Rosie Zaballos liked to host playtime tea parties and was sweet to everyone she met. But her older brother worried that the 16-year-old, whom her family described as “a little slow,” might someday become pregnant.
In his 30s and married, he had three kids of his own. And their mom was sick and needed help. So he took Rosie to be sterilized at a state-run hospital so she couldn’t have babies who might place an extra burden on the family.
Rosie never came home. She died during the operation.
This painful history, recounted by Rosie’s niece, Barbara Swarr, was rarely discussed in Barbara’s family when she was growing up in a Spanish immigrant neighborhood in Hayward.
But in the past few years, Swarr, now 70, has pieced together the details of her aunt’s short life and the prevailing attitudes toward immigrants, poor people and those with disabilities that allowed more than 20,000 Californians to be sterilized under the state’s eugenics law — often without their consent — over a 70-year period in the 1900s.
“This was something nobody thought twice...