Ena Suseth Valladares: An Unforgettable Chapi-nica-dureña Fighting
for Reproductive Rights
By Fanny Garcia
Ena Suseth Valladares is chaparrita but you quickly forget her diminutive physical size as soon as you begin a conversation with her. Ena’s voice booms with passion when she discusses social justice especially when the focus becomes women’s reproductive rights.
Currently Ena is the Director of Research at the California Latinas for Reproductive Justice where she conducts research projects and activities and fights for women’s rights locally, statewide and nationally. She was instrumental in advocating for the passage of AB 154 last year. The law expands abortion services by allowing nurse practitioners, certified nurse midwives and physicians assistants to perform first trimester abortions.
As if that were not enough, Ena is also a marathon runner and triathlete who credits her health practices as a vital part of staying balanced in the dangerous war against women’s rights.
In our interview, Ena talks about her family, her education, and why advocating for Latin@s has become her primary professional and personal focus in the last few years.
Ena, you are Nicaraguese, que no? Were you born there?
I am actually a Chapi-nica-dureña. I was born in Guatemala, my mom is Hondureña/Nicaraguense, my biological dad was Guatemalteco (he passed away when I was a year old) and my dad who raised me is Nica. I lived in Guate my first year of life, when my father passed away my mom and I moved to Nicaragua and we lived there with my abuelita for a couple of years. Then when the civil war in Nicaragua got unbearable for my mom, she and I immigrated to the US, when I was around four.
What was the most important lesson your parents taught you?
My parents really instilled in me the importance of treating everyone with respect and to expect respect in return. As my mom would say “dan daran como dicen las campanas”. As a Latina immigrant, I think it has been especially important lesson as it has helped me assert my value and push back on stereotypes that some people hold about the different identities I straddle.
Did your parents encourage higher education? What was your experience at the University of California, Berkeley? What did you major in? Do you have a Masters degree, in what? How do you use the education that you achieved in the work that you do now?
Since as far as I can remember my parents told me that I would go to college and that they would always support my educational goals. My mom in particular encouraged my love of books and reading. I really appreciate my mom’s rule that for every English-language book I checked out at the library I had to pick out a Spanish-language book! And although my parents – more so my mom didn’t want me to go to college so “far away” – at the end of the day she totally supported my choice to attend Berkeley. I LOVED my college experience! Going to Berkeley really exposed me to different viewpoints and experiences. I do have to say that academically it was a bit harsh– I majored in Integrative Biology, so it was a tough field, but I realized that my high school education did not fully prepare me for the rigors of college. So I am happy I survived and graduated, but not without its scars, you know? I discovered my love for preventative services as a volunteer at a free clinic and that is where I decided to pursue my Masters in Public Health from Cal State University, Long Beach. My science/research background has really helped me fulfill my role as CLRJ’s director of research.
Tell me about your work at California Latinas for Reproductive Justice. Why are you passionate about this work?
CLRJ is a statewide policy advocacy organization and we use the reproductive justice framework in our work to around Latinas’ reproductive health and rights. The RJ frame emphasizes the intersection with other social, economic and community-based issues that promote the social justice and human rights of Latinas and the Latin@ community as a whole. As the director of research at CLRJ, I oversee all our research projects and activities and am a lead author of our publications.
I am very passionate about this work because we recognize that Latinas’ access to culturally and linguistically appropriate health care, a living wage job, quality education, freedom from discrimination and violence, among many other issues that affect Latinas’ daily lives, have a profound effect on Latinas’ reproductive and sexual health. We do not view these issues in isolation, but rather holistically.
In your 2010 article called “Young Latinas Speak Out About Reproductive Justice”, you wrote that you interviewed young women as part of your research at CLRJ – what did you ask them and what were their responses?
In Young Women Speak Out, I conducted focus groups in three California regions (LA, SF and the Central Valley) with young women between the ages of 14-17 and asked about their perceptions around key California reproductive and sexual health policies. Their responses and experiences highlighted the significant gap between existing reproductive and sexual health policies and how they connect to many young Latinas’ lives.
For example: young Latinas continually face a range of obstacles in accessing comprehensive and medically accurate information about their reproductive and sexual health, despite the fact that California constitutionally protects the rights of minors to access confidential reproductive health services. Their responses also highlighted the systemic discrimination experienced by pregnant and parenting young Latinas within educational institutions and the absence of the public debate focusing on health, educational and social support networks for young parents in general.
Why do you think the California Comprehensive Sexual Health and HIV/AIDS Prevention Education Act has not been implemented effectively?
Although California has created broad policies and has made great strides in increasing young people’s access to reproductive and sexual health services and support, access to comprehensive, confidential, culturally and linguistically appropriate information and services continues to be lacking for many young Californians.
Part of the reason that the Act has not been implemented effectively is that it is NOT a mandate – so this means a publicly funded school can CHOOSE to teach sexuality education. The Act provides guidelines for schools, but again, because it is not a mandate little money is put into enforcing the law – thus it is not being properly implemented – there really are no consequences if schools fail to abide by these guidelines.
What are the consequences of not providing comprehensive sexual health education to youth?
We all deserve to have a healthy sexuality – youth included! Like other people, youth need to have agency and control over their sexual and reproductive choices – this is an integral component to their development.
And yes, in order to keep decreasing unplanned pregnancies and STI transmission rates it is vital that youth have access to sex ed. However, a truly comprehensive sexuality education goes beyond this and recognizes that youth need to have access to information and resources that address their questions, issues, and concerns about sex, sexuality, and sexual and reproductive health, that do not shame them for their choices. This includes having discussions around healthy relationships, exploring their sexuality/gender expression/identity, and pleasure.
All Latin@ youth – whether sexually active, pregnant, parenting, or not – deserve respect and have a right to quality health care services.
Do you think men should become more involved in women’s reproductive rights? What do you do at CLRJ to also include men in the conversation?
There is definitely a role that men play in supporting women’s reproductive rights, and while there are many men who are involved, we need more! At CLRJ, we clarify that the reproductive justice frame also includes men and we invite men to all of our events, trainings, activities, etc. UNLESS it is specifically meant for female-identified persons only (which doesn’t happen too often). Other aspects of work include working in collaboration with other allies who share our commitment toward promoting the health and justice of our communities, including grass roots activists, community leaders and coalitions, policymakers, policy advocates and researchers – so we really do try to be as inclusive of people as possible.
You are an avid marathon runner and triathlete, how does staying physically healthy inform the work you do as a women’s advocate?
Being physically healthy helps me stay grounded. The work that I do is very rewarding, but can also take its toll – we are constantly on the defensive – whether its fighting to keep important programs and services funded and/or expanded or fighting against people who are essentially anti-women… people who are so caught up in controlling when, how, with whom women have sex … it’s ridiculous! So exercising is my stress release and keeps me disciplined.
What advice would you give to a young woman struggling with a difficult decision regarding her reproductive rights?
First, I would let her know that she has constitutionally protected rights to access confidential reproductive health information and services – including around: sexual assault; pregnancy and pregnancy-related services, including abortion; family planning; and testing and treatment for sexually transmitted infections. This means that she can access these services without having her parents/guardian notified.
I would advise her to talk to a trusted adult, whether a family member, school personnel … and if she does not feel she has anyone like that in her life I would refer her to ACCESS – they are an awesome organization whose hotline volunteers not only provide great resources and information, but also are there to hear people out.
I honestly feel that a lot of times young women struggle with decisions because of the stigma and shame they are made to feel – this is another reason why we must change how we talk about youth sexuality and acknowledge that we are all sexual beings and we all deserve respect and dignity for the choices we make.
If you would like to get involved in the fight for reproductive justice with California Latinas for Reproductive Justice, sign up for their list serve by clicking HERE.
Copyright 2014 by Fanny Garcia.