Yearning to Breathe

By Alexander Ramos Wallace



On the Sea Lion Press Forums, we run a monthly Vignette Challenge. Contributors are invited to write short stories on a specific theme (changed monthly).


The theme for the 29th contest was Birthday.


Authors Note: A content warning - there's some oblique reference to sexual violence, but it isn't graphic and it's not the only horrible thing obliquely hinted to. I tried to treat all the horrible things in this story (and there are many horrible things) with the gravity they deserved and I only hope I succeeded. I'll explain more of my thought process in the afterword.


Fresno, California


1965


The contractions started at eleven at night.


Graciela struggled onto her feet and called to her mother Angelica. They both knew this was coming. Graciela’s stomach had grown large enough that there was no denying it.


The baby was here.


As they rushed out into the battered Ford they paid but the scantest attention to the picture of Graciela and Diosdado on their wedding day, barely a year ago. It wasn’t long after that he was called up to fight in jungles coated with bullets and napalm and Agent Orange, merely one sea away from where Angelica had fled. Angelica had testified at the trial of Yamashita and then left the city entirely on a ship from Tondo to San Francisco. She had never returned to the city of her birth.


Graciela panicked, and Angelica reassured her with the stern tone that only a survivor of a battle that left her home city in the league of Stalingrad could muster. After all she had seen and all she had endured, childbirth was easy, life-affirming even.


To Angelica childbirth symbolized newness, even if it had its own discomforts. The child was born in San Francisco, after she had eked out her own existence there briefly before leaving for greener pastures, quite literally, in the grape farms of Fresno County. She had raised Graciela here, just the two of them. This was something that an artillery shell coming from MacArthur’s guns could not take away.


The two had done well in Fresno, even after Graciela’s birth. Agricultural work was exhausting and the strains of her own experience were hard on her. There was racism and poverty in the land that ruled her homeland as either Hollywood or a whorehouse, depending on who you asked, for forty years. She wasn’t sure if that were better than four hundred years in a convent, but she knew that her eking out of a somewhat pleasant existence was owed to the Federal Health Service. It was a new thing when she arrived in San Francisco, she understood, and so she felt that there was some justice in this world. She could give birth and be cared for by professionals for not a dime from her. It wasn’t Sanji Iwabuchi surviving to be hanged along with Yamashita, but she’d take it.


Still more cramps, still more screams, and Angelica did her best to reassure her daughter. Graciela, in her moments when pain didn’t quite overwhelm her, was deeply impressed by her mother, and thanked God for her steely determination.


They passed by shops and restaurants, including the one Japanese restaurant in that part of town. Angelica had told Graciela that she was never to go there. Even when Graciela was young she had suspected it had something to do with her narrow eyes and her pale skin, at least by the standards of the other Filipinos in Fresno. She was mocked and reviled by her peers in about equal measure.


They stopped at a stop sign, a street lamp illuminating the car. One young white man passed their car as he crossed the street and saw their Malay complexions. He barraged them with epithets properly suited for other ethnic groups, and made rude gestures in their direction.


“We don’t need any more of you!” he spat at them.


Angelica remained calm. She was used to it. She never lost her composure dealing with the white majority. Being from a country colonized for over four hundred years would do that to you.


It was something Graciela envied. She knew herself to break down whenever anything truly stressful, and Angelica would order her to regain her composure. It was a skill you needed to endure the world, she told her daughter, and weakness would only be met with annihilation.


There was only one time that Graciela ever saw her mother lose her composure. They were having dinner with some of Angelica’s friends who happened to also be Manileños. Graciela was letting the grown-ups have their conversation and was reading some short novel about pretty white girls solving mysteries. She didn’t understand much of what was said but she heard the word ‘Bayview.’


Her mother began hyperventilating, then crying, then screaming. One of her guests had to take her to another room. The other guest went up to Graciela and told her to never mention the word ‘Bayview’ around her mother.


The car pulled into the hospital parking lot, parking right next to the big billboard proclaiming that this was


GOLDEN EMPIRE MEDICAL CENTER OPERATED BY THE FEDERAL HEALTH SERVICE​


Angelica helped Graciela out of the car. They rushed into the hospital, and Angelica berated the receptionist to get her daughter to a birthing room. The nurses came running in and whisked Graciela away.


“Before you can see her,” stated the receptionist flatly as he took out a clipboard, “you need to answer some questions.” Angelica shot a furious look at the receptionist, as if he were Sanji Iwabuchi himself.


“Your relationship to the mother?” he asked.


“I’m her mother” responded Angelica.


“Where does she work?”


“A grape farm.”


“Where do you work?”


“A grape farm.”


“Is the father involved with the pregnancy?”


“They’re married but he’s in Vietnam.”


“Is your husband involved?”


“I don’t speak about him.”


“But ma’am-”


“I don’t speak about him,” she repeated, “and we were never married.”


“I see.” The receptionist wrote all those answers, and more, on the clipboard. “Our policy is not to let any of the family in the room until the child is born. It distracts the midwives.”


“You can’t do this to me! That’s my grandchild!”


“Policy is policy. If you do not comply I will have to call security.” The receptionist gestured to the phone on the desk.


“Putang ina mo,” spat Angelica, but took her seat.


Angelica sat there in agony, listening to her daughter’s screams of pain. She wanted to be there, to hold her hand, to reassure her that she would persevere like millions of women through the history of the world.


In her despair for her daughter and her rage at the Federal Health Service, she saw two white men in medical fatigues moving towards the birthing room. One of them was middle-aged and one of them was young.


The young one went on in hushed, worried tones, but Angelica couldn’t make out what he was saying.


The older one said, in a voice loud enough for her to hear him, “Don’t worry about that. The Supreme Court said it was okay in twenty-seven.”


They entered the birthing room. She heard the lock click.


. . . ​

The midwives told Graciela to push and push, to bring a new life into the world. She strained and she screamed, and the nurses pushed on.


As the nightmare persisted, she saw two white men, one middle-aged and one young, enter the room, and one locked the door. They stood on the sidelines as the midwives did their work.


At some point in the early hours of the morning it ended. She heard, for the briefest of moments, the child’s scream. “It’s a girl,” they said.


After that, she felt herself passing out.


In the slightest of moments just before she lost consciousness, she swore she felt a prick on her shoulder.


. . . ​

The Army car dropped off Diosdado right at the cemetery. He asked as such, and assumed that his mother-in-law would have a car. He was right. The battered Ford was parked in front.


He walked through the gates and saw his wife and his mother-in-law quietly weeping at a small grave, both in veils. He called out to them, and they looked at him, and his wife ran to him and sobbed into his chest.


Eventually she let go. They all approached the gravestone. It read:


CRISTINA SOLEDAD DE LA CRUZ 1965​


They returned home, and prayed the rosary for the deceased for nine days.


In between prayers Graciela told her husband that the hospital told her that the baby was dead at birth, but that she swore up and down that she heard the baby cry for a brief second.


Neither of them knew what to do with this information.


Eventually, they forced themselves to return to something resembling a normal life, and Diosdado was called back to Vietnam. When he got leave, he’d come back to Fresno.


The two of them had wanted a child quite fervently. Over those next few leave periods they tried again and again for another pregnancy, but it never came.


Diosdado and Graciela visited the same hospital the failed birth took place in to see a fertility specialist. An examination of Graciela led the doctor to tell her that everything was fine, and that their luck was bad.


Graciela didn’t believe him. She accosted him, and had gone out to accost the receptionist, but to her surprise he was already being accosted by another Filipina about the very same thing: a dead baby, then a lack of belief in the doctor’s soothing words.


Graciela and this other woman, Corazon, talked about the shared experience, and Corazon said that she knew several other Filipinas who had not been able to conceive after one medical treatment or another. She joined their support group.


They eventually decided that this was not tolerable anymore, and that there was foul play afoot. They picketed hospitals and city hall and other places of that nature. They got the press involved. Their story became national. There even was a charismatic preacher from Georgia who attended a meeting and marched with them.


They were spat on. They had racialized venom spewed at them by their white neighbors. They withstood thrown fruit and excrement and tear gas.


One of their ilk had a cross burned in her yard.


Another had her house burned down.


During one of their meetings, after several years of activism and that charismatic preacher being shot in Tennessee, they had an unexpected guest: a young white man, who brandished an identity card demonstrating himself to be a doctor at the Golden Valley Medical Center, run by the Federal Health Service.


He was in tears. He broke down in the middle of the room, covering his eyes in shame while he showed the identity card to anyone who looked.


He calmed down. Graciela then recognized him as the young man who had entered the birthing room before she had blacked out.


He said that he had been enforcing a policy that had been pioneered on the reservations: the sterilization of women who had been deemed incapable of supporting children, or for whom having children would have imposed a debilitating financial burden.


He said that this had become more and more common, to the point of being accepted by a large portion of doctors, within the Federal Health Service.


The women brought him to the press. They had him speak in public. They made his story, and their story, a national story.


Then came the others: the villages in the black belt, the Hispanic neighborhoods in the Southwest, the Reservations, and other such places all speaking up about how their capacity to reproduce had been slowly annihilated by Federal Health Service doctors.


The huddled masses had, unwittingly, asked the doctors if they could have children, and the doctors found them wanting.


Authors Note: This story is, among other things, an attempt to wrangle with the history and the trauma of my people, and where they fit in the world in relation to America and to other countries. I don't bring it up much on the internet, but I'm half Filipino through my mother's side. The bits of Angelica's time in the war are inspired heavily by stories from my family (my grandparents were children during the Japanese occupation) and by James M. Scott's fantastic if horrifying book Rampage: MacArthur, Yamashita, and the Battle for Manila.


The basic idea of the story, of an American national healthcare system giving rise to large-scale sterilization of minorities, is inspired by what actually happened on Native American reservations in the 1960s and 1970s, as performed by the Indian Health Service.


The Supreme Court case referred to in the hospital is Buck v. Bell, in which the Supreme Court ruled that compulsory sterilization was constitutional. It has never been overturned.


The 'Bayview' I refer to is discussed at this page. It is not a page for the faint of heart. The content warning I applied at the beginning of the story applies doubly so here.

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