La Operación
Forced sterilization

by Kimberly Safford

from Jump Cut, no. 29, February 1984, pp. 37-38
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1984, 2005

"Over one-third of all Puerto Rican women of childbearing age have been sterilized. The procedure is so common that it is simply known as La Operación."
— sound track of LA OPERACIÓN

LA OPERACIóN is in many ways a standard documentary film, complete with maps, graphs, and talking heads. But right away what sets this film apart from other documentaries are the scenes of the actual surgery. While these scenes are extremely graphic and many in the audience are too queasy to watch, they are not included simply for shock value. The repeated cutting open, snipping, and sewing-up of women's bodies sear all the other parts of the film into one's memory, especially the interviews with the women themselves. The surgery sequences also unite the experiences of these women from different class backgrounds. Ana María García, who was born in Cuba and has lived in Puerto Rico for many years, included the surgery scenes for two reasons.

While they are, in her words, "gory," these scenes prevent "sterilization" from degenerating into a concept or an intellectualization. Unlike other documentaries in which there is a strike or some other kind of “action," the filmmaker was concerned that sterilization could have become “just this idea that people discuss." It was important, she says, that the audience would be able to see what sterilization is in a concrete way and FEEL what it means at a gut level. In this sense, the surgery scenes have a big impact on Puerto Rican audiences. More importantly, many women and men in Puerto Rico today, even young, educated people, still believe that the tubes are tied and the operation is reversible. Ana María García says,

"I want everyone who sees the film to come out knowing that the tubes are CUT."

The interviews with the women are handled with great care and respect. The filmmaker says,

"It was easy to find women who had been sterilized. It wasn't so easy to get them to talk about their experiences because it was often very painful for them. In many cases they would share personal experiences with me which they wouldn't want filmed."

At the same time, the film shows class differences among women. The programs aimed at bringing women into public birth control clinics target only the poor. One scene in LA OPERACIÓN follows a social worker from house to house, reminding women to visit the clinics. Teetering on high heels in the working-class front yards, she is shown as well meaning but patronizing, clearly out of place, intrusive.

As the filmmaker says, the film isn't just about sterilization. LA OPERACIÓN successfully shows sterilization as an integral part of U.S. policy in Puerto Rico, a futile attempt (along with emigration) to lower unemployment and decrease social tensions created by forced, rapid industrialization (Operation Bootstrap). However, as the film shows, all the problems attributed to "overpopulation" (unemployment, inadequate housing, poor nutrition, sub-standard healthcare and education) have never gone away. One mayor, in an interview in the film, proudly explains how nearly every woman in his town was sterilized. Gesturing to a group of men sitting idly, he explains,

"They are resting, while the women are working at the factory over there (for lower wages than men)."

Ana María García points out that, to Puerto Ricans, this mayor is a pathetic character. It was his party (in power from 1952 to 1968) which helped create and carry out Operation Bootstrap and the sterilization program. He embodies the idea of that kind of development for Puerto Rico, and it's obvious to most people on the Island that those programs have failed.

Screenings of the film have generated intense discussion, ranging from personal experiences to the political situation in Puerto Rico. LA OPERACIÓN is a good model for documentaries because it makes connections between government policies and personal lives, treating sterilization as a product of colonization. In Puerto Rico, the filmmaker says, the film hits very close to home:

“All the women interviewed could be you, your mother, your wife, your sister, your daughter, and your friend. One way or another this issue touches everyone's life."

(Go to interview with director, Ana María García)