Inside National Latina Institute's Fight For Reproductive Rights and Justice for Women of Color

By Bianca Gracie | August 18, 2022

Lupe M. Rodríguez PHOTO BY ASHLEIGH REDDY
Lupe M. Rodríguez PHOTO BY ASHLEIGH REDDY

NOTE: This interview took place in March—before The Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in June, which ended constitutional rights to abortion and protection nationwide.

The rally for reproductive rights of women of color is an ongoing mission for women like Lupe M. Rodríguez. She is the executive director of the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Justice, an organization that helps Latina and Latinx women find access to healthcare while building safe communities for women to find opportunities for education and sisterhood.

Rodríguez, being born in Mexico City and having immigrated with her family to San Jose, Calif., at a young age, knows how it feels to look for fair healthcare when being a minority in a new place. She is a passionate leader, who is determined to be the voice for reproductive rights for women of color.

An activist at a rally in Brownsville, Texas, where the Latina Institute has been advocating for 15 years PHOTO BY JASON GARZA
An activist at a rally in Brownsville, Texas, where the Latina Institute has been advocating for 15 years PHOTO BY JASON GARZA

Why was this institution initially formed?

The Latina Institute, as we're called now, was officially founded in 1984. But our founders had actually begun the process of creating the organization before that. We were at that point called the Latina Initiative, and we were a program under an existing organization called Catholics for Choice. This Latina Initiative was created to address the lack of Latina and Latinx voices on reproductive rights, health and justice issues. As well as challenge the idea that Latinas and Latinxs are not aligned with having access to reproductive rights and health.

So we were called the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health. We became the first national advocacy organization for Latinas and Latinx in the fight for reproductive health rights and justice. Fast forward to March of 2020, before I joined the organization as the executive director, we changed our name to the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Justice. Now, we call ourselves the Latina Institute for short. We did this because our mission has been to serve and represent an increasingly diverse and growing Latina and Latinx population, and to dismantle systems of oppression that target Latina and Latino identities. Having reproductive justice in our name is more aligned with what we do, which is to really look at the intersection that exists in what people face in their communities and what people face in their lives.

Economic justice, racial justice, and immigrant rights all affect a person's ability to make choices about their health, sexuality, and reproduction. We're still the only national reproductive justice organization dedicated to building power to advance health, dignity and justice for the 29 million Latinos and Latinxs in this country.

Why did you decide to join this institute?

I am an immigrant from Mexico, and my family came to the United States when I was 3 years old because my brother had muscular dystrophy, which is a congenital disorder. We came to the U.S. seeking healthcare. So from a really early age, I learned what it was to be a health advocate because I was advocating for my family. I think that kind of spirit carried through in my life.

I’m actually trained as a scientist. But throughout even my training, I always thought that making the connection between the barriers that exist for so many people in our country, and particularly for my experience with immigrants, is being able to have access to healthcare, has always just been a calling for me. When I decided to pivot from science to working more on social justice, I really thought there was an alignment in working on reproductive health and rights specifically, because it’s an area where there’s still so much to do.

From my personal experience, it's hard to get proper birth control. Or when I'm trying to find a gynecologist, sometimes they don't listen to what I have to say as a Black woman. What are the challenges that Latina women are currently facing?

I think the experience of Black women in this country and maternal health is atrocious. It's something that we work in coalition with organizations to address. I'm glad you mentioned that. I think while the challenges aren't exactly the same within the community, the Latinx and Latina community is not a monolith, right? We come from different backgrounds, different cultures. There are people in the community that are different races. Many of us are immigrants and children of immigrants. I think that's one thread that unites a lot of the community. And that presents some unique challenges for us, particularly in rural areas that don't generally have a lot of access to health care. I'll share specifically one place where we see the most magnified effect of the impact and the challenges that Latinxs and Latinas faces. It's in the Rio Grande Valley in Texas, which is a region of about a million people that runs along the Mexico border.

We've been doing work there for 15 years. Because it's within 100 miles of the southern border, US Customs authorities set up checkpoints along every major route, and effectively blocked people without documentation from traveling even to the next town. The folks can't really leave the state for fear of being captured and deported. We know that our undocumented communities in this Rio Grande Valley can't even leave the state to seek abortion care, or any other kind of care for that matter, if they needed it. In the last year, we had the most restrictions on abortion access that the country has ever seen. This year we're facing the Supreme Court decision of the Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization case and are expecting that the country is going to lose the constitutional right to abortion.

Our worry is that these issues that are all we're already seeing. I'm talking specifically for Latina and Latino community members and undocumented folks, where they're not able to to get the care they need. What's going to become of them when there is actually not even a basis for having access to care? I think this story is not just happening there. There are a lot of a lot of barriers that exist. There's lots of infrastructure issues where there are just not places where they can get the care they need. As you said, there's a lot of racism and other kinds of inequities that exist in our healthcare system to begin with that make it really difficult for communities to get not just adequate health care, but health care that is helpful for them to survive, live well and thrive. I think the work that we do in in the community for folks who are most affected by equipping them to challenge these systems is the kind of long-term change that we need to see. We are going back in time, and that's going to be really hard for our minority communities of color.An activist leading a rally in Rio Grande Valley, Texas. PHOTO BY JASON GARZA

An activist leading a rally in Rio Grande Valley, Texas. PHOTO BY JASON GARZA

From what I've read, It seems like the Supreme Court are inching closer to overturning Roe vs. Wade. If it does happen, what do you think that can mean for minority women of color?

We’re very concerned about the impact of the Supreme Court case and the ruling that we expect to be revealed anytime now, between April and June. We know it'll have an impact on all of the country. Some people in the space that we work in believe that a ruling that nullifies the protections established by Roe vs Wade will not only impact the states where the governors and legislators are hostile to abortion care, because there are already a lot of states that are waiting for this decision to actually try to pass more laws that will make abortion illegal, but beyond those states. I think there are like 21 states that are prepared to enact abortion bans, and an additional five states that are likely to pass laws to ban abortion as soon as the ruling in this case is [revealed].

We know that even people who live in states like California, New York and Massachusetts will see wait time for appointments. They'll see that providers are going to be flooded with people coming from other states where abortion is banned. It's just going to change the entirety of the landscape of access, not just for the folks who live in those states where the bans will be enacted, but for people in states where abortion will still be legal. We're really concerned about that. We also know that when abortion is banned, people don't stop having abortions. The reality is that people will always seek to do what's best for themselves and their families. If that includes the termination of a pregnancy for the myriad reasons that women choose this, we know that women will try to find a way. And that's concerning because if there's no place for folks to do it in a safe environment or if they don't have access to the correct tools, we're afraid of what could happen to people. At worst death, but other kinds of really terrible things.

One of the things that we're working on right now to try to stop some of the impact is to pass this law called the Women's Health Protection Act. It's basically a law that would safeguard access to abortion care by overruling state laws and municipal ordinances that unnecessarily restrict abortion care. It would put a stop to the Senate Bill 8 and Senate Bill 4, the laws in Texas that ban abortion. It's basically a federal law that could help that. But we need folks help to be able to get that passed. Right now, the Senate held the votes. It didn't pass, it was 46 to 48. We just need a few more votes and really the help of the community to get their senators to pass this bill would be really helpful.

It is very frustrating, just because the news is very overwhelming right now.

I think that there's so much that we can look forward to in terms of just energy in the communities that are being the most impacted. As I mentioned, we've been working in the Rio Grande Valley in Texas for 15 years. Our community is resilient and so ready to keep fighting. I think that that gives me a lot of hope, because we all kind of expect what's going to happen, but we're all still ready to go and really help people. I think that that could be a sliver of hope.

Since you've been the executive director, are there any philanthropic efforts we could highlight?

One of the things that we do is work in communities in coalition with other groups that are doing community work. So, we share resources in that way, and are able to really put whatever resources we have into those collaborations. One other thing is that we definitely prioritize solidarity over charity. We're an organization with not a ton of resources ourselves. What that means to us is that we connect folks to resources, provide information and then we help folks build their power to be able to, despite the system.

I think there's a lot of value in the kind of power-building work that we do, which really seeks to train folks in from the community on how to advocate for themselves, how to organize their communities, how to challenge laws, how to vote—all of the things to [help] make change in our communities. We invest in the people who are on the ground through the trainings, and give them the opportunity to develop professionally. In fact, so many of the people that work at Latina Institute actually started with us as advocates who were just kind of organizing and volunteering with us.

A part of the Latina Institute is about building mentorship and sisterhood through the Poderosas (empowered or powerful women) program.

We’re a community-rooted organization, so that means that our work at the ground level, at the policy level and in the media is all connected to our activists and their community leaders. We come from the original founding of the reproductive justice movement, which was actually created by Black women in the ’90s. So based on that really awesome legacy, our work is based on really centering the voices of Latinxs and Latinas and thinking about how they can build their power to be able to change the systems that exist right now. We really believe that the legislature is not really going to save us—our community and our solidarity across racial boundaries with other women, with other activists is going to save us.

To your point, building community is integral to this work that we do. It starts from the very ground where folks are most affected, and the connections are already happening. It [creates] a framework that really thinks across movements and races about how we can come together to really fight the oppression that we all face in our country.