Midwifery, Medicine and Baby Food Politics (Claudia Serrato)

This presentation was delivered in 2013 during the first Sistah Vegan Conference, focusing on “Embodied and Critical Perspectives on Veganism by Black Women and Allies”.
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Breeze: This presentation will be given by Claudia Serrato – and Claudia is enrolled at the University of Washington in America and her talk is titled, “Midwifery, Medicine and Baby Food Politics: Underground Feminisms and Indigenous Plant-Based Foodways and Nutrition”. And I had the pleasure of actually co-presenting with Claudia, a few months ago in Oregon, and to hear what her work was about and just really blown away, which is why I asked her to share her work. So Claudia, if you’re ready, please present to the audience who you are, what you’re all about and I’m going to put myself on mute now…

Claudia: Good. So good afternoon and thank you all for listening in. And thank you Doctor Amie Breezie for creating this cyber web-space for us today to share and reflect and listen to one another. And so yes, my name is Claudia Serrato, and I am a mother of two, a Doctoral Student of Sociocultural and Medical Anthro, and I am the founder of Decolonial Food For Thought.

I am a practicing vegan and I do walk the red road. So I’m invested in my cultural and spiritual ways living and being, and am influenced strongly by my elders in my community. And I join you all this afternoon in the most humble way, as I share a herstory of a crossroads Meso-American ethno-medicine has encountered, which has impacted community health and midwifery practices in the City of East Los Angeles and Boyle Heights.

So I begin this herstory of food, womb, and infant-toddler health, colonization and healing by thanking our ancestors and our bodies for keeping our genetic memory strong and resilient. And so my talk is going to sound like it is taking a shift in what we’ve been talking about, but I hope that you see how interrelated this work is and what it is that I’m going to share.

And so I will begin: In between the vast foothills, grand rocky mountains and canyons, valleys with deserts, national forests and sandy beaches, indigenous Mexican midwives, during the early 20th century, were under direct attack by white racist women health reformers who used them, their traditions and practices, and ways of knowing, as inferior by disregarding their ethno-centric, ethno-nutrition and ethno-gynecological knowledge, framing it as illegitimate medicine and an illegal practice.

East Los Angeles and Boyle Heights were both, and I want to add are still, a community of undocumented, citizenized, and native-born indigenous Mexicans, whose way of living and being were counter-culture to white dominant society – particularly in their eating, feeding and birthing practices. The majority of families birth their babies at home, with the midwife, and follow the midwife’s prenatal lactation and plant-based feeding advice, which consisted of: drinking teas, herbs and spices, along with eating beans, rice, grains, vegetables, polentas and seeds – which are all common to the Mexican diet.

As an under-developed community with little access to water and sewer services, family and the baby – despite eating and nourishing on a plant-based Mexican diet – became ill due to the hazardous environmental conditions. Babies began to die, causing a high infant mortality rate. This particular tragedy became an opportunity to blame the indigenous Mexican midwife for the death of the infant, due to the belief that they lacked scientific knowledge, birthing technology and most importantly prenatal and lactation nutrition education – which the families living in these urban barrios trusted.

So where the U.S. transnational immigrant communities brought their own midwife with them – who were familiar with the pregnant woman’s culture, beliefs, diet and needs – White House reformers saw fit to assist medical lobbyists in support of the displacement of traditional midwives, for they had too much of an influence on the preservation of traditional prenatal, breastfeeding and infant-toddler feeding practices, which did not advance the medicalization and Americanization projects taking place in East Los Angeles and Boyle Heights.

Already under the colonial and political gaze these forces organized to eliminate the traditional midwife from the medical landscape. And in 1902, the city had passed a motion ordering all midwive’s to pass a moral character test. Unsatisified with this exam as a way to filter out indigenous Mexican midwives, the white health reformers pressured the state to pass an ordinance in 1910, legalizing midwifery only by permit. And during this time, the American industrial revolution conveyor belt began to move quickly in the processing of mass produced foods.

So two years after the ordinance, at the American Medical Association Conference, an infant formula company pitched their breast milk alternative as a supplemental for infants, which physicians were to prescribe to nursing mothers counter to their own beliefs. And believing that dairy formula was the best supplemental for babies, reformers in support of medicalization pressed for more initiative that would require all midwives to be licensed and accredited by formal schooling. This was to assure that the growing health profession and nutrition services would dominate the Mexican palette, and moreso, the indigenous Mexcian prenatal, birthing and feeding experience with an Americanized version counter to the indigenous Mexican midwives culturally nutritional plant-based advice.

One reformer set out laws that would grant white privileged, upper-class women midwifery power over indigenous Mexican midwives, as they would be able to provide their services, influenced by biomedicine, introduce formula and educate immigrants on how to prepare American meals on the grounds that these foods were more nutritious than traditional Mexican plant-based foods. White nurses actually entered the homes of Mexican families and provided cooking classes using processed canned foods and modern conventional cooking techniques as a way to push these families from eating their beans and frijoles – as one nurse had reported, not knowing that these were both one and the same. They lacked cultural awareness and had no understanding of the indigenous Mexican plant-based cultural diet, nor understood the importance of such a diet to pregnancy, birth and feeding – along with its historical, ceremonial and spiritual significance. 

Reformer’s goal was simply to Americanize these traditions and diet, creating the dependency on traditional midwifery. The indigenous Mexican midwives became what is known as the Midwife Problem – which was introduced at the AMA conference of 1923, which brought rise to a new relationship between pharmacists, physicians and baby food industries such as Nestle. And working together to rid these midwives from the total medical landscape. This took on more force as physicians entered the business of midwifery in 1927 by attending home births in East Los Angeles and Boyle Heights – which was also known as the Midwife District.

By 1930, doctors and infant food companies working relationship became the business of medicine over the practice of medicine, and endorsed all white reformer initiatives in dominating pregnancy and womb and infant-toddler health. This became a go-ahead for baby food representatives to attend AMA conference panels and advertise their process and animal-based by-products in medical journals, as best for food while doctors prescribed and endorsed these infant feeding products to the general public.

These tactics, along with the new California Department of Health legislation, made midwifery without a license illegal by 1945, decreasing indigenous Mexican midwifery practices which concurrently resulted in the beginning of mass dietary changes and pronounced health outcomes to the indigenous Mexican communities of East Los Angeles and Boyle Heights.

I am going to excuse myself for a quick second – my neighbors are playing the guitar and I can hear them through my window so I am going to close my window – I’m so sorry for this. Okay – let me return now.

So this defeat was met with resistance in both brown and white ally communities, and did not stop the practice of midwifery without a license. Indigenous Mexican midwives simply stayed below the radar as they continued to practice their profession as ethno-obstetricians, ethno-nutritionists and ethno-gynecologists, while radical whites organized through political lobbying while others attempted to de-medicalize or decolonize pregnancy and childbirth, and stop formula advertising in the Global South.

Despite attempts for a white birth movement counter to heteronormative medical practices, medical hierarchy flourished where control went from physicians to administrators to the hospitalization of birth, where it became the dominant norm. By 1988, the majority of births were obstetrician-assisted and infants from three months and older, birthed in a hospital without a midwife, drank formula and ate processed baby food – bringing in over 1.3 billion dollars in the baby food market.

Presently, there are current political debates, you know, concerning financing and
the regulating of health care, and decisions about birth between women and healthcare workers playing less of a role than do manage-care companies and state legislators. What is the most concern here though is the continued rise in health disparities among second and third generation of low-income families of color, particularly when they assimilate from their cultural ethno-diet or indigenous diet into the standard American diet. This has been particularly witnessed as more and more Mexican families began to fall victim to the manipulation of reformers abandoning indigenous Mexican midwifery, prenatal, lactation and infant-toddler feeding advice.

So counter to this local, national and now global, colonial legacy, younger generations of indigenous midwives residing in the inner city of Los Angeles, despite the legislative history of racial discrimination, continue to practice the art of midwifery from below with an emphasis on holistic healing and cultural nutrition, which includes eating a plant-based diet, womb healing, reconnecting with the land’s energy and learning how to cook and eat – reviving cultural memory which are important to the continuum of Mesoamerican civilization, community health and ethno-medicine, or red medicine.

Unfortunately, not all health practitioners of red medicine have access to pursue formal nursing degrees, or institutionalized midwifery programs, in becoming legal midwives. Therefore, they are bound to practice midwifery as a means of subsistence without legal and medical recognition – which is a vital importance for community and cultural survival in today’s day and age.

Alternative studies indicate staggering benefits to midwifery – these include: affordability, accessibility, individualized care, self sense of empowerment, risk management, decrease in infant mortality and emergency cesarean procedures, and most importantly, the cultivation of healthy communities through implementation of cultural food and nutritional advice for all the stages of the birthing experience.

And I would like to point out, that here healthy communities is inclusive of all life and all of my relations – so it is inclusive of land, water, plants, even animals, so when I speak of community, I’m not just speaking of humans. Unfortunately, the indigenous midwife experience continues to be silenced by privileging a white Eurocentric perspective, as well as acknowledging popular midwifery as traditional without critical scrutiny of its midwifery heuristic tendencies.

This is why Patrisia Gonzales’ work on “Traditional Indigenous Rites of Birthing and Healing” is critical as it introduces a decolonial and reindigenized framework, allowing young scholars like myself to bring into the critical food studies discourse the important and vital role of indigenous midwifery nutrition, or ethno-nutrition, into the center of an often native, critical food studies and critical animal studies discourse,  where it opens up a new discussion on what I call Indigenous Veganism: which challenges and disrupts dominant vegan ideologies of compassionate eating, environmental ethics and animals – humans included – and ecological relations, which are already key principles of living, or as some reference, as traditional ecological knowledge – so this is not something new.

In returning to the recent resurgency of indigenous midwifery in the US, and in East Los Angeles and Boyle Heights, it is interesting that dominant discourse and medicine continually direct the vital roles, despite all evidence performed by indigenous midwives as ethno-obstetricians, ethno-gynecologists, and ethno-nutritionists, along with the recognition of the traditional birthing technology used, which are critical to an indigenous womb ecology, which preserves and maintains a cultural taste-memory of a plant-based diet or indigenous veganism, is healing to all communities, the baby body and critical to the survival of a civilization.

In honoring my relations, and in raising awareness, presently in Los Angeles, licensed and unlicensed urban indigenous midwives provide affordable reproductive healthcare, birthing and prenatal nutrition services to low-income women and trans men of color. Subject to biomedical institutionalized birthing services and legislation to rid the traditional midwife, this is a herstorical point of recovery and healing within the continuum of ethno-medicine in the city of Los Angeles.

My work, as a community health educator and ally, is to continue raising awareness to the critical importance of an indigenous plant-based diet, or indigenous veganism, and its ecological and cosmological affects onto the womb and taste-memory of our community, and to continue supporting all indigenous midwifery cultural nutritional ways of knowing, which are accountable to all of our relations and to the generations to come.

And so that is what I have to share for my segment, and I am open to questions, comments. I’d be more than happy to read through some of the chat postings – I had to actually switch my screen and signal out to my son to take care of my daughter, because she woke up from her one hour nap.

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