100 a year for each year the girls are in the program. Those same women become the support network for a specific group of girls. Molinary says the women don’t have to be local and can be from any background. They can also choose what rate of involvement they want with the girls.

The organization has now been helping young Latinas get to college since 2008. They begin working with girls when they’re in seventh grade and follow them up to high school graduation. “What we want to be is a catalyst for young Latina girls to realize that their futures can be of their choosing,” Molinary says. “And so what we provide is really intensive mentoring, holistic programming, and scholarship funds when the girls graduate after they’ve been in our program for six years.”

She says there are twelve different areas they try to cover in their programming including health, nutrition, a ropes course, college tours, career panels, and summer reading and book discussions. They also take the girls to different kinds of restaurants, so they can learn how to navigate a menu. “One of our guiding beliefs is that exposure matters, so we try to give our girls as much exposure to what’s possible,” she says.

One success story that stands out for Molinary is of a girl who was struggling with middle school. “We weren’t positive that she’d pass 8th grade,” she says. “She is now an incredibly strong academic student as a junior. She’s on the honor roll and has really big plans for herself and that’s one story that just makes me so proud.”

Gaby, 17, whose last name isn’t provided because of the program’s privacy policy, has been a part of Circle de Luz from the beginning. “We were the first class, so we didn’t know much about the program. When they started explaining, it made me feel really special,” she says.

“My favorite thing is the family atmosphere,” Gaby says. “It’s very warm and welcoming.”

Gaby now plans to go to college to study music and business. “I want to be able to do something for the community,” she says. “Through Circle [de Luz] you realize how many opportunities there are. It’s been a life-changing experience.”

Article on Latina Wage Gap, NBC Latino

by Erika L. Sánchez

12:00 am on 04/20/2013

It’s no secret that Latinas are the hardest hit by the gender wage gap. A recent analysis from the National Partnership for Women and Families showed that Latinas are paid 55 cents for every dollar paid to white, non-Hispanic men  in the nation’s top 50 metro areas. Although wage disparities exist at all career levels for Latinas, immigrant women are especially susceptible and are considered the least economically secure population in the United States.

Currently, there are approximately 5.4 million undocumented immigrant women living and working in the United States who must work the lowest-paying jobs because of their immigration status. In 2011, 208,000 Latina women worked in jobs paying below the federal minimum wage compared to 172,000 Latino men.

Research shows that a woman’s average lifetime earnings are more than $434,000 less than a comparable male counterpart over a 35-year working life. This means very difficult financial choices for women of color, who are more likely to be the breadwinners that than their white counterparts.

RELATED: On Equal Pay Day, concern over Latina wage gap

“When women are not paid enough, it affects their families, particularly the education of their children,” says Claudia Williams, research analyst at the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.

She says that this lack of financial security also means that they are less likely to save for retirement.

Williams believes that immigration reform would improve women’s economic circumstances. If they are subject to abuse, they would also be able to move to another job. Not only are undocumented Latinas underpaid, they must often work in hostile environments. Women in agribusiness, for instance, experience high levels of sexual harassment and sexual violence at work and their undocumented status makes it very difficult for them to challenge these conditions or look for other jobs

Iliana Guadalupe Perez, 25, an independent contractor who helps educate other undocumented immigrants to find her kind of work, says that though her sales and marketing contracting has certain benefits, such as flexibility and a fairly high hourly rate, it’s not what she wants to do in the long run. “This has nothing to do with what I’ve studied,” Perez says. “My degree in math was useless. I couldn’t even get an interview. This is not my ideal situation.” Perez, who is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in Education and a Masters in Economics, says her dream job would be working in the U.N. or the World Bank

Another disadvantage is in her line of work, Perez says, is that she’s unable to get tenure, which would result in pay increases over time. Not only that, she points out that undocumented people don’t have the option of insurance, retirement funds, or investment funds.

Perez also feels that immigration reform will significantly improve the financial status of Latinas. “It will give a lot of Latinas the opportunities to use their skills. A lot are educated but are limited to their potential. A Social Security number would allow people to explore new avenues for employment.”

RELATED: New figures show Latina women hit hard by wage gap

Ann Garcia, an immigration policy analyst at the Center for American Progress, says that the Paycheck Fairness Act and immigration reform would help close the wage gap for Latinas and improve the economy. “When you legalize workers, you offer them citizenship. Taking the worker out of the economic sidelines would cause a rise in productivity and wages that would create a great ripple effect in the economy,” says Garcia.

According to the Center for American Progress, immigration reform that would legalize the approximately 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. would add a cumulative $1.5 trillion to U.S. gross domestic product, or GDP, over 10 years.

Garcia says that American workers and undocumented immigrants would see a huge rise in income and that the boost in wages would be bigger for woman than men. “It would provide improved economic outcomes through increased legal protections, better investments in education and training, higher paying jobs, economic mobility. It would also easier for people to start their own business,” Garcia says. “If we can have economic actors earning more, consuming more, and paying higher taxes, the economy would see a serious amount of growth.”