Inside one O.C. Mexican Catholic family, abortion still divides generations
Ana Lopez was 14 when her mother shared some gossip about a woman in their Huntington Beach neighborhood who, rumor had it, had gotten an abortion.
“How could they kill that innocent baby?” Bertha Valdez asked her daughter. “Catholic people don’t do that.”
“Se va a ir al infierno,” Lopez recalls her mother telling her. “She’s going to hell.”
They didn’t really talk about sex, Lopez says, and Valdez’s denunciation of abortion was unwavering. So Lopez listened and said nothing, even though she already believed women should have the right to choose what they do with their bodies.
Nearly three decades later, Lopez, now 40, says the memory remains vivid, a reminder of her family’s long-standing beliefs — and of how important it was for her to break with tradition and challenge the stereotype of Latinos as socially conservative. She has made it a point to teach her two daughters and son about reproductive health and abortion.
Recently Lopez — along with her 15-year-old daughter, Emily — has found herself lamenting that for many American women, the right to choose will be determined by politicians.
The Supreme Court’s reversal of Roe vs. Wade after nearly a half century and subsequent abortion bans in many states have pushed reproductive rights to the forefront of the political debate ahead of the midterm elections.
Political science and consulting experts predict the controversy will catalyze Democrats and inspire many young Latinas who aren’t die-hard Democrats — and might have otherwise skipped voting in the midterms — to fill out their ballots.
But for Lopez, abortion rights are also at the heart of a family dynamic that has been evolving over 50 years. The issue has been divisive and unifying among the women in her family and has led to some shifts in perspective she could never have imagined as a 14-year-old girl.
Lopez, a registered Democrat who works at a call center for a grocery store, is among those likely to choose a candidate who aligns with her views on reproductive rights. Her political outlook, she said, flows out of her childhood experiences — shadowed by Catholicism, conservatism and Valdez, her strict and skeptical immigrant mother. And Valdez, in turn, was shaped by her own childhood and challenges.
Bertha Valdez was 25 when she left her home in rural Huetamo, about 150 miles southwest of Mexico City, in 1980 and arrived in Huntington Beach. She didn’t speak or read English, but with the help of a friend she rented an apartment and found a job nearby as a housekeeper in a hotel.
Valdez, now 67, was among the first to settle in what would become the beach city’s predominately Latino barrio of Oak View. Two years later, she gave birth to Lopez and then a son. Life with her partners was short-lived, but, eventually, some of Valdez’s siblings also settled in the neighborhood.
As a child, Lopez helped her mother sell homemade tamales and sopes throughout Oak View for extra cash. At the time, there wasn’t much to do in the neighborhood miles from the coast and tucked well away from the city’s surf aesthetic. She wasn’t allowed to go to her friends’ homes, and made do playing with her brother in front of their apartment complex. On Sundays, she looked forward to savoring the sugar doughnut her mother always bought her after attending Mass.
Lopez said her relationship with her mother became strained when she entered her teenage years. Valdez avoided any talk of sex or reproductive health. When her elementary school sought permission for her to attend a sex-education class, her mother refused to sign the form. Lopez had to get her information from her friends and her tias, much like Valdez had once learned about menstruation from her aunt.
On a recent Sunday afternoon, Lopez, leaning against the armrest of her couch with the family dog, Nena, perched next to her, said she was relieved to share her experience and opinions on abortion in the privacy of her own apartment, without her mother listening. (Her mother lives about five minutes away.) It was a Sunday and her children were home. Before she continued her story, she reminded Hector, her 12-year-old, to leave the living room and stay in his bedroom. He was still too young to listen in, she said, and would surely interrupt with questions.
“She didn’t want to sign it,” Lopez continued, shaking her head. She mimicked her mother’s questioning, “‘Why do you want to know?’” before trailing off.
“Esas creencias que tienen.” It’s their beliefs, she said; it was how Valdez grew up.
Valdez’s parents were corn and watermelon farmers in the verdant Huetamo. There was no time — or interest — in explaining puberty to their 14 children. She was 14 and on the way to her uncle’s house when she got her period for the first time. She panicked, imagining the worst.
“My mom or dad didn’t talk to me about this,” Valdez explained, occasionally pausing her story to welcome guests to a party she organized in Oak View to say farewell to their local priest. A worn scapular illustrating the Immaculate Heart of Mary hung from her neck. “To talk about this was shameful.”
In rural Mexico, a parent’s priority is providing food at the table and a place to live, said Olga Mejía, an associate professor in counseling at Cal State Fullerton who specializes in working with Latino immigrant families. While the U.S. presents its own set of challenges, she said, it creates space for most immigrants to think beyond those priorities and discuss “taboo issues” like sex, abortion and mental health.
But some immigrants and their families live in an “in-between space, the idea of ni de aquí, ni de allá,” neither from here nor there, said Mejía, who was born in Baja California and moved to the U.S. at 9.
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Part of the problem is some families feeling stuck between two cultures may not realize it, Mejía added. “It just starts to blend in, not always in a graceful way.”
Valdez spoke proudly of her journey to the United States and her ability to figure things out on her own. But her voice grew soft, almost inaudible over the music blaring from the church party, as she reflected on the moments when pregnancy, violence and death intersected with her life.
Her mother died during childbirth, and the baby, a girl, died as well. She said a doctor had warned her mother against more pregnancies, but her father disregarded the advice. God, she remembers him saying, would grant the couple many, many children.
“They made their own decisions and everyone respected their decisions as humans, as partners,” Valdez said. “We had no point in sharing our opinion because it was their business.”
Years later, during a brief stint working in Mexico City before heading farther north, she was accosted by a stranger. As she stepped off a bus at her regular stop, a man grabbed her by the neck and shoved his hand under her top. Decades would pass before she told Lopez of the encounter.
When she was a young mother living in Oak View, acquaintances told her she should abort her youngest child because of the heavy burden of being a single working parent. She ignored their comments and waved off questions about her relationships; her children were blessings, she told them.
Yet when she found out about the Supreme Court’s ruling through her parish, she was conflicted. “For one part, I thought, ‘Yes, thank God! This shouldn’t be happening,’” she said. But, she quickly added, “I didn’t jump for joy,” punching her fists into the air in a mock celebration — because of the pain that sexual assault survivors carrying a pregnancy to term would feel, the baby a living reminder of their trauma.
The Supreme Court’s expected reversal of Roe vs. Wade may sway college-educated women’s votes in key congressional races in places like Orange County.
Valdez’s nuanced opinion isn’t uncommon; a majority of Americans’ views do not easily align with religion or political affiliation. A 2022 Pew Research Center survey on abortion found 71% of U.S. adults “either say it should be mostly legal or mostly illegal or say there are exceptions to their blanket support for, or opposition to, legal abortion.”
Asked how she reconciled her Catholic faith with supporting abortion under some circumstances, Valdez said she doesn’t dwell on it, though she doesn’t plan to share her opinion with her church. After all, she said, she hopes to soon join her friends in Legion of Mary, a local chapter of Catholics who promote praying the rosary, visiting prisoners and praying in front of clinics that provide abortions.
“That contradiction is what is the glue that’s going to hold a polarized country together,” GOP consultant Mike Madrid, a co-founder of the anti-Trump Lincoln Project who favors abortion rights, said, partly tongue-in-cheek.
“It’s very Mexican Catholic to say, ‘I know this is wrong. This is not what we should be doing. But when it happens, we should not only be OK with it, but we should seek forgiveness and try to make amends for it,’” said Madrid, who is Mexican American.
Valdez’s granddaughter, Emily, is shifting the family’s dynamics even further to the left, adding mental health to her list of priorities.
Later in the afternoon, Lopez called her daughter to join her on the couch. The 15-year-old talked matter-of-factly about the difference between her mother and grandmother, adding that she’d learned what to avoid discussing when visiting her grandmother: sex, race and religion.
Valdez immigrated to the U.S. at a young age, Emily said, without time to enjoy her youth in a new place because she was focused on survival. Now her grandmother is older, she added, and stuck in her ways.
Emily is proud of her mother for “changing the cycle” in her multigenerational family.
“Low-key, she’s kind of like the only person I talk to because my dad doesn’t really care about this,” Emily said.
“And he’s more strict, right?” Lopez interjected, in a rare moment of interruption.
At first, Emily said, she found it awkward when her mother brought up periods, relationships and sex. Now, some of her friends look to her mom for advice or pose hypothetical scenarios they may be too shy to talk about with others.
The soon-to-be sophomore says she is focusing on training for volleyball games and plans to enroll as a business major in college. Lopez reminded her of her dream to become the first female president.
“In third grade,” Emily said, correcting her mom. She said she “looked into” the process and concluded it was too “grueling” and “scary” to be in such a high-ranking position. Her interest in politics has since waned because it’s become “too messy,” with abortion policies the latest frustration.
“People might say because we’re younger we don’t know what to think,” Emily said. But the conversation suggests otherwise. Sitting next to her mother, Emily explained how a woman’s income, trauma and housing situation could affect her ability to be a mother. “They say, ‘Put the baby in foster care,’ but our foster care isn’t that good.... I believe abortions are OK because you never know the situation and what people are going through.”
And if the country reforms its path and she’s old enough to be president, Emily said she’s “still up to it.”
Hector had found his way back into the living room and played nearby, listening in.
Lopez stayed silent and listened, smiling as her daughter spoke.
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