La operación (1982)

La operación (Directed by Ana María García, 1982) Ana María García created this forty-minute documentary to highlight the social policy of female sterilization in Puerto Rico. This island has the highest rate of sterilization in the world. Over one-third of its women have undergone what is commonly referred to as “La operación” (The Operation). García incorporates interviews with working-class and middle-class women of differing racial and ethnic backgrounds who have undergone this procedure. Rather than rely solely on interviews however, the documentary is intercut with action sequences and historical footage to make this a thought-provoking, yet entertaining work.

The film opens with an interview of an Afro-Puerto Rican woman talking about how many of her siblings had “the operation” and how her children were also undergoing it. The film has some candid and poignant moments: some of the women interviewed are not clear what had happened to them; some regret it; some feel that they didn’t have a choice when it came to birth control. There is a cut to a woman undergoing childbirth; she is crying out of happiness, and there are palpable emotions on the screen. There are also close up shots of women undergoing surgeries. There are experts interviewed as well: there is a cut to a woman doctor explaining the government discourses on “population control” as opposed to a woman’s decision regarding “birth control.”

An interesting feature of the film is the historical footage of Puerto Rico’s social and economic history. This becomes a main point of the film: the director provides a larger socio-historical context that gave rise to this large scale and extreme shift in “family planning.” The historical sequence begins with the Spanish-American war of 1898 and subsequent U.S. involvement on the island. It then explores the political and economic context of land ownership by U.S. corporations beginning in the 1930s; the push for women to enter the labor force and hence to make the country more modern and exude “progress;” this was all against the backdrop of the notion that Puerto Rico was overpopulated and that there would be a two-pronged approach to combat this by the government (with the help of the U.S). The first strategy was an organized move to promote migration to New York and other parts of the United States from 1945-64. The second approach was that a large percentage of women would be sterilized and a limit of children per family would be imposed.

The film also discusses an important historical period: the move towards industrialization on the island dubbed “Operation Bootstrap.” During this time, women were employed in the needlework trade and textiles. There would be family planning clinics set up by the government put into the factories so that employees get counseling during the work day. Therefore, it becomes evident that there is a causal relationship between the move to integrate women into the factory workforce and a government effort to promote the sterilization of women, which was free, and paid for in part by a US AID grant. Interestingly enough, Puerto Rico became an important testing ground for U.S. pharmaceutical companies working on the effectiveness of the birth control pill.

This film’s excellence is enhanced by telling the women’s stories within a larger political and economic framework. This underscores the machinations behind this government campaign as well as its much earlier origins with the U.S.’ involvement.

García’s well-crafted treatise is clearly influenced by earlier Cuban social documentaries, such as those by esteemed director Santiago Alvarez. Her soundtrack is reminiscent of famed Cuban folk singer Silvio Rodriguez, and, in an interview, she cites Cuban directors such as Octavio Cortázar whom inspired her to search for a poetic quality in documentary.

Important socio-historical themes such as the U.S. influence in Puerto Rico, the feminization of labor, and other topics make this film extremely well-suited for university classroom use. A moving aspect of the film was how the director gained the confidence of interviewees both poor and of higher socio-economic status to discuss a sensitive subject. This is just one reason how the film makes a valuable contribution to those interested in Latin American Studies, Urban Studies and Sociology. Tamara Falicov University of Kansas


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