By Donna Snyder, Artwork Courtesy of Alfonso Valenzuela

The claims by ICE detainees of trauma by hysterectomies[i] without informed consent is horrifying but sadly not shocking. Throughout much of the 19th and 20th centuries, unethical physicians and governmental agencies have conditioned health care or other benefits on acceptance of sterilization, have performed these surgeries during childbirth without knowledge or consent, have conditioned receipt of government entitlements on forcible acquiescence[ii], and have even experimented on Black women by performing hysterectomies without anesthesia[iii]. The victims of these horrific acts have been Black women, indigenous women[iv], other women of color, disabled[v] women, and poor White women. The history[vi] is gruesome[vii] and I will list just a few of many links below should you want to read some of the record yourself to grasp the truth of my statement.

I learned about this history of covert genocide decades ago while an activist for the right of women to control their own bodies and their own reproductive decisions. All women should have the right to choose to give birth as well as to not give birth.

Some years ago the artist, Alfonso Valenzuela, presented a workshop for the Tumblewords Project. Over the 25 years since the founding of Tumblewords, many visual artists have collaborated with me in exhibits and workshops. Valenzuela is an established El Paso artist. We met serving on the Board of Directors of JUNTOS Art Association and at various exhibits. For Tumblewords Project, Valenzuela brought some of his banners, paintings, and slides and spoke some about his art. He explained the meaning and cultural significance of many images in his art. The rest of us wrote in response to his art or his words. Two of my prose poems written in response to Valenzuela were later published in the Malpais Review.[viii] Today seems like a good day to revisit those poems, not as exemplary poetry, which they are not, but in solidarity with those women detained by ICE and subjected to rough treatment and unwanted sterilization and in recognition of the ongoing history of such barbarous treatment of the most vulnerable people who find themselves in this land. Many thanks to Alfonso Valenzuela for his permission to use his art in this article.


From the painting “Matriarchal v. Patriarchal” and other art of Alfonso Valenzuela


A white angel eviscerates a woman the color of terracotta, an indigenous woman sterilized by a blue-eyed doctor, who forgot his oath to do no harm.

The politics of sterilization of los Indigenas, Latinas, Black Americans, and poor White women, raged well into the 1970’s.  In the South, poor Black and White women faced the loss of food stamps if they did not agree to surgical excision of their ability to give birth.  And in the Southwest, Indian Health Service doctors sterilized women without notice, much less informed, uncompelled consent.

There is a forgotten arm of the movement for reproductive rights, the right to choose to not give birth mirrored by the right to choose to do so, to expand a culture through flesh and blood rather than conquest, giving birth a direct rebuke to eugenics.

The artist captures all this history in a single canvas, its telling title, “Matriarchal v. Patriarchal,” a silent scream for the mutilation of a dark woman’s body beneath the chubby white cheeks and wings of a Rococo angel with blood on his hands.


Let the banners be raised.  Coatlicue’s skirt of serpents sways on her heavy hips.  Rigoberta Menchu’s face rises above a goddess body, a Pre-Columbian sphinx who saw the massacre of her people.  When will the quetzal wings bring back the fair one, he who tricked the heavens to give the people word and song?  When will the Jaguar’s roar unleash the trees to dance to drum and flute?


Today a dog chained to a fence died in San Elizario.  Let us pray for our sins. Let us pray that Tlaloc hears our sorrow and brings down the rains once more.  Let all creatures eat and drink and move freely about creation.

All people together.

Not one above the other.

All people free to choose.

The Ollin Marks the Spot

from the art of Alfonso Valenzuela, with many thanks

From Tlaloc to hydroponics
What’s new is old
What’s old is cutting edge
Feed the masses
even with all the earth paved
The rainforest guardians killed by rubber barons
The Turkish park turned into a parking lot
Paradise lost to concrete and poisoned air

But Tlaloc knows the secret to survival,
food stuff grown from water-fed roots
And Ehecatl whispers secrets into the future’s ear,
harness the wind and his power shall set us free
No more need for non-renewable resources
Hehecatl will never die
And Tonatiuh atones for blood sacrifices,
his rays converted to solar power to light our way
The ancient secrets an old map painted over
Three heads emerge from a giant cake
See No Evil, Hear No Evil, Speak No Evil
The beauty of the Earth’s potential captured in icons
The workers’ hands
once, now, and forever
the source of all bounty
despite their lives of strife
The ollin* marks the spot
Two arms like a cross or an X
A day for movement
A day for the purified heart
When humans can see what they are becoming
A good day for change that “arrives like an earthquake”
Leaving behind “the ruins of rationality, order,
and preconceived” thought

Ollin is one of the twenty days comprising each of the eighteen months of the Aztec year, as detailed in the great Sun Stone or Aztec Calendar.  Roughly in the shape of an X, Ollin represents movement, “an auspicious day for the active principle. . . .  A good day for transmutation, which arrives like an earthquake that leaves in its wake the ruins of rationality, order and the preconceived.”  Aztec Calendar Day Sign Ollin

[i] BBC article, Fox News, Snopes: Allegations of mass hysterectomies against ICE

[ii] Sterilization to reduce welfare costs

[iii] Father of Gynecology experimented on slaves

[iv] Jane Lawrence, “The Indian Health Service and the Sterilization of Native American Women,” American Indian Quarterly 24, no. 3 (2000): 400-19; D. Marie Ralstin-Lewis, “The Continuing Struggle against Genocide: Indigenous Women’s Reproductive Rights,” Wicazo Sa Review: A Journal of Native American Studies 20, no. 1 (2005): 71-95; and Andrea Smith, Conquest: Sexual Violence and American Indian Genocide (Boston: South End Press, 2005), as cited in Sterilization of Native American Women, Wikipedia

[v] 1927 Supreme Court case authorizes 70,000 sterilizations of disabled

[vi] Brief legal history of sterilization of people with disabilities

[vii]  Kaelber, Lutz Associate Eugenics: Compulsory Sterilization in 50 American States

[viii] Malpais Review

Donna J Snyder

a poet and lawyer

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