The (still) unbearable foreignness of germs

(Part 2)

Hi all, 

Hope you continue to be well during These Trying Times. 

In my last edition, I explored the association between immigrants and disease, and why we, as a society, have historically blamed the spread of illness on communities that may themselves be its most affected victims. In this one, I am focusing on how that trope played out at the southern border of the United States. 

The U.S.-Mexico border is, of course, a real place with real people — as rich, complex, and flawed as any other real place with real people. But in the American imagination, it’s also a construct steeped in myths from the country’s past, as historian Greg Grandin writes in his book The End of the Myth.

Specifically, the border represents an edge of the American global empire — a frontier beyond which lies an imagined world that is yet to be civilized. That seductive idea has allowed “the United States to avoid a true reckoning with its social problems, such as economic inequality, racism, crime and punishment, and violence,” Grandin writes.


Molina’s paper focuses on Mexicans migrants who traversed the southern border to work in the United States in the early 21st century. Upon entering the United States, they were made to undergo painful baths and humiliating inspections based on the assumption that they imported disease. 

She writes in the abstract:

Disease, or just the threat of it, marked Mexicans as foreign, just as much as phenotype, native language, accent, or clothing. A focus on race rendered other factors and structures, such as poor working conditions or structural inequalities in health care, invisible. This attitude had long-term effects on immigration policy, as well as on how Mexicans were received in the United States.

Highlighted highlights: 

Molina, in her paper, traces what she calls the “medicalized representation of Mexicans” back to when the U.S. Southwest was still a part of Mexico and the idea of Manifest Destiny informed U.S. expansionism toward the south. 

A “medicalized representation,” she explains, meant portraying Native Americans and Mexicans, who were prospective American conquests, as biologically inferior — races more likely to die out over time rather than become Americans. 

“The border,” as in the actual physical demarcation, was created after the Mexican-American War. The first checkpoint came in 1896. 

In the early 20th century, agricultural expansion in the United States created a demand for labor, drawing young, adult men from Mexico — some fleeing the Mexican Revolution. This laid the foundation of what would become a seasonal cycle of migration, to and from Mexico, corresponding with the agricultural cycle in the United States. 

But the entry of these workers wasn’t without event: 

Mexicans underwent intrusive, humiliating, and harmful baths and physical examinations at the hands of the US Public Health Service (USPHS) at the US-Mexico border beginning in 1916. The rationale was the belief that Mexicans were bringing disease into the United States.5Thus, public health policies helped to secure the US-Mexico border and to mark Mexicans as outsiders even before the advent of more focused gatekeeping institutions, such as the border patrol, created in 1924.

That same year saw a typhus outbreak in Los Angeles County. To contain the outbreak, government officials exclusively targeted Mexican laborers, whom they saw as “potentially pathogenic.” 

The laborers resisted. They sent letters to government officials highlighting the structural deficits at their camps, such as the lack of toilets and bathing facilities. 

Molina writes:

By failing to treat typhus as a threat to the public at large, officials constructed the disease as uniquely Mexican. This preference for making race the organizing principle for understanding typhus also transformed Mexicans from unfortunate victims of a serious disease into active transmitters of deadly germs, thus adding a medicalized dimension to existing nativism. 

Armored by their presumed scientific objectivity, health officials gave wide circulation to constructed categories of Mexicans as unclean, ignorant of basic hygiene practices, and unwitting hosts for communicable diseases. These images were embedded in medical and media narratives and in public policy.

Indeed, publications from the time showed photos of poor Mexicans in their camps with captions associating them with disease. 

Today, we have government officials sending similar visual messages: 

In 1942, the United States and Mexico created the Bracero Program, which brought around four million Mexican men to work in agriculture and other industries, such as railroads. The idea was to plug World War II labor shortages, but these workers, too, while “essential” to the U.S. economic health at the time, were hardly welcome. 

They were first made to go through screenings on the Mexican side of the border, and then again on the American side. Molina cites research showing they had to wait 6-8 hours to be examined, were shuffled into large inspection chambers like cattle, and then stripped and subjected to intrusive examinations. Then, a rinse and repeat on the American side of the border. 

Some details of workers’ reactions, per Molina: 

Carlos Cordella, a processing employee, described how braceros were asked to strip and then were sprayed with a white powder on their hair, face, and “lower area,” a procedure that embarrassed them. 

Some tolerated the situation with humor, declaring, “I guess we're gringos now.”28

Recently, in what appears to be a stark case of déjà vu, the Mexican government set up dubious “disinfection tunnels” — this time, for deportees from the United States. 

For the braceros of the 1940s who got through and were hired, the U.S. government did not help foster living conditions conducive to good health or preventing accidents. Molina concludes:

Race served as an interpretive framework for explaining the typhus outbreaks and for developing a double-screening policy for braceros entering the United States and thus precluded any need to ameliorate the living conditions of workers once they had settled in the United States. Such reasoning, firmly established, obviated the need for a deeper investigation into the systemic inequality that fostered the inferior health and living conditions of Mexican laborers. Because medical discourse has the power to naturalize racial categories, it has also in some cases naturalized societal inequalities.

Today, coronavirus hotspots have developed in food processing plants around the country, where the workforce largely comprises immigrant workers. Most do not have health benefits, protective equipment, paid sick leave, or other safeguards that could protect them from COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. Yet American employers once again place blame on “living circumstances in certain cultures” rather than remedying these structural inequalities. 


A couple of things stuck out to me as I was doing this research. 

One, according to the historian Alexandra Minna Stern, who co-authored the paper I explored in my last newsletter, medical screenings at the southern border often exempted those Mexicans who were well-dressed or who rode first class on the train. So a class element was embedded within these policies. 

Second, as with the effect of punitive border crossing laws and and amped up border security, medical screening stations in Texas and California had the effect of pushing Chinese, Syrian, Mexican and other working class immigrants to cross into the United States through more remote and dangerous parts of the desert.

Other related readings: 

  • My former colleague Brentin Mock did a fascinating Q&A with Connecticut College gender and women’s studies professor, Mab Segrest, who is out with a new book: Administrations of Lunacy: Racism and the Haunting of American Psychiatry at the Milledgeville Asylum. Segrest traces how black Americans were associated with disease through the history of a Georgia mental health institution, known to be the largest in the world at one time. There, doctors in the late 1800s theorized that emancipation was driving black Americans insane because they no longer had access to “the hygienic effects of slavery.” (CityLab)

  • Two essays citing Greg Grandin’s book, The End of the Myth, that are worth checking out: (1) When the frontier becomes a wall (The New Yorker); (2) Back to the wall (The Baffler)

  • Every possible thing you want to know about the border wall. (e-flux journal

  • For more studies: Buildings, boundaries, and blood: medicalization and nation-building on the U.S.-Mexico border, 1910-1930. (The Hispanic American Historical Review, Alexandra Minna Stern) 

That’s it for now. 

Stay safe out there!