Smithsonian Center for Lation Initiatives
The Interpretation and Representation of Latino Cultures: Research and Museums Conference Documentation
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Molina, Natalia

Challenging Traditional Curatorial Practices

Historicizing Narratives

Borders and Diasporas

Aesthetics Beauty

The Body: The Real and the Symbolic

All Abstracts



Illustrating Cultural Authority: Medicalized Representations of Mexican Communities in Early Twentieth Century Los Angeles"

This presentation explores the cultural authority of public health within the urban space of Los Angeles. Utilizing pictures published in the Los Angeles City Health Department reports during the 191 Os and 1 920s, I argue that public health officials played an important role in the production of medicalized cultural images of Mexicans, some of which are still with us today. These images fostered the public's understanding of Mexican communities. Health officials promoted a policy of incorporation and assimilation towards Mexicans in the 191 Os and 1 920s.

Health officials believed Mexicans could be initiated into Anierican culture through health and hygiene programs. Many of the published photographs of Mexicans focused on both Mexicans themselves and their homes. Norniative domestic scenes had already been established through extensive boosterism and real estate promotions that depicted Los Angels as an urban Eden equipped with showcase homes surrounded by manicured lawns. In contrast, health department photographs presented Mexican domesticity as inferior and their homes as sites of disease. In addition, a large series of "before and after" health department photographs documented the ameliorative effects of public health instruction focusing on women, particularly mothers. Many of these photographs depict the visiting public health nurses and the effects their instruction had on mothers and by extension, the home. By affecting change in the private spheres, health officials beloved Mexicans would be more prepared to participate in public life.

Reading the photographs as texts both demonstrates how science produces cultural images of ethnic groups and allows us to glimpse into the private lives of working-class Mexicans whom otherwise left few enduring records. The photographs reveal a multi­layered narrative of resistance and accommodation.

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