In Fit to Be Citizens?, Natalia Molina gives a thorough but engaging account of how public health discourse was deployed to exclude non-white immigrants and institutionalize racism in the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Los Angeles. Clothed under the aura of scientific objectivity, she illustrates how “diseased” immigrants—starting with Chinese launders, then Japanese farmers, and then Mexican laborers—were systematically excluded from the social and political life of Los Angeles.
This exclusion was justified through racialized constructions of concepts such as health, hygiene, and cleanliness. Social and economic factors helped to direct which group would be targeted. Health was defined in terms of whiteness, and we have the historical images of an advanced, scientific American culture pitted against primitive Asians and Mexicans. The rosy American toddler contrasted with the tuberculosis-carrying Mexican baby. The proper white mother contrasted with the hypersexual, breeder Mexican mothers.
It is, unfortunately, a discourse that continues in many racist, nativist, anti-immigration forums to this day. While no longer as overt, the use of pathologizing language continues to be deployed against non-white immigrants. Anti-immigration fearmongers have appended the word “epidemic” to actions ranging from drunk driving to gang activity.
The use of public health discourse can also be seen in more subtle ways. For example, the health rating classifications of Asian restaurants that prepare traditional dishes like Peking duck, which are often kept at temperatures warmer than those mandated by the health departments. One result? Many foodies agree that authentic Chinese cuisine is in the restaurants rated B or C (for Chinese 🙂 )
Back to Fit to Be Citizens?. Molina provides a good account of how public health articulations were both racialized and gendered. I would have liked to read an expanded treatment of activism within the Mexican community, to include earlier responses from Chinese and Japanese communities as well.
But overall, Fit to Be Citizens? illuminates an important period in Los Angeles history, especially considering the heated debates on immigration. The idea of diseased immigrants who are unhealthy and therefore undesirable remains an effective tool of exclusion.