Nick Bravo & Jana Remy: What’s Not New About Swine Flu





[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.]

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.

[...]


comments powered by Disqus

Subscribe to our mailing list