The Déjà Vu Flu

OK, we get it: somewhere in Mexico lies the epicenter of an outbreak of swine flu. It doesn’t really matter where because any part of the country would suffice for the hate-mongers in the media (Malkin, Beck, etc.), for which only Keith Olbermann has called out within the mainstream media. Is the swine flu really the next major human catastrophe? More people have died from “regular flu” since January, roughly 36,000. So then why isn’t there hysteria about that? Most of the deaths attributed to swine flu have taken place in Mexico, about 150, and only one in the US so far.  Even so, the real culprit was probably Smithfield Foods, an Anglo-American company that owns factory pig farms.

This latest epidemic will probably prove to be an epidemic that isn’t, as was the case with several others leading up to today. Yes, there’s a tradition of using disease epidemics to prevent immigration along racial lines, and its been documented by historians. I recommend two thoroughly researched books: Alexandra Stern’s Eugenic Nation: Faults and Frontiers of Better Breeding in Modern America (University of California Press, 2005), and Natalia Molina’s Fit to Be Citizens?: Public Health and Race in Los Angeles, 1879-1939 (University of California Press, 2006).

In 1916, the US Public Health Service established quarantines at El Paso and Laredo to quarantine Mexican immigrants. The USPHS was heavily influenced by Eugenics, or race science (1). Then as now, some efforts were made to distinguish good and bad Mexicans along racial lines. Light-skinned Mexicans arriving in 1st class passenger railcars could bypass the quarantine while darker Mexicans arriving in second-class cars were quarantined, and then deloused in kerosene (2). At the El Paso station in 1917, a grand total of three Mexicans were acknowledged to have had the deadly typhus fever—after almost 800,000 Mexican bodies had been inspected. Almost 2,700 bodies were inspected per day in El Paso, in contrast to Ellis Island, which inspected about 350 a day (3). And while the Eugenics movement obsessed about eastern and southern Europeans through the 1930s, the latter had some protection from the Democrats. Mexicans had none back then, and very little now. These practices at the border lasted until the late 1930s (4).

Southwestern cities from El Paso to Los Angeles advertised themselves as health meccas for Anglo-American northerners, and made efforts to assure them that these disease epidemics were strictly limited to Mexicans and off-limits to whites (5). Though some Mexicans fell victim to the associated illnesses, there were not something they carried with them from Mexico. Sometimes, illnesses were acquired in railroad camps or slum housing. In the case of railroad camps, Mexican railroad workers lived in expendable boxcars, and some succumbed to tuberculosis, which could’ve been prevented with decent housing and access to hot water, neither of which was provided by either the railroad companies or local governments. But when similar diseases affected the Okies during the 1930s, services were provided to “deserving” white Americans (6). The exaggeration of Mexicans as disease-carriers had also been used as a pretext to urban redevelopment in areas adjacent to downtown Los Angeles (7).
Similar attempts had been directed at other racialized groups (8). Since then, medical sources remained one of a myriad of avenues of racializing Mexicans as a burdern on society, including the overpopulation discourse since the 1970s. Now let’s fast-forward to the present. Then as now, statistics were manipulated to exaggerate “threats.”

If it wasn’t the threat of diseases it would be something else. Just two years ago, Leslie Stahl took Lou Dobbs to task on his claim that 7,000 Mexicans brought leprocy into the U.S. Of course it was grossly exaggerated (if not an outright lie), but he made the claim on CNN, which almost counts as a news source of record. And because CNN isn’t Fox News, liberals and moderates are more likely to believe Dobbs’ bullshit claim. All of this begs the question: is the recent case of the swine flu just another epidemic that isn’t? Is this really just another opportunity to justify the prevention of Mexican immigration, to keep Mexicans in their place?

One thing is certain: many of the pundits have, knowingly or not, copied the practices of their Eugenic forbearers who were universally discredited during and since the horrible Eugenic experiments in Germany during the World War II era, much of it learned from U.S.-based eugenicists. This Friday, we can defy our place and get out and march to commemorate May 1st as we’ve done the last three years, and to show that we’re not giving in to the fear-mongers or to liberals/moderates who think they may have a point. We can even wear masks to avoid the “American flu” to make a counterpoint.

MICHAEL CALDERÓN-ZAKS is a Visiting Assistant Professor at the Center for the Study of Culture, Race, and Ethnicity at Ithaca College, and can be reached at mcaldez415@hotmail.com


1. Alexandra Minna Stern. Eugenic Nation: Faults and Frontiers of Better Breeding in Modern America. University of California Press, 2005, Chapter 2.

2. Ibid.

3. Ibid, 62-64.

4. Ibid, Chapter 2.

5. For El Paso, see Mario T. Garcia, “Mexican Americans and the Politics of Citizenship: The Case of El Paso, 1936.” New Mexico Historical Society 59, no. 2 (April 1984): 187-204, p. 186; for Los Angeles, see Natalia Molina, Fit to be Citizens? Public Health and Race in Los Angeles, 1879-1939. University of California Press, 2006.

6. Molina, 163-164.

7. Molina, 131-132.

8. Molina, Chapter 1; Nayan Shah, Contagious Divides: Epidemics and Race in San Francisco’s Chinatown. University of California Press, 2001.


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