What's Not New About Swine Flu

By Nick Bravo & Jana Remy
Shockjock Jay Severin just got suspended by his radio station after a disturbingly xenophobic and racist tirade that, for all its hate, remains surprisingly unoriginal. Here’s what he said: “We should be, if anything, surprised that Mexico has not visited upon us poxes of more various and serious types already, considering the number of crimaliens already here.”

And here is what Saturday Evening Post columnist Kenneth Roberts said, not last week but in 1931: “They are the criminal Mexicans, worthless in labor and always a social problem. They are also chronic beggars and sizzling with disease. This class should never pass the immigration officers on the border.” We are now, just as then, in the throes of an economic crisis where anxieties become attacks and the targets prove to be the nation’s most vulnerable populations.

As a careful look through U.S. history shows us, discourses about disease often serve to further marginalize already the already oppressed. The books described below tell us why epidemics like the swine flu are nothing new in American history, and remind us that now–as in the past–disease affects not just human bodies, but bodies of people.

Francisco Balderrama and Raymond Rodriguez, Decade of Betrayal (University of New Mexico Press, 1995)
The often-forgotten Mexican repatriation drives of the 1930s targeted Mexicans for allegedly stealing US jobs–a claim augmented by stories of disease. “As a consequence of the horrendous working condition…lack of even the most rudimentary sanitation and housing facilities, and prolonged malnutrition,” the line went, “Mexican families suffered from a variety of serious illnesses…” Balderrama and Rodriquez describe a then that could easily end up like our now: thousands of Mexicans being forced out of Los Angeles during a period depression and health scares.

Katherine Bliss, Compromised Positions (Pennsylvania State University Press, 2001)
Bliss examines Mexico City’s attempts to regulate and reform prostitution in the post-Revolution era. Moral judgments about prostitutes and prostitution fell directly onto the women themselves (never their clients) and were often expressed through concerns about venereal disease, most notably syphilis. Bliss shows us how panics about morals and pathogens justify intrusion into private lives and police the vulnerable, not the affluent.

Mike Davis, The Monster at Our Door (Holt, 2006)
Speaking prophetically, Davis details why the avian flu promises to be far more lethal than the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918. Offering easily digestible scientific details showing why an avian flu epidemic is imminent, Davis’ book may feel far too prescient for those readers obsessed with the current H1N1 outbreak.

Elizabeth Fenn, Pox Americana (Hill and Wang, 2002)
Killing over one hundred thousand people and decimating native communities, Fenn charts the spread of the disease across the continent and explains how and why this disease was so virulent, especially as it “extinguished the accumulated wisdom of generations” of native peoples by completely disrupting their community structures.

Natalia Molina, Fit to Be Citizens? (University of California Press, 2006)
Did you know Los Angles had a bubonic plague outbreak in 1921? Do you know who they blamed for it? Mexican immigrants. The city burned and quarantined Mexican neighborhoods yet, strangely, the quarantine did not apply to Mexican railroad and agricultural laborers, Call them dirty and diseased and dangerous, but don’t let that get in the way of their remarkably cheap work.

Charles Rosenberg, The Cholera Years (University of Chicago, 1987)
This classic history of three New York City cholera outbreaks (1832, 1849, and 1866) highlight how clean water, developments in sanitation, and a strict use of quarantine eventually resulted in the city’s success in staving off an epidemic. Rosenberg shows how public sentiment shifted from seeing cholera as the “poor man’s plague,” to removing the blame from the victim by via a science-based approach.

Nayan Shah, Contagious Divides (University of California Press, 2001)
In early twentieth-century San Francisco, according to Nayan Shah, public health officials insisted that “disease was exclusively un-American and nonwhite,” and consequently targeted Chinese immigrant communities. White domesticity and health appeared synonymous, and those left outside this domesticity could be justifiably maligned and excluded in the name of disease eradication. For disease, feel free to read racial other.

Michael Shaynerson and Mark Plotkin, The Killers Within
(Back Bay Books, 2003)
The abundance of antibiotics in animal feed (24.6 million pounds a year) is a leading factor in the rise of these drug-resistant bacterial strains such as “flesh-eating” bacteria. Like the rural Mexicans who are faulted for the genesis of the current strain of swine flu, people who work with animals bear much of the blame for overuse of antibiotics in livestock, though fault hardly seems warranted for those who are simply supplying the world’s demand for cheap meat.

Alexandra Stern, Eugenic Nation(University of California Press, 2005)
In 1917, a Typhus outbreak led public officials to quarantine the entire length of the US border, and also facilitated the creation of the US Border Patrol. The quarantine was specific to one disease outbreak, the sanitation stations remained status quo through World War II. Officials along the border stripped migrants and treated them with kerosene—an “unforgettable passage.” Stern tells how the United States was imagined as an Anglo body, Mexicans as racial and pathological contaminants, and the border and its officers as the immune system.

Nancy Tomes, The Gospel of Germs (Harvard University, 1999)
Following the advent of germ theory in the late nineteenth century, cleanliness became like religious fervor as middle-class housewives sanitized their homes to prevent the spread of disease. Magazine articles reinforced the notion that domestic efficiency would prevent illness, particularly those believed to be harbored by ‘unclean’ immigrant households. Tomes writes, “if a disease affects only some segments of society, especially those already stigmatized for other reasons, its prevention potentially arouses far more hostility and conflict,” which is certainly apparent in the current pandemic.

Nick Bravo is a Ph.D. candidate in Twentieth-Century Chicano/a History at the University of California, Irvine.
Jana Remy is the founder of the Making History Podcast and is finishing her dissertation in American medical history at UCIrvine.

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