Latina Gender, Reproduction, and Race

views updated

Latina Gender, Reproduction, and Race






Race, fertility, and immigration have formed a fearsome trinity for much of United States history. During each wave of immigration, “natives” have feared that the new immigrants would have deleterious impacts on American culture and society. Predominant among these fears was that of immigrant fertility levels, which a wary public often perceived as dangerously high, and thus as a threat to the education, welfare, and medical care systems. Immigrant fertility has also been viewed as a harbinger of demographic shifts that would lead to the diminishing power of the dominant racial/ethnic group, however it was conceived at the historical moment. During the most recent wave of immigration, commonly referred to as post-1965 immigration, Latina reproduction and fertility, especially of Mexican immigrant women, has become ground zero in a war not just of words but also of public policies and laws. Indeed, anti-immigrant sentiment during the last decades of the twentieth century focused specifically on the biological and social reproductive capacities of Mexican immigrant and Mexican-origin (U.S.-born) women. This trend continued into the first decade of the twenty-first century.


The post-1965 period witnessed a continuous fertility decline among U.S. women, which has contributed to a demographic shift in which white, non-Hispanic Americans have declined as a proportion of the overall population. The concept that emerged in popular discourse in response to this demographic shift was “the browning of America.” Latina reproduction and fertility has been center stage in the often vitriolic public debate over the meaning of this demographic change. National magazines, for example, have consistently represented the fertility levels of Latinas, especially Mexicans and Mexican Americans, as “dangerous,” “pathological,” “abnormal,” and even a threat to national security. These representations of Latina fertility have been evident in two interrelated themes prevalent in the public discourse on immigration: (1) high fertility and population growth, and (2) invasion and reconquest (Chavez 2001).


The demographic changes to the nation’s racial and ethnic composition began slowly after 1965, and they did not therefore become a central component of public discourse in the 1970s. Latina reproduction and fertility, however, were becoming an object of social-science inquiry and public concern. In the 1970s, the contribution of Latino immigrants and their children to population growth was particularly problematic for some environmental and population groups, such as Zero Population Growth, Inc. Academic researchers noted that “the fertility of Mexican Americans is substantially higher than other groups,” with the average size of Mexican American families (4.4 persons) about one person larger than that of all Americans (3.5 persons per family) in 1970 (Alvirez and Bean 1976, pp. 280–281).

National magazines also warned readers of the threat of Latina reproduction. U.S. News & World Report’s July 4, 1977, cover carried the headline: “Time Bomb in Mexico: Why There’ll be No End to the Invasion of “Illegals.’” The accompanying article clarified that the “time bomb” was Mexico’s population and its expected growth rate. The article stressed that the fertility of Mexicans, combined with Mexico’s inability to produce jobs for its population, would lead to greater pressure for immigration to the United States in the future. Although the story drew the reader’s attention to the external threat posed by the reproductive capacity of Mexican women, the internal threat posed by their U.S.-born children’s high fertility levels were also implicated in the rapidly growing U.S. Latino population.

In the 1980s, stories about the growth of the U.S. Latino population were often paired with stories about the decline in immigrants from Europe and the declining proportion of whites in the U.S. population. For example, Newsweek’s January 17, 1983, issue reported that the number of Latinos in the United States grew by 61 percent between 1970 and 1980. This growth was attributed to immigration and higher fertility rates, and to the fact that since the mid-1960s there were 46.4 percent fewer immigrants from Europe. The fertility rates of immigrant Latinas and U.S.-born Latinas were characterized as “high” and responsible for demographic changes occurring in the nation’s racial composition. For example, John Tanton—an ophthalmologist from Michigan who had been president of Zero Population Growth, a cofounder of the Federation for American Immigration Reform in 1979, and an ardent promoter of population control, restricting immigration, and making English the official language of the United States—wrote a now infamous memorandum in 1988 about Latina fertility and “the Latin onslaught.” He asked, “Will Latin American immigrants bring with them the tradition of the mordida (bribe), the lack of involvement in public affairs, etc.? Will the present majority peaceably hand over its political power to a group that is simply more fertile? … On the demographic point: Perhaps this is the first instance in which those with their pants up are going to get caught by those with their pants down!” (Conniff 1993, p. 24).

By the 1990s, “race” and “multiculturalism” had become dominant themes in U.S. public discourse about the changing composition of the nation’s population. For example, in its April 9, 1990, issue, Time magazine focused on the implications of the United States becoming a multiracial and multicultural society, with no single social group demographically dominant. As Time put it: “The “browning of America” will alter everything in society, from politics and education to industry, values and culture… . The deeper significance of America becoming a majority non-white society is what it means to the national psyche, to individuals” sense of themselves and the nation—their idea of what it is to be American.” (Henry 1990, p. 31).

Public concern over Latina reproduction has led to changes in public policy. Proposition 187, the “Save Our State” initiative on the 1994 California ballot, sought to control undocumented immigration by eliminating education, certain social services, and medical care for pregnant undocumented women and their children. Bette Hammond, one of the organizers of Proposition 187, explained the reason for the initiative: “They come here, they have their babies, and after that they become citizens and all those children use social services” (quoted in Kadetsky 1994, p. 418). Proposition 187 was passed overwhelmingly by the California voters, but most of its key components were later deemed unconstitutional by the courts. At about the same time, California’s governor, Pete Wilson, made denying undocumented immigrant women prenatal care a top priority of his administration. The 1996 federal welfare reform law also denied many medical and social services to immigrants, including women.

In 2004, Samuel P. Huntington, a professor at Harvard University, repeated what had become a three-decades-long national narrative about the threat posed by Latina fertility. Writing in Foreign Policy, Huntington noted: “In this new era, the single most immediate and most serious challenge to America’s traditional identity comes from the immense and continuing immigration from Latin America, especially from Mexico, and the fertility rates of those immigrants compared to black and white American natives” (Huntington 2004, p. 32).


The threat posed by Latina biological and social reproduction is central to the second theme in the public discourse: the Mexican “invasion,” or “reconquest,” of the southwestern United States. Key to this theme is evoking the ideology of the Quebec separatist movement, whereby French-speaking Canadians sought separation from English-speaking Canada. The Quebec separatist movement has provided the lens through which Mexican-origin population growth has been viewed (and its threat elaborated) over decades of public discourse. It is important to note that although the reconquest theme is repeated over and over, no empirical evidence for such a movement is provided.

The reconquest theme surfaced in the U.S. News & World Report’s December 13, 1976, issue, which featured the headline “Crisis across the Borders: Meaning to U.S.” The cover’s image is a map of North America with two arrows, both beginning in the United States, one pointing to Mexico and one pointing to Canada. The problem in Canada was Quebec, where many French-speaking residents were pushing for greater sovereignty and even separation from the English-speaking provinces. The problem in Mexico was the economic crisis and the pressure for increased migration to the United States.

The “Mexican invasion” theme has often been intertwined with Latina biological and social reproduction and the overuse by this population of social services. Both U.S. News & World Report (March 7, 1983) and Newsweek (June 25, 1984) published covers that serve as examples. U.S. News & World Report’s cover announced: “Invasion from Mexico: It Just Keeps Growing.” The image on the cover was a photograph of a line of men and women being carried by men across a canal of water. At the head of the line was a woman being carried to the United States on the shoulders of a man. Newsweek had a similar cover, a photographic image of a man carrying a woman across a shallow body of water. The woman is wearing a headscarf and a long shawl. The man carries the woman’s handbag, which suggests she is traveling somewhere, moving with a purpose and intending to stay for an extended amount of time. She holds a walking cane. The caption states: “Closing the Door? The Angry Debate over Illegal Immigration.”

Featuring women so prominently on the covers of these two national magazines and warning of an “invasion” sends a clear message about fertility and reproduction. Rather than an invading army, or even the stereotypical male migrant worker, the images suggest a more insidious invasion, one that includes the capacity of the invaders to reproduce themselves. The women being carried into U.S. territory carry with them the seeds of future generations. The images signal not simply a concern over undocumented workers, but also a concern with immigrants who stay and reproduce families and, by extension, communities in the United States. These images, and their accompanying articles, allude to issues of population growth and the use of prenatal care, children’s health services, education, and other social services related to reproduction.

Reproduction, immigration, and “reconquest” come together in U.S. News & World Report’s cover of August 19, 1985. Its headline announces: “The Disappearing Border: Will the Mexican Migration Create a New Nation?” The accompanying article provides a fully embellished rendition of the “reconquest” theme:

Now sounds the march of new conquistadors in the American Southwest.. . . By might of numbers and strength of culture, Hispanics are changing the politics, economy and language in the U.S. states that border Mexico. Their movement is, despite its quiet and largely peaceful nature, both an invasion and a revolt. At the vanguard are those born here, whose roots are generations deep, who long endured Anglo dominance and rule and who are ascending within the U.S. system to take power they consider their birthright. Behind them comes an unstoppable mass—their kin from below the border who also claim ancestral homelands in the Southwest, which was the northern half of Mexico until the U.S. took it away in the mid-1800s. (Lang and Thornton, p. 30)

In 2000, Samuel P. Huntington repeated the alarm of a Mexican reconquest when he wrote the following: “The invasion of over 1 million Mexican civilians is a comparable threat [as 1 million Mexican soldiers] to American societal security, and Americans should react against it with comparable vigor. Mexican immigration looms as a unique and disturbing challenge to our cultural integrity, our national identity, and potentially to our future as a country” (Huntington 2000, p. 22).

The persistent focus in popular discourse on immigration is on Latina fertility and reproduction (both biological and social). U.S.-born Latinas and Latin American immigrants, according to this discourse, have extreme, even dangerous, levels of fertility in comparison to an “imagined” native population.


The racialization of fertility and reproduction reinforces a characterization of white Americans as the legitimate Americans who are being supplanted demographically by less-legitimate Latinas. The characterization of Latina reproduction and fertility as a threat to U.S. society, culture, and demographic stability is one that has been repeated often and developed along various dimensions over many decades. These characterizations are propelled by powerful stereotypes that can make it difficult to perceive contrary evidence. Indeed, empirical data on Latina reproductive behavior may not be able to refute the deeply-held beliefs upon which these cataclysmic stories of threat, doom, and destruction are based.

However, it must be noted that Latinas are not static when it comes to fertility. Like other women in the United States, Mexico, and the world in general, Latinas have sometimes experienced rather dramatic declines in fertility. In Mexico, for example, fertility rates declined from 7 to 8 children per woman in the pre-1970 period to 4.4 children per woman in 1980, to 3.8 children in 1986, to 3.4 in 1990, and to 2.4 in 2000 (Hirsch 1998, pp. 540-541; Zuniga et al. 2000). In addition, declines in fertility are undoubtedly greater for younger Mexican women than these averages indicate.

In the United States, the fertility of Mexican-origin women has also declined dramatically. David Alvirez and Frank Bean associate this trend with urbanization and social mobility. The average size of Mexican-American families in 1970 was about one person larger than the 3.5 persons per family for all Americans at the time. By the late 1990s, all Mexican-origin women in the United States between 18 and 44 years of age had 1.81 children, well below the zero population level. Non-Hispanic white women between the same ages had 1.27 children at this time (Bean et al. 2000; Chavez 2004). When examining the fertility of the children of immigrants, second-generation, Mexican-American women had 1.4 children per woman in the late 1990s, much closer to the fertility of non-Hispanic white women (Bean, Swicegood, and Berg 2000). Moreover, research has shown that age, education, marital status and increasing facility with English are better than ethnicity (i.e., being Latina or non-Hispanic white) as predictors of whether women will have more or less children (Chavez 2004).

Despite such information, Latino reproduction is often viewed in the popular imagination as a threat, mainly because it is conflated with the decline in the reproduction of the white population. The specter of fewer white Americans and more Latinos in the United States is represented in ways that play to the fears of the general population. It is as if races are buckets, and that as one fills up the other drains out. The social and cultural construction of “races” posits firm boundaries between categories. But such boundaries are increasingly porous, intermixing, and disappearing. Perhaps the real threat of Latino reproduction is that it exposes the limitations and contradictions of racial categories that evolved during previous economic, social, and demographic contexts, but which no longer fit the realities of the early twenty-first century.

SEE ALSO Caribbean Immigration; Day Laborers, Latino; Illegal Alien; Immigrant Domestic Workers; Immigration, Race, and Women; Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 (IRCA); Immigration to the United States; Mexicans; Motherhood; Nativism.


Alvirez, David, and Frank D. Bean. 1976. “The Mexican American Family.” In Ethnic Families in America, edited by Charles H. Mindel and Robert N. Haberstein, 271–291. New York: Elsevier.

Bean, Frank D., C. Gray Swicegood, and Ruth Berg. 2000. “Mexican-Origin Fertility: New Patterns and Interpretations.” Social Science Quarterly 81: 404–420.

Chavez, Leo R. 1997. “Immigration Reform and Nativism: The Nationalist Response to the Transnationalist Challenge.” In Immigrants Out!: The New Nativism and the Anti-Immigrant Impulse in the United States, edited by Juan F. Perea, 61–77. New York: New York University Press.

_____. 2001. Covering Immigration: Popular Images and the Politics of the Nation. Berkeley: University of California Press.

_____. 2004. “A Glass Half Empty: Latina Reproduction and Public Discourse.” Human Organization 63 (2): 173–188.

Chock, Phyllis Pease. 1996. “No New Women: Gender, “Alien,” and “Citizen” in the Congressional Debate on Immigration.” Political and Legal Anthropology Review 19: 1–9.

Conniff, Ruth. 1993. “The War on Aliens: The Right Calls the Shots.” The Progressive 57: 22–29.

Fix, Michael E., and Jeffrey S. Passel. 1999. Trends in Noncitizens” and Citizens” Use of Public Benefits Following Welfare Reform: 1994-97. Washington, DC: Urban Institute.

Gerstle, Gary. 2004. “The Immigrant as Threat to American Security: A Historical Perspective.” In The Maze of Fear: Security and Migration After 9/11, edited by J. Tirman. New York: New Press.

Gould, Stephen J. 1981. The Mismeasure of Man. New York: Norton.

Gutiérrez, Elena Rebeca. 1999. “The Racial Politics of Reproduction: The Social Construction of Mexican-origin Women’s Fertility.” Ph.D. diss., University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.

Henry, William A., III. 1990. “Beyond the Melting Pot.” Time 135 (15).

Hirsch, Jennifer S. 1998. “Migration, Modernity, and Mexican Marriage: A Comparative Study of Gender, Sexuality, and Reproductive Health in a Transnational Community.” Ph.D. diss., Johns Hopkins University.

Hondagneu-Sotelo, Pierrette. 1995. “Women and Children First: New Directions in Anti-Immigrant Politics.” Socialist Review 25 (1): 169–190.

Huntington, Samuel P. 2000. “The Special Case of Mexican Immigration: Why Mexico is a Problem.” American Enterprise 11 (December): 20-22. Available from

_____. 2004. “The Hispanic Challenge.” Foreign Policy (March/April): 30–45.

Kadetsky, Elizabeth, 1994. “‘Save Our State” Initiative: Bashing Illegals in California.” The Nation 17 (October): 416–418.

Lang, John S., and Jeannye Thornton. 1985. “The Disappearing Border: Will the Mexican Migration Create a New Nation?” U.S. News & World Report. August 19: 30.

Lesher, Dave, and Patrick McDonnell. 1996. “Wilson Calls Halt to Much Aid for Illegal Immigrants.” Los Angeles Times, August 28.

Marks, Jonathan. 2002. What it Means to be 98% Chimpanzee: Apes, People, and Their Genes. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Roberts, Dorothy E. 1997. “Who May Give Birth to Citizens? Reproduction, Eugenics, and Immigration.” In Immigrants Out! The New Nativism and the Anti-Immigrant Impulse in the United States, edited by Juan F. Perea, 205–219. New York: New York University Press.

Wilson, Tamar D. 2000. “Anti-immigrant Sentiment and the Problem of Reproduction/Maintenance in Mexican Immigration to the United States.” Critique of Anthropology 20 (2): 191–213.

Zuniga, Elena, Beatriz Zubieta, and Cristina Araya. 2000. Cuadernos de salud reproductiva: Republica Mexicana. Mexico City: Consejo Nacional de la Poblacion.

Leo Chavez

About this article

Latina Gender, Reproduction, and Race

Updated About content Print Article