Isabel Perez has been my friend over the last fifteen years. Her life encompasses the ancient and modern, the rural and urban, South and North America. Birth has always been at the centre of Isabel’s life. She lives within an effortless recognition that the seen is evidence of the unseen, that heaven and earth are one condition.
Isabel was born in Guatemala to Mayan parents. Her great-grandmother was a nodrisa, a traditional midwife. Her father was a shaman. After the devastating earthquake in 1976, Isabel, her husband and children were brought to the U.S. by Ina May Gaskin, a pioneering midwife, now world renowned. Isabel trained and worked with Ina May for four years on The Farm in Tennessee. She contributed to a community whose way of handling birth resulted in a caesarean rate of only 1.4% amongst 2,028 women from 1970 to 2000. Home was the environment for 95.1% of the births. Isabel then moved to Toronto where she practiced midwifery until it was integrated into the Ontario health care system in 1993. Subsequently, Isabel has worked as a doula.
What follows is some of the conversation we had in her kitchen this past May. The sounds of living accompanied our talk: splashing water running from the kitchen sink, rice being washed, boiled and stirred; tea being poured; spoons touching bowls; our swallows. Isabel cooked and shared a breakfast of rice pudding while she carried the thread of her narrative. These sounds place her story in the current of daily life. Hear them as you read!
Crescence Krueger What is the most powerful thing that you bring to a birth?
Isabel Perez Confidence. Peace. Love. And trust. Those are the words my clients use, eh? So I’m just repeating them. I have a very simple personality. And that works for me almost everywhere. It’s very simple, the way that I work. Very simple. You have seen.
CK That’s what I love.
IP Women, especially these days, find information on the internet, in books, from their doctors. Anything they want to worry about, they can find. And for me, I touch those things if they really want me to touch them. But if they don’t need me to, I don’t. I keep it simple as possible. I use my hands and my voice, pretty much.
CK Keeping it simple allows you to drop into the heart.
CK To not get caught up in the head…
IP Oh, yeah!
CK …and to come down into the body and into the heart. That’s where the spiritual work of birth work comes in, right?
IP I think this is one of my gifts. I have very good intuition and I go to people and work through my heart and through love. I love my clients. I don’t use them as my work, right? I use them to become very close with them.
CK There’s an intimacy.
IP Yeah. If I use my heart, I listen to my spirit. And I believe that my spirit guides me to better places. Sometimes, if I fail, it’s because I wasn’t listening. Most of the time, I hear. Most of the time, I know. So when I come here to Toronto and get involved in so much, my mind comes to be very busy. Now that I’m getting older, I’m taking myself back again to the place where I was.
CK To where you began. You said you had an urge to do this work when you were twelve. Do you remember what it was that was drawing you?
IP Oh, because of the work that was happening in my family around birth.
CK That attracted you?
IP Oh, yeah, that attracted me. We lived in my parents’ house but we spent most of our weekends at my grandparents’ farm. My family was very traditional. My grandfather was Mayan from my mom’s side. His mother was a nodrisa. She worked for the wealthy people. She lived with pregnant women and took care of them through the pregnancy and she caught the babies and she actually breastfeed the babies herself.
CK She did everything.
IP Yeah, she left their homes when the babies stopped nursing, I guess.
So my grandfather, he inherited this farm from her. When I was a kid, if we didn’t go to the ocean or to the rivers, we went to the farm. You know…our family was so big, my grandfather used to rent a bus. We used to go on a bus… to the lakes and they’d cook and we’d swim and have fun and when we wasn’t there we’d go to the farm. And the farm was beautiful. It was amazing. He had an orchard. He had it for us so we could go and pick and eat whatever we wanted. And he had a few animals. He built a room for each one of his kids with their kids. It was big enough for all of us to sleep in. And there was a tiny little kitchen that our mom could make breakfast in. For lunch we did it in the big kitchen…almost the size of my house! They cooked big pots of food and we all sat together and ate.
CK How many were in that extended family?
IP Oh, we was thirty-nine grandchildren.
CK Wow. I remember you telling me a story about… was it the farm that had a room specifically for women to give birth in?
IP No, that was in the city. My grandparents owned another house in the city. They had this tiny, tiny room. It had one bed and a table and a dresser. This is where all the babies was born. There was kids always being born…and of course we got training. If you was young, if you was of the age, you know, that you could be training, right?
CK Training by watching and being around?
IP Yeah, I think so.
CK You told me once about a birth where your grandmother organized making chocolate to keep all the children busy until the baby was born.
IP Yeah. My grandmother used to make chocolate for business. She always had a batch ready for when somebody was going to go into labour. She processed the chocolate night and day. So we hang out with her, you know, drinking tea or whatever, or coffee, who knows, and eating. I remember my mother was in labour and my grandmother was roasting and working on that until the baby was born.
CK It was a good labour project.
IP Yeah, because it’s a process to make homemade chocolate.
CK And so your life and birth were integrated, right?
IP Oh, yeah.
CK It wasn’t something that was hidden away in hospitals.
IP No, no. My family started going to the hospital when our midwife died. I went to her when I was pregnant with Frederico. She was still alive but she was blind. Her son was a doctor but she was still taking women. She did the tummy massage and she palpated the babies. She died the year Frederico was born so I gave birth to him in the hospital.
My mother and grandmother always tell me what to do when I was pregnant, what I need and don’t need; they was very aware of the pregnancy process. This is how with the earthquake and being pregnant with my twins, I didn’t bother to go to the hospital or the doctor’s because it was too hard to get to the doctor.
On the 4th of February, 1976, more than 25,000 people were killed when an earthquake devastated Guatamala City.
And I thought, “I know how to take care of myself.” And I pretty much went to the hospital just to give birth.
I was fully dilated when I got there.
CK You were fully dilated.
IP Yeah, yeah.
CK You were living in a tent then?
IP Oh yeah, because of the earthquake, we moved to a tent. We moved to a tent with 350 people, families. Yeah. And this is where I was for my pregnancy. And ah, this is where we lived when my twins was born.
CK When did you know you were pregnant with twins? How did you figure that out?
IP Laughter I was denying it… but everybody thought I was pregnant with twins. I was huge, bigger than ever, right? But I didn’t want to pay attention to that. I didn’t want to be overwhelmed with that so I just carried on until, until the first baby come out.
CK Oh, you’re kidding?!
Yeah! The first baby come out and my doctor, he said that it was his first delivery. And actually…
CK Of any baby?
IP Yeah. He said that it was his first delivery on his own and he wasn’t so sure what was going on because I still have a big lump.
IP The big lump. And so he went to get another doctor and they got a midwife who comes and she checks me and she’s like, “Oh, Doctor, she has another baby there.” So twenty-two minutes later the second twin was born. Yeah, they say when you start feeling contractions, just push like you have to push a big cow. Because the other baby, Elmar, was feet first, right; he was breech. And so, I push and he comes out. Yeah, I think we just lucky, you know. I think we was just lucky.
CK And he was fine?
IP He was fine, oh yeah. We went home forty-eight hours after they was born. Yeah, they was nursing; I already had two children. Frederico nursed for two and a half years and Lukie nursed for two years so I know my way with that one.
CK And no bleeding issues?
IP Not that I remember. It was fine. I don’t remember having major issues, you know. I was on my feet pretty quick. We don’t have no, there was no ah, no choice, right? You just get up and do what you have to do.
CK And you were living in a tent at that point.
IP We living in a tent. We have to walk almost two blocks to get to an outhouse. We have to walk to go and wash the laundry.
CK You were doing diapers for twins.
IP Yeah, my two sisters and my mom, they come and help us out in the beginning. They always helped out for two or three weeks. They cook and do the laundry and help out with the kids.
CK And so around this time is when you met Ina May?
IP Ah, well I met Ina May probably when the twins was under a year old. I met Mother Theresa first.
CK Mother Theresa?
IP Yeah, yeah. This is how I met Ina May and The Farm. Because Mother Theresa come to build a place for mothers who have babies so we can go and get water; we can get food or do our laundry. And so we did an exchange. I help in the kitchen and with cleaning and they take care of my twins for two or four hours so I can go and organize my day with my other kids. And the people from The Farm, they was working in Mother Theresa’s place.
CK Ah. I never heard that part of the story.
IP Yeah, so this is why Mother Theresa is one of my spiritual guides. You know that I have her on my altar? Because she’s in my work.
CK And so you met Ina May when you were working there?
IP Yeah. I was pregnant with Carla, and she said, “Why don’t you go to The Farm and have your baby? I could train you to become a midwife.” So I say,”Really?” I really wanted to do that since I was a girl. It had been sinking into my head. We got to The Farm when I was eight months pregnant. I have to be on bed rest for almost three weeks. That was the only way that I could keep her inside. It drove me crazy but…
CK And what was the birth like?
IP Was good. Was long because I had been resting. At seven in the morning on my due date, I got a call from them and they say, “You can get up and do whatever you want.” Before, every time that I get up, I was having contractions. She was born by ten in the night. I was in labour all day.
IP Oh, yeah. All my births are a piece of cake.
CK How long, on average?
IP Usually my labours start around four in the morning. I used to wake up with my water breaking and then contractions start happening. Frederico was born at nine fifteen in the morning.
CK Five hours.
IP Yeah and Lukie was born at eleven in the morning.
CK What about the twins?
IP The twins, the same. My contractions, they start in the early morning and I always do the same thing: have a nice warm shower; get my house clean; sweeping; making sure everything is done. And Fidel made sure that his work knows that he wasn’t going and I went to the hospital about eight in the morning. Eight? No. It wasn’t eight. It was later because I was fully dilated when I got there. And Paula was born at ten in the morning. And Elmar was born at ten twenty-two. Yeah. Fast, fast, fast, fast. Nice and easy.
CK And then how did your training begin? That’s something that interests me enormously because you were mentored as a midwife. And that form of training no longer happens here, obviously.
IP Oh, it was very beautiful and I think there’s really no comparison, you know. I even learn English through midwifery.
CK Did you know any English when you came to Tennessee?
IP Ina May knows a little bit of Spanish so she say, “You teach me Spanish and I teach you midwifery.” And I say, “Sure! That sounds easy!” And so she invited me to come to the first birth when Carla was one month old. She said, “Are you ready? You can bring your baby.” So Carla was allowed and I started to go to births pretty much to observe. Not doing anything. Just to sit and watch. And slowly I stopped bringing Carla with me because she was starting to move around. Sometimes I’d have someone come and pick her up because the baby was going to be born and at that time I was already helping out. And then I used to attend three days of clinic a week also. The clinic was very simple. We checked the pee and blood pressure and made sure the babies was good [by listening to fetal heart tones] and the moms was good. Of course, most of the women, they was in good health. We didn’t have to worry. So I worked there, at the clinic, and I was going to every birth, especially if the birth was risky for some reason: twins births, breech babies.
CK How many births would The Farm midwives deal with a month?
IP Oh! They used to do a lot. I was on my own one time, being the only one midwife with assistant midwives. I think they left me just to see how I handle that. And we had three births in less than twenty-four hours.
CK Was that because The Farm was so big at that point? Or was that because so many people came in?
IP Because a lot of people come. A lot of people on The Farm have babies but also we have people from all over the place: from Germany, from Mexico, from Chile, from all sorts of different places in the States.
CK I remember you telling me that Ina May wanted you to take responsibility for births a lot sooner than you were willing to.
IP I attended a hundred births before I caught my first baby. It was only because she keeps saying, “You know…you are ready! You’re more ready than you think.” And then one day I said, “O.K.” The woman was my friend and so it was very nice. The baby had the cord around the neck, but Ina May was right there and she said, “It’s O.K.; you just do this.” Very peaceful. No pressure.
CK No stress.
IP No stress. No excitement. And I was able to do it and it was like, “Wow!” All the other midwives was very nice too. I did feel very special to them because they know where I come from and they know my English wasn’t big, so they really teach me by showing me…even holding my hands. Ina May and all of them, they used to hold my hands.
CK So teaching through touch, passing on the skills in such a tangible way.
IP Very gentle. Very gentle. After, when I moved to Toronto, I realized that I had learned midwifery through energy, through the vibrations of what was happening because the language wasn’t my language!
CK Yes, but even more, because that’s how Ina May worked anyway, right?
CK What did you learn from Ina May about the essence of your job as a midwife? Where was most of the attention put?
IP On love and compassion. And not… mmm… not to have expectations. Just to go with the flow. I think that was pretty basic.
CK So you’re working with the feeling in the room, the feeling from a woman, the feeling in her partner.
IP Right, right.
CK And making sure that that feeling was good and warm and open and loving.
CK And then from that, I’m guessing, things would then tend to fall into place, right?
IP Yeah. And also I think I learn…because Ina May is very strong…even if she’s very sweet, she have a strength in herself, I think I learn a lot of courage, a lot of strength from her.
CK That she would go to that place of strength and calm.
IP Yeah. That was her strength.
CK One of Mark Whitwell’s yoga teachers was T.K.V. Desikachar. His father, Krishnamacharya, was a great and very learned yogi, a healer and teacher. Desikachar says that you can pass on information, a ton of information, but true teaching happens through the heart and it’s a transmission.
IP Yeah. Yeah.
CK What I get from you is that Ina May is a true teacher.
IP Yeah. Yeah.
CK And that you were a true student!
IP I love Ina May. In my heart, I love her. I do love her. I have her in my prayers and in my meditation.
CK What we get through love and compassion, that’s missing when we just pass on information to each other. And in that absence, the truth of the power of this work is missing , I think.
IP Then I think people use power but they don’t know how to use it; they don’t understand what real power is. You can be so little but have big strength. That is power, right? But they don’t understand. Power in birth comes from being able to accept reality. You deal with things as they truly are. This is what is happening right now. And you have to do that, right?
CK Right. So it’s the greatest spiritual work…
CK …seeing reality for what it is. And getting out of your own way around that.
IP Well, that’s one thing too. Whenever I have clients who I know are in their head, I just take it; I hold their head and I say,” Take a deep breath and just get out of your way.” Yeah so…
CK Birth demands…
IP It demands integrity in your own self. As a support person, right?
CK Yes. Huge. Yes.
IP Even when your life is falling apart, you don’t bring that into the place. You always have to learn to put your life to the side and be there because this is where you are.
CK Fully present.
IP I really like my work right now. I don’t know if I miss catching babies. The actual catching can be very challenging, holding those babies when they are so slippery, making sure they’re not going to drop. You have to be so conscious. To hold them… it’s pretty interesting… I think the way we work is very easy.
CK Well, it’s clear and it’s focused and no one else is doing what we’re doing.
IP I’m enjoying it. I’m very at peace with myself. I’ve done midwifery. Maybe I was meant to do it to learn and to have a better understanding. Now, I’m free.
Isabel continues to work in Toronto as a Doula. She and I provide back-up for each other. To contact Isabel directly, please call 416.604.9274, or her cell, 416.419.0122.