In 1939 Sara Rosas Garcia sued the state of California because her 19-year-old daughter Andrea Garcia was recommended for eugenic sterilization by state authorities. At the time Andrea was a ward of the Los Angeles Juvenile Court, which had determined that her “feebleminded” condition warranted institutionalization and reproductive surgery.
Although no longer her child’s legal guardian, Sara nevertheless went to great efforts to forestall Andrea’s sterilization. In doing so Sara became the only person to ever challenge the constitutionality of California’s eugenic sterilization statute during the nine decades it was on the books.
During the twentieth century 32 U.S. states passed eugenic legislation that mostly was applied to inmates in state-run hospitals and reformatories. By the 1970s these policies had resulted in the deprivation of the procreative capacity of over 60,000 persons that were deemed biologically and socially unfit.
California holds the ignominious distinction of being the nation’s most aggressive sterilizer. The Golden State’s eugenics program illustrates how racial, disability, and reproductive injustice intersected in harsh and far-reaching ways that violated basic civil rights and bodily integrity, and left lasting marks of shame and stigma. Andrea Garcia was one of more than 20,000 people affected by California’s sterilization law, which was in place from 1909 to 1979.
The sparse historical records related to Andrea Garcia indicate that juvenile authorities designated her a ward of the state at the cusp of adulthood because of school truancy and sexual dalliances. These offenses, coupled with an I.Q. score of 46 (which ranked her in the “high imbecile grade”), prompted the juvenile court to commit her to Pacific Colony, a hospital for the “feebleminded” in Pomona that had opened in the late 1920s. In Andrea’s case institutionalization and sterilization went hand in hand, two pillars of a racialized system of reproductive regulation that disproportionately affected young women and Latina/os.[i]
Eleven days after her daughter’s court-ordered commitment, Sara sued the state of California, challenging the constitutionality of the sterilization statute. At the time she was a widow with nine children aged 2 to 19. Born Sara Rosas in Deming, New Mexico, in 1903, she had traveled west to Los Angeles with her husband, Guillermo “Willie” Garcia, via Phoenix and then Brawley in the Imperial Valley, where Willie, a farm laborer, died of pneumonia in the 1930s. After becoming a widow, Sara moved to a residential street in Boyle Heights where she juggled several jobs to keep her family afloat, often asking relatives to look after her children while she worked long hours.
Through the Mexican consulate Sara found David C. Marcus, who provided her with pro bono legal counsel. A Jewish attorney trained at the University of Southern California, Marcus dedicated himself to civil rights causes, most involving Latina/os. During an era of palpable antisemitism in southern California, which limited options for legal practice, Marcus found a position as a consulting attorney at the consulate. His proximity to Mexicanidad became personal when he married a Mexican woman with whom he raised four shared children, as well as one child from a previous marriage, in a bilingual household.
As Genevieve Carpio shows, in the 1940s Marcus was lead counsel on cases that tested racial housing covenants, restrictions from public and recreational facilities, and school segregation.[ii] Indeed, he is best known for litigating Mendez v. Westminster (1947), which successfully challenged racial segregation in California’s public school system. Arguing many cases for his Latina/o clients against the global backdrop of Nazism’s rise, Marcus was acutely aware of the prevalence and reach of eugenic ideas in southern California. In Mendez, for example, he reproached a school district superintendent for exhibiting “an attitude of racial superiority such as that of Hitler” towards Latina/o students.
Thus, when Sara Rosas Garcia asked Marcus to represent Andrea in court, Andrea’s experience must have struck a chord. She had been labeled a “mentally deficient, sex delinquent girl” based on a low I.Q. score, an assessment that her parents and siblings were similarly “subnormal” and “deficient,” and a description of her home as “unfit.” Like many Mexican-origin people who became caught in the net of state welfare authorities, Andrea and her entire family were painted with a eugenic brush of deficiency and delinquency.
In the petition filed with the Second District Court of Appeal in Los Angeles, Marcus argued that California’s sterilization law, which gave authorities the power to perform reproductive surgeries on persons “afflicted with hereditary insanity or incurable chronic mania or dementia,” was unconstitutional. He charged that it contravened the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution by violating the “fundamental and inalienable right of said minor, Andrea Garcia, to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” [iii] In addition, it violated the equal protection and due process clauses of both the federal and California constitutions. Particularly egregious, the law did not allow for any hearing, notice, or appeal, and granted unchecked power to administrative authorities.
A three-judge panel decided against Sara Rosas Garcia. While two judges upheld the law without comment, the remaining judge simultaneously issued a fierce dissent, concurring with the petition and underscoring that the lack of an appeal process for inmates was a “probable violation of the due process clause of the federal Constitution.”[iv]
Despite this legal loss, as Natalie Lira and I argue elsewhere, Sara Rosas Garcia’s lawsuit should be understood as a critical facet of incipient struggles for Mexican-American civil rights and reproductive justice in mid-century California.[v]
It is no coincidence that a working-class, Mexican-American mother was the only person to dispute the constitutionality of California’s sterilization law in court. Likely a combination of protective maternal instinct, Catholic allegiance, and political savvy prompted Sara to seek legal aid at the Mexican consulate, where she met firebrand David Marcus. Moreover, the context of Boyle Heights, a multiethnic neighborhood where Jewish, Mexican, and Japanese residents interacted on a daily basis, facilitated Sara’s legal fight.[vi]
As a trailblazer Sara was in good company. Mexican-origin parents spearheaded resistance against state-sanctioned sterilization of their children, thousands of whom were committed to state homes and hospitals and labeled as feebleminded and unfit. Many parents refused to sign consent forms for the procedure, wrote poignant letters explaining their opposition to court and juvenile officers, and sought representation from Catholic priests and Mexican consular officials.
Records are equivocal on whether Sara’s efforts spared Andrea from the procedure. Andrea’s consent form for reproductive surgery was signed in 1941, apparently by Sara and two witnesses, one from the Los Angeles Police Department and another from the Los Angeles City Schools. Yet on the index card used by state superintendents to record both the date of the sterilization recommendation and the date of the actual operation, the latter is missing. Perhaps news of the lawsuit gave the medical superintendent pause and shielded Andrea from surgery, or perhaps the date simply was not recorded because of a clerical lapse.
Whatever the outcome, Andrea eventually was released from Pacific Colony. She did not have any children, although she did marry in 1959. By that time some members of the Rosas Garcia family had moved north, to San Luis Obispo County. Sara remarried and lived in the agricultural town of Nipomo. She died in 1987, and Andrea died in 2008. Today they are buried, along with three of Andrea’s siblings and her stepfather, in Santa Maria Cemetery.
Long forgotten, Sara Rosas Garcia should come “out of the shadows,” to use Vicki Ruiz’s evocative phrase.[vii] She should be remembered with care and solemnity as a courageous mother and as one of the thousands of individuals, families, and communities affected by California’s eugenics policies in the twentieth century.
It is also crucial to recognize that this newfound visibility can unearth pain and intergenerational trauma. Much of what I know about the personalities and emotional lives of Sara and Andrea comes from the sole family member that my research team was able to locate after extensive sleuthing. This elderly and very lucid relative, one of Andrea’s eight siblings, returned my phone call and proceeded to share memories of her brothers and sisters, mother, and aunts, and about her father’s death. Yet after about twenty minutes she told me that we had talked long enough and she wanted to wrap up the conversation because “it’s too painful.” This persistent pain is an intrinsic part of California’s sterilization stories and of the contemporary legacy of eugenics, particularly among Mexican-origin people who bore the brunt of institutionalization and sterilization.[viii]
Alexandra Minna Stern is a professor of American culture and history, women’s studies, and obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Michigan. She is the author of Eugenic Nation: Faults and Frontiers of Better Breeding in Modern America, 2nd edition (2015) and Telling Genes: The Story of Genetic Counseling in America (2012). She is also an OAH Distinguished Lecturer.
[i] Miroslava Chávez-García, States of Delinquency: Race and Science in the Making of California’s Juvenile Justice System (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012).
[ii] Genevieve Carpio, “David C. Marcus and His Impact on the Advancement of Civil Rights in the Mexican-American Legal Landscape of Southern California,” The Jewish Role in American Life (2012), 1-32.
[iii] Sara Rosas Garcia v. State Department of Institutions of the State of California, et al. (1939).
[v] Natalie Lira and Alexandra Minna Stern, “Resisting Reproductive Injustice in California: Mexican Americans and Eugenic Sterilization, 1920-1950,” Aztlán 39:2 (2014), 9-34.
[vi] See George J. Sanchez, “”What’s Good for Boyle Heights Is Good for the Jews”: Creating Multiculturalism on the Eastside during the 1950s,” American Quarterly 56:3 (2004), 633-661.
[vii] Vicki L. Ruiz, From Out of the Shadows: Mexican Women in Twentieth-Century America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008).
[viii] Nicole Novak, Natalie Lira, Kate O’Connor, and Alexandra Minna Stern. “Ethnic Bias in California’s Eugenic Sterilization Program, 1920-1945.” PSC Research Report No. 16-866. June 2016, available at: http://www.psc.isr.umich.edu/pubs/abs/10507.