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LA County-USC Medical Center Unveils Artwork Apologizing To Women Forcibly Sterilized There

A rust-colored art project titled "Sobrevivir" features shapes cut into a flattened steel disc laid  on the ground. Flowers represent fertility and offerings and a set of hands symbolize the Virgen de Guadalupe.
Phung Huynh's "Sobrevivir," an art project made of steel, conveys the strength of the survivors of forced sterilizations at the L.A. County-USC Medical Center from 1968 and 1974.
(Gitanjali Mahapatra
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A new art project is intended to serve as an apology to the more than 200 women who suffered forced sterilizations decades ago at Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center.

Artist Phung Huynh's piece, "Sobrevivir," the Spanish word for "survive," serves as an ode to the survivors, many of whom immigrated from Mexico.

Artist Phung Huynh, wearing a yellow dress, stands in front of her art project, "Sobrevivir," an ode to the women — many of whom immigrated from Mexico — who underwent forced sterilizations.
Artist Phung Huynh at the unveiling ceremony of her artwork, "Sobrevivir." The project serves as an apology to the hundreds of women, many of whom immigrated from Mexico, who underwent forced sterilizations at the Boyle Heights hospital.
(Gitanjali Mahapatra

The installation, unveiled on Monday, lives in the hospital's courtyard. It's made of steel to "convey the strength" of the survivors and features flowers representing fertility and offerings. It features prayers of the survivors and a set of hands symbolic of the Virgen de Guadalupe.

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The walls around the "floor piece" feature words from the women, including the quote: "If you don't speak English, they treat you another way."

Huynh says the process started in 2018 when county supervisors formally apologized for the forced sterilizations.

"Part of that apology was to commission an artist to make a permanent public artwork to make sure that this history is never repeated and to apologize to the mothers," Huynh said.

The nonconsensual procedures at the Boyle Heights hospital happened from 1968-1974, when the county did not have an official forced sterilization program.

Still, it was part of a decades-long state effort to restrict the population of people it considered mentally defective or sexually deviant. California's history of forcibly sterilizing people dates back to 1909, when the Asexualization Act went into effect. Researchers have estimated that 20,000 people — many of them Black and Latino — were left unable to have children before the practice was finally stopped in 1979.

California passed a law to provide reparations last year, which included an estimated $25,000 for the hundreds of living survivors. But women who received forced sterilizations at the Boyle Heights hospital are not eligible.

Last year, county supervisors urged state leaders to pay reparations to the victims of forced sterilizations at the County-USC Medical Center.

When the art project and apology were first announced in 2018, Supervisor Hilda Solis said:

"The tremendous physical and emotional harm to these women, their families, and our communities cannot be undone. But we owe them our heartfelt apologies and a visual memorial, a plaque at LAC+USC Medical Center, that will remind current and future generations of this past injustice so that this tragedy will never occur again."
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L.A. County-USC officials say it was the first medical center in the nation to "acknowledge and atone for its past sterilization practices," though we have not independently verified that claim.

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