Cut, no. 29, February 1984, pp. 38-39
López: Why did you make your first film about the sterilization of Puerto Rican women?
García: One reason for my taking up the theme of sterilization had a lot to do with the eruption of this issue between 1974 and 1976, both in Puerto Rico and in the United States. It was a time when sterilization was a very hot topic, and I always wanted to make my first film about Puerto Rico. I also chose sterilization because it deals with life, with reproduction, with children — all very important issues in peoples lives, that touch me deeply.
In 1974, Puerto Rican politicians of every stripe spoke before the United Nations to present the case of genocide on the island. At that time, more than one-third (35%) of all Puerto Rican women had been sterilized. By 1981 it was 39%. These rates were actually developed on paper in 1968, but it wasn't until 6 years later that they were fully realized. In 1974, the Puerto Rican Health Department created an auxiliary section of Family Planning headed by Antonio Silva. Silva's department was to direct an extremely aggressive program of population control. Its explicit aim was to lower the birth rate, unlike other family planning programs which were designed to contribute to mothers' health.
In this program, sterilization played a particularly intense role. All the goals were superceded. The original goal of the program was 5,000 sterilizations per year (this was confirmed by Silva in a New York Times interview). In fact, over 1,000 women were sterilized each month in public hospitals alone. The same "service" was also offered in private facilities and was covered by medical insurance. Pro-independence leaders and the Catholic Church began to sound the alarm. Cardinal Augusto Martinez wrote editorials in several newspapers, pointing the finger at Silva. The then opposition party also opposed sterilization — ironically today it's operating the same program, although not on such a massive scale.
The film really isn't just about sterilization, although that is its focus. Its wider context is the colonization of Puerto Rico and the politics of population control. Sterilization and emigration were the results of a political and economic situation forced on Puerto Rico by the United States.
López: When did the sterilization program actually begin?
García: In 1937 a law was approved permitting sterilization for health and economic reasons. This law was primarily aimed at low-income women. Certain laws already existed allowing the dissemination of birth control information. But before these laws went into effect, there was a great public controversy which began around 1920 about what was called "Neo-Malthusianism" in Puerto Rico. The idea was laid out that the island was "over-populated" and this "over-population" had to be controlled. When Operation Bootstrap began, Puerto Rico suffered a rapid transformation of its economy. Unemployment skyrocketed and an outlet was needed for the burgeoning workforce. To achieve this, sterilization was consciously developed as a long-term solution (by lowering the birth rate) and emigration was encouraged as a short-term solution.
López: As you demonstrate in the film, many women who were sterilized were poorly informed about the consequences of the operation. But there are others who consciously chose sterilization as a contraceptive measure. How do you interpret this?
García: These women were responding to a series of conditions in their personal lives, as well as to the situation in Puerto Rico. The radical transformation of the island's economy was done in a very short period of time. This disrupted people's lives. At the same time, sterilization was legal and accessible. You could find it around the corner, sold as commonly and cheaply as fresh bread. This pushed women towards certain choices. Also, there weren't many other contraceptive options. The best-known contraceptives were the diaphragm and spermicides, which often aren't used very effectively and aren't very attractive to many Hispanic women. I can only speculate that sterilization gave some women the opportunity to take control of their lives under circumstances in which — because of their condition as women in a colonized situation — control of their lives was in someone else's hands.
López: As for the structure of the film — the montage you create combining four own filmed sequences and fragments from archival footage is reminiscent of certain documentaries by Santiago Alvarez. How have you been influenced by Cuban cinema?
García: I have always admired the work of Santiago Alvarez and I think I have seen almost all of his films, as well as many other Cuban documentaries. As a matter of fact, when I began work on LA OPERACIóN, one of the things I did (as a self-teaching method) to learn how to make documentaries was to screen all the Cuban films at Unifilm. I analyzed the thematic structure, the camera and editing techniques, the sound track, and I learned a lot that way.
There is a quality of Cuban film which I feel I haven't been able to develop yet. For example, in the documentary POR PRIMERA VEZ by Octavio Cortazar, the filmmaker extracts a poetic quality from the situation. I don't think I have achieved this in LA OPERACIÓN, whose character is more journalistic. But that is one of the aspects of Cuban film I most admire. I have discussed this with the Cuban filmmaker Jesús Díaz. He calls that poetic quality "take one"-capturing a situation by intuition. You don't know beforehand what you'll find, it's not a preconceived situation, but something you must shoot at that moment or lose forever.
López: Don't you think that the opening sequence of LA OPERACIÓN, the moment of giving birth, is a "take one"?
García: It could be, although the birth scene was already "programmed" into the film. What you see in 55 HERMANOS and EN TIERRA DE SANDINO are unforeseen situations, and I hope to film in that way in the future.
López: Tell us about the public response in the places where the film has been shown.
García: The first place where the final version of LA OPERACIÓN was shown was the festival in Valladolid, Spain, in 1982. It was part of a program of 35 independent North American films. After the screening, there was a talk between the audience (and it was a rather large one) and myself. It became pretty heated, because the discussion turned towards the colonization of Puerto Rico and the audience was divided on this issue. One of the intentions of the film is to do just that — to go beyond the issue of sterilization. After that, the film was shown at the Spanish Cinemateca in Madrid, at the film festival in Mérida, Venezuela, and at the 4th Festival of New Latin American Cinema in Havana where it won the 3rd prize in the documentary category.
In Puerto Rico, the opening of LA OPERACIÓN was sponsored by a group of ten unions, including the National Association of Public Employees which represents healthcare workers and the Working Women's' Organization. The fact that all these groups sponsored the screening shows that they consider the film important. The film has been shown in various universities, in squatters' barrios such as Villa Sin Miedo and Juan Matos en Cataño, at the Lawyers' College, and in a commercial theater where it opened a weeklong program of Puerto Rican film. Certain scenes were also shown on a popular television program. I heard it had a big impact on TV and that many people called in asking to see the entire film.
López: Films like LA OPERACIÓN and the soon-to-be-released OPERACIÓN MANOS A LA OBRA (OPERATION BOOTSTRAP) examine important social and historic events in Puerto Rico with a critical consciousness. Are these films part of a continuous tradition in Puerto Rican cinema, or are they a new trend?
García: LA OPERACIÓN and OPERACIÓN MANOS Á LA OBRA don't break any new ground. Puerto Rican cinema of social content has roots in several different bases. Some documentaries have been produced by the Community Education Division, and while they aren't openly political and don't challenge the established order, they do reflect certain realities of Puerto Rican life. One can point to the work of José García, who has made documentaries about the Nationalists, Julia de Burgos, and Manifest Destiny; the films of Diego de la Tejera about Culebra and his better-known EL SALVADOR, EL PUEBLO VENCERÁ; EL ARRESTO by Luis Rosario Quiles, about the repression of the Nationalists in Puerto Rico, especially Pedro Albizu Campos during the 1950's; DIOS LOS CRIA by Jacobo Morales, one of the first fiction films about certain lifestyles in Puerto Rico today; and PUERTO RICO, PARADISE INVADED by a Brazilian with the help of José García. As you can see, there are varied precedents within this current tendency of Puerto Rican filmmaking.
DISTRIBUTION OF FILMS
(Go to review of La Operación)