Ways of Seeing: Choice makes America great


In 1948, my grandmother married my grandfather. Soon after, they had their first child. He was the first of ten. Between 1948 and 1966, she birthed eight boys and two girls. To be sure, she loved all of her children and grandchildren dearly. I always felt that, and I loved her in return, but as I got older and we became closer, I realized things were more complicated than I knew. 

My grandmother, a woman of German ancestry, became an orphan as a toddler. My great-grandmother abandoned her and her sister at an orphanage run by Mexican nuns. A young mother, crushed by the weight of her children, fled, leaving my grandma and her sister to be raised by near-penniless nuns, steeped in the Catholic faith and in the Spanish language. As a result, my very German-looking grandmother was the most culturally Mexican grandparent I had. She was a native Spanish speaker who also learned English. She was devout in her religion. She believed it was her duty to serve her god and later her husband and family. She did all of those things. 

As a young woman, my grandmother reunited with her biological mother and lived with her for a while. Then, a few years after high school graduation, she met my grandfather in south Texas. His family had moved there from a small town in Mexico and spoke only Spanish. She taught my grandfather to speak English and supported him while he worked at a furniture company. They didn’t have a lot, but with careful budgeting, they managed. Occasionally, she worked outside the home for supplemental income. In her life, she survived the aftermath of the Great Depression, abandonment, a world war, the birth of ten children, the death of one, and so much more. She died last year, a few days shy of turning 95, with 16 grandchildren and several great-grandchildren. 

To many, her story is one of “resilience” — a word increasingly used by privileged folks to describe the ways that those of us who grew up with less privilege have persevered. Or her story is a story of success — a poor girl, abandoned as a toddler, who grew up to raise a big, beautiful family of relatively productive children. For others, it’s an immigrant triumph of upward mobility where one generation sacrifices so that the next can do better. Still for others, it is a quintessential American tale: one where a husband marries a wife and they raise several children, with the wife doing the rearing and the husband off at work. This last one, especially, is one many of our nation’s politicians might even say, “made America great.” 

My grandmother’s story is all of those things. But below the surface, there’s something few people see or give much thought to: she lived a life in which she was trapped by religion and patriarchy. 

When I was older, she told me that she didn’t have ten children by choice. She had them because contraception wasn’t available to her. When she told her husband that she didn’t want to have more children, and the only way to do so was by abstinence, her husband became angry and unfaithful. They didn’t divorce because the Catholic church wouldn’t allow it, and that also wasn’t something she would consider because of her devoutness. So she stayed and pushed through in a miserable marriage and a relatively unhappy life. I have very few memories of seeing her look truly happy, because she wasn’t. Does that oppressive story make America great?

My grandmother was always in awe of my own freedom. She’d discourage me from getting married, telling me it was just a distraction. It was the very opposite of what some might expect from a culturally Mexican grandmother, but I think her advice to me reflected her lack of choice and how happy she was to see that I had choices she never had. 

Last week, we saw a draft of the Supreme Court’s thoughts on overturning Roe v Wade, a case that, in 1973 granted citizens the right to choose whether or not to give birth to a child. The language therein can get tricky. At what point is an abortion an abortion? How might this open the door for further restriction for contraception later? There are many things to consider. 

Every person deserves the right to bodily autonomy. Of course there are extreme cases: cases of rape, cases where a parent’s life is in danger, cases of incest that are all notable reasons for people to consider having an abortion. But there are also more subtle cases, where people should have the choice about how many children they want to have or when they want to have them so they don’t find themselves trapped. 

The right to life and the pursuit of happiness matter for those who carry the fetus as well. Choice is pro-life. Without it, we are pushing ourselves backward to a place where people will not be able to have access to all that life might offer them. I don’t know what my grandmother’s stance was on abortion — given her devoutness, she was probably against it, but given her life experience, I know she wanted me to have freedom of choice in the way she did not.

For all of those who struggled before us, let’s not go backwards.

Vermont writer Mary E. Mendoza is an assistant professor of history and Latino/a Studies at Penn State University. 

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