The Toppenish teen who faked a pregnancy for a school project said she wanted to get people — especially in the Hispanic community — talking more openly about a prevalent social problem.
YAKIMA — Nine months after revealing to classmates that she had faked her pregnancy for a senior-class project, a Washington state teenager is promoting a new book that details the experience and explores her reasons for taking on the project.
Gaby Rodriguez, of Toppenish, Yakima County, earned international headlines last April when she announced at a high-school assembly that she had worn a faux baby bump for months to explore stereotypes about teen pregnancy.
Only a handful of people, including her mother, boyfriend and principal, were in on the secret. The rest of the Toppenish community, where buildings are adorned with Western-themed murals in Central Washington’s agricultural Yakima Valley, had no clue.
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The local newspaper, the Yakima Herald-Republic, published a story that was then picked up nationally by The Associated Press, and the project drew both praise and criticism. Some people credited her for selflessly committing to her idea and addressing such a serious topic, while others lashed out at her for lying for a school project.
Rodriguez said in a recent interview that critics who don’t understand why she took on the project in the first place should find answers in her book: namely, that as someone from a family with a long history of teen pregnancy, she wanted to get people — especially in the Hispanic community — to start talking more openly about a prevalent social issue.
The book, “The Pregnancy Project,” was written with a ghostwriter. A movie about the experience, starring “Spy Kids” actress Alexa Vega, premieres Jan. 28 on the Lifetime movie network, and Rodriguez is making numerous television and radio appearances to promote her story.
The book details her mother’s first pregnancy, at age 14, and marriage to the baby’s father — a 16-year union troubled by allegations of abuse that produced seven children. Their three daughters got pregnant as teenagers and two sons got their girlfriends pregnant.
Teen pregnancy was practically a family tradition, Rodriguez said.
“It’s hard to understand why they didn’t learn from each other; I guess they all needed to make their own mistakes,” she wrote in the book. “They have great kids, but it’s never easy to have children before you’re even fully grown yourself.”
Her mother, Juana, said it was difficult to share her story so openly.
“There are a lot of women who go through stuff like that and they prefer to try to forget it, but sometimes it’s better to get it out,” she said, adding that the story was an important part of understanding Gaby, who was born later and has a different father.
“A lot of people were making comments, ‘How could she do that?’ without really knowing. They needed to know.”
The experiment took on particular significance in Toppenish, which is about 75 percent Hispanic. Latinas have the highest teen pregnancy and birthrate among any major racial or ethnic minority.
In the top 5 percent of her class, Rodriguez participated in a leadership class and lectured her friends about safe sex. But she still heard the refrain — often from members of her own family — that she’d end up just like her sisters.
“Being a Hispanic girl from a family full of teen pregnancies meant that my odds of also becoming a teen mom were way higher than average,” she wrote. “If I gave people what they predicted, how would they react?”
The profile of teen moms has changed in recent years. Kids on shows like MTV’s “Teen Mom” and “16 and Pregnant” have taken spots alongside movie stars on magazine covers. Now 18 and a student at Columbia Basin College studying psychology, Rodriguez said she doesn’t condone teen pregnancy.
“It’s something we have to be very aware of. I wish we could have more information on that in schools — and if parents don’t want that, they should be more open about it,” she said.
“In my home, my mom was always open with me about it, and I’m absolutely glad that she was.”
After Rodriguez’s revelation, a student who was pregnant told her she was glad about the project.
“She was so proud of me,” Rodriguez said of the girl, now a senior. “Because it showed how much she had to struggle and I gave her the inspiration to move forward and inspire her child now.”
If anything, Rodriguez believes that should be the biggest message from her experience: Things will definitely be OK.
“It’s not the end of the road for them,” she said. “It’s going to be harder, but it’s not the end of the road.”