If you asked her friends and family members, Gaby Rodriguez was going to be a teen mom. That was the expectation. That was the inevitable reality for many young Latinas in her Toppenish, Wash., community, including her sisters.
And for nearly seven months, they were right. Rodriguez was pregnant – on her way to teen parenthood, and she hadn't yet graduated from high school.
Except none of it was true. Rodriguez, now a 20-year-old college student, made headlines in 2011 when she faked her own pregnancy as part of an elaborate social experiment designed to shatter stereotypes and teach a few lessons. Earlier this year, she published a memoir, "The Pregnancy Project," which documents her time "living down to others' expectations."
"I started this project during my sophomore year of high school," Rodriguez, who's studying psychology at Columbia Basin College in Pasco, Wash, said in an interview with U.S. News. "I was always told, 'You're going to be a teen parent. You're not going to go to college.' And my entire life, I fought against that stereotype. School was my getaway from everything – and just, you know, wanting to make a better life for myself, because I knew I had that potential."
In Rodriguez' world, teen pregnancy was practically a family tradition. Her mother became pregnant at age 14, and many of Rodriguez' seven siblings had babies before graduating high school. Altogether, she has more than 30 nieces and nephews. More than 75 percent of the Toppenish population is Latino, and teen pregnancy rates there hover above those nationwide. Around 44 percent of Latina teens will get pregnant before age 20, compared with 30 percent of teens overall, according to the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy.
Those statistics helped propel Rodriguez into action, embarking on a mission to raise awareness about teen pregnancy. "It was a crazy idea, and yet, it felt like the perfect idea," she writes in "The Pregnancy Project." "Maybe it would give me some understanding into why there are so many sad stories resulting from teen pregnancy – why the mothers don't wind up doing much with their lives, why the kids so often have problems with anger, depression and substance abuse. It felt like a puzzle I needed to solve. I also wanted to open up a discussion about stereotypes and statistics."
Only Rodriguez' mother, boyfriend, best friend and principal were in on the secret. Her mom helped her make a faux baby bump out of wire and clay, with some cotton stuffed underneath. That, coupled with oversized clothing, was enough to fool everyone Rodriguez interacted with, including her siblings and her boyfriend's parents.
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When the bump made its grand debut, Rodriguez recalls feeling like a zoo animal. Whispers, judgmental looks – suddenly, she felt as though she were wearing a "badge of shame," marked for a life of failure. She wanted to remember those feelings, so during the months that followed, she took notes on her peers' and teachers' comments and reactions.
"I had teachers who would say, 'What a waste of a life. She had everything going for her,'" says Rodriguez, who was in the top 5 percent of her class. "I thought they would say, 'Yeah, she got pregnant, but she's still a great student.' And unfortunately, it wasn't like that."
Some friends were supportive, reassuring her that they knew she would prevail. Others were quick to join the chorus of negative comments. Her siblings weren't shocked – they "assumed" this would happen, after all, and Rodriguez heard "told you so" more than a few times. Her boyfriend's parents were among the most disheartened: "They were furious, and they didn't talk to him for a while," she says. "They told us we had ruined our lives, and that now we had to stick together and worry about the baby."