Latina Turns Teenage Shame Into Reproductive Health Activism

Vanessa Gonzalez Plumhoff, Planned Parenthood Federation of America
Vanessa Gonzalez Plumhoff, Planned Parenthood Federation of America Director of Latino Engagement Planned Parenthood Federation of America

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When Vanessa Gonzalez-Plumhoff was a teenager she went to a public health clinic in her small southern Texas town for a routine exam and contraceptives. Somehow the next day everyone in school found out that she’d gotten birth control. She recalls being humiliated for taking control of her sexual health. Today, the married mother of a two-year-old daughter uses the experience to fuel her work on behalf of Latinas nationwide.

“Those moments stay with you,” said Gonzalez-Plumhoff, 37, Director of Latino Engagement at Planned Parenthood Federation of America .

Gonzalez-Plumhoff, a former social worker, is part of a team at the national reproductive health organization which created Raiz, a program which trains health care advocates at the grassroots level to inform Latinas about their sexual health, health care in general, and helps provide access to Latinos interested in signing up for the Affordable Care Act.

This week the DC resident was one of sixteen leaders who received the 2015 Latino Trendsetter Awardfrom Latino Trends magazine. The following is condensed version of our interview.

How does your background inform the work you do around sexuality and sexual health?

VGP: I grew up in a middle-class family in a small town in Texas. A lot of my time was spent with my grandparents. I began to see a lot of my classmates get pregnant and drop of school or get married very young. I remember being young in a bitty town so I knew that I did not want to have a child in high school and that there must be a bigger world out there.

What drives your passion for healthcare?

VGP: It was that moment when as a teenager I went to get my first Pap smear and contraceptives and felt humiliated. Those moments stay with you.

When I became a social worker in Phoenix, [I saw] a lot of immigrant women [who] because of their personal journeys felt that getting pregnant was beyond their control. They felt that their sexual health was out of their hands. I had forgotten about that moment and meeting these women ignited it for me. This happened around the same time that Planned Parenthood was being attacked. And so now being able to create programs that can help immigrant women feel empowered with information, to have workshops between mothers and daughters so that they can make decisions over their bodies and reproductive health feels great.

As a citizen I have an advantage that these women don’t have. And I have a big mouth and a megaphone and I wanted to use it without fear. I have privilege and I am paying forward.

When it comes to Latino culture and sexuality and sexual health, what are you seeing on the ground?

VGP: We are seeing that young Latinas still respect what their mothers and grandmothers say about community and religion and other values but at the same time, they also understand that they have opportunities to take control of their sexual health. They make decisions to feel empowered without feeling like they are disrespecting the culture. We are seeing young Latinas in support of abortion access. For instance, we know that 97 percent of Latinas use birth control. Even if they are not waving their pill packs around or marching for reproductive rights to the steps of the Supreme Court, they are still taking control of that decision in their lives.

Texas is one of several states which have passed laws restricting women’s reproductive health access. In the Rio Grande Valley alone, thirty-two family health clinics have closed down since 2011 due to budget cuts and restrictions following the law. How has it affected Latino families?

VGP: First I want to say that I am a proud Texan and that I love my state but it is so depressing what is happening. Life for many Latinas in the Rio Grande Valley is already difficult. The idea that you would cut off healthcare and make communities feel as though they do not have the power to make decisions over their own lives is very insulting. It shows that the leadership in Texas is turning a blind eye to the needs of the Latino community. It’s so political and {the cuts} have nothing to do with the quality of life of the families the valley.

What is the role that Planned Parenthood plays in Latino communities?

VGP: Planned Parenthood has had health centers and has provided care to Latinas for generations People come to see us for reproductive health care from anything to getting birth control, accessing an abortion, or getting cancer screenings. They say that came to our clinics when they were teens and that is why their bringing their daughters. Part of our role is to make sure that women have access to whatever type of healthcare they need.

Given the cutbacks in reproductive health access and services, what can Latinas do?

VGP: We need to get angry. We need to decide what legacy we want to leave our children. I think that there is a bit of a necessity for those Latinas who have been politically active and who understand the way the system works to open the door and give back to the community and help younger Latinas come up the ladder of engagement.

Can you paint a picture of Latinos and health insurance today?

VGP: It's difficult for me to paint a picture of health care of all Latinos today because we're all so different but across all of those differences we still don’t have access to culturally competent care. There are those who still don't have insurance, those who have insurance for the first time and are just starting to learn to navigate it, and those who have maybe always had insurance and are just now getting involved politically to ensure that men and women, no matter what race or ethnicity, have access to the health care that they need when they need it. We are in a transition.

What do you mean Latinos are still in transition?

VGP: We are now having a conversation about access and what that means. Because you now hold a {health insurance} card but if your transportation system does not help you get to the center, then it’s not going to work. Or when they call the doctor’s office for an appointment, they might not know what to ask for. We also have to take a look at the systems in place for Latinas who work two jobs and who need to take time off to go to the doctor. There's still work to be done there, now we're in the next phase of helping them figure out how to actually access the care they need now that they are insured. There is still a lot of public awareness to be done; it's going to take a while for Latinos to fully integrate into the health care system and to how best to use it to their advantage.

Has the Affordable Care Act helped ameliorate the healthcare crisis in the Latino community?

VGP: It was a much-needed step, but ensuring that Latinos have access to care is a much longer process. We still have to provide information in different languages so that Latinos fully understand their rights, and there’s still work to be done in order to provide health insurance to the undocumented population.

Can you talk about the work that you are doing to help Latinos get the access to the healthcare they need?

VGP: We were provided with generous funding to look at how we engage Latinos in a better, more meaningful and long-term way. Latinos already come to our health centers. We have something called promotora programs which is our bilingual education program made up of well-trained peer educators and advocates who provide sexual and reproductive health information to Latinas and their families and link them to health care in their communities.