The Midwives of El Paso

Today we learned via The Atlantic that, "For women of the border, where to give birth is a matter of enormous consequence, and a birthing-center industry has flourished as a result." There are many reasons why women of the border choose to give birth in El Paso, but the world of opportunities available in the United States is the primary driving force.

Maternindad La Luz, a midwife-run birthing center in El Paso, provides a safe place for women to seek maternal support. The midwives promise to give women of all nationalities the opportunity to have a natural birth, and a baby who is a U.S. citizen. Miriam, a woman who gave birth at Maternindad La Luz, believes that there are more opportunities in El Paso than in Mexico. She says, "You can get grants to go to college, for example—in Mexico, if you can’t pay, you can’t go to college.”

According to the The Atlantic, "For more than a century, people have crossed back and forth between Ciudad Juarez and El Paso, two cities side by side in the desert but separated by a border." Residents of Mexico cross into El Paso for jobs, school, and to visit family. Women cross over to give birth and benefit from the Fourteenth Amendment, which which guarantees citizenship to all people born or naturalized in the United States.

However, in the early days of El Paso's history, Mexican women living and working in Texas would actually return home to Mexico to give birth, according to Heather Sinclair, a former midwife and a doctoral candidate at the University of Texas-El Paso who is studying the 20th-century history of childbirth, citizenship, and race in the border region. But as the value of U.S. citizenship increased and the population of the border continued to grow, Mexican women began going out of their way to give birth in Texas.

These women found it difficult to give birth in Texas, as they were turned away by hospitals. They sought out midwifery practices, first ones run by Mexican Americans. According to The Atlantic, restrictions drove midwifery practices by Mexican Americans out of business. Later on, practices such as Maternidad La Luz run by white middle-class women were the safe havens women of the border used for maternal support. 

The Atlantic says, "Maternidad La Luz is a low-key place where 40 to 60 women give birth each month. Dated posters about the benefits of breastfeeding are hung in the hallways and women and their families pack the worn-down living room/waiting room, which has toys for children and small clay sculptures of pregnant women on the mantle."

Maternidad La Luz opened in 1987 and to this day is one of the most affordable places for women who come across the border to El Paso to give birth. The cost for all prenatal checkups, delivery and postpartum appointments is $850. According to The Atlantic, "The low cost is possible partly because Maternidad is still a midwifery school, and students—mostly white, middle-class women—come to Maternidad from around the world to learn the art of midwifery. They pay $7,750 in tuition or more, depending on the type of course they’re taking, and work for free."

Before birthing centers opened up in El Paso, women would give birth in parking lots of hospitals in hopes that the emergency room would take them in. Midwifery practices began to create a safer, more welcoming space for women to give birth. Moreover, midwives at birthing centers would not deport mothers, like some of the hospitals did. 

According to Maternidad La Luz's clinical director, Trish Gurley, it’s not about money. She says she provides the service to ensure that women from anywhere can have access to natural births outside of a hospital setting, just like her mother did before her. At Maternidad, women don’t have C-sections and the babies aren’t taken away from their mothers after birth. Sometimes, mothers don’t even have IVs, because they’re encouraged to drink water and eat light foods when they go into labor.

“It’s really a service about helping women find their strength, be it through education or just having the ability to voice their opinions without the pressures modern medicine tends to put on women,” she said.

Community Well supports the amazing work of the midwives of El Paso and Maternidad La Luz. We decided to share this story because it resonates with the healing work that our practitioners do here at Community Well. From the maternal health services we offer to our health and wellness classes, we aspire to support our community in every way possible and we take inspiration from the incredible midwives of El Paso.