Just one year ago, Gaby Rodriguez was just like any other high school senior getting ready to graduate: She had good grades, good friends, a cute boyfriend and supportive family in her hometown of Toppenish, Washington.
As all graduating students do, Gaby was working on her year-end senior project. She never imagined her presentation would make national news. Or that she’d be asked to write a book about her experience. Or that Alexa Vega would play her on TV, with Judy Reyes as her mom in a Lifetime movie. Then again, it’s pretty unusual that a teenager would fake a pregnancy for almost six months as a homework assignment.
The Pregnancy Project, the school report based on the young Tejana‘s experience, observations and social treatment, is now The Pregnancy Project, the book, released by Simon & Schuster on Jan. 17. Not to be confused with The Pregnancy Project, the Lifetime movie that debuts on Saturday, Jan. 28.
All this attention could easily go to a teenager’s head, but this freshman at Columbia Basin Community College remains totally down-to-earth. She apologizes for calling 11 minutes late. “I’m still getting the hang of the media and this college-life role,” says 18-year-old Gaby. Back-to-back interviews? “No,” she says. “I just finished my classes for the day.” Oh. Awww. All of Gaby’s interviews, travel and appearances are booked around her school schedule and class assignments. And as soon as this second tsunami of publicity from the book and movie winds down, it’s back to school, back to reality. “I never considered myself an author. People ask me what I’m going to write about next, and I tell them I’m not.” She credits her co-author and now close friend, Jenna Glatzer on making her words come to life.
Read Related: The Real Struggles of America’s Teen Moms
BRUSH WITH HOLLYWOOD
Gaby is far from going “Hollywood.” Columbia Basin’s campus is located just an hour’s drive from Toppenish—far away enough to feel independent, but close enough that if she craves mami‘s cooking, she can still go home. Jorge, her high-school boyfriend through it all, has joined her as he vies for his electrician’s apprenticeship. After the first media blitz, Gaby said she was offered a few scholarships at universities, but “none that I was highly interested in.” Instead, she’s sticking to her original plan to get a transfer credit to Washington State University, where she’ll get her degree in psychology, then continue her education before getting married or having kids. (The girl is focused.)
But Gaby did have some giddy Hollywood moments hanging out with Alexa Vega (Our Spy Kid, all grown up!). “She’s so enthusiastic. She really wanted to understand me and where I was coming from.” She also met Walter Perez, who plays Jorge, and noted similarities between her boyfriend and the actor who plays him: “Not so much looks-wise, but personality-wise, yes.” She didn’t get to meet Judy Reyes, but thinks she did a phenomenal job, as did all the cast.
Also, Gaby was an extra during filming (look for her in the assembly scene), where Gaby reveals to the entire school that she is, in fact, not pregnant. It was October, six months after Gaby had originally lived that moment. Gaby says, “It was so unreal, hearing those words and seeing it unfold all over again. All those emotions that I had really put out of my mind for the past few months all came rushing back.”
THE DECISION TO GET “PREGNANT”
So how did The Pregnancy Project even come about? Gaby’s motives were somewhat selfish. She watched three of her older sisters get pregnant as teenagers. Her own mami, Juana, had her first baby at age 14, while her father was noticeably absent. Despite doing well academically and a remaining a virgin, Gaby had a boyfriend, Jorge, and they both knew they could easily be a statistic. She wanted to understand why teen pregnancy was such an epidemic, and if there was anything besides encouraging abstinence, that she could do to prevent teen pregnancy, or if there was another way to bring awareness to the situation and find resources. She also wanted to note the ways in which society, peers, family, friends treated all pregnant teens. Her goal of being a social worker or child psychologist clearly kicked in early.
Gaby went to her mom to get her blessing. The two are open and honest with each other about everything, and mom was determined to break the cycle, giving her The Talk while Gaby was in middle school. Gaby then went to her mentor, her doctor, who worked in a clinic for at-risk youth, talked with her about the stages and biological symptoms of pregnancy, so she could be as authentic as possible. Since her boyfriend didn’t want to to be a teen dad, he was all for it. She went to the Principal and School Superintendent with her proposal, and impressed with her thoroughness, they approved it. These were the only people who knew the Big Secret. Everyone was fooled, even as she padded her belly toward the end and prayed no one would touch it. But words cut deep. Schoolmates and adults would tell her that her life was over. That they knew it would happen. Fortunately, friendships were mended afterward. But Gaby saw how quickly, and viciously, the stereotypes of the pregnant Latina teen mushroomed.
HELPING TO PREVENT TEEN PREGNANCY
In the aftermath of her experience, Gaby hopes that The Pregnancy Project will be a source of strength for girls. “I want them to know that you can prevent teen pregnancy. But that if you do get pregnant, that it’s not the end of your life,” Gaby says. Because of her efforts, Toppenish High School has put some resources toward helping young students either prevent or prepare for pregnancy. (There were four teen moms in Gaby’s graduating class of 137.)
And yes, she has an opinion on the Teen Mom series on MTV. “Even though they show the struggle of being a teen mom or preparing for a baby, I feel like they glamorize the lifestyle. These girls are considered celebrities, are on the covers of magazines for getting into fights with other teen moms. It’s not something anyone should aspire to.”
AN ESTRANGED RELATIONSHIP, A LOW-KEY MOVIE PREMIERE
The only really bad experience came while attempting to reconnect with her estranged father. “I had just been on The Today Show and other TV programs,” she explains. “All these random people were responding to me how inspired they were and how proud they were of me. I thought maybe that might make my dad proud.” Gaby tracked her dad down, sent him all the newspaper clippings. The response? “He told me he didn’t get the point. I haven’t contacted him since.” Sin duda, nena.
Still, when she attends the movie premiere on Saturday, January 28, Gaby will be surrounded by the family and friends who love her, the teaching staff who supported her. Will it be a red-carpet affair? Nope. In fact, she’s going back to where it all started: the Toppenish High School auditorium for a special screening. No sequins required. Just jeans. Which is just the way Gaby likes it.
For more information on how to prevent teen pregnancy, visit The Pregnancy Project’s Teen Pregnancy Resources.
Check local listings for broadcast and rebroadcast times.