September 22, 2016 by Alba Alvarado
As a Latina, I have been taught that I am more likely to have a child in high school than to go off to college. I have spent the last two years fighting this stereotype, pushing to be heard and bringing the voice of low-income women into the halls of power. At my high school, that meant fighting stigma and social norms in pursuit of a simple, but revolutionary, conversation-sparking tool: a condom machine.
Less than 10 percent of Latinx students are enrolled in a 4-year college, but 53 percent of Latinas become pregnant at least once before age 20. I’m from San Rafael, California, where a majority of my peers are on free and reduced lunch. My school district of just three high schools has our own daycare center—but conversations about consent, safe sex and contraceptive access are scarce.
I became an Auntie at nine, when my 17-year-old brother and his girlfriend became pregnant. While everyone else around me was silent, they spoke to me about their lives as teen parents. I learned the very real barriers to contraceptive access for low-income teenagers. It made me frustrated and angry—so, like my immigrant parents, I searched for a solution.
With the help of Next Generation Scholars, I began to brainstorm ideas to create change in my community, but I needed to find out for myself what was truly accessible. I tried to get condoms, Plan B and information about birth control options at my school. After nine attempts at meeting the school nurse, I realized I needed to look elsewhere. I was directed to a local youth health program for sex-related questions, which came with its own issues—long lines, lots of paperwork and a three-hour wait.
Local stores aren’t an option, as most students don’t have extra cash, and almost all of the stores have people we know working in them. There’s a Planned Parenthood nearby to my neighborhood, but it isn’t advertised within the district because of feared community repercussions. Still I went. I found, to my surprise, that it was clean, private and free. It even offered bilingual support—yet no one was telling us about it.
I decided the only option was to lobby the school to get condom machines installed in the bathrooms. It would require a trip to the school board, which seemed simple enough. It wasn’t. The school board seemed excited by my plan, but was not able to give immediate feedback. I waited for five months and was continually denied a chance to speak. During that time, two more Latinas left my school to have children.
I took to the halls to distribute condoms from my backpack. What started as a few dozen condoms turned into hundreds. It may seem extreme to turn yourself into what my friends called a “human condom machine,” but I needed to take matters into my own hands. Next I launched a school club, held a parent meeting, surveyed students on sex and contraceptive access and interviewed teachers to build my case.
Two years later, when I was a senior, I was finally called back to the school board to get my answer. When my proposal passed, my family and community celebrated. But—and there is always a “but”—we would have to fund the condom machines ourselves.
The resources I had relied on for the first condom donation were running out until I was connected with the National Coalition of STD Directors (NCSD). Not only did NCSD use their existing partnership with TrojanTM to donate 10,000 condoms to my school district, they enabled us to see the power of our voices. As soon as people began to find out that our school was going have access to TrojanTM condoms, the news spread like wildfire. When we filled the condom machines for the first time, they were empty within an hour. To have donations from such a well-known brand like Trojan™ was a huge contribution to the success of our project.
My school and my community are so often counted out. Like so many communities in America, we are poor, we are Brown and we are struggling to make our way in this country. To be seen, to be acknowledged, to be protected is revolutionary and transformative.
For the first time, conversations on safe sex are happening freely in San Rafael. Across campus—in two languages—the conversation about safe sex spread quickly. I created posters and used Snapchat and Instagram to spread the word, even reaching students in other districts.
I am the first in my family to attend college. Here at Wesleyan, I hope to gain the education and experience I will need to become a changemaker in this field. College is a whole new world, and my family and I will struggle to make ends meet, but after all I have gone through to get to this moment I stand ready to keep fighting for sexual healthcare access for all.
I know my story is small and that there is still work to be done—but if a 17-year-old kid can get this far, just imagine what more could be done.
Alba A. Alvarado is a freshman student at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut. She is a first-generation college student. She hails from San Rafael, California where she was heavily involved in extracurricular activities, specifically community service. Her condom campaign changed countywide school policy and provided free access to students.