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Mi Familia Poderosa: How Sex Education Changed my Family

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August 7, 2012

My story is a common one. I was raised by Catholic, Mexican parents in southern Arizona which meant I observed strict traditional gender roles in the house. It also meant that sex was something we just didn’t talk about. In fact, the only time I ever remember my parents talking about sex was when they told me and my siblings that they had been virgins when they got married. The only sex education I received was either from the abstinence-only curriculum I received for two weeks in high school or from Catholic School at my church.

I was first introduced to the reproductive justice movement when I entered college and it changed my life forever. I know that’s a dramatic thing to say but I can honestly trace everything I’ve accomplished today back to that first year I publicly, and unapologetically, became a reproductive justice activist. My family was introduced to the new me when I was cast in a role for the Vagina Monologues. They came into the performance with ideas about what the show would be like, my father thought the play would be cochino and sexist towards men, but after they cried through my scene they left with an appreciation of my new values. It felt like a breakthrough.

In the weeks leading up to the show, we would have long drawn out conversations about all of these other women who seemed so distant to our lives. The thing is, I still wasn’t able to tell them my story. At the time, I had been diagnosed with a high-risk strain of Human Papillomavirus (HPV) and since the vaccine, at the time, was so new, had not been vaccinated. After my diagnosis, I began to educate myself on what was happening to me. When my annual exam came back abnormal, I was told that there was a possibility that it could develop into cervical cancer.

I was so scared. I wanted to talk to my parents about what I was going through but I was honestly more terrified of how they would react. Not only would they learn that I was not a virgin anymore, but that I had a serious sexually transmitted infection. I was no longer living under my parents roof, but I was not yet financially independent. I feared being cut off, or disowned, or something worse. Since I was still on their health insurance, I was afraid they would find out if I went in for follow-ups or treatment. So instead I chose to enroll in an experimental cervical cancer prevention study for patients with HPV that would allow me to get the treatment I needed for free— so long as physicians could poke and prod me.

The anxiety and stress was becoming too much, and the isolation made the problem worse. The only person I felt safe enough to tell was my twin sister, and with her support I finally sat down to tell my parents everything.

Even though I wasn’t able to look my parents in the face, I could hear my mom begin to sob when I told her I had HPV. When I finished we all sat there in silence, the tension in the room almost unbearable. And then my father spoke. He asked, “So what does this mean? Will you have it forever?” Then my mother interjected with a growing sense of panic, “is this the same as HIV?” I assured her it wasn’t and we continued to talk for an hour about what HPV was and the next steps I had to take in this process.

I was shocked. Instead of hearing judgement, words of shame or disappointment, my parents were concerned and, honestly, confused. It was clear that they were just as clueless as I was when I was diagnosed. Educating them on what was going on definitely helped them feel less scared about the situation.

Since this conversation, my relationship with my parents has improved a lot— especially between my mother and me. We now have more open and honest conversations about sex and many other issues that were once off-limits. My mother even recently told me she’s reading 50 Shades of Grey. Through this experience I have learned that communication makes us stronger— I saw it happen in my family and I continue to see it happen in my work.

As a Field Organizer at Choice USA, where I work with young people advocating for reproductive justice, I see how young people are poderosos today. The work of these dedicated activists will bring about more comprehensive sex education in school, the kind I never received. I hope that this will mean more conversations among families and more information for young people, so that less will end up in a situation like mine.

My story is common, but I think my ending is more rare. Soy poderosa because I found my voice and it strengthened my family. Now I hope I can help others to do the same.

Raquel Ortega

Choice USA Field Associate

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