Rodríguez, Evangelina (1879–1947)
Rodríguez, Evangelina (1879–1947)
Dominican Republic family planning advocate, educator, social reformer, and her nation's first woman physician, who risked her life on countless occasions opposing the Trujillo dictatorship. Name variations: Evangelina Rodriquez; Andrea Evangelina Rodríguez Perozo. Born out of wedlock as Andrea Evangelina Rodríguez Perozo in Higuey, Dominican Republic, in 1879; died in San Pedro de Macoris, Dominican Republic, on January 11, 1947; University of the Dominican Republic, medical degree, 1909; attended University of Paris, graduating in 1925; never married; children: one adopted daughter, Selisete.
Became the first Dominican woman physician (1909); studied in France (1921–25); after returning home, worked to improve the lives of the poor, particularly women.
Evangelina Rodríguez began her life in extremely unpromising circumstances in 1879 in Higuey, Dominican Republic; she was born female, out of wedlock, and of part-African descent. As an infant, she was first abandoned by her mother; then her father abandoned her, passing her back to her mother. Evangelina's grandmother provided her with shelter and some emotional support, but life was hard for the young girl, who along with her grandmother earned a precarious living by selling gofio, a sweet made from ground corn and sugar, on the streets of their town. Although her impoverished and illiterate father, who worked in the sugar cane industry, would occasionally visit her, Evangelina never was able to discover anything about her mother, who disappeared from her life without a trace.
Rodríguez grew up in San Pedro de Macoris, which at that time was the most important city in the Dominican Republic. Although officially abolished, de facto slavery still existed, and a highly segregated society based on skin color and racial identity determined virtually all aspects of life. To resist these discriminations, Afro-Dominicans practiced solidarity, and a number of organizations enabled them to survive as a community. A black ladies' social club embracing all classes showed interest in Evangelina, who from her earliest years gave evidence of being both intelligent and ambitious. By selling gofio, Rodríguez was able to buy supplies for primary school, where tuition was free. Secondary school, however, represented a major hurdle, but good fortune intervened. A private secondary school for girls had recently opened its doors. Though its high tuition made it impossible for Rodríguez, the school's headmistress, Anacaona Moscoso , found her a job teaching adult literacy classes at a local night school, thus enabling her both to subsist and pay tuition.
After completing her secondary schooling, Rodríguez continued her work as a teacher. Then in October 1903, she began to study medicine at the University of the Dominican Republic. She received her medical degree in 1909, the first woman in the Dominican Republic to achieve this. Since there were sufficient doctors already practicing in San Pedro de Macoris, Rodríguez chose to begin her career in the small town of Ramon Santana. Here, confronted with poverty and social injustice, she treated poor patients free of charge or for the few centavos they could spare. Rodríguez also handed out great quantities of medicine for free, realizing that her patients simply could not afford them. For over a decade, she treated the poor, saving little money with which to make possible her professional dream, of embarking on more advanced studies in the specialized areas of gynecology and pediatrics.
During her years in Ramon Santana, Rodríguez became more politically aware as she witnessed the exploitation of peasants and sugar-cane workers, both by the local white elite caste and by U.S. corporations which took over the most valuable land in the area. In later years, she would also clash with the one individual who in her eyes embodied all the evils besetting her destitute nation, the dictator Rafael Trujillo.
In 1921, having finally saved sufficient funds, Rodríguez sailed for France, where she studied gynecology, obstetrics, and pediatrics at the University of Paris, graduating in 1925. Once back in the Dominican Republic, she worked even more effectively with her indigent patients, treating their illnesses, delivering their babies, and offering medical counsel. Increasingly aware of the social roots of many illnesses, she also moved into the area of social work. An alarmingly high incidence of sexually transmitted illnesses convinced her that prevention was almost always a more desirable strategy than cure. She began to visit local prostitutes where they worked, giving them advice and free medical treatment. As a result, Rodríguez found herself at the storm center of criticism and opposition by local conservative elements, especially the Roman Catholic clergy who condemned the "immoral and sinful" nature of her philosophy of medicine, in particular her advocacy of birth control and family planning. Her response to administering to prostitutes was uncompromising: "Yes, I go there; they are not bad women, they are just poor women who cannot find other work."
By the 1930s, when the Trujillo dictatorship was establishing an iron grip on the Dominican Republic, Rodríguez was using her hours away from her medical practice to actively participate in a small but vigorous women's movement. Advocating women's suffrage and broad social and economic reforms, Dominican feminists published a journal, Femina, to which Rodríguez contributed articles. She also published poetry in local journals and newspapers, and even wrote a novel entitled Selisete, named after her adopted daughter. By the late 1930s, Rodríguez had become an outspoken opponent of the Trujillo dictatorship—something that endangered her life and cost her many friendships and potential allies in her medical mission to assist the poor. Her political consciousness, already significantly raised during her years of study in France, was further sharpened by contacts with Republican refugees from the Spanish Civil War, who brought to the Dominican Republic radical notions of social change, including plans for peasant emancipation based on agrarian reform and an agrarian bank system.
Then tragedy struck. Rodríguez began to show signs of mental illness, probably paranoid schizophrenia. Eventually, she neglected herself physically and became ever more defiant of those who had long chosen to ostracize her for her radical views. Mocked for being an "ugly black woman," she retaliated by flaunting her Afro-Dominican heritage, no longer straightening her hair but braiding it in Afro style. She now chose to dress in the fashion of poor black women, and wore men's shoes instead of the high heels favored by the upper classes of the island. As Rodríguez's illness progressed, her adopted daughter's father arrived to take her into his own home. "I get poison pen letters under my door," she said. "Even in the street when I pass by, people throw insults at me." Although the torments did not seem to break her spirit, in private she confessed to a friend that the taunts did hurt deeply, "For them I'm either kept by a man or not interested in men." Like so many Dominican women, Rodríguez had been scarred by a machismo culture profoundly destructive of the essential humanity of half of the nation's population.
In 1946, a massive strike of sugar-cane workers in the eastern part of the Dominican Republic seriously threatened the stability of the Trujillo dictatorship. Trujillo's response was typically brutal. He sent some of his most notorious enforcers to San Pedro and La Romana, where pro-strike was strongest. Several strike leaders were arrested and hanged in public, with their bodies left suspended for days to serve as a deterrent to any further labor militancy. Because of her well-known opposition to Trujillo, the regime sent out agents to find the mentally impaired
but still defiant Rodríguez, whom it called a "Communist instigator of a workers' rebellion." The order was given that she be found dead or alive. Eventually she was found, on one of the long treks she often made on foot between the towns of Pedro Sanchez and Miches. Taken to San Pedro, she was mercilessly interrogated, finally being released on a deserted track near Hato Mayor. For a woman already suffering from mental illness, malnutrition, and exhaustion, this would be a mortal blow. On January 11, 1947, Rodríguez died in San Pedro de Macoris, much mourned by thousands of her poor patients who had remained loyal to her even as she wasted away in both mind and body. The Dominican Republic honored Evangelina Rodríguez by depicting her on a commemorative postage stamp issued on September 26, 1985.
"Evangelina Rodriguez 1879–1947," in People [London]. Vol. 19, no. 1, 1992, p. 21.
Huston, Perdita. Motherhood by Choice: Pioneers in Women's Health and Family Planning. NY: The Feminist Press, 1992.
Zaglul, Antonio. Despreciada en la Vida y Olvidada en la Muerte: Biografía de Evangelina Rodríguez, la Primera Médica Dominicana. Santo Domingo: Editora Taller, 1980.
John Haag , Associate Professor of History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia