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In the eugenics era, Mexican American women were prime targets of sterilization in California

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Mary Franco, great aunt to Stacy Cordova-Diaz
Stacy Cordova-Diaz
Mary Franco, great aunt to Stacy Cordova-Diaz

Eight decades on, a Southern California family is still haunted by what happened at a Pomona institution in the 1930s.

In March 1934, 14-year-old Mary Franco's family handed her over to the Pacific Colony asylum — a facility set up by the State of California to house the "insane." Specialists there soon diagnosed her with "feeble-mindedness, tied to social deviance," and recommended a procedure known as a salpingectomy.

Two months later, her Fallopian tubes were removed. 

Eight decades on, Franco's story continues to haunt her family, says Stacy Cordova-Diaz. Franco was her great aunt. Before Franco passed in 1998, Cordova-Diaz interviewed her for a Chicano studies class. Franco's family was Mexican American.

"[She] shared that she was a wild young girl, and that her family didn't know what to do with her because she was very promiscuous, and that she was then sterilized," Cordova-Diaz says. "It really affected her entire life."

The reasons that landed Franco in an institution are murky. Cordova-Diaz says that her family was scared and didn't want another mouth to feed. But it's possible that the decision to sterilize wasn't entirely theirs. 


Franco was one of about 20,000 people sterilized in California institutions between the early 1920s and the 1950s. Once a patient was given to the state, administrators had the final word on sterilizations. It was a power granted to them by eugenics laws passed in the 1910s. At the time, sterilizations were seen as a cost-cutting measure; because many of those admitted to state facilities were poor or working class, officials believed that they could break the cycle of poverty and save the state money if they rendered a patient unable to reproduce. The reasons given for the procedures are often similar to those found in Franco's file. 

But new research into patient files from California facilities reveals that mental health wasn't the only circumstance doctors considered when deciding who to sterilize. In fact, after analyzing thousands of sterilization requests, researchers Natalie Lira and Nicole Novak concluded that the deciding factor in many instances came down to a patient's race. Among the most-affected: Mexican Americans. 

Using patient last names as a guide, Lira and Novak analyzed thousands of files. 

"Even after we accounted for the patients' ages and the time period when they lived, we still found that Latino men in state institutions were 23% more likely to be sterilized than non-Latino men, and the difference was even greater for Latina women, who were 59% more likely to be sterilized than non-Latina women," Novak says. 

Researcher Lira adds patients were unable to understand what was happening.

"We probably can say that a number of them didn't know," Lira says. 

The aftermath

Mary Franco's troubles didn't end after she was released from the asylum. 

"She had gotten married, and when the man she married found out she couldn't have children, he left her," Cordova-Diaz says. "She always felt that no one ever wanted to be with her because she couldn't have children."

Cordova-Diaz says Franco didn't go to baby showers and continued to face health complications from a "botched" surgery. 

Her great-aunt's pain ended with her, but in the family, she says conflicted feelings remain. Cordova-Diaz is hopeful that the new information coming out will bring healing. 

"To kind of put my mom at ease," she says. "No one knew how to handle this type of young lady... It was scary for them."

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