I was born on the heels of Hurricane Hugo. My mami told me she was worried I would be born early, in the midst of a disaster, with no medical care available during the storm and its immediate aftermath. It was even scarier for her because I wasn’t in the right position — literally — to be born, so the doctors scheduled a necessary Caesarean for my due date. It was one of the first surgeries performed when the hospital reopened in Río Piedras, Puerto Rico; the facility had been without electricity just the day before.
And now, like Mami, I worry about the storm my child will be born into.
I knew when my wife got pregnant, we’d face challenges like any new parents — and probably more as queer parents. But I didn’t know we’d be hit with a life-threatening pandemic, one that has laid bare all the ways our country is failing all of us, but especially those who face barriers to accessing health care and employment, including queer Black and brown women.
I already knew I’d have to fight for my right to be recognised as a parent at all, that I’d need to legally “adopt” my child — the child my wife and I had planned for together, and for whom I had made so many intentional choices to bring into this world. It infuriated me, and reminded me of all the ways that as a queer person, I am othered and still don’t have full equality under the law. It was during the first week of tighter social distancing that I had to leave my safe home to get my fingerprints taken for one of three required background checks I needed to complete the adoption. I worried as I pressed each fingertip on the scanner — how many hands touched it that day, that week? By trying to protect my child, would I put them at risk?
I felt caught in an impossible choice between protecting them through legal parenthood rights and protecting them from possible exposure to COVID-19. The timing heightened my anger. It was a choice I knew I shouldn’t have had to make. I shouldn’t have to fight for my parenthood rights at all.
My personal storm was heightened when my wife lost her job in March due to coronavirus-related closure. Since I became the sole income-earner in our household, I feel more aware than ever that my child will be born into a world where Latinas like us are typically paid only 54 cents to every dollar a white man is paid. They will be born into a world where I am “lucky” to be one of 16% of Latinx people who have the option and means to work from home.
Our community is under attack in so many ways that are emphasized and exacerbated by this pandemic. ICE recently requested 45,000 masks — which lifesaving medical professionals fight so hard for — to use in their deportation and family separation machine. Last year, I co-wrote a report with students about what mental health supports they need in their schools, and learned that almost half of Latina girls reported experiencing persistent sadness and hopelessness; one in five seriously considered suicide. Our failing response to this pandemic, and these ramped-up attacks on our community, are taking even more of a toll.
I think about the hurricane I was born into often. Though I was raised in relative safety, my mind has always been a storm. When I was younger, I thought my depression and anxiety were my fault, were personal weaknesses. But now I know that mental health is deeply and inseparably tied to the world we live in and the ways we are seen as undeserving of support. Now I know that the storm is both within us and around us.
This pandemic has brought society’s inequities into sharper relief. It has revealed our true priorities: a willingness to sacrifice Black and Latinx people’s lives to resume business as usual; a great show of praising workers, mostly women, as “essential workers” who are nonetheless not entitled to essential wages, benefits, and safety; and the pouring of resources into deportation during an international health emergency. It is not merely the pandemic, but also our response to it that will shape our mental health for years to come.
I want my child to know that I’m fighting for a more supportive world for us. For me, that means fighting for more support for our communities’ mental health, in order to help us walk through our collective traumas: from the ICE raids; from the anti-LGBTQ discrimination; and from this pandemic, which is hitting Latinx people especially hard. I will fight by continuing to speak openly about my own mental health, and by continuing to work to build the collective power of Latinx and LGBTQ youth in courtrooms, classrooms, and beyond. We must envision a world where our needs are valued, and each do our part to create it.
In a recent video call, Mami told me about looking out for signs of postpartum depression. I will. But I will also keep working to change the conditions that keep us in the heart of the storm. My child deserves a world where they have the right to love and to parent, to be paid a fair wage, to be treated with dignity, and to have their physical and mental health supported. They deserve not just to survive the storm, but to live their life with clearer skies.
Noelia Rivera-Calderón is the Education Team’s Tom Steel Fellow at the National Women’s Law Center (NWLC).