The Homemade Abortion
A Caged Bird, a Quinceaneara, and the American Dream
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[Note: names have been changed to protect privacy.]
Esperanza stood proudly beside her vision board, which was collaged with images of sleek professional women wearing starched shirts, pencil skirts, and heels, touting leather briefcases, hailing taxis, and making deals over brunch, their diamond studs glistening. She began to recite her poem:
Imma be like those white women
In their sunny offices
And water coolers
And doing very important things!
“Preach!” “Woo-hoo!” “Go get it!” Esperanza’s classmates shouted. In response, Esperanza yelled, “Oh yeah!” and threw her hands in the air, pumping them to the ceiling and shaking her behind in a “raise the roof” dance.
In a class of blowouts, manicures, and tight jeans, fourteen-year-old Esperanza wore baggy clothes and glasses. Her hair framed her face in a shock of frizz. She spoke as if she were addressing the crowd at Yankee Stadium, rather than giving a ninth grade English presentation in an 800-square-foot classroom. Although the boys didn’t fawn over her, they listened intently when she spoke, because she possessed perhaps the rarest trait in a teenage girl: a lack of self-consciousness. For that, she was rewarded with respect.
On the first day of class, when I’d asked my students to introduce themselves in a pithy sentence, Esperanza announced, “I am who I am, and that gives me swag!”
Esperanza declared herself a feminist when she discovered Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues in our classroom library. More accurately, it was Armando who discovered the play and howled, “Yeeooow! This book got vaginas in it!” The boys sprung out of their seats and surrounded Armando, pawing the objet d’art and insisting this was one book they’d be happy to read in its entirety. When they realized it lacked actual photos of vaginas their interest waned, and Esperanza staked claim to the book, reading it that night.
As a second-year teacher, I lived for these moments of enthusiasm; having endured a shaky start the year before, I was finally getting my students excited by literature’s power to define who they are and affect who they’re going to be. Rushing into class the next morning, Esperanza reveled in the play’s multicultural narratives of sex, rape, and childbirth, and its themes of injustice. She felt inspired to become a strong independent woman. It sharply conflicted with what was expected of her in her traditional community, where women were raised to be quiet and let men speak first.
In the Dominican Republic, where Esperanza was born, daily life is a battle between Machismo and Marianismo — cocky men reigning over submissive women, who are expected to endure abuse as part of their culture. Women’s subordinate status is reinforced by their lower economic standing; according to a 2013 World Bank study, the female-to-male workforce participation rate is sixty-five percent, making it difficult for women to escape abusive situations.
One day after class, while helping me wash the blackboard, Esperanza told me that when she was in kindergarten in the Dominican Republic, her mother, Sunilda, had been brutally beaten by a boyfriend after she confronted him about his rampant cheating. The attack paralyzed Sunilda for a year and left her permanently blind in one eye. The alleged perpetrator fled to another city, and Esperanza’s uncle tried but failed to get him imprisoned; while domestic-battery laws exist in the Dominican Republic, they are rarely enforced, which has resulted in what’s been described as an “epidemic” of domestic violence in the country.
Following the attack, Sunilda, a Catholic, became even more religious, convinced that her recovery was nothing short of a miracle. When she and Esperanza, who was ten years old at the time, settled in northern Manhattan’s Washington Heights, Sunilda joined similarly pious women in daily church attendance and in the practice of Santería, opening a tiny shop, or a botanica, where she sold herbal remedies and religious icons, counseled customers on love, and brewed potions and teas.
At my many parent-teacher meetings with Sunilda, who was very involved in Esperanza’s education, she told me that her biggest dream was to throw her only child a quinceañera, the celebration considered a rite of passage for fifteen-year-old girls in Latin American countries. Sunilda never got to have one herself because her family didn’t have enough money.
What differentiates quinceañeras from sweet sixteens, besides the age at which they’re celebrated, is the former’s deeply religious and patriarchal slant. The quinceañera typically begins in a church, with the teenager taking a vow of chastity as she lays flowers at the Virgin’s feet. She changes into a bridal-esque dress at the party, where her father often helps her change from flats into heels and dances the first waltz of the night with her, then passes her to another male relative, until she finally spins into the arms of her date. The message is that the teenager has matured from girl to woman, and that she will go on to get married, have children, and live happily ever after. Traditionally, the quinceañera also denotes the end of a girl’s education, though that has changed in modern times.
After spending an entire Saturday at the public library devouring Gloria Steinem’s Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions, Esperanza informed her mother that there was no way she would have a quinceañera when it was time to have one. She was turned off by its fairytale implications.
Esperanza further defied tradition when she took a pro-choice stance on abortion in a class debate. Unlike kids in progressive high schools like the one I had attended, my students were very socially conservative. Most were staunchly opposed to the termination of pregnancy, and when we debated the issue, Esperanza was the sole supporter of a woman’s right to choose.
She focused her argument on challenging a culture in which women turn to dangerous over-the-counter remedies to end pregnancy. Although safe and free abortions are available in Washington Heights, many women use the drug Misoprostol, which is meant for the treatment of gastric ulcers, or a pungent herbal tea called hierba de ruda, which can be purchased for $3 in botanicas, such as Sunilda’s, to cause a miscarriage. Steeped in guilt, women who seek these remedies often convince themselves that the self-abortion was “God’s work,” according to Carmen, a teacher’s aide at our school. Although Sunilda refused to sell pills or tea to women for the purpose of “bringing down their periods,” other santeras — priestesses of Santería — had no such qualms. When these methods work, potential side effects are life-threatening hemorrhages. When they don’t, they can cause birth defects.
During the class debate, Esperanza called for changing the perception of abortion as taboo and ended her presentation exclaiming, “Don’t be all up in our vaginas!” throwing her hands to the ceiling, ready for her “raise the roof” dance. But, for the first time, her words didn’t result in the expected cheers and accolades. Her classmates, girls and boys alike, stared at her with somber expressions, seemingly convinced that abortion was murder. There Esperanza stood, alone, nary a supporter in sight, enduring a major blow to her confidence.
Although Esperanza’s classmates’ disagreement was ideological, their subsequent treatment of her was personal. A few girls told her she laughed “like a hyena,” and mimicked her raucous howl. One of them revealed to Armando that Esperanza had a crush on him, to which he responded, “I only kick it with hotties.” Finally, a close friend excluded Esperanza from her quinceañera. After all the invitations had been handed out and Esperanza realized she was the only person not to receive one, she buried her face in her notebook to hide her tears. As a feminist, she was firmly opposed to the celebration, but as a teenager, she desperately wanted to be included.
On the last day of the year, as I was putting my belongings away for the summer, Esperanza stood in the doorway of our classroom and spoke to me in spontaneous poetry:
I know what Imma be
Imma be a lawyer
Because life ain’t fair
And someone’s gotta fix it
Let it be me!
Then off she went to spend a summer with cousins in the Dominican Republic.
That fall in my sophomore class, when we were reading Maya Angelou’s I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, I asked students to ponder the meaning of the memoir’s title. As I walked around class gauging their progress in their writing, I noticed that Esperanza, who was in my class again, was filling in every space of her notebook with the lines: When things were very bad / His soul just crawled behind his heart / And curled up, and went to sleep. Some words were written in giant block letters and others were in characters so small that I could barely see them. They had nothing to do with my instructions.
I noticed that Esperanza had returned from vacation a completely different student. Her spirit was diminished, her grades were slipping, and she rarely spoke up. When I gave her an application for a competitive academic summer program at Dartmouth, she ignored it, which was out of character for someone who had previously seized every opportunity. I didn’t know if her behavior was cause for alarm or par for the course, what Mary Pipher described in her book Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls as happening to outspoken girls often in adolescence — they lose their confidence, doubt their abilities, and become depressed.
After class I gave her a pep talk about how kids who are popular in high school aren’t later in life and vice versa. I concluded my speech with an earnest attempt at urban slang: “Where your swag be at?” I asked. She shook her head at my pathetic effort and walked away.
Another day, I found Esperanza draped over the toilet in the bathroom, throwing up uncontrollably. She stopped me from running to the nurse by fervently recounting how her mother had told her to chuck the spoiled milk, which she drank instead, and was now suffering the consequences. If the school nurse — herself a mother and close friend of Esperanza’s family — got involved, the ensuing lecture would cause Esperanza to miss her history quiz, the teen explained. She gave me a hug and hightailed it to her history class.
In my English class later that day, when I asked students to share the passage in Maya Angelou’s memoir that most resonated with them, Esperanza read the following aloud:
Then there was the pain
A breaking and entering
When even the senses are torn
…The child gives
Because the body can
And the mind of the violator cannot
Immediately upon finishing, she slammed her book down and ran out. I followed her into the stairwell, where she explained why she was so upset — why I had found her vomiting earlier that day. Over the summer, when she was staying with cousins in Constanza, a town in the Dominican Republic’s La Vega province, she went to a party where she caught the eye of a handsome twenty-two-year-old named Miguel. Flattered by the attention, she snuck out with him. They drove through the countryside and talked for hours over a blended milk and orange juice drink, morir soñando, which means “to die dreaming.” Then, he raped her.
“I’m two months pregnant,” Esperanza whispered.
When I entered her botanica, Sunilda noticed my slight cold and brewed me some zesty ginger tea. Wrapping my hands around the warm mug, I joined her in the cramped back room. Her unsteady gait served as a souvenir from her boyfriend’s beating ten years ago. I asked Sunilda if she knew what had happened to Esperanza. She nodded, her blind eye wandering. But when I voiced my concern that Esperanza hadn’t yet seen a doctor, Sunilda responded by reaching for a catalogue of quinceañera dresses and asking me which one was my favorite.
Sunilda was devoted to Esperanza. She would often say, “No soy nadie,” which means, “I’m nobody,” but insisted on her Esperancita becoming somebody. However, she refused to discuss the rape or pregnancy, though I imagined she was distraught about it. She told me she’d often said that in order to achieve the American Dream, Esperanza would have to avoid becoming a statistic: Latinas have the highest teen pregnancy rates in the United States. Now, however, it felt like Sunilda was hoping that the quinceañera, with its Virgin Mary and taffeta and waltzes, would cleanse Esperanza of the unspeakable ugliness to which she’d been subjected over the summer.
The next morning I met Esperanza at Dunkin’ Donuts. We huddled together, sharing a blueberry muffin and trying to figure out where she would seek medical care. Although she was hesitant about going to the school’s health center because the nurse knew too many of the same people as her mother, I insisted that she go. I hoped that the nurse would convince Sunilda to take Esperanza to a psychologist to deal with the emotional impact of the rape and, of course, to a gynecologist. The end of her first trimester was quickly approaching, and an abortion — if she chose to have one — would be riskier later on. Esperanza looked me in the eye and spoke firmly, “Miss Rodov, Imma see the nurse. But I ain’t doing the thing. Imma keep my baby.”
It was naïve of me to believe that the ideology Esperanza expressed in class during our debates would carry over into real life. That I would even think to intervene in a family, especially between a mother and daughter, and about a topic as sensitive as abortion, was presumptuous — maybe even unethical. In the Dominican culture, like in many other Latin cultures, family is everything. And in Marianismo, mothers — devoted, self-sacrificing, and saintly — are worshipped. In her book, Once Upon a Quinceañera: Coming of Age in the USA, Julia Alvarez writes that even the Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo, who tortured enemies by killing their sons and raping their daughters and wives, never abused anybody’s mother. Turns out El Jefe was a mama’s boy who visited his mom every afternoon, and this predictability ultimately set him up to be ambushed by rebels.
That I would even think to intervene in a family, especially between a mother and daughter, and about a topic as sensitive as abortion, was presumptuous — maybe even unethical.
Sitting across from Esperanza, I marveled at a culture where rights and wrongs were absolute; it was a sharp contrast to my own, which was much more ambiguous. My parents, having grown up under anti-Semitism’s oppression in the Soviet Union, were secular Jews. Many of our people, upon immigrating to the United States, embraced the country’s freedoms by becoming very religious, but others continued being as non-religious as they were back home. My family was firmly in the latter camp. I hadn’t even read Night by Elie Wiesel until I had to teach it in my English class. When I mentioned this to colleagues at a faculty meeting, one teacher spit out his coffee in shock.
Some believe that Russians’ disconnect from faith is one of the factors that caused the wide acceptance in the Soviet Union of abortions, which were, according to my friends and family, performed in “conveyer-belt fashion.” Many Russian women have had multiple abortions — some in the double-digits — and though abortion rates have declined in recent years, they are still relatively high over there.
Over plates of borscht and pierogies at our dining table in Forest Hills, Queens, my mom’s friends chatted about their abortions with the same casualness given their manicures, while my best friend Yulia and I, teenagers at the time, sat nearby doing our homework. It didn’t really bother me and it seemed not to irk Yulia, either. But in our twenties, when Yulia became a stand-up comedian, she joked about having been an “almost abortion” and thanked her parents for changing their minds at the last minute. Yulia became a staunch pro-life conservative.
In recalling her epiphany and in thinking about the sacredness with which Esperanza and Sunilda regarded pregnancy, I began to question my mom’s friends’ callousness towards life, as well as my own. Was I heartless in thinking Esperanza should terminate her pregnancy? Was there something missing in my own moral fiber that I could so easily advocate for ending a life? Was I a bad teacher and an even worse human being? In our classroom library, I reached for Kierkegaard’s Either/Or. In pouring over its words, I realized that entertaining doubt wasn’t weak; it was courageous — perhaps it was even an act of rebellion.
A few weeks after Esperanza decided to keep her baby, she asked me to be one of her madrinas de quinceañera — godmothers. I agreed. A quinceañera is an elaborate affair, “a wedding without the groom” as many call it, and Esperanza and Sunilda were barely getting by. Like most of my students, Esperanza received free lunch. Those who live in poverty often assuage the financial worries of an expensive celebration by assigning godmothers to handle the various elements — the dress, the limo, the flowers.
Because I had friends in fashion who were happy to create magic for Esperanza, I was tasked with the dress. A designer lent us her showroom, and Esperanza picked the pinkest, puffiest, laciest dress for herself, and chose similar concoctions for her cousins and friends, who would be princesses in her court. Assistants added tiaras to the pirate’s booty, and Esperanza thanked them with effusive hugs.
It was the beginning of Esperanza’s second trimester. She was seeing a doctor; the baby was healthy. And her grades were up. I couldn’t help wondering if feminism was inherent in all choice — not just in the choice to have an abortion, but also in the choice not to. Nevertheless, I again felt a twinge of sadness when I heard her friends planning to attend a poetry slam out of town in the spring. Esperanza exclaimed, “Yo, I can’t wait!” before remembering that she’d be a new mother by then and would not be able to go.
I couldn’t help wondering if feminism was inherent in all choice — not just in the choice to have an abortion, but also in the choice not to.
The night before Esperanza’s quinceañera, her godmothers, friends, and relatives — including her uncle, who would be changing her flats into heels at the ceremony — gathered at her apartment for dinner. As we ate chicken with rice and beans, the faces of Mary and Jesus gazing upon us from icons on the wall, I was reminded of the moment in I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings when the motley crew of homeless kids accepts Maya unconditionally, causing her to finally find enduring strength. The caged bird sings because, despite adversity, godmothers and godfathers are all around helping us get by.
Following tea and dessert, Sunilda asked me to join her in the kitchen to wash dishes. When I entered, she locked the door and spoke frantically, apparently wracked with guilt. She had sent her Esperancita to the Dominican Republic to enjoy a carefree summer and wasn’t there to protect her. She should never have let her go. Their lives would never be the same.
“Quiero que mi hija sea una persona importante!” Sunilda exclaimed. “I want my daughter to be an important person!” She held my hand and asked me if I understood. Then she collapsed to the floor and begged God for forgiveness.
“Dios mio!” she wailed.
Later, when we were watching TV, Esperanza suddenly doubled over in pain, clutching her stomach. When she rose from the couch, her jeans were drenched in blood.