When a woman identified by the pseudonym of Minelva entered Pacific Colony, a California “home for the feebleminded,” she had suffered rape and a life of poverty, and spent much of her adolescence trying to escape from juvenile detention or state boarding homes. Viewing those experiences as symptoms of genetic and mental deficiency, Pacific Colony’s doctors diagnosed her as a sexually deviant “high moron.” They ordered her to be sterilized without her consent in October of 1936 at the age of 16, dismissing the pleas of her parents, who objected to the operation on religious grounds.
The case of Minelva’s 1936 sterilization order is one of thousands unearthed by researchers Alexandra Stern and Natalie Lira of the University of Michigan, who authored a new study that reveals Mexican Americans were disproportionately sterilized in California during the first half of the 20th century. The study is currently undergoing peer review for publication in an academic journal.
“This is the first time we were actually able to show definitively that Latinos were disproportionately sterilized,” Alexandra Minna Stern, a professor at the University of Michigan’s Department of American Culture, told The Huffington Post. “It’s not surprising, unfortunately, because this was an era of pretty aggressive scientific racism against Mexican Americans. And one could argue that there’s still legacies of that in anti-immigration discourse.”
The researchers analyzed 2,006 sterilization requests sent from Pacific Colony in Southern California to head of the state Department of Institutions in Sacramento. People with Spanish surnames, the great majority of them Mexican-American, accounted for 23 percent of the total.
It’s difficult to estimate California’s Latino population at the time because the government often classified Hispanics as white, but Stern says it did not top 10 percent throughout the period, and likely hewed closer to 6 or 7 percent.
California authorities sterilized some 20,000 people under a eugenics law in effect from 1909 to 1979 -- more than in any other state. The number of eugenic sterilizations carried out in the United States in the 20th century totals roughly 60,000, according to the study.
Natalie Lira, a graduate student who co-authored the study, described the era’s homes for the feebleminded as part psychiatric hospital, part reformatory. The institutions used the term “feebleminded” broadly, including everything from developmental disorders to criminality.
“They were looking at social issues and defining them in mental terms,” Lira told The Huffington Post. “A lot of it had to do with IQ … The justification for committing someone could be a simple as having committed a petty crime. For a girl, having a child out of wedlock was considered a deviant act.”
The institutions’ administrators often used sterilization as a condition for release.
Policymakers did not explicitly target Mexican Americans or other racial groups for sterilization, Stern says. But, echoing the concerns of contemporary far-right pundits, eugenicists viewed Mexican Americans as intellectually inferior and feared that their uncontrolled reproduction would drag society down and deplete government resources, the researchers said.
“What this shows is that there is a longer history behind the stereotype that Latinas and Mexican women’s reproduction is somehow bad,” Lira told HuffPost.
Forced sterilization already has a reputation for racial injustice, but research documenting the sterilization of Latinos has been lacking. A North Carolina eugenics program sterilized more than 7,500 people over the course of its existence before it was discontinued in 1974, according to Newsweek. In its last 15 years, more than 60 percent of them were black.