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.
Copyright © 2003