The 2013 LMSP Fellows at the Smithsonian Castle

The 2013 LMSP Fellows at the Smithsonian Castle, Jessica is in the back row, 7th from the left. Taken by Diana Bossa, Smithsonian Latino Center.

The final part of my practicum at the National Museum of American History allowed me to further explore intersections of reproductive decision-making and disability among Latinos. As I finished my research on eugenics and coercive sterilization in the U.S. (see previous post for more details), I came upon allegations raised this summer that from 2006-2010 at least 148 female inmates in a California prison underwent coercive sterilizations. Unfortunately, the history I explored is still incredibly relevant today.


This poster from the United States Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (year unknown) reminds Spanish-speaking individuals of the lasting consequences of sterilization procedures.

In addition to a historical eugenic context wherein some Latinos/as were denied reproductive agency, I also had questions about how more contemporary sociopolitical factors affect reproductive decision-making and disability for Latinos. That is, what structural factors affect how Latinos negotiate these areas of their lives? Some research suggests that having a child with a disability is a reason for some Latinos to migrate to the United States, where it is perceived that there is better health care. Unfortunately, structural barriers have historically prevented Latinos from accessing disability services. Stigma surrounding disability in the United States also makes many Latino immigrants feel that it is difficult to “fit in,” which is a stated goal for many.

The role of culture may also be a research consideration. Some research suggests that children’s diagnoses with disabilities may be difficult for some Latino parents. This may mean more than translation issues for Spanish-speaking parents – for example, a poor translation of an intellectual disability as loco (crazy). The definition of culture may also be culturally constructed. Latino parents may not understand or accept a disability diagnosis if the child appears to have all of the skills needed to go through her/his life. Again, diagnosis of an intellectual disability may not be accepted as a disability, as the child can still do all necessary tasks at home.

These larger themes in the literature can be illustrated by a contemporary case study: prenatal screening for fetal disabilities. If a pregnant woman matches certain criteria, her doctor may suggest that the fetus be screened for genetic abnormalities. Latinas (often with their partners) may face specific challenges in negotiating this situation, such as clinicians’ efforts at “cultural competency” that may result in stereotyping Latina patients, thus negatively affecting their care; working through translators, whose style of translation may affect patients’ decision-making process and outcome; and, for some, a lack of understanding of biomedical models. Further, they are often negotiating prenatal screening decisions in the historical context of the eugenic sterilization practices described above.

As part of the program’s closing activities, I presented the research that I have shared here at the Smithsonian Latino Center. The Latino Museum Studies Program was an invaluable opportunity to learn more about Latino issues, in particular in museum settings. Undertaking research in a museum setting and job shadowing a curator also pushed me to think about new ways to do research and to disseminate information.

Jessica exploring the collection at the Division of Medicine and Science

Jessica exploring the collection at the Division of Medicine and Science