“Sobrevivir” by artist Phung Huynh conveys Los Angeles County’s sincere apologies to the women and families harmed by the County’s unjust practices.
LOS ANGELES – Today, Supervisor Hilda L. Solis hosted an intimate ceremony to unveil “Sobrevivir,” a new civic artwork by artist Phung Huynh, which recognizes the practice of coerced sterilization at LAC+USC Medical Center.
Throughout the 1900s, California had one of the most active sterilization programs in the nation. Research indicates that the majority of these sterilizations were done on women and girls and disproportionately impacted Latinas, who were 59% more likely to be sterilized than non-Latinas. The practice was widespread, as federally-funded sterilization programs operated in 32 states throughout the 20th century.
Eugenic sterilization programs are now recognized as a major human rights abuse. Regretfully, Los Angeles County also participated in questionable sterilization practices between 1968 and 1974. Over 200 women who delivered babies at LAC+USC Medical Center were possibly coerced into getting postpartum tubal ligations. At least some of the women were not aware they had been sterilized and only learned that they had lost their reproductive rights during subsequent doctors’ visits. There are questions as to whether, due to language and cultural barriers, their consent for these sterilization procedures was truly informed.
On August 7, 2018, through a motion co-authored by Supervisor Solis, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted to address this painful episode in their history and acknowledge the irreparable harm inflicted on the women who were subjected to these coerced sterilizations at LAC+USC Medical Center and their families. The Board instructed the Department of Health Services and the Department of Arts and Culture to design and install a civic artwork on the campus of LAC+USC Medical Center.
“What happened to these women was an assault on their freedom – their bodily autonomy. Something we are unfortunately seeing once again with the Supreme Court’s ruling to end the constitutional right to abortion,” said Hilda L. Solis, Los Angeles County Supervisor to the First District. “I have often discussed the need to build a more comprehensive and equitable healthcare system, especially in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, we cannot truly move forward and address systemic issues without fully confronting our most egregious sins of the past, including what happened unjustly to these survivors. So, on behalf of LA County, I’d like to say once more, that we apologize for the terrible experience they went through here. I remain committed to making this right.”
“I want to point out that although LAC+USC is the first Medical Center in the country to acknowledge and atone for its past sterilization practices, there were many other hospitals locally in Los Angeles and across this country that, because of racist policies, lack of language and cultural interpreters, and complicity with eugenic beliefs, thousands of largely immigrant and Native women were sterilized in the United States without their full consent or permission,” said Jorge Orozco, Chief Executive Officer of LAC+USC Medical Center.
“A core program of the Department of Arts and Culture is the commissioning and care of the LA County Civic Art Collection,” said Kristin Sakoda, Director of the Los Angeles County Department of Arts and Culture. “Through our Civic Art Division, we select artists for new commissions and deliver new artwork that incorporates community engagement. Phung Huynh’s artwork at the LAC + USC Medical Center is an important reminder of the power of civic art to uplift marginalized voices, create civic spaces for reflection, and promote inclusion, healing, and justice.”
The Department of Arts and Culture worked with LAC USC and the community to commission Los Angeles County-based artist Phung Huynh to create an artwork that conveys the County’s sincere apologies to the women and families that were harmed by the County’s practices. During the development of the final design, Huynh led an engagement process to inform the artwork concept and inspire a sense of community ownership. She worked with community members to create four quilts. Survivors, family members, and people with whom this experience resonated made each quilt square. This quilt represents a collective approach to healing through art and pays tribute to the survivors.
“I am deeply grateful for this opportunity to make the most meaningful artwork I will ever create in my lifetime,” said Phung Huynh, artist of the artwork. “LAC+USC is a place where people come to receive care, and I hope that as custodians of this artwork, you will share the stories of the mothers to heal from a dark past and form stronger communities as we continue to reconcile and rebuild. As a Southeast Asian refugee who has birthed two sons by way of emergency cesarean section, I never take for granted what the mothers have been through to safeguard my reproductive health and reproductive rights. Their sobrevivir continue to protect me and many women for generations to come.”
The name of the artwork is Sobrevivir, which means to survive, to keep alive. The 2015 documentary, No Mas Bebes, co-produced by scholar and UCLA lecturer Virginia Espino and directed by co-producer and filmmaker Renee Tajima-Pena, was pivotal in the artist’s research for this project and gave her access to listen and learn from the mothers themselves. Huynh was moved by both the courage and vulnerability of the mothers, and there were many points of inspiration for the artwork. One of the most important inspirations is the words of the survivors, and she wanted the artwork to include the perspectives and expressions of the mothers.
Huynh was inspired by women’s craftwork such as weaving, sewing, and brocading, and she looked at the huipil, its strong, stoic form complimented by colorful patterns and flowers. She views flowers as important representations of fertility, as well as offerings, which are included in the work. Many of the mothers relied on devotion and prayer to cope and heal. Central to the artwork are the hands of Our Lady of Guadalupe, who in many ways is a powerful representation of Los Angeles.
The site for the artwork is a circular space that invites contemplation. Huynh created a powerful piece that invites viewers to learn about the mothers and connect with their experiences. The artwork is made of 32 panels of Corten steel that rust and change over time. It is a living piece of art, a living piece of history that will grow and evolve with the community. On the surrounding wall are the words of the mothers. The choice of metal is deliberate to convey the strength, resilience, and sobrevivir of the survivors. The austere physicality of the metal is complemented by the effects of light. The artwork will illuminate at night to enhance the feeling of a contemplative yet powerful space.
For a recorded video of the event program, click here.