Birth of an Activist
Sometimes the very nature of our existence is revolutionary.
I became a mother less than one month after my 17th birthday. My choice to carry my pregnancy to term was looked down upon by friends, family, and the community as a whole.
Young motherhood is rebellious.
Our society has longed framed teen pregnancy as a public health risk. It has sought to portray young parents and their children as social pariahs, guilty of generating added costs to taxpayers in the form of public assistance and loss of productivity. The strategic methods used to stigmatize young parents have been employed by politicians and organizations alike.
Stereotypes about young parents often fit into a pattern of racist tropes that seek to justify the coercive and punitive treatment of women of color that further disenfranchises them on the basis of “careless” or “immoral” behavior.
Campaigns designed to decrease teen pregnancy rates disproportionately use young parents of color in their imagery, furthering racist attitudes regarding the perceived economic burden that they and their children create.
Sadly, the stigma surrounding young parenthood results in a generally accepted attitude that it’s perfectly ok to treat teen mothers poorly. I quickly learned this at the hands of medical professionals, teachers, and random strangers on the street.
On one hand, I felt fiercely proud of the little life I was growing. On the other, there was a deep sense of fear and shame as I realized I was embarking on a lifelong journey that was predicted to result in failure and strife.
My son was born on a brisk January night. The sky was clear, the moon waning gibbous. In the hours following his birth, I stayed awake with my nose pressed against his. I was in complete awe of the fact that we were finally breathing the same air.
Even before leaving the hospital, I began to internalize the idea that I was unfit to be a “good enough” mother. I felt looked down upon by nearly everyone I encountered. The one thing I was certain of, is that I was unequivocally driven to provide my little child with the best life possible.
Early in high school, I was unmotivated and distracted. My grades reflected this. Once my son was born, I carried a 4.0 GPA and eventually graduated on time.
Meanwhile, my older sister, Felicia, was a student at UC Berkeley. She lived at Casa Joaquin Murieta, which, during the late 90s, was a Chicanx/Latinx student co-op near campus. The summer after my high school graduation, as I prepared to enter community college, I’d pack my son and I into my Acura, and drive to Berkeley to visit her.
We’d stay in her dorm room for the weekend, soaking in the plethora of activities on campus. My sister’s housemates came to know Elijah well. They’d carry him around from room to room, entertaining him with whatever diversions were on hand.
They taught me how to carefully wrap him in colorful rebozos so that I could easily tote him around the city.. Elijah accompanied us to Azteca dance practice, mariachi rehearsals, campus protests/actions, and underground hip-hop shows in Oakland.
Years later, I became a Child Development major at Sacramento State University and began to study social learning theory. Bandura’s social learning theory is the view that people learn and acquire new skills by observing others. In short, my son was absorbing experience we shared in a way that was simultaneously shaping his personality and cognitive framework.
It was then that I realized how influential this varied exposure had been in the overall arch of my son’s development.
During my visits to my sister’s student co-op housing, I had unintentionally fostered a socially conscious child. And through the same set of experiences, Elijah’s presence alongside mine had cultivated the seeds of my own activism.
Somewhere along the way, we had raised each other.
By the time I’d entered graduate school, Elijah had two younger brothers. I’d always wanted a big family, I just hadn’t envisioned it in conjunction with my trajectory through higher education.
My recollections of early parenthood are saturated with images of tree-lined pathways and lecture halls. My memories smell like college libraries, campus child-care centers and the continental breakfasts served at the weekend conferences I’d attend with my children. My memories feel like the precarious balance of a baby carrier on the front and a weighted bookbag upon my back.
These memories evoke a swelling sense of pride.
My children may have missed out on Gymboree music classes, neighborhood playdates and other childhood milestones deemed valuable by conventional social standards. But in exchange, they absorbed a diverse dose of experiences that are unquantifiable in nature.
In exchange, they witnessed my growth as a student, an educator, and a parent.
The stigma and struggles attached to young parenthood were the circumstances upon which I honed my advocacy skills. First for myself, then my children, and later for others in situations similar to our own.
In retrospect, I cannot envision my parenthood separate from my experience as a student. Only recently have I come to see that my identity as an activist was born the day I decided, at sixteen years old, to go against the advice of nearly everyone in my world and embark into motherhood.
For me, advocacy is like breathing. Necessary not only for my own survival, but for that of my children and the community we live in.
Christina’s eldest son Elijah is now 22 years old. He will be graduating with his bachelor’s degree from the University of California, Davis in Spring of 2019.
Christina Martinez is an Early Childhood Educator with the Sacramento City Unified School District, and a mother of four. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in Child Development and a Masters degree in Early Childhood Education. Christina is a co-founder of noteenshame.org, a nationally-recognized social movement by and for young parents to eradicate stigma which negatively impacts access to quality healthcare, education, and community support. She is also an organizer with EduColor, an organization dedicated to race and social justice issues in education. Christina recharges herself through running, yoga, sketching, writing, and book collecting. You can find her on Twitter & Medium @christinaixchel.