Partera Fronteriza: On The Border of Life
I woke up one day much too early for my personal delight with an idea for a story. This is not a strange occurrence--I am a writer after all. But the story, or rather the idea for the story, is what pulled me from my slumber and refused me further rest. I laid there staring at the orange peel textured ceiling covered in the classic “Renters White” thinking, “How am I going to pull this story off?” I needed a miracle. Or in other words, I need a hookup.
More specifically, I needed to interview a partera fronteriza, border midwife--one who catches babies on both sides of the U.S.- Mexico border. Why? Because the headlines tell us we are in a midst of an “ $8 billion border crisis”--a crisis that “threatens the safety, the very lives, of all Americans.” But what news outlets fail to report is that despite our faux crisis, life still continues within our border communities. Normalcy is revered. Babies continue to be born, welcomed by their partera (midwife).
I immediately within moments I message Partera Pati Garcia at Mamatotos Resource & Birth Center in Trinidad. Pati possessed the hookup I needed and happily sent me on my way with a name: Tema Mercado.
Partera Tema Mercado is the founder of La Matriz Birth, a midwifery practice serving families in both San Diego County, California and across the Mexico border in the Baja California City of Tijuana. I learned this much from her website, but I wasn’t satisfied. I needed to get just a bit of her time and hear her story in her voice.
I could no longer be bothered with threads of emails spanning over days, even weeks, all for the sake of coordinating a time to chat. So I decided on a random Monday, at no inherently meaningful time of day, to pick up the phone and call.
She answers, “ This is Tema.” I can hear the road in the background. The soft but present muffle of pavement serves as a reminder of life as a partera fronteriza. She later informs me she is driving home from two back-to-back home births.
She is exhausted and hasn't slept in more than 24 hours.
I quickly explain who I am and why I’m calling. Tema doesn’t hesitate, and sharply replies, “I get a lot (heavy emphasis on a lot) of requests from journalists and reporters looking for the story.” She continues, “They want to write these stories about how Mexican women cross the border to America to drop ‘anchor babies.’ I researched later and discovered “anchor babies” is a derogatory reference used to refer to a child born of a non-citizen mother in a country that has and honors birthright citizenship which will therefore may help the mother and other family members eventually gain legal residency.
She adds in a hurried and breathless tone, “They want to criminalize women; but there’s more to the story.”
I can feel the heat of deep, wearied frustration in her tone. It’s even crawling up the back of my neck.
I am clear.
I am an outsider. And she is obligated to protect her people.
The truth is Tema is right. Many women who cross the U.S. border to deliver their babies, more often than not, return to their home country. They are not criminals. These mothers are not always in search of resources and benefits provided by the U.S. government because their child is a U.S. citizen. Many times these mothers are just in search of a safe and ethical birth. Tema adds that American women also travel across the border to Mexico to birth. Some deliver abroad for privilege or to be closer to their partner’s who have self deported or by by force are no longer in the States.
I take a breath knowing that I am one of the countless who have inquired, but also one of the small handful with whom she has gifted her time. I acknowledge her apprehension, weariness of rejecting reporters before me, and respond, “That’s why I’m calling. I want to write a different narrative.”
The tension dissipates and she invites me to accompany her on the remaining thirty minutes of her hour drive home to “keep her awake.” I don’t hesitate and jump right in with my questions. I ask “What’s your greatest challenge providing care to families on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border?” She explains, “It’s complicated. Many families in the U.S. want a home birth as a status symbol. They can afford to birth at home or in the hospital. However, families in Mexico want a home birth because they want their child to be born in humanized way.” I understand perfectly as she continues, “And while American hospital births are far from perfect, they are nothing compared to the lack of resources found in hospitals across the border.”
I can’t say I 100% agree with access to home birth as a status symbol for Black women. But I also know she’s not talking about Black women. She is referring to the privilege and classist profession of home birth midwives which most often supports the most privileged and classist of families.
In Mexico, all residents have access to universal health care. According to Tema, there are three birth options for families:
- Option A: The public hospital where women will likely deliver vaginally, alone, unsupported, and are also likely to experience obstetric violence and trauma.
- Option B: Women can access the cash pay private hospitals with private rooms, courteous staff, and an extremely high Cesarean rate.
These don’t sound like “options.” They feel more like choosing between the lesser of two evils.
Tema tells me that despite knowing the likely outcomes of a hospital birth, many Mexican women still want a birth in a medical institution “because of internalized oppression and racism.” This part I 100% agree with and recognize as it mirrors many Black birth stories and data in the U.S. Internalized racism is deep and generational. She explains, “People still believe in the ‘old way’ in Mexico. And that means that if you have money and education, you go to the hospital to deliver your baby.”
And then there’s...
- Option C: A home birth.
Although it’s legal, Tema shares that there are very few midwives practicing in the border city of Tijuana, Mexico. The sparse number of Indigenous midwives who are currently practicing incorporate many cultural traditions that women desire, but the mothers, if they opt for an Indigenous midwife, would only be able to deliver at home. A vast majority of Indigenous midwives have been “pushed out” by the medicalization of birth in Mexico.” Culturally, home birth is often only seen as an option for “poor women or women who live in rural areas.” Tema adds, “There are struggles for Indigenous midwives and they are very real in Mexico.”
And there are consequences if a family chooses a homebirth or, as it’s referred to in Mexico, a “free birth.” They could be denied a birth certificate from the Office of Vital Records. This is an example of privilege many homebirthers take for granted in the U.S. Parteras Fronterizas-Border Midwives is an organization created by Tema and her partner Ximena Rojas. Parteras Fronterizas work to establish relationships between local midwives and their clients with government offices and medical providers in Mexico.
But just like in the U.S., home birth in Mexico is making a resurgence despite these pervasive challenges. Tema credits this to Native women wanting to birth their babies “like Americans.” They, too, deserve better options and safer choices for themselves and their families.
So, armed with options and resources once a week, Tema relentlessly crosses the point of entry in San Ysidro to Tijuana through heavy barbed wire fences, armed Border Patrol agents, and increasingly longer lines to support her clients. She and Ximena provide prenatal and postpartum appointments, workshops, and home birth services. Their clientele includes everyone from expatriate Americans who have temporarily or permanently relocated abroad to deported families. The only need they all have in common is a desperate desire for a trustworthy Partera.
I asked Tema about her clients, specifically families who are not yet citizens or are undocumented residents from Mexico, on the U.S. side of the border. She lays out,“ There are expectations from families on both sides of the border. Mexican families in the U.S. expect super individualized care.” I asked for an example of such care. Tema replied, “ If a mother delivers her baby at 10pm, my midwife and I would never discharge at 2am even though four hours postpartum is the standard practice for many U.S. birth centers. We wait until the sun comes up. Culturally, we believe the cool air is not good for the baby or the mother.”
She adds, “And when it comes to hospital transfers, we push the community standard of care just a bit, but we never put a family in danger. If I believe the baby is coming, but taking its time, we hang in there and continue to monitor the labor. We understand that a medical bill for an uninsured family can be financially devastating and may potentially cripple them for decades.”
Let me stop here and acknowledge that for some undocumented women and girls living in the U.S., a homebirth or an unassisted birth is their only option. A delivery under the threat of deportation, separation from their newborn, or being detained may not be an immediate or guaranteed reality for these families if they are forced to go to the hospital, but there is a certain uncertainty with the choice to free birth or go to the hospital which is the last concern a woman should have on the precipice of bringing a new life into the world (or something like that).
The criminalization of women, specifically pregnant Black and Latinx women, is not a new phenomenon. If you question this ideal or need more background, read Killing the Black Body by Dorothy E. Roberts and How Criminalization of Pregnancy Robs Women of Reproductive Autonomy by Michele Goodwin (find this and others on Wiley Online Library). Midwives and parteras fronterizas like Tema Mercado and Ximena Rojas are reclaiming the prenatal, birth, and postpartum experience for women on both sides of the border by anchoring the family at the center of their care. The duality of providing maternal health care in the U.S. and in Mexico provides Tema and Ximena with a set of skills is invaluable to all women and mothers.
Tema elaborates. It doesn’t matter on which side of the border her clients deliver. It’s her job to provide families and babies with “a humanized approach” to care. She says, “I don’t care about essential oils or water birth. I am not focused on birth photographers planning and executing the perfect shot for Instagram. There is a lot of fucking ego and privilege in home birth.” She adds, “Ximena and I are centered [around] caring for families in a very human way.” She leaves me these final words. “There is nothing glamorous about our job. It’s hard, daunting, and at times, heartbreaking. But the impact of our work heals generations back and those yet to be born.”
The faithful hum of the road in the background has drawn silent. This is my cue that our conversation is coming to an end. Perfectly timed. I have no more questions. Tema thanked me for keeping her awake on her drive home and ended our call with one final request for the story--that I allow her to review the article before it’s published. She utters, “I want to make sure everything I said was what I truly meant. I’m exhausted. You know?”
I do know.
I am an outsider. And she is obligated to protect her people.
All her people.
Midwife Tema Mercado is a Certified Professional Midwife licenced by the State of California, and is the founder of La Matriz Birth. Please visit lamatrizbirth.com for more information. Currently La Matriz Birth and Parteras Fronterizas do not have the capacity to accommodate volunteers.
To support the work of La Matriz Birth’s Parteras Fronterizas, consider purchasing supplies from their Amazon Wish List or by donating to Monarch Midwives 501c3 .
Amazon Wish List: https://www.amazon.com/hz/wishlist/ls/3MBQ7S63S0OCY?ref_=wl_share
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