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  • January 29, 2016

A Girl Gives Birth: An Intimate Look at Teen Motherhood in Latin America

“I am working on this project because I am a son of a teenage mother,” says photographer Christian Rodriguez. “And my sister was a 16-year-old teen mom. I want to show a solution for this issue.”

Rodriguez’s personal experience has driven him to document teen mothers all over the world—first in his native Uruguay, later in Rio de Janeiro, and, most recently, in the Mixe community of Maluco, a small village in the north of the Istmo de Tehuantepec in Oaxaca, Mexico.

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Gloria’s house

Wanting to tell the story of one girl in this small indigenous community, Rodriguez had a local NGO introduce him to Gloria—a 13-year-old who had been raped by her father at age 11 and gave birth at age 12. Two of her sisters were also sexually abused by their father. Gloria lives with her mother and eight of her ten siblings in a small rural home. Her father is now in jail.

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Gloria, 13, photographed with butterfly figures in her hair and a necklace of thorns

Like most young girls in her community who get pregnant, Gloria has dropped out of school and now spends her days making corn totopas with her mother and sister Guadalupe, who is also pregnant from a boyfriend.

While Rodriguez could have shot a straightforward story about one teen mother in one small community, he decided to take a different approach to help his viewers connect with Gloria’s vulnerability. He waited. He sat still. And he got to know Gloria and her family before making any photos of them.

“I wanted to be very sensitive,” says Rodriguez. “I was very worried for Gloria. It was very stressful for me. I wanted to help this family but I didn’t know how—my friends told me just to tell the story the best I can.”

After slowly building a relationship with Gloria and her family, he realized that a traditional documentary approach wouldn’t work. Gloria was too fragile. Too shy. Too psychologically compromised by the abuse. She didn’t name her son for 11 months—everyone just called him bebe, or baby.

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Gloria and her baby at home
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“Bebe,” Gloria’s ten-month-old son

“In the beginning, Gloria did not like the baby, didn’t want to take care of him, but in a way she was forced to,” says Rodriguez. “The baby was like remembering the rape. When I tried to work with Gloria and talk with her, she started to cry. It was very difficult because I didn’t want to cause her any more pain. So I would try to shoot a play with her—and she felt comforted by that.”

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Gloria made a bandaid out of a leaf after her nine-year-old sister Joana cut her finger with a knife. “This was symbolic for me,” says Rodriquez. “The sister raped by the father was also trying to take care of her younger sister who went through the same trauma.”
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Gloria holding a duckling

Rodriguez decided to involve Gloria in the photography—making her a willing part of the art. He said posing Gloria and her sisters in traditional Oaxacan clothes seemed comforting to her, so Rodriquez worked with her to create meaningful portraits that showed her beyond the constraints of her teen motherhood. In one portrait he modeled her after a Frida Kahlo self-portrait, depicting her in a necklace of thorns with butterflies on her head.

During the "posadas", a traditional festivity that takes place during the nine days before Christmas. It is a tradition to use fireworks to remember the pilgrimage of Mary and Joseph from Nazareth to Belén, where they looked for a place to stay and wait for the birth of Jesus. Front of the house of Gloria where her siblings play with fireworks.
Fireworks are lit by Gloria and her siblings during Las Posadas, a traditional celebration that takes place during the nine days before Christmas in honor of Mary and Joseph’s pilgrimage from Nazareth to Bethlehem for the birth of Jesus.
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Gloria’s younger brother Kevin, age six

“I tried to shoot in a soft way, not very directly,” he says. His resulting photo essay is a mix of posed portraits and found moments showing Gloria both as a girl and as a perplexed young mother. She helps her siblings with homework; she breastfeeds her son; and she stands barefoot in the mud making totopos hour upon hour.

And while her situation is difficult, Rodriguez says it’s unfortunately all too common in Maluco. He says one of the local customs, or usos and costumbres, makes it acceptable for the parents of a pregnant teen to receive money from the father in exchange for marrying the young girl. He says this sends the signal that the pregnancy, which is often the result of rape, is tolerated.

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Gloria’s sisters Yorudi, seven, and Joana, nine, comb their hair outside their house before school.

“In this community all the men decide everything for a woman,” he says. “For example, it’s normal for boys to be able to play, to be free in the town, but the girls need to work in the house making totopos or cleaning or [homemaking]. When girls have the same opportunity as boys, I think that’s when teen pregnancy will change.”

Rodriguez says that by sharing Gloria’s story he hopes to raise awareness of teen pregnancy, sexual abuse, and the lack of opportunities for Latin American girls. He also hopes to eventually raise money for Gloria to finish school.

“I wanted to help her, to help break the cycle of violence,” he says.

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Gloria rests with her son.

As a postscript, he says that Gloria has finally given her son a name—she calls him Juan Diego.


Christian Rodriguez is a Uruguayan photographer who explores themes related to gender and identity, working with communities all over the world. Currently, he’s developing a long-term project, entitled “Teen Mom,” about teenage pregnancy in Latin America. His work has been published internationally, and he is a member of the Prime photo collective.

See more of the work from his project “A Mixe Flower,” and check him out on his website: http://www.christian-rodriguez.com and Instagram @christian_foto.

There are 22 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Yen
    February 9, 2016

    To Susan Hayek-Kent
    who doesn’t know about the consequences of inbreeding.
    Please read
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Inbreeding

    • Susan Hayek-Kent
      February 11, 2016

      yeah, I do.
      https://answers.yahoo.com/question/index?qid=20090114080048AA9YkhL

      there is only a problem is there are defective recessive genes.

    • Susan Hayek-Kent
      February 11, 2016

      and bonnie, this is really not the place for a scientific discussion.
      the photos from this photographer are beautiful, and show the life of some young women.
      if you want to continue this email me privately, please.
      shayek.kent@gmail.com
      thanks.

  2. Tim Francis
    February 9, 2016

    The story of Gloria is heartbreaking and tragic. I have to be honest here, I didn’t see that in these photographs. The locations, time of day, compositions, none of it conveyed what the story said in words. If I didn’t read the text I wouldn’t have known her plight as a teen age mother.

  3. Bonnie Cruz
    February 4, 2016

    Christian, What will happen with this baby, Juan Diego? Has anyone screened him for life threatening abnormalities resulting from the way he was conceived? Is anyone local able to help with this?

    • Susan Hayek-Kent
      February 4, 2016

      for bonnie: I’m just curious.
      what does rape have to do with life threatening abnormalities for the baby?
      I think the mother might suffer, but I’ll bet the baby is just fine as long as mama had care during her pregnancy.

      • Bonnie Cruz
        February 5, 2016

        Reply to Susan: “Gloria—a 13-year-old who had been raped by her father at age 11 and gave birth at age 12”. I understand this to mean that the baby is conceived in incest and can have life threatening congenital defects that need attention.

        • Susan Hayek-Kent
          February 5, 2016

          thanks for your reply, bonnie.
          incest does not “cause” defects unless there are “bad” recessive genes lurking. a great portion of defects are caused by lack of prenatal care. I worry horribly about the mama’s emotional damage and her age. I’m hoping mama got care. and the baby got love.
          and daddy went to jail.

  4. Chaithanya
    February 4, 2016

    This must be stopped mr.rodrigues thanks for sharing.

  5. Christian
    February 2, 2016

    Dear Readers:

    Taylor Kizer, A. Cooler

    You can support my ongoing project about Teenage pregnancy in Latin America by following the link and clicking the button Donate: http://christian-rodriguez.com/contacto.html

    The same if you want to directly support the education of Gloria. In middle April I will launch a Crowfounding campaign to support the education of Gloria.

    For any request or questions you can contact me directly at christian105718@gmail.com

    All the best,

    Christian

  6. Xochitl Montano
    January 31, 2016

    Thanks for giving us a peak at Gloria’s life after the disturbing news! I pray she heals as her sisters and other young girls that have to suffer this terrible fate.

  7. Sue DeArman
    January 31, 2016

    I appreciate the photographers sensitive approach to the story of this young girls life. Beautifully photographed!

  8. Silas S
    January 31, 2016

    Teen pregnancy is more complicated than what many suppose.

    There are girls who have all the freedom to get themselves educated at schools who get pregnant the wrong way, the very place where they are taught that humans are nothing but the product of chaos. Of course, teens have the right to protect themselves as there are stringent laws to protect them. Putting an end to perversion in a global sense seems to be difficult for fear one day even perverts will flock with birds of the same feather to fight for their rights.

  9. Taylor Kizer
    January 30, 2016

    As a Cultural Anthropology student who wants to focus her studies in Latin America, and who’s little sister became a mother at 17, I find this article and these photos particularly moving. Is there anyway we can directly donate to the photographer? I’d like to lend my support in anyway that I can so that Gloria may be able finish school. Beautiful photos that shed light on a very sensitive, and at times dark, universal problem.

  10. A. Cooler
    January 30, 2016

    You have made beauty out of the ugliness of rape. Your photos & story are moving. How might someone contribute to Gloria’s education?

  11. Darcy Baldridge
    January 30, 2016

    So much important work in the storytelling. This was done with an obvious sensitivity by the author. I imagine that these young girls are having a hard time stepping between worlds, as the author described. One minute you are a young girl, wanting to play and be free from societal constraints. The next you are a mother, a sister, a daughter. All the while reliving the horrific soul wrenching rape by your own father.

  12. Doreen Reinwand
    January 30, 2016

    Teen motherhood has been around and throughout the world for centuries. America has an explosion of them. Before we stick our noses in other cultures, lets see what we can do on our home soil USA. Ummm I do believe we have states where it is legal to be married at 16 yet. What was the purpose of the article? This happens every day here in America. Sad, but true.

    • Susan Hayek-Kent
      January 31, 2016

      this is a reply to doreen reinwand; I believe the photographer said he was the son of a teenaged mother and that had triggered his interest in the problem.
      because we have teenage mothers in the US does not preclude looking into the same situations throughout the world.
      in fact, I think in the US the girls have a better chance at being educated and getting help than those girls in other countries.
      I thought the photos were lovely. beautiful pictures of a sad sad situation, world wide.

  13. Siji George
    January 30, 2016

    this is really a sensitive issue you are working on and i appreciate the fact that you are investing all your time for such a cause. The remedy, as i see for this is education. I hope these girls(teen mothers) get access to education as it will help them to frame a better world for generations to come.

  14. Kimberly Wilson
    January 29, 2016

    Beautiful and painful at the same time. Wonderful work.

  15. Patricia Sumner
    January 29, 2016

    So very sad. All I could do was cry. Another young girl robbed of a life.

  16. Susan Hayek-Kent
    January 29, 2016

    this is so terribly sad for the young girls. and I imagine it is a world wide problem.
    there seems no end to it.

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