Between 1909 and 1979, the state of California forcibly sterilized thousands of people, more than any other state. These people were disproportionately Latinx. A new bill would give compensation to the few hundred survivors who are still alive today.
A portrait of a young girl sits on Barbara Swarr’s piano. The old photograph has been colorized and seems to emit a kind of hazy, unfocused glow. The girl in the photo is smiling. Her dark hair is braided and pulled back, and she’s wearing a white dress with a blue sailor’s collar. Her name was Rose Zaballos — or as Barbara calls her, Auntie Rosie.
“Rosie was my mother’s only sister,” Barbara explains. “And she was developmentally disabled. She died in 1939, so I never met her.”
Barbara grew up in the same house that Rosie once lived in. But before she found this picture, she only knew bits and pieces about her aunt’s life. Barbara’s mother didn’t like to talk about it.
Barbara recalls, “My mother had a drawer in her dresser that was all the treasures. And one day I was going through it and I was looking for something and I found this picture of Rosie. I just said, ‘Oh, I want this picture, I want to have it at home.’ Because this is somebody we should talk about as a family.”
Over the years, Barbara’s mother opened up to her. Rosie was her baby sister and the youngest in a big Spanish immigrant family. Barbara remembers her mother calling Rosie “friendly.” “I think that was code for they were worried she was going to get pregnant,” Barbara says. “She was precocious maybe, or boys were going to take advantage of her.”
Barbara doesn’t have the whole story — most of the people who lived it firsthand aren’t alive anymore. But she does know this: on January 3, 1939, somebody in her family, probably an uncle, took Rosie to Sonoma State Home to be sterilized. Back then, doctors could sterilize any patient they believed had a mental condition that could be passed on to their children. That included a low IQ. Rosie’s file listed her as “feeble-minded” and an “imbecile.”
But Rosie’s procedure didn’t go as planned. She died on the operating table, just days before her 17th birthday.
Barbara gets emotional imagining what it must have been like for her grandmother to receive the news of Rosie’s passing. “I can’t even imagine what it must have been like for my uncle to have to tell my grandmother because she was my grandmother’s baby. I can’t even imagine having to tell anybody that you took their daughter.”
Barbara only recently learned that Rosie’s story was not unique. In fact, 20,000 Californians were sterilized.
“In California, we have the highest recorded amount of sterilizations that took place in our country,” says Myra Duran from California Latinas for Reproductive Justice.
That’s a third of all sterilizations nationwide.
Eugenics in California
By preventing certain people from having children, doctors practiced selective breeding. Removing people from the gene pool because they are considered inferior is called eugenics. Though the word is most commonly associated with Nazis, the truth is eugenics was once widely practiced in the United States, too.
Doctor F.O. Butler was the superintendent of Sonoma State Home when Rosie was sterilized, and he never stopped advocating for eugenics.
“Now with the new population explosion, I endorse it more than ever,” Butler said on eugenics in a recording from 1970. “I think it needs to be done more than ever than any time in the world. All types, normals and subnormals.”
Butler clearly wasn’t the only one with these beliefs. California only ended state-sponsored sterilizations in 1979.
The state sterilized men and women of many different ethnicities. But a recent study found that California targeted Latina women, in particular, and people with Spanish surnames like Rosie’s.
Myra Duran says, “The similar reasons that we see now in terms of the rhetoric that’s being thrown against immigrants, against women of color was the foundation for the eugenics movement based here in California. The reasons don’t make sense—they’re all based in racist, sexist, classist stereotypes of who our communities are.”
Compensation for survivors
In 2003, then-governor of California Gray Davis apologized for this eugenics program on behalf of the state.
Other states went a step further: in 2013, North Carolina created a fund to compensate sterilization survivors. Two years later, Virginia followed suit.
California could be next. Last March, California Senator Nancy Skinner introduced SB 1190, or the Forced Sterilization Compensation Act. This bill would compensate anyone who was sterilized under the state’s eugenics law from 1909 to 1979.
Carly Myers from the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund believes this bill would advance disability justice. She says, “All of the people who were involuntarily sterilized were classified as having disabilities. People were labeled moron, imbecile, mentally defective, and they were summarily sterilized because the state deemed them unfit to reproduce. To be clear, this practice was a flagrant human rights abuse, and this bill would provide a material acknowledgment to the survivors of these harms.”
Senator Nancy Skinner says new research has made it easier to identify survivors. “What we estimate from the research that was done is that there are approximately 600 people who are alive today who were forcibly sterilized under this policy.”
The legacy of eugenics today
Myra Duran from California Latinas for Reproductive Justice says this new bill is a step in the right direction. But it doesn’t solve everything — she says eugenics hasn’t completely gone away in California. She points to a state audit that found that between 2006 to 2010, California prisons unlawfully sterilized almost 150 women. And then there’s the family cap rule, which California Latinas for Reproductive Justice helped to repeal in 2016. It restricted women on welfare from receiving additional assistance if they became pregnant.
Myra Duran says, that’s not the same as sterilization, but it’s still a form of eugenics thinking. She says, “You’re basically having state-sanctioned laws dictate who’s worthy enough to parent and who’s worthy enough to parent with the proper resources. And so it may not be as clear-cut as what we saw in the laws of 1909 and 1979, or state eugenics laws, but there’s still that similar goal and intent of really trying to control the reproductive destinies of certain communities. And when we look at who they’re targeting it’s mostly and always predominantly women of color.”
Remembering the victims
Time is running out for those early survivors of sterilization. According to Carly Myers from the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund, “Unfortunately, an additional 100 of those people are dying every year. So time is really of the essence with this bill. Quite literally, people are dying without justice.”
It’s impossible to put a price on trauma, but Senator Skinner says one dollar amount that has been talked about is $25,000 per survivor.
That’s around the same amount of money Virginia promised; North Carolina gave its survivors more than $45,000 each.
Barbara Swarr, whose Aunt Rosie died during sterilization surgery, agrees that if there are survivors today, they should be compensated. But she just wants recognition that this happened to her aunt.
She says, “I wanted there to be a record that this woman, this girl, at 16 years old, died because of a government policy. Not because her family wanted to kill her. It was because a government policy told people who didn’t have the education, the financial wherewithal to do anything, that this is what you do when you have somebody like this.”
Barbara insists this wasn’t a decision her family made knowingly. “I mean, the decision to have her sterilized was a decision,” she acknowledges, “but it was a decision that was promoted, you know like, was propagandized within the government and it became a policy.” Her voice becomes choked with tears as she speaks.
When asked what justice for Rosie looks like to her, Barbara says, “I just want her to be remembered. I want somebody to know that she existed, that she was part of a family.”
For years, Barbara displayed the smiling portrait of Rosie on her piano as a way to get her family talking. She hopes that by continuing to share Rosie’s story — by continuing to remind other people of her existence — other victims will be remembered, too.