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Fit to Be Citizens?

Fit to Be Citizens?: Public Health and Race in Los Angeles, 1879-1939

Natalia Molina
Copyright Date: 2006
Edition: 1
Pages: 293
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  • Book Info
    Fit to Be Citizens?
    Book Description:

    Meticulously researched and beautifully written,Fit to Be Citizens?demonstrates how both science and public health shaped the meaning of race in the early twentieth century. Through a careful examination of the experiences of Mexican, Japanese, and Chinese immigrants in Los Angeles, Natalia Molina illustrates the many ways local health officials used complexly constructed concerns about public health to demean, diminish, discipline, and ultimately define racial groups. She shows how the racialization of Mexican Americans was not simply a matter of legal exclusion or labor exploitation, but rather that scientific discourses and public health practices played a key role in assigning negative racial characteristics to the group. The book skillfully moves beyond the binary oppositions that usually structure works in ethnic studies by deploying comparative and relational approaches that reveal the racialization of Mexican Americans as intimately associated with the relative historical and social positions of Asian Americans, African Americans, and whites. Its rich archival grounding provides a valuable history of public health in Los Angeles, living conditions among Mexican immigrants, and the ways in which regional racial categories influence national laws and practices. Molina's compelling study advances our understanding of the complexity of racial politics, attesting that racism is not static and that different groups can occupy different places in the racial order at different times.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-93920-2
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xiv)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-14)

    Health Officer Dr. Walter Lindley assured city residents in 1879 that Los Angeles had “everything that God could give” a city.¹ Among L. A.’s many virtues, the doctor emphasized “the health giving sun [present] almost every day in the year . . . the ocean breeze just properly tempered by hills and orange groves . . . pure water pouring down from a mountain stream [and] . . . the most equable temperature in the civilized world.”² Such healthful abundance, however, did not lessen the need for the services of the city’s chief health officer and his fledgling department. In...

  6. CHAPTER 1 Interlopers in the Land of Sunshine: Chinese Disease Carriers, Launderers, and Vegetable Peddlers
    (pp. 15-45)

    When newly appointed Health Officer Walter Lindley first assessed the state of the city’s public health in 1879, Los Angeles was a small town, overshadowed in both geographical size and population by San Francisco, the state’s premier city.¹ For nearly three decades after its incorporation in 1850, Los Angeles relied on private enterprise to spur its growth. By the 1880s, however, city officials realized that government help in promotion of Los Angeles would be a wise investment. As the population increased, private entrepreneurs would be eager to further cultivate Los Angeles as a major West Coast city.

    The public health...

  7. CHAPTER 2 Caught between Discourses of Disease, Health, and Nation: Public Health Attitudes toward Japanese and Mexican Laborers in Progressive-Era Los Angeles
    (pp. 46-74)

    Not long after his appointment in 1915, Los Angeles County’s new health officer, Dr. John Larabee Pomeroy, referring to Mexicans and Japanese, warned of the “influx of ignorant aliens into our county.”¹ Sounding very much like Dr. Walter Lindley almost forty years earlier, Pomeroy implied that the county’s only legitimate residents were whites.² All others, including Mexicans and Japanese, thus became “aliens,” regardless of how long they had lived in Los Angeles.³ Pomeroy’s agitation over the burgeoning numbers of outsiders had its counterpart in cities and towns across the country. During the opening decades of the twentieth century, as Americans...

  8. CHAPTER 3 Institutionalizing Public Health in Ethnic Los Angeles in the 1920s
    (pp. 75-115)

    By the 1920s, Los Angeles County’s white public officials and residents were considering the “Mexican situation” in a new light.¹ Conceiving of the area’s thirty-thousand-member Mexican population as “birds of passage,” unmarried male laborers who flocked to the United States for seasonal work and then returned to Mexico, was no longer tenable. In reality, women made up 43 percent of the Mexican-born population in the United States by 1920, according to the census.² And while most laborers did leave the farms once the picking season had ended, many relocated to nearby urban areas rather than returning home to Mexico. The...

  9. CHAPTER 4 “We Can No Longer Ignore the Problem of the Mexican”: Depression-Era Public Health Policies in Los Angeles
    (pp. 116-157)

    Traditionally, Los Angeles mayors composed annual messages that were published in pamphlet form and distributed to city residents.¹ The 1930 annual address by then-mayor John Porter included a health report that singled out the “high death rate among Mexican babies,” which it characterized as a “stumbling [block] in the way of reducing infant mortality rates in Los Angeles.”² Another source of concern was Mexicans’ high death rates from tuberculosis,³ which rendered the group a “menace to the community at large.”⁴ Mayor Porter promised to take steps to contain the spread of tuberculosis by “concentrat[ing] on the control of TB among...

  10. CHAPTER 5 The Fight for “Health, Morality, and Decent Living Standards”: Mexican Americans and the Struggle for Public Housing in 1930s Los Angeles
    (pp. 158-178)

    Since the mid-1910s, when the Los Angeles County Health Department began providing services to Mexicans, their health conditions improved little compared to those of whites. What did change was the stance Mexicans and Mexican Americans in Los Angeles began to take concerning their life conditions.¹ From the 1910s and continuing into the 1930s, Mexicans had tended to turn to the Mexican consulate with their problems and complaints, such as during the typhus epidemic and in response to forced sterilizations. But as the population began shifting toward the second generation as a result of deportation and repatriation, Mexican Americans with U.S....

  11. Epilogue: Genealogies of Racial Discourses and Practices
    (pp. 179-188)

    The history of public health in Los Angeles demonstrates how race demarcates the boundaries of social membership. By systematically associating dirt, disease, and disorder with immigrant status, late-nineteenth-and early-twentieth-century city and county public health officials redefined citizenship in racialized and medicalized terms. The boundary-setting role of public health discourse is significant for more than historical reasons. Health officials left lasting ideological footprints in the institutions they worked in through their writings, the policies they developed, and the people they trained. Health departments, boards of health, and municipal, state, and federal governments were deeply implicated in generating practices that embedded racial...

  12. Notes
    (pp. 189-254)
  13. Bibliography
    (pp. 255-272)
  14. Index
    (pp. 273-279)
  15. Back Matter
    (pp. 280-280)