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Art installation pays homage to Mexican women who were sterilized without consent at L.A. County-USC hospital

The artwork was commissioned to publicly apologize to the over 240 largely Mexican immigrant women who were forcibly sterilized at the hospital in the ‘60s and ‘70s.

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Phung Huynh is an L.A. artist and educator – and creator of sobrevivir, which means survival in Spanish.

She showed me a panel of the Corten steel that she used to design the circular sculpture in her garage-converted home studio in South Pasadena.

HUYNH: The sculpture is 21 feet in diameter, and it’s made up of 32 panels of Corten steel and each panel weighs about 300 pounds. It’s about three quarters of an inch Corten steel, and there’s a shelf underneath to hold the plastic that needs to fill the areas of the designs

At night, parts of the disk light up.

HUYNH: There’s very strategic areas kind of like a golden glow to look kind of like candle light.

Huynh selected the Corten steel because of its strength, beauty and permanence.

HUYNH: I feel like it’s so symbolic of the mothers, of their sobrevivir, their survival, how it was very difficult, very painful. It’s irreparable in many ways, but their suffering really protects generations of women.

The steel circle is flush against floor and is surrounded by walls and concrete benches.

HUYNH: I liked the walls and the benches and like I want people when they come and sit to think, and to honor. I would hope that people would feel like they could put flowers, they could put a prayer, they can, you know, do that as well.

From 1968 to 1974, the L.A. County-USC Medical Center forcibly sterilized 240 women — mostly Mexican immigrant women who primarily spoke Spanish. They were coerced into signing forms they did not understand … while they were in the throes of childbirth.

In 2018, the L.A. County Board of Supervisors passed a motion to publicly apologize for the sterilizations. And, the supervisors commissioned a large scale art project to acknowledge this painful period.

The work is located on an elevated open courtyard nestled among trees, bushes and plants in front of the hospital’s administrative building.

Huynh wants the experience of visiting sobrevivir to be immersive. She welcomes community members to stand around the steel disk sculpture and sit on the benches that surround it.

McBRIDE: Surprise and sadness is predominant.

X-ray technician Carolyn McBride took in the artwork during her lunch break.

McBRIDE: Sorry, that happened to so many women and sorry, it happened here in our hospital. So it’s a tragedy for each of those women that had that happen to them.

Huynh says the carvings on the disk are rooted in the Mexican heritage of the mothers. They include imagery of Mexico’s matriarch saint, the virgin of Guadalupe.

PHUNG: When you look at it at the center of design are the praying hands of the Guadalupe, you know, acknowledging this very somber, contemplative space that’s sacred and devotional because a lot of the moms had to pray.

The rose and flower carvings that surround the virgin’s hands reflect the hand-tooled designs that often embellish traditional Mexican purses and shoes.

Huynh also drew huipils … hand-stitched indigenous tunics with flowers that have become a symbol of indigenous resistance.

PHUNG: But most importantly, when you sit there and gaze at the work, you’ll see the words of the moms of metal permanently on the wall. … And the way that the words are broken up, you’ll see, at the space, it’s broken because of the wall sectionals and you’ll see there’s a part where it’s broken and it says: speak English.

That phrase is symbolic of the discrimination women faced because they mainly spoke Spanish. Other quotes reflect the pain the women felt.

PHUNG: ‘Se me acabo la cancion,” my song is finished and I always thought like, with all this suffering, this mother still could poignantly and poetically describe how this made her feel.

Huynh admits the sculpture can’t undo the harm to these women. But she says it’s important to acknowledge the past.

PHUNG: This artwork is about apologizing and telling the moms we’re sorry, we didn’t forget, and we’ll never forget. And we’re sorry, not only to you, but for your children and your grandchildren and your families.

The hospital will soon display four quilts to complement the sculpture created by community residents and activists.

For Annenberg Media, I’m Citlalli Chávez-Nava