When I saw the raw aftermath footage of a woman giving birth at a bus stop on Market Street the other week, I was struck by a number of things.
First, I felt very uncomfortable that I was watching the video without the mother’s permission. Here she was, going through this surprising yet very private event, and several bystanders felt it was appropriate to video tape her. The person who was taking the video, who would later sell it to KRON news, was making nasty and disturbing comments, calling the mother names, doing nothing to assist and treating her and her baby as sideshow freaks. One woman helped her to her seat, while others didn’t notice as they passed by or stood around gawking at the baby on the ground.
After what seemed like an eternity, a man, who we later learned was named Esau Marquez, rode by, jumped off his bike and wrapped the baby up in his sweatshirt.
Second, I was struck by the coverage on this event which used words like “disturbing,” “graphic,” “bloody” and “shocking,” and much attention was given to the man who wrapped up the baby. Marquez was hailed a hero, and perhaps he was, but not for the reasons stated in the media. I looked at other street births, and of course they have happened everywhere: in a Philadelphia train subway, where passengers cheered; on the sidewalk in Guagzhou, China, where neighbors helped with the delivery; on a New York crosswalk, where a news crew pulled over and passersby wrapped the well-heeled mother and baby up in scarves.
All of these stories were cheerful and took on a bit of a folksy bent because, as one newscaster said, sometimes the stork doesn’t wait for the bus. The tenor of that coverage was markedly different for San Francisco’s street birth, where the mother was poor, black and clearly traumatized.
Giving birth is a milestone moment in a woman’s life. It is painful, powerful and beautiful all mixed together. It can take what feels like an eternity or happen surprisingly fast. But the beauty of this moment was lost in the framework of the socioeconomic status of the woman giving birth. The tragedy was not that she gave birth outside the hospital, it was how she was treated — not just at this pinnacle moment in her life, but that she has been cast aside and thought of as a member of a permanent underclass somehow markedly different from the rest of society. Women who are homeless have it crazy rough — there is extraordinarily high levels of rape, abuse and victimization of homeless women, especially women suffering from mental illnesses. These episodes of trauma for women predate homelessness, and then elevate during homelessness. They are layered upon ongoing traumatic conditions, such as struggling to meet basic survival needs and living with ongoing dangers and threats. Women are powerful survivors, and homeless women shoulder an unfair burden of pain and struggle. This is, of course, a man-made tragedy born from bad policy decision and governmental neglect.
The media made big noise about what Marquez did. The stark disparity in the press narratives on street births suggest that, because the mother was destitute, the baby was untouchable, and that is why it was so heroic of Marquez to pick the baby up. In the other stories of mothers giving birth, plenty of people helped, and it was taken for granted and merely noted.
The Chronicle’s piece by Chuck Nevius laid it out plainly, writing that society is expected to avert their eyes when walking in impoverished areas like 6th Street.
In his interview, Marquez denied being a hero and stated he did what anyone would do. He spoke with perfect eloquence, explaining, “I did not stop to think whether this is a homeless or rich person. I believe that a human life is very precious. We should be able to help one another and reach out to each other in spite of, regardless of status or who we are. I just did it because there was a human being in need.”
That is exactly the kind of straight talk that does make him an everyday hero. Now it’s time for The City to follow Marquez’s example — pick our babies up and make sure they have the opportunity to live.
Jennifer Friedenbach is executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness.