I found this picture on the Wikipedia page for Loisaida (the lower east side of Manhattan), the setting of The Lamentable Journey of Omaha Bigelow Into the Impenetrable Loisaida Jungle by Edgardo Vega Yunqué. The caption reads: “The author of this photo is me, David Shankbone. Taken 5 August 2006. Signs of gentrification, such as trendy bars juxtaposed against the more traditional denizens of Loisaida such as the homeless, dot the landscape of Avenue C.”
I was really impressed the way that many different genres of writing are incorporated in this totally off-the-wall novel. For example, we learn more about the setting of the story by reading about Flaquita’s own reading of a sociological monograph that describes how the Lower East Side became so segregated through racist urban planning that forced Puerto Ricans into public housing projects – a process that is changing as wealthier folks move into the neighborhood and make it too expensive for anyone else to live there (as shown in the above photo).
In that interdisciplinary spirit, I was inspired to bring even more social scientific knowledge into conversation with this story. The other book I’ve been reading over break is called Women of Color and the Reproductive Rights Movement by Jennifer Nelson. This book chronicles the ways that the mainstream (white) feminist movement was pushed to shift its focus from legalizing abortion to a much wider range of concerns that were brought up by feminists of color and their ties with Black and Puerto Rican Nationalist politics in the 70’s and 80’s. Specifically, women of color were not only struggling for the right to abortion, but also the right to have healthy children of their own – a concern that middle-class white feminists rarely had to deal with, for “while women of color and poor women lacked access to abortion and contraception, they also encountered reproductive abuses such as forced or coerced sterilization” (4).
Nelson also discusses how in the 1990’s poor women and women of color more generally were disproportionately targeted for prosecution for being pregnant while addicted to drugs. State authorities would (and continue to) take children away from poor drug-addicted women and incarcerate poor pregnant women for “delivery of illegal substances to minors” (183). The expressed purpose of this crackdown was to protect the fetus and children, but Nelson points out that this is clearly a lie: “when the state opts for incarceration of pregnant women over the provision of prenatal care and drug treatment, it is difficult to understand how authorities can claim to be protecting the fetus” (183).
Issues of power and control regarding pregnancy and child-rearing are prominent in Omaha Bigelow, as the story revolves around Maruquita Salsipuedes and her desire to have a “gringorican baby” with the title character. Particularly interesting and confusing is the scene directly after she gives birth to her baby. Because Maruquita had been using her brujería (witchcraft) to change herself into different animals during her pregnancy, the baby she gives birth takes the form of a little monkey. This startling fact is not so concerning to Maruquita (why should it be?) and when the doctor tries to take the baby away, Maruquita resists because they have already told her that that baby is perfectly healthy. She demands to know why they want to take her baby away and the doctor responds:
“We simply want to conduct further tests. Although you’ve tested negative for the HIV virus, it’s possible that the birth of this child involves some sort of cross-species contamination, and we want to make sure that both mother and offspring are not affected adversely” (309).
What is going on here? Why, out of nowhere, does the doctor imply that having a monkey-baby would even have anything to do with HIV transmission? Is it a reference to the fact that HIV is thought to have jumped from other primates to humans? I guess that would make sense because of the doctor’s concern with “cross-species contamination.” He seems to be accusing her of reproducing with a monkey, and this is unacceptable from a medical standpoint (not a sexual consent standpoint, which is a whole different issue) even though it appears to pose no threat to the baby’s health. The doctor tells her that “you’re really in no position to go against the medical profession and its responsibilities to the common good (309). The true nature of the clinic is revealed right here, then: the doctor isn’t there to help you or your baby, but rather to protect humanity from what appears to be the ultimate of all reproductive transgressions, the “cross-contamination” of the human race, and not unlike other poor women of color described by Nelson, she is punished by having her baby taken away for the defense of society.
Maybe this representation of Maruquita having a monkey baby can queer our notions of normal reproduction and can intervene in the speciesism that is rampant in the medical-industrial complex. Don’t monkeys share 98% of human genes anyway?
(why does wordpress/mozilla say that “Puerto Rican” isn’t a word??!?)
One last thing on the topic of reproductive rights! check out this Wesleyan student-produced video!