Racializing Social Membership in Natalia Molina’s Fit To Be Citizens?: Public Health and Race in Los Angeles, 1879-1939

Fit To Be Citizens?

Fit To Be Citizens?

Through the wonders of social media, namely Twitter, I have been sharing and recommending hundreds of Chicana/o books and film titles amongst my “followers” for the last four years in order to promote Chicana/o literacy, encourage students to major or minor in Chicana/o Studies, to dispel the myth that Chicanas/os are not creating scholarly and literary works by and for Chicanas/os, and lastly to facilitate an expansive list of works for people to search out these titles in their local bookstores and libraries for personal reading enjoyment or academic research purposes.

Knowledge is our weapon. Knowledge is power. Specifically, knowledge is Chicano Power.

Chicano Power, then, demands that we work towards dismantling racist and sexist institutional structures that negate our human rights as Indigenous peoples. Knowing our history, also, forces us to challenge false assumptions about Chicanas/os that are falsely spread in academic circles and in social media spaces.

We have been omitted from the historical record, and when we do appear we are depicted as passive, docile, and only participating in the social landscape as a result of outside assistance. We are never allowed to exist as original inhabitants. Nearly every time the Chicana/o-Mexicana/o experience is discussed, especially on social media, it is done thru a racist filter that usually describes some outside ethnic/racial group discovering or influencing us, thus revoking our autonomy, sovereignty, and agency as a people.

And so what I wanted to do for this particular blog space was to highlight several Chicana/o books and film titles that our people might find of interest and meaningful as they search for their own knowledge and self-determination. These reviews and those of other contributors are written from a Chicana/o-Mexicana/o frame of reference.

If you are interested in sharing a written review of your favorite Chicana/o book, film, art exhibit, etc. please feel free to contact via email at clshc@me.com – Resistance Through Knowledge, one book at time.

cultural sovereignty

Emerging New Chicana/o Studies Scholarship


Rebirth: Mexican Los Angeles from the Great Migration to the Great Depression

The early literature on Mexican Americans during the early 1900s usually centered on the various socioeconomic push and pull factors that shaped the Mexican “immigrant” experience in the “settling” of early barrios, such as in El Paso and Los Angeles (see for example: Mario T. García’s Desert Immigrants: The Mexicans of El Paso, 1880-1920 [1981] and Douglas Monroy’s Rebirth: Mexican Los Angeles from the Great Migration to the Great Depression [1999]).

As these two studies demonstrate, Mexicans in El Paso and Los Angeles did not passively migrate from México to the United States, but in the process of migration and settling actively transformed their space, culture, and identity.

As the field of Chicana/o Studies matures, emerging new scholars are making significant contributions to the field helping us to better understand the Mexican experience in the United States by going beyond the traditional “immigrant” narrative. These Mexican “immigrant” studies are important for they reveal the migratory patterns of Mexicans into the Midwest, the Eastern seaboard, and even Alaska. The migratory process was both a familial and personal choice as well as influenced by American corporate interests.

Desert Immigrants

Desert Immigrants: The Mexicans of El Paso, 1880-1920

Most importantly to the discipline of Chicana/o Studies is that these emerging scholars expand and refine our previous ideas on race, class, gender, and sexuality, all while continuing to deconstruct and decenter Eurocentric analysis of our community.

One of the emerging scholars in the discipline of Chicana/o Studies is Dr. Natalia Molina whose work brilliantly synthesizes the interdisciplinary, multidisciplinary, and transdisciplinary paradigm shifts within the field through her insightful analysis of how science and health intersect with race and gender as well as how race and citizenship are socially constructed and adapted by larger American society to determine who can be accepted into the body politic.

Molina’s first monograph, Fit To Be Citizens?: Public Health and Race in Los Angeles, 1879-1939, published in 2006, and her second work, How Race Is Made in America: Immigration, Citizenship, and the Historical Power of Racial Scripts, published in 2013, document the racialization of the Mexican community, while tracing the way in which institutionalized power has socially constructed race and how it applies racial hierarchies differently depending on the ethnic/racial group being being targeted through what are discriminatory educational, health or other social policies aimed at restricting the movement of the Other.

How race is Made in America

How Race is Made in America

Fit To Be Citizens?

In Fit To Be Citizens?: Public Health and Race in Los Angeles, 1879-1939 (2006), Natalia Molina describes how at the turn of the century Los Angeles city and public health officials promoted the city as a beacon of modernity and healthy living in order to encourage Midwestern and Eastern Euroamericans to settle within the city limits in order to eradicate undesirable areas, such as Chinatown, which as Dr. Walter Lindley, the Health Officer in 1879, described as that “rotten spot [that pollutes] the air we breathe and poisons the water we drink” (1).

Fit To Be Citizens? is a comparative study of Mexicans, Chinese, and Japanese communities but it mostly focuses on the Mexican community as they eventually would become the largest racial/ethnic group in Los Angeles as a result of laws that restricted Chinese and Japanese immigration to the United States in the years 1882 to 1907.

Natalia Molina traces the long-established tradition among public health officials who armed with the weapon of “scientific objectivity” developed a racist discourse that attributed the health problems facing the Mexican, Japanese and Chinese communities to their supposed biological and cultural inferiorities.

As such, public health policy narratives fueled racist portrayals of Mexican, Chinese, and Japanese communities as “threats” to the well-being of Euroamerican citizens and civilization.

By negating the real causes of communicable disease, however, Los Angeles public health officials institutionalized policies that shaped negative perceptions of racial/ethnic communities as “menaces” to the social comfort of the city’s Euroamerican population (2). In the present, these past public health racial scripts continue to inform medical as well as public opinion on the social conditions of Mexicans.

Natalia Molina divides her study into several sections:

– Introduction
– Interlopers in the Land of Sunshine: Chinese Disease Carriers, Launderers, and Vegetable Peddlers
– Caught between Discourses of Disease, Health, and Nation: Public Health Attitudes toward Japanese and Mexican Laborers in Progressive-Era Los Angeles
– Institutionalizing Public Health in Ethnic Los Angeles in the 1920s
– “We Can No Longer Ignore the Problem of the Mexican”: Depression-Era Public Health Policies in Los Angeles
– The Fight for “Health, Morality, and Decent Living Standards”: Mexican Americans and the Struggle for Public Housing in 1930s Los Angeles
– Epilogue: Genealogies of Racial Discourses and Practices

Racializing Gender

Between 1879 and 1931, social membership, participation in civic affairs, and access to citizenship in Los Angeles was largely determined by Euroamerican health and hygiene standards that dictated who could and could not belong to the body politic. In fact, not only were public health and hygiene standards key sites of racialization but they were from the very beginning gendered as well with the State making every effort to control and discipline the bodies of Mexican women (185-187).

These health and hygiene standards, of course, were predictably framed within the construct of a Euroamerican standard of “cleanliness” that disproportionately marginalized non-Euroamerican communities. Thus, living in unsanitary conditions was synonymous to being biologically inferior.

As Molina points out, city health officials used their institutional power to target Mexican, Japanese, and Chinese communities as health menaces to society, whose movements and place of residence needed to be restricted for the public good, meaning for the good of Euroamericans.

These public health discourses were largely responsible for the establishment of a racial lexicon that racialized the city’s Mexican, Japanese, and Chinese communities into social/racial hierarchies, while influencing Euroamerican negative perceptions about these communities.

Although there were other ethnic groups residing and working in Los Angeles at the turn of the century, city health officials were mostly concerned with the health issues of its non-Euroamerican population. In particular, Mexican women were blamed for the health ills of the community. By 1920, Mexican women made up 43% of the Mexican born population in the United States (75).

As the “first line of defense” against the Mexican “problem,” health officials targeted Mexican women with both Americanization classes in order to assimilate them and well-baby clinics to prevent the high infant mortality rates disproportionately impacting Mexican women. The reality of these programs were that they pathologized Mexicans as inferior, which persist to this day.

Needless to say, structural inequalities that permitted the Mexican community to be easily prone to communicable disease were never addressed, such as being forced to live in substandard housing or having inadequate access to clean water.

By 1930, Mexicans represented nearly 11% of the population in Los Angeles County. Euroamericans believed that that there was a Mexican “invasion” taking place and one Euroamerican writer complained that it was “as if all of Mexico was moving to Belvedere” (82). At the time, the Belvedere area of Los Angeles County was home to one of the largest concentration of Mexicans in the United States., but this was mostly due to Euroamerican housing covenants that restricted where Mexicans could live.

Eugenics and Mexicans

Mexican, Chinese, and Japanese communities received inferior medical and health services that were politically driven and legitimized by the eugenicist movement that falsely and erroneously characterized Euroamerican culture as superior to all other groups. Thus, being Mexican was equivalent to being a disease carrier (70).

For instance, during a 1916 typhus outbreak in the Southern Pacific Railroad camps, the official response of city public health officials was to immediately blame Mexicans for their low hygienic standards as well as to define Mexicans as disease carriers. At no point was the Southern Pacific Railroad camp faulted or penalized for both their poor substandard housing as well as their unclean and rather limited toilet facilities.

The consequence of defining Mexicans as disease carriers would eventually ignite a debate on limiting Mexican migration that continues to this day. As such, the border patrol was created in 1924. Most importantly, the housing areas in which Mexicans lived in were found to be in need of either inspection, bodily movement restriction, or quarantine.

In fact, the city health department launched a weekly delousing campaign resembling a military procedure, which consisted of bathing in equal parts coal oil and warm water. In effect, this racialized and stigmatized the Mexican community as well as their public and private space (64-66).

In 1924, the health department quarantined a seven-bloc zone of nearly 1,600 Mexicans in East Los Angeles. Anyone not living in the area, but who was caught during the quarantine dragnet could not leave until the quarantine was lifted (84). Eventually, 675 security guards, along with seventy-five police officers patrolled the area twenty-fours a day. Simultaneously, the Mexican community was criminalized and stigmatized.

There were also reports that have never been disproven that claimed that two Mexicans had been killed trying to escape the quarantined area. Yet, interestingly enough, Mexican laborers were allowed to leave the area on a daily basis.

Despite being framed outside of the normative body politic (i.e. not American), however, Molina demonstrates the way in which the Mexican, Chinese, and Japanese communities resisted against the inferior medical and social services they received. Although the language of resistance used by the Mexican community, for instance, was not comparable to that used during the Chicano Movement, there is no doubt that Mexicans exhibited agency in the midst of institutionalized racism.

It also shows how the Mexico de Afuera community during the early 1900s relied heavily on the Mexican Consulate for legal, social, and political assistance as well as their own grass-roots Mutual Aid Societies to defend their communities. It also demonstrates how Mexicans forcefully demanded equality in American society.

Fit To Be Citizens? is an important contribution to the field of Chicana/o Studies. Molina provides an excellent account of public health policies that constructed racist perceptions of Mexican, Chinese, and Japanese communities. Molina’s study expands the field of Chicana/o Studies through a comparative analysis of different racial/ethnic groups.

In the Epilogue, Molina makes important connections to California’s passage of racist laws and its use of coded language in the 1990s that were eerily similar to the language used in the early 1900s to demonstrate continuity in racist public policy. Connecting the past with the present is an important reminder that uncovers how historical events do not happen in isolation.

Fit To Be Citizens?: Public Health and Race in Los Angeles, 1879-1939 by Natalia Molina is a great addition to any Chicana/o Studies collection. The study extends the traditional Mexican migrant narrative of the 1900s to 1930s period that was very popular in early Chicana/o Studies texts.

— by D. Cid

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