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I’ve been reading books and academic papers on bioethics and biopolitics for years, so you could say I was fairly prepared to handle the story behind the HeLa cell line – one of the most famous and controversial cell lines in the history of biomedical research. But Henrietta’s story, as written by Rebecca Skloot is saturated with something the other, more theorical works, do not delve into: human emotions. Specifically, the emotions of Henrietta’s daughter, Deborah.

The author puts us inside Deborah’s mind as she grapples with what has happened in the sixty plus years since her mother’s illness and death. In some ways, Skloot’s account comes very close to a patient narrative. It’s a risky move because the actual patient has been dead for sixty years, and who knows what Henrietta would say of all that has come from her harvested cancer cells?

But the risk pays off for Skloot – she gives us a patient-centered narrative even as we wade through the science chronicle. The polio vaccine was developed, HPV virus was classified into more than 100 strands and a vaccine distributed globally, cancer cells’ resistance to drugs has and continues to be tested…we’ve gained priceless knowledge, and prominent careers have been built on HeLa cells. But someone did pay a price.

If we’re human, we all become patients at some point, so Henrietta’s story is for everyone. People who work in medical industry should pay special attention. Those of us who were already in medical industry before HIPAA, might not be shocked by the Lacks family’s isolation and lack of informed consent. Still, it’s baffling to read how they were treated over the years.

I know that not everyone who works in medical research these days knows about Henrietta Lacks, but everyone who does should. If I were the one doing the research (as opposed to writing about the research others are doing), I suppose I might be expected to detach human emotion and human history from my scientific work. However, as long as HeLa cells live, we will all have a just reminder that we can take the cells out of the human, but we can never take the human out of the cells. We all want to find a cure for disease. Perhaps the road will be easier when we all understand that scientific research and the human spirit are inseparable.

P.S.: After spending time reading and writing papers about the novel Woman in Battle Dress, about the 19th century struggles of Dr. Henriette Faber, I could not help but smile about the similar first names. Maybe the two actual women shared the same resilience across time.

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I read my famous paper about cross-dressing, transnational women at a conference in Boca Raton. It went great. A professor from UPR-Cayey came up to comment on the fact that even Mayra Santos Febres’ Sirena Selena crosses national as well as gender borders. (Sirena Selena es dominicano residente en Puerto Rico.)

Still, there’s something unresolved. Something that means a lot to me on a personal level. All four historical texts I used portray the women heroes (heroine is a drug) as making a tough choice between living their lives or mothering. Henriette the doctor loses an infant. Jeanne the botanist gives up two children. Ann the pirate gave up a child. And Loreta Janeta, the confederate soldier, first loses three children and later stops the narrative when she has a live birth. Had a kid, it must be the end of the story.

I’m wondering whether anything has changed in the past 200 years: women still seem to be making the same tough choices. Then I found a ray of hope: Mireya Mayor, Ph.D., the cheerleader turned anthropologist. She is also a mother, something the legendary women who stepped into male spaces never had a chance to juggle. (This is a disturbing side of the historical accounts. It’s uplifting to read about women who fought alongside warriors and others who participated in expeditions, but then you read that they had to abandon children, or that they only went on an adventure because their children died, and it becomes depressing.)

Enter Mireya, a Cuban-American (of course, three of the historical women also have links to Cuba) who has a husband, two daughters and twins on the way. She’s attractive, intelligent, adventurous and entrepreneurial. Seems like the answer to the alter-latinas from 200 years ago. See her web site http://mireyamayor.com/

Welcome to International Women’s Day, when thousands of women across the globe will mark 100 years of women’s movement by crossing bridges.  But first, a disclaimer. I’m a reluctant feminist. I was socialized in an environment of machismo and taught not to speak louder than the boys. That would have been “unladylike.”  Instead, I was supposed to find more “refined” ways to “assert” myself, without asserting myself because outsmarting the boys – God forbid (sign of the cross) – might hurt their egos.

At the same time, my parents invested a small fortune making sure I had all the advantages they could provide, so I could eventually have my cake and eat it too. Years later, I laugh at these contradictions. Sometimes I find myself wondering what’s so great about working outside the home if no one picks up the slack at home when I’m at work.  (With time, I stopped caring whether it gets picked up at all.) When I worked full time, I still had to come home (tired) to cook. I still did all the baby laundry. I still got up at 3 a.m. to feed the baby. Then, at 8 a.m. I was somehow ready for another glorious day of meetings at the office.

These days, I work an extremely flexible schedule of freelance work and mothering work. By extremely flexible I mean I get up at 5 a.m. to do yoga (or else I can’t do all that follows), feed the animals, walk the dog, get myself ready, get the child ready, feed the child, take the child to school, get myself to either a place of work to conduct an interview, or my computer to write an article. In between, I come back home to walk the dog, do laundry, buy groceries, check my e-mail for new assignments, negotiate revisions to an article with a medical professional, race to school to pick up child, take child to extracurricular activities, help child do Sunshine Math homework, cook dinner, do dishes if husband is working late, feed animals, walk the dog, steal a few minutes to write a blog, figure out tomorrow’s schedule, put child to bed, put animals to bed (this includes husband), maybe read a book, go to sleep.  Because, you see, working non-stop from 5 a.m. to 10 p.m. is what female equality is all about, right? What’s that? Ah, sí ya sé, gender equality doesn’t always translate into gender cooperation, or even self-empowerment (I empower myself to work like a mule?). Seems many women are realizing that while we’ve elevated our standard of living in the last 100 years (mostly by doing more), we haven’t achieved the quality of life our mothers hoped, and worked, for.

The more I read about feminism, the more I think we women have taken only baby steps. At this point in time, this might be partly our own fault. Like I said, I had not been interested in feminism in the past – I thought it always went without saying. I actually know some men who are more feminist than I am, at least in theory. And I’m only partially aware of how subtle social conditioning (and overt machismo, in my case) can keep a woman down. Many feminists think that women have merely achieved a masculine version of power that is ill-suited to the possibilities of the feminine. I’m still trying to figure out these possibilities. Or what, in the divine feminine universe, are they talking about…?

I cracked open the door when I discovered Henriette Faber, the 19th century crossdressing female doctor.  Then I started to find other women in history who went through similar crossdressing charades just to step into male-dominated spaces. I observed that they took control as opposed to waiting for anyone to give it to them. They claimed their territory for themselves, even as they were called squatters. There’s Loretta Janetta, the confederate soldier. There’s Jeanne Baret, the 18th century botanist/herb woman who circumnavigated the globe. There are pirates Mary
and Bonnie, 18th century Thelma and Louise of the high seas. And those are only a few of the ones who have been documented so far. There are countless women, especially women of color whose stories are lost from records, but who helped shape our postmodern world. Real women, not fictional characters.  In the coming weeks, I’ll share what I have learned from each of them. I’ll do this as I finish writing a paper that I will present at a conference in Boca Raton, Fla., in April. It’s for an organization called MELUS (Multi Ethnic Literature of the United States). Not surprisingly, many women who broke through gender stereotypes simultaneously broke through ethnic and class stereotypes. Will this make me a feminist by the time I finish writing? Are such labels important? Will we ever finish writing ourselves into (his)story?  When will it be (her)story?  If we make the rules, why can’t we change them? Why can’t we change the whole landscape? Just some questions I ask as I cross the bridge.

For another point of view, read about today’s feminine power movement, and how some think empowering women (or women who empower themselves) is about more than feminism — it’s part of evolution.

Read about Henriette Faber, the French/Cuban woman doctor who served in Napoleon’s army.  En español.

Read about women farmers in Puerto Rico.

Back to the beginning

…That was the year the Reyes Magos (Three Wise Men who bring gifts on the eve of Epiphany), left a book under her bed. It was big and colorful and it had a sturdy cover. The title was Héroes en Zapatillas (a 1974 Spanish translation of Varona and Olivar’s Eroi In Pantofole, Edizione Paoline, Roma, 1971). Every European hero from Aníbal to Ulises, and with the generous inclusion of Gengis Khan, was there in caricature form. No mention of women.  Still, the book provided hours of entertainment and later she would beg her mother to keep it for her when she went to college. (The book is still around for the granddaughter. It’s yellow, not as colorful, and the pages are coming off the unstitched spine. It will be a supplement to the heroine stories they’ll read.) 

By the time she was in eleventh grade, our girl barely recalled the details of the medical kit from Christmas Past. But she remembered the feeling. Everything started to come back to her as if in a tunnel when her guidance counselor refused to give her an SAT application.

“Una niña como tú debería quedarse aquí (en la isla) con su mamá y su papá.” (“A girl like you should stay here (on the island) with her mom and dad.”) He wanted me (you already knew it was me) to concentrate on taking the College Board exam and forget about the SAT. I guess La Academia (my parochial private school) was more interested in raising overall scores than in placing their students where they wanted to be. I switched high schools my senior year and chose not to graduate with my friends over this. I did great on the College Board, got into UPR Rio Piedras, and Sagrado Corazón just in case, then turned around and left for FSU. It wasn’t easy. No one wanted me to leave. Many said I wouldn’t make it past the first semester. Too young, too sheltered, too attached to family. I went around all objections. Found a friend who went to school at Fort Buchanan to get me an SAT application, took the test at her school without any help. Then I took things one step at a time. My parents saw how determined I was and rallied behind me. My whole family sacrificed a lot to send me to college. Every semester was a small miracle. Twenty-something years later, my life is a miracle. The doors that seem to close just lead me to better things than the ones I imagined for myself. And really, I have a lot of say on which doors close.

So, listen to your children. Pay special attention to the girls and take their dreams seriously. Don’t tell anyone, boy or girl, how to play –let them teach you how to play. And for the record, I don’t want to be a boy anymore. Life’s more interesting as a girl.

All this writing about cross-dressing female doctors from the 19th century got me thinking about another story. Habia una vez una niña que queria ser niño. She did not dislike herself, she just wanted to be more than what people told her she could be.

It started one Christmas morning when she was three. She tore open the last present to find a strange red box inside. It was plastic and it looked like a lunch box, only bigger and with a curved top. Inside the strange red box she found small white instruments. There was a long cord with a plastic cone at one end and two plugs on the other which her mother said went in her ears.  “To listen to your heart beating.” There was a thin plastic cylinder with some lines on it, to take your temperature.

Her grandfather offered himself as a patient and she eagerly went about the task of becoming a doctor. But after she had examined her patient and decided which small bottle contained the right medicine for him, grandfather said “you will be a good nurse someday.” The game suddenly stopped. She wanted to cry, but she didn’t know why. The lump in her throat turned into a yell as she threw the medical bag on the floor and said she didn’t want to play anymore. At three years of age she knew that if she couldn’t play doctor, the role she chose, there was no sense in playing the game at all.

Later, she played Zorro with her neighbor Jorge and with her younger sister. The long pods from the flamboyant tree (a royal poinciana) made good swords and sabres. She didn’t listen when she was told to take the old blankie off her neck. That made a good cape. Zorro made a good role model, for lack of any female ones. There was much jumping off tree stumps and swinging from torn clotheslines, unsheathed sword (pod) cutting a Z in the air. 

On January 6, 1978 she would have been nine…

(Second part.)

Tuve la oportunidad de dar una charla a un grupo de académicos en New Orleans sobre el personaje histórico de Enriqueta Faber (1791-?). Ella fue la mujer francesa que se vistió de hombre para estudiar medicina en París y eventualmente sirvió como cirujana en el ejército de Napoleón y fue a parar a Cuba donde fue enjuiciada por hacerse pasar por hombre. Sus habilidades como médico nunca estuvieron en cuestión. Los detalles de su vida se pierden en las calles de New Orleans, a donde fue desterrada en 1823. Nadie sabe qué le sucedió ni si volvió a ejercer la medicina, pero el economista y escritor cubano Antonio Benítez Rojo (1931-2005) le dió vida y alma en su novela Mujer en Traje de Batalla (Woman in Battle Dress).  Fue un honor muy grande para mí discutir una obra tan importante frente a un grupo de gente que conoce bien cómo la economía de las plantaciones en el sur de Estados Unidos  y el Caribe (sin olvidar el resto de las Américas) explotaba a esclavos(as), mujeres y niños para alimentar trapiches de azúcar, molinos de café y fábricas de tabaco. (Todavía nos explotan, pero para otros productos.)

La historia de cómo Enriqueta pudo burlar ese sistema por un tiempo y lograr una carrera en espacios masculinos es más impresionante al toparnos con el hecho de que ella no fue la única. Mi audiencia estadounidense en la charla estaba informada sobre la vida de Loreta Janeta Velázquez, una cubana educada en New Orleans que se hizo pasar por hombre para participar como soldado y espía en la Guerra Civil de Estados Unidos. Sus memorias fueron publicadas en 1876. Su disfraz no fue descubierto hasta que ella misma se lo quitó. Loreta da una larga introducción en su libro sobre otras mujeres que, desde Juana de Arco, se atrevieron a luchar a la par de los hombres. Casi todas pagaron muy caro – no tanto sus causas sino su travestismo. Y el cambiarse el vestuario era la única forma de luchar por sus causas. Enriqueta no tenía otra opción para lograr su sueño de curar enfermos. O se vestía de hombre y se iba a estudiar o se quedaba buscando marido en los bailes, como ella misma (o Benítez Rojo con voz de mujer) narra en la novela.

Entre la gente que asistió a mi charla estaba la novelista Cristina Garcia (Dreaming in Cuban, The Agüero Sisters). Ella era la Keynote Speaker en la conferencia esa noche y vino a la charla a escuchar a mis compañeros panelistas discutir las obras de ella sobre cubanas en el exilio. (Yo me hubiera puesto nerviosa si mi autor pudiera haber estado allí, aunque me gustaría pensar que estaba allí en espíritu.) Después de la charla tuve la oportunidad de hablar con ella y me preguntó más sobre la vida de Enriqueta. También me habló de su personaje Chen Fang  en Monkey Hunting, quien se educó en China a principios del siglo XX vestida de hombre. Chen Fang resulta ser otro ejemplo de mujeres sin fronteras, ni de género ni de nacionalidad. El mundo las miró como aberraciones, cuando en realidad fueron personas  muy productivas y ahora admiradas.  En el caso de Enriqueta, ella tuvo que traspasar frontera tras frontera: era francesa haciéndose pasar por cubano para estudiar en París. En Cuba era conocida como Enrique Faber, doctor cubano con acento francés. Y pensar que yo puedo ir, vestida de puertorriqueña y con acento boricua, a hablarle a un montón de profesores norteamericanos con acento sureño acerca de un escritor cubano que escribe como una francesa que pasaba por cubano para ser doctor(a). Alguien pagó el precio por mí, para que mi vida sea lo que es. No todo ha cambiado, pero mi generación entiende que muchas cosas son como la cuchara que se dobla en la película The Matrix:  “There is no spoon.” Las limitaciones de géneros y fronteras son para doblegarse ante el poder de nuestra voluntad  –  porque no son nada.