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Fighting for the Next Generation

of Midwives

In a family with five generations of midwives in Nebaj, Catarina was reluctant to accept the calling. “I saw how my mother had to leave in the wee hours of the night to deliver a baby,” she says. 

Catarina is married and his husband often takes her on his motorcycle when she has to make late-night house calls far away. In fact, it was her husband’s father – a rare male birthing coach – who finally convinced her to become a midwife.

“He said, ‘You have the gift,’” she recalls. “He convinced me that it was a gift from God that I could not deny. Now, with Nim Alaxik, I feel better. In this circle of midwives, we support each other.”

For years, Catarina provided limited midwife services, such as stomach massages to ease pregnancy pains and assess babies’ growth, nutritional advice, and traditional steam baths (temazcal), but stopping short of actual delivery. But in January 2024, she attended her first birth. “I was filled with courage seeing a woman bring a baby into this world,” she says. “My self-esteem increased when I realized what we are capable of doing.”

The connection between a pregnant woman and her midwife begins early and builds slowly, Catarina says. And now, through training and advocacy efforts, midwives are becoming more respected not only in their communities but also in healthcare facilities, where they are a vital link in providing access to Indigenous women and other marginalized people.

“Historically, doctors did not value the work of midwives,” she says. “My grandmother and other midwives were always rejected by health centers, but they kept fighting and offering their services to the people. Things have started to change because of people like my grandmother fighting against discrimination.

“I hope that the next generation of midwives – my children and my colleagues’ children – will be acknowledged and respected. We contribute a lot. We monitor the health of pregnant women at their homes. Doctors only wait for their patients in their office. We don’t have tools like an ultrasound, but we can feel the position of the baby. If there is a problem, we can refer the patient to the doctor.”

Like many midwives, Catarina relies on homeopathic medicine – aloe gel, tobacco salve, mint tea – crafted from plants grown in her courtyard off a busy, narrow street in Nebaj. She has a dedicated examination room for her patients in a cool corner shielded from direct sunlight.

“Our greatest challenge as midwives is helping people who are great distances away,” she says. “Some villages are five or six hours from Nebaj. If it’s raining or we don’t have any electricity, we have to go using only the light from our cellphone. But it is important work, and I encourage all midwives to keep supporting those who need us – our daughters, our sisters, our people.”

Catarina’s mother, Jacinta, is well into her 80s and still serves as a midwife. Her only concession to age is that she no longer makes house calls.