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While I was in college, I was involved in sexual health issues internationally: HIV/AIDS, family planning, child marriage, etc.  After graduating I moved to the Texas-Mexico border to teach high school. Who would have guessed I’d have to continue those fights while trying to push my kids for academic success?

My first year teaching I had 9 parents in my classroom.  I taught at a 9th and 10th grade only campus.  When I did some digging to learn what kind of sex education my students received, I was shocked to learn it was damn near nothing.  Health was a semester-long required elective that my students could take at any point during high school. Students were taught directly from the textbook and when I looked up information on sexual health I found a ton of information on abstinence but NOTHING for students who were thinking of becoming or already sexually active.  You could learn how HIV was transmitted and how it effects the body, but not how to prevent it. One of the methods to prevent pregnancy was to “get enough sleep” so students could make good choices. 

There was, however, another elective my 9th and 10th graders could take.  It was on parenting.

But that’s the crazy part. My community was great at supporting our teen mothers…as they should be…but prevention was not a priority. If they became pregnant, we told them about WIC. Once they delivered, our young mothers were home-schooled until they could return to school full time. Once they were ready to return, the district would either pay for daycare or even give grandparents a monthly stipend to help care for the baby.  Mothers were offered the opportunity to enroll in an alternative school so they could finish their diplomas quicker. This system wasn’t perfect, but much better than anything I had seen before.

But back to the education, or rather, lack of.

Every week I’d have girls coming to my classroom, asking to go to the nurse so they could go home because they “stained” their pants.  They weren’t taught enough about their menstrual cycle, so they weren’t sure when to expect their period and come prepared with either a pads or tampons. Sometimes they had irregular periods, but their parents didn’t know about the pill to regulate periods, couldn’t afford it, or didn’t want their daughters on it.  There wasn’t a teen clinic nearby, and transportation was incredibly difficult because the area I taught in was both rural and poor. There was little to no public transportation.

My second year teaching I had a hard time locating one of my girls. The year had just started and she was nowhere to be found. I started asking around and someone told me she had put on a ton of weight. A couple days later I found her walking to class crying. She had just found out she was pregnant….6 months pregnant.  After a long hug and a cry, my roommate (a fellow teacher) and I sat her down, and we talked it out. She was scared and didn’t know what to do. She just thought she had been putting on weight. While this may seem shocking, when no one busts myths about “not being able to get pregnant on the first try” or you have irregular periods or you don’t learn what your body does when you become pregnant, this is what can happen.

But it doesn’t stop here. Throughout my years teaching, I had to correct myths such as: HIV is transmitted through toilets and tears, drinking sprite before sex prevents pregnancy and more.  I had students “dating” men in their mid-to-late twenties. Others were in unhealthy relationships and it took massive coordination with their friends, other teachers and administrators to keep them at a distance. I had girls who wanted to access family planning services, but were undocumented and unsure where to go for help.

But it’s not all bad news. And this is why I have so much faith in young Latinas.

The young woman who found out she was pregnant at 6 months took advantage of the help she was offered and graduated that Spring, two years ahead of her peers.  She buckled down and called me when she didn’t understand her homework.  After graduating, she went back to school to receive vocational training. She broke it off with her abusive boyfriend and most importantly, she’s an amazing mother.

One of my favorite moments teaching was at the end of my two years (when I knew I couldn’t get in trouble).  After a field trip, my girls and I had “girl talk” on the bus ride home.  Ooh the questions!  We talked about boyfriends, healthy relationships and consent, and of course, safer sex. Some of them were lucky enough to have supportive parents who took them to get birth control. Some had decided to wait to have sex until they were married. One in particular bought tic tacs to see if she could be responsible enough to be on the pill.  This was her way of trying it out. Awesome.

Even today, they continue to ask me questions.  Right before I went back for another graduation in June, I received a text asking where to get birth control. After a brief exchange, we decided I’d go with her to the doctor so she could get on the pill. I was so proud of her because she and her partner communicated and decided they weren’t ready to have a child yet. And while he was happy to take her to the clinic, I was honored to be asked instead.

In November during the healthcare reform fiasco, our member of Congress who is incredibly anti-choice, Henry Cuellar, was heard to side with Rep. Bart Stupak and his horrible abortion amendment. After an afternoon of lobbying on the Hill with other reproductive justice advocates, I got home and noticed quite a few of my girls who had recently graduated were on Facebook and Google chat.  To be honest, we hadn’t discussed abortion before, but I took a chance and asked if they were pro-choice.  All four that I saw online said yes and you know what? They took action to and contacted Cuellar. He still took an anti-choice vote, but now there are more pro-choice voices in his district calling him out.

So you see why I love my girls? And why I love being Latina? We are mad complicated and there are a ton of issues our communities confront everyday, but we’re not stupid. When given an education, a chance, and sometimes just a hug or someone to talk to…amazing things can happen.

This blog is part of the Latina Week of Action for Reproductive Justice!