Learning from Latin American Social Movements

Demonstration in the Dominican Republic

How do activism and public policy converge in academia? Assistant Professor Esther Hernández-Medina studies Latin American social movements through several lenses based on her experience as a public policy expert and activist in the Dominican Republic.

Through her research, Hernández-Medina examines the question of how historically marginalized groups such as women, racial, ethnic and sexual minorities are able to change public policy. She has researched this topic in Mexico, Brazil and the Dominican Republic by looking at citizen participation in urban policies. 

In this Q&A, Hernández-Medina delves into the topics of reproductive justice and reproductive rights. The following has been edited for length and clarity.

Tell us about your research and your academic interests.

I’m an activist, public policy expert and a member of the Dominican Republic’s feminist movement. My research is about how marginalized groups (women, racial and sexual minorities, among others) are able to change public policy in their favor in Latin America and the Caribbean. I arrived at that question as a way to reflect on the many years I worked in the Dominican government and my role in the feminist movement for almost three decades.

Witnessing how people from all walks of life (farmers, students, professionals, judges, organizers, housewives and others) would engage in meaningful dialogues to come up with solutions to the problems in their communities changed my life. In processes like the National Dialogue and the Judicial Branch’s Third National Consultation, I saw in real time what German sociologist and philosopher Jürgen Habermas calls “communicative action,” which is when people collaborate, change their ideas, and come up with new ones when listening to each other’s arguments and needs with an open mind.

The second way in which I have answered the question of how marginalized groups can influence public policy has to do with the movements associated with those groups. In this line of research, I study the Dominican feminist and LGTBQ movements. My role as a scholar activist who is also a member of the feminist movement gives me a great deal of access to the conversations, activities and priorities activists in both movements have. In this role, I co-founded a feminist space for debate called Tertulia Feminista Magaly Pineda, which resembles the conversations I fell in love with as a public official.

How do you connect your activism and policy experience with your research and teaching at Pomona? 

Several of my classes at Pomona are based on this work, especially Women and Power in Latin America (which I co-taught with Professor of History April Mayes last year) and Gender and Development in Latin America. Since I started as an assistant professor of gender and women’s studies (GWS) and Latin American studies last year, I have also connected this research to my GWS classes Intro to Gender and Women’s Studies and Transnational Feminist Theories. I am looking forward to doing the same this semester in my Queer Feminist Theories class. Also, my work on citizen participation in Mexico, Brazil and the Dominican Republic was the starting the point for the class Globalizing Participation: Citizens Engaging the State around the World.

Reproductive justice is also a theme that is closely related to my research about the fight the Dominican feminist movement has waged for more than 20 years trying to decriminalize abortion. Since the country is very conservative, the goal has been to make legislators get rid of the total ban on abortion by legalizing three exceptional circumstances that are already allowed in many countries in Latin America: when the person’s life is in danger, when the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest, and when the fetus would not survive outside of the womb because of particularly grave malformations. My research showcases how the movement has been able to change public opinion so that now most Dominicans support these three exceptions or causales even though most politicians are still so afraid of the Catholic Church and evangelical denominations that they continue to ignore this claim.  

What are some of the main differences between the U.S. and Latin America when it comes to reproductive rights? 

I think the fight for reproductive rights in Latin America is more intersectional and closer to the reproductive justice framework Black women created in the U.S. Latin American feminists are more aware of the fact that lack of access to abortion mainly affects women and other people from low-income and racialized communities. That is why we are more deliberate about creating coalitions with multiple sectors in society. For instance, in the demonstrations for las causales in the Dominican Republic, you can see healthcare professionals, union members, lawyers, NGO members, rural organizations, LGTBQ activists and activists from other movements, regular people and many others marching along with feminist activists.

Another important difference is that the fight for reproductive justice in Latin America is more focused on abortion as a human right and a matter of public health. In contrast, Roe vs. Wade was based on the right to privacy, and the issue is usually framed as an individual right to choose. Abortion and reproductive rights are not a separate issue. They are always connected to other issues and rights, as the Latin American slogan states, we want “todos los derechos para todas las personas” (all rights for all people).

What is the Green Tide in Latin America and how is it relevant for the U.S.?

The Marea Verde is the most recent version of the Latin American movement for sexual and reproductive rights including the right to choose having an abortion. The Green Tide is amplifying the fight for reproductive justice that feminists in the region have been engaged in for decades. It started in Argentina in 2015 connected to the “Ni una menos” (Not one less) movement against feminicides. Its name comes from the green bandanas feminists started to wear in Rosario, Argentina, in 2003 as a homage to the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo, the mothers and grandmothers who defied the dictatorship looking for their kids and grandkids.

In Latin America there is a stronger tradition of taking to the streets. And that is something that we have started to recover in the U.S. with the Women’s Marches, the #SayHerName movement and others, but we need to do much more. We also need to remember that this fight is international because what happens here in the U.S. affects what happens in Latin America and in other places and vice versa.

What should policymakers in the U.S. and in Latin America keep in mind regarding reproductive rights? 

I think there are at least two key lessons they need to consider. The first one is that policy makers in both places should pay attention to the women of color activists in the U.S. and feminist activists in Latin America who emphasize the intersectional nature of this human rights issue. The second thing I would recommend to policy makers in both the U.S. and in Latin America is to keep their minds open and their curiosity alive by always looking at what is being done in other places.

Policymakers in Latin America and in the U.S. need to remember that their role is to serve all people regardless of their own religious beliefs, not specific interest groups. Anti-gender and anti-LGBTQ movements in both places try to portray feminist and LGBTQ activists as trying to impose our agendas, and the truth is the opposite. The more we keep an ongoing dialogue going where we can learn from each other in different countries, different sectors and diverse experiences, the more we will be able to build a world in which no one is condemned to poverty, discrimination and even death because of the decisions they make about their bodies and a world where we can all flourish.