Film Spotlight: “On the Divide”
As a queer Latina raised in a Catholic household in Mexico, I often found myself questioning what to believe — my family’s faith or my belief in reproductive freedom. When I was young, I heard my first abortion story. I felt sorrow for the woman whose story was not only shared without her consent but eviscerated by strangers. At that moment, I thought to myself, “Where is our compassion for her?” That memory left me conflicted for years, until I began working with abortion advocacy groups that showed me that all of my beliefs could coexist together. Only I knew my story. Therefore, only I got to make decisions over my body.
I saw my own experiences reflected in the women profiled in the new film “On the Divide,” which tells the story of the only abortion clinic left along the Texas border with Mexico. A small one-story building, Whole Woman’s Health center has the words “Dignity,” “Empowerment,” “Compassion,” and “Justice” above a beautiful mural that depicts the diversity of the community in the Rio Grande Valley.
The film focuses on Mercedes, an anti-abortion advocate who is first seen in the film praying with her two young children at a Catholic church. The words “Misunderstood” and “I’m Innocent” are tattooed on her arms in a style common to someone who has had gang affiliations. Mercedes is trying to heal from a “tough life,” as Yolanda — owner of the local crisis pregnancy center in McAllen, Texas, which doesn’t provide abortion services — describes it. Two years before the documentary, Yolanda stopped Mercedes while she was seeking an abortion after becoming pregnant by sexual assault. Yolanda deterred Mercedes from entering the abortion clinic by calling her “beautiful.” For Mercedes, the word signified that someone was willing to see beyond her scars and tattoos — and her past. “My son was saved,” she says. In “On the Divide,” viewers witness Mercedes go through a pro-choice transformation, and learn that the salvation she sought was her own.
“On the Divide” comes at moment when Texas has become a battleground for radicalized attacks on both immigration and abortion rights.
Liberation is a common theme throughout “On the Divide.” When artificial birth control methods became accessible years ago, some of us were freed from the traditional lifetime of pregnancies. But for many of us, the sociocultural expectation that a woman must birth babies did not disappear. For example, I think of Rosie Jimenez — also mentioned in this film — who died in 1977 after she sought an abortion from a midwife who was not licensed to perform the procedure. Rosie’s passing is the first recorded death after the 1976 Hyde Amendment, which banned federal programs like Medicaid from funding abortion care that would have allowed Rosie to access a safe abortion. For decades, she has been a symbol for us. For me, she is a reminder of the generational expectations so many women of color still carry — women like Mercedes who are often misunderstood for the decisions they have made throughout their lives. Rosie’s memory haunts us as we watch abortion restrictions and bans take over the country.
“[Rosie Jimenez] is a reminder of the generational expectations so many women of color still carry — women like Mercedes who are often misunderstood for the decisions they have made throughout their lives.”
The film also follows the stories of the security guard and abortion escorts as they witness the vitriol from “pro-life” picketers outside the center. They see how the harassment affects the patients seeking self-affirming abortion care. And while they try to alleviate the tension with humor, it’s clear that they have deep compassion for all who enter the clinic’s doors. Ultimately, it is also compassion — compassion for herself — that shifts Mercedes’ perspective on abortion. “What I do know is that it is my body,” Mercedes says near the conclusion of the film. “And at the end of the day, it is my decision.”
“On the Divide” comes at moment when Texas has become a battleground for radicalized attacks on both immigration and abortion rights. It shows us how vulnerable populations, in this case a border community, always get caught in the throes of ideological battles. At a time when abortion access in this country is enduring its bleakest era in 50 years, the film is a cautionary tale about what life in a post-Roe world could look like in large swaths of the United States after the Supreme Court’s decision.