Constructing Race through Visual Culture:
Medicalized Representations of Mexican Communities in Early-Twentieth-Century
the PDF version
In the early twentieth century,
national debates on immigration focused mainly on Eastern and Southern Europeans.
These debates culminated in the 1924 Immigration Act, which barred these two
groups from immigrating to the United States. In the Southwest, however, the
public was less preoccupied with European immigration; instead, they expressed
concern over Mexican immigration. Although lobbying by agricultural employers
helped prevent the inclusion of Mexican immigration in the 1924 act, anxieties
around Mexicans" position in the U.S. body politic remained high. Much of
the discussion centered on their race. In many ways, Mexicans occupied a middle
ground because of their mestizaje, their racial mixture of Indian and white
ancestry. While some considered them culturally assimilable, others proclaimed
Mexicans a half-breed that would never evolve.
Many of the debates and policy
decisions concerning Mexicans took place in Los Angeles because it served
as the largest receiving city for Mexican immigrants. Los Angeles attracted
Mexicans in large part because of its promise of employment: by the 1910s
it was rapidly growing and industrializing city that also maintained a strong
agricultural sector. Business and agricultural leaders depended on cheap Mexican
labor to build railroads (since the Chinese Exclusion Act had restricted Chinese
labor) and gather produce. But while employers welcomed Mexicans for their
cheap labor, others continued to question how they would fit culturally, socially,
and politically into U.S. society.
This article examines the
contribution of public health officials to conversations regarding the place
of Mexicans in U.S. society. While health officials contributed in various
ways, I will focus on how they informed the public as to what it meant to
be "Mexican" through cultural representations of Mexicans and their homes.
These photographs and public exhibits drew upon the larger racial discourses
of the day, some of which were rooted in scientific practices.
Probably the most obvious
example of a field fusing racial discourses and scientific practice is eugenics.
In the early 1900s, eugenics was a known practice and discourse whose stated
purpose was to improve society. Eugenicists embraced hereditarian beliefs
that advocated reproduction for some, but not for others, in order to improve
society. This article is not about eugenics but about how race suicide and
race betterment discourses, which grew out of eugenics, influenced everyday
public health programs. Race suicide and race betterment, as interdependent
theories, both posited that white women"s birth rates were dropping while
immigrant women reproduced in large numbers. Race suicide proponents insisted
that white women must increase their reproduction to strengthen the racial
stock of the nation through white births. Conversely, adherents of race-betterment
promoted negative eugenics, that is, a decrease in birth rates, for immigrants
and African Americans.
New works on eugenics demonstrate
that the practice was much more widespread than previously thought and substantially
influenced discourses of race in the American West. Much of what has been
written about eugenics in the United States focuses on African Americans and
poor whites on the East Coast and in the South. But two current works, Wendy
Kline"s Building a Better Race (2001) and Alexandra Stern"s forthcoming
Eugenics Beyond Borders, show that California progressives also promoted
eugenics programs. They advocated such procedures as forced sterilization
of the "mentally inferior" and also embraced positive eugenics, imploring
white women to procreate so that other races would not overpopulate. But what
is most interesting about these works is the evidence they set forth that
eugenics influenced medical arenas. The majority of public health officials
distanced themselves from the most extreme eugenicist policies. But just as
the foundation of eugenics thought rested on belief in a racial hierarchy,
many public health programs extended to immigrants in the early twentieth
century also incorporated a theory of racial hierarchy (Pernick 1997). The
point is not to expose public health officials as eugenicists, but to show
that racial betterment and race suicide discourses influenced their practices
and how they represented Mexicans to the wider public.
Representations of Mexicans
sometimes had less to do with advancing a racial agenda than with promoting
the city. For example, in his insightful article "Plague in Los Angeles, 1924,"
William Deverell examines the overlapping agendas of health officials and
city promoters (or boosters as they were known locally) during the 1924 outbreak
of bubonic plague, which chiefly impacted Mexican residents of Los Angeles.
Deverell argues that the need to preserve the city"s image as one characterized
by sunshine and health molded the agendas of health officials and boosters
alike. They depicted Mexicans as outside the normative community of Los Angeles
so that potential tourists, investors, and residents of Los Angeles would
associate the plague with Mexicans and not with the city as a whole (Deverell
The photographs and exhibits
circulated by health officials provide insight into the everyday politics
of public health programs. Health officials did not set forth these representations
to mediate a crisis or as a preventative strategy, but to help construct normative
images of Mexicans. For example, health officials portrayed Mexicans as deviant
in their hygienic, child rearing, domestic, and bodily practices. Such depictions
of Mexicans not only affected how fellow Angelenos viewed them, but had serious
consequences at the municipal, state, and national levels in terms of the
formation of policies directed at Mexican immigrants as well as residents.
Of particular interest is how public health officials constructed cultural
representations of Mexicans in the areas of housing and maternity and child
Health officials contributed
to public perceptions of Mexicans as inferior by depicting their housing as
violating standards of public health and safety. Health officials featured
pictures of Mexican "house courts" (home courtyards) in their reports to other
health officials and to social agencies. They also presented them to the broader
public at events such as Baby Week and Health Week, sponsored by various organizations
including the Chamber of Commerce (fig. 1). These exhibits resembled those
displayed at national and international fairs and exhibits, which sometimes
explicitly stated how they wished to shape the public"s view on race. For
example, at the 1915 San Francisco Panama Pacific Exposition, the Race Betterment
Foundation exhibit warned the public not to underestimate the dangerous slide
toward race degeneracy Kline 2001).
According to housing and
public health officials, the exhibits displayed "exact miniatures of Mexican
home-made shack[s] and a typical Mexican house-court." The models, which supposedly
depicted the "average style of architecture of the Mexican home," emphasized
the inferior living conditions both inside and outside the houses. In written
descriptions, health officials implied that the homes not only were inferior
by public health standards but also could foster moral decay because their
inadequate size did not provide enough room for "family privacy." Such concerns
referred to beliefs that overcrowding contributed to the immorality of a family
and were very much based on a middle-class notion of domesticity. The poor
housing conditions, it was suggested, not only affected Mexican families but
defaced the otherwise presumably unmarred landscape of Los Angeles with the
"ugly surroundings" of the house-courts (LACHD 1916, 106). Thus it was argued
that Mexican housing problems could not be contained solely within the Mexican
community, but affected the larger community, as well as the very image of
Progressive reformers advocated
new housing laws and better housing conditions for city residents, and along
with housing and public health inspectors they pointed to the squalid living
conditions of Mexicans. According to these officials, however, the poor housing
stood as evidence of the inferior standards of Mexicans; it failed to prompt
any clarion cry against the state of housing in the city. While housing and
public health officials critiqued the inequalities that contributed to inferior
housing for other groups in the city, including for white ethnics, they pointed
to Mexican housing as evidence of the problems associated with immigration.
Progressive reformers and city health officials often depicted Mexicans in
direct opposition to the modern direction in which they intended Los Angeles
By characterizing Mexican
housing as a reflection of the occupants" inferiority, progressives left Mexicans
out of their reform agenda. Of course, reformers created Americanization programs
to teach English to Mexicans and instruct them in the advantages of white
bread over tortillas. But, for the most part, Americanization programs strove
to minimize ethnic differences, not promote social mobility.
The models of the Mexican
homes stood in stark contrast to the iconic California bungalow and "craftsman,"
the archetype of normative housing in Los Angeles (fig. 2). Displayed in conjunction
with the models of the average Mexican home was a "model of a practical, up-to
date three room frame house within the financial reach of the average working-man"
(LACHD 1916, 106). The class reference reassured the viewer that a proper
home was within the means of the middling laborer, thereby ignoring economic
explanations as to why Mexicans lived in less than adequate conditions.
Clearly, the viewer was supposed
to observe the stark contrasts between the Mexican home and the home of the
average workingman. The Mexican home, with "defective screens, broken windows,
and improper disposal of garbage and refuse," would be seen as disorderly
in comparison to the "practical" home of the average worker. And unlike the
crowded, potentially immoral Mexican home, the workingman"s home had three
Placed within the larger
racial discourses of the time, it was not just the homes that were being displayed
and judged. The models of the homes spoke to who lived there as well.
The description of the "average working-man" served as a trope for the average
white man. The conditions of the homes and those who lived in them were conflated
within the representation of the displays, which compared not only Mexican
homes to white homes, but also Mexicans themselves to white Angelenos. The
models thus reaffirmed racial hierarchies for the viewer by depicting Mexican
homes, and by extension Mexicans, as inferior to white homes and their residents.
The poor living conditions
of Mexicans came to be regarded as so typical that pictures of conditions
in their homes often were not even accompanied by a caption or report. None
was needed, as images of substandard Mexican housing were already established
as normative within Anglo racial imaginary. The segregated nature of Los Angeles
prevented most non-Mexicans from having firsthand knowledge of Mexicans" housing
conditions; thus the photographs and exhibits, offered as accurate representations,
served as a vehicle through which whites could "know" Mexicans. These images,
however, were steeped in the prevailing racial discourses of the time. 
Well-baby clinics and maternity
programs were two other important public health programs shaped by the racial
politics of the day. The health department provided the baby clinics, following
a national public health trend. Mothers brought their infants through the
age of two years to neighborhood clinics, where doctors weighed, examined,
and checked the height of the children while mothers received parenting lessons.
According to the health department"s
own racial lexicon, the programs served mainly Mexicans, but also various
European nationals, American whites, and a minority of Asians. White Americans
were 11 percent of the clientele, while Mexicans made up the largest share
at 40 percent. The city health department noted that it printed prenatal instructions
in several languages, "the most popular ones being English and Spanish" (LACHD
1918, 4). The rest of the clientele was very diverse, including Jewish, Italian,
Russian, African American, Syrian, Armenian, Spanish, Japanese, German, Polish,
Scotch, Austrian, Finnish, Irish, and French clients (LACHD 1915, 104). Health
officials lauded their own achievements in these programs in public forums
such as newsletters, newspapers, and exhibits, in which they mainly focused
on Mexicans and again reproduced one-dimensional images of Mexican communities.
Within this racially diverse
group of clients, health officials treated Mexicans more readily than other
ethnic groups. I do not mean to suggest that
health officials extended the notion of Americanization and its accompanying
civil rights fully to Mexicans: they envisioned that Mexicans would adopt
American practices, not necessarily that they would become American. Nonetheless,
even this tempered vision of Americanization was not extended to Asians.  During 1915, for example, the
well-baby clinics served 173 Mexican children, but only five Japanese children
and no Chinese children (LACHD 1915, 104). While the lack of Chinese attendance
at the clinics can be explained by the fact that Chinese did not account for
even 1 percent of the births in Los Angeles, this was not the case for Japanese,
who accounted for 15 percent of the births that year. By contrast, only 7
percent of the births in the city were to Mexicans (LACHD 1916, 6).
The department"s own representation
of who was served in the well-baby clinics was misleading. Its annual report
one year displayed a photo collage of twelve children of different ethnic
backgrounds, some in identifiably ethnic clothing (fig. 4). While an Asian
baby"s picture was placed prominently in the middle of the collage, it is
clear from the health department"s own records that Asian children were on
the margins, rather than at the center of their health care agenda.
City health officials proudly
boasted of the many nationalities they served in their baby clinics, which
were supposed to provide proper care to the city"s "littlest citizens." Yet
departmental publications and public relations propaganda only featured white
babies in their external publications. Though almost 90 percent of their clientele
were ethnic children, health officials regularly chose white babies and children
to represent the achievements of the department.
Such representations strikingly
evoked the Better Baby contests held at state fairs across the nation, originated
by the American Eugenics Society. These contests featured only white babies
whose light hair and eyes and red cheeks on pale skin spoke to their racial
purity. Though health officials did not expressly state that they chose white
children to exalt their racial purity, they did use them to represent the
health department, and by extension the city of Los Angeles. In the 1920s
and 1930s, as the department gained national recognition for its accomplishments,
officials also used pictures of white babies in cover stories. To attract
future visitors, residents, and investors, health officials (like boosters)
promoted Los Angeles, and the future of the city, as racially pure.
Not surprisingly, the health department photographs of white children also
resembled those promoted by L.A. boosters such as Charles Fletcher Lummis,
who regularly featured pictures of cherub-like white babies in his propaganda
magazine, Out West. 
Health officials did print
pictures of Mexican children in their department publications, which they
circulated to the wider medical community. At first glance, one might have
a positive reaction to the photographs: children smile and the photos are
taken outside under sunny skies. The captions corresponding to the photographs
do not negatively stereotype Mexicans either. Yet in almost all the photographs,
Mexican children appear unkempt and unclean and are shown in disheveled conditions,
emphasizing their poverty. They are usually photographed on a dirt road or
lot. Their smiles seem to indicate their ease with their surroundings. The
photographs thus send an implicitly racialized message that normalizes the
association between dirt, poverty, and Mexicans—the real dirt, rather
than a mark of class, translates to racial and moral impurity.
The placement of the photographs
in the health department publications is disconcerting in that they seem random.
The photos serve no purpose, as they do not highlight any of the issues discussed
and in fact often do not have anything to do with the reports. Photographs
of Mexican children were placed in reports on rabies, infectious diseases
of livestock, and fruit and vegetable inspections (see figs. 5 and 6) .
By contrast, a photograph
of a jolly, plumpish white baby does not convey a similar negative message,
although it too is placed out of context in a section on inspection of schools.
In this report, health officials described the challenges they considered
immigrant communities to pose. Health officials used special precautions to
guard against disease in areas with large representations of "foreign elements"
in their inspection of schools. Because of an outbreak of typhus fever in
Mexico, public health workers monitored not only the schools Mexican children
attended, but their homes as well (LACHD 1916, 2).
While health officials regarded
foreign children, and specifically Mexican children, as populations that needed
to be treated with certain discretion and monitored more vigilantly, the caption
under the photograph of the white baby may give insight into how they regarded
this population. The caption reads, "Nothing Wrong Here" (fig. 7). Indeed,
nothing looks wrong; the grinning baby appears to be the picture of health.
The photograph stands in contrast to the images of beggared Mexican children,
as well as to the conditions in Mexican communities described in the text
that accompanies the picture.
In addition to the well-baby
clinics, the Los Angeles Health Department provided prenatal and postnatal
care through maternity clinics and home visits.  In the initial home visit, a
nurse was dispatched to take an expectant mother"s case history and provide
prenatal advice. The nurse then referred the woman to the nearest maternity
clinic where a doctor could see her (LACHD 1917, 6, 1–4). In some cases, a
visiting nurse and doctor made home visits to a woman who had not initiated
contact with the clinic. The program records indicate that such visits were
initiated when, because of "fear, ignorance, or for other reasons," a patient
could not or would not visit the clinic. It is not clear how these patients
came to the attention of the visiting program (LACHD 1916, 9).
 Nor is it clear what the patients feared. Many Mexican women avoided
public health clinics for reasons that included language barriers, preference
for female birth attendants, and fear of racism (Molina 2000).
Like the baby clinics, the
maternity and postnatal training programs were also framed by the racial politics
of the time. Race suicide and race betterment proponents believed that reproduction
by people whom they termed biologically inferior not only created inferior
races, but engendered social problems. The programs of the health department
by no means went that far. However, while proponents of race suicide discourse
encouraged white women to reproduce and raise children, public health workers
developed maternity and well-baby clinic programs to train Mexican women in
the areas of childbirth and child rearing. The public health programs" underlying
message was that without direction, Mexican mothers would not be proper mothers.
The programs resonated with paternalistic (and in this case, maternalistic)
attitudes towards Mexicans, who were seen as unable to cope without the direction
of public health training.
Because home visit records
were not preserved, photographs from the department"s reports can give some
insight into what transpired at these visits. One photo shows a city nurse
in her starched white cap, making a home visit (fig. 8). She is demonstrating
how to modify milk to two Mexican women, each holding a baby. One of the women
pays close attention while the other stares into the camera. In reference
to the nurse, the caption reads "patience, strict close observation of infant
and mother and unwavering co-operation with the doctors are the prime factors
to good work." The caption emphasizes the hierarchical relationship between
the Mexican women and the medical caregivers. There is also an infantilizing
of Mexican women implied by the advice that the nurses must be patient with
them and watch them carefully.
In another photograph, a
Mexican woman sits on the edge of her bed at the beginning of the visit from
the physician and nurse (fig. 9). The woman wears an overcoat, buttoned up,
implying that the room is not sufficiently heated. The patient"s room is disheveled:
her bed is unmade, papers are disorganized, and her curtain is tangled up
in the curtain rod. Newspapers are hung on one wall, perhaps covering a window
to help keep the cold out.
The next photograph bears
the caption "After Arrival of the Maternity Service Physician and Nurse,"
although only the nurse and the same woman are shown (fig. 10). The room is
now in order and it is implied that it is the nurse who has arranged things.
The nurse in her starched white cap and apron tucks the prostrate woman into
bed. An antiseptic white blanket that was not in the "before" photograph covers
the pregnant woman. A table that was also not pictured in the first photograph
now stands to the right of the bed with what appears to be sanitized medical
instruments, perhaps used during her prenatal exam. The implied message is
that the nurse and aforementioned physician have brought order to this house
that would otherwise be in disarray.
Thus, the need to consolidate
general devaluation and negative qualities that otherwise may have been associated
with the city gave rise to a racial category that was phenotypically identifiable
and nationally distinct. The types of images circulated by health officials
reinforced and contributed to prevailing representations of Mexicans and brought
to the forefront the archetype of the "diseased" Mexican. Statements by journalists,
politicians, business leaders, and everyday citizens regularly referring to
Mexicans as diseased went unquestioned. Such supposedly common knowledge served
as justification for the symbolic exclusion of Mexican and Mexican Americans
from the body politic and then their literal exclusion through deportation
programs in the 1930s. Government leaders described the need to deport Mexicans
during the Great Depression because of their reliance on both charity and
public health care services, thus illustrating how the cultural authority
of public health officials was not limited to the urban landscape, but could
also influence immigration practices.
Deverell, William. 1999. "Plague
in Los Angeles, 1924: Ethnicity and Typicality." In Over the Edge: Remapping
the American West, ed. Valerie Matsumoto and Blake Allmendinger, 172–200.
Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.
Kline, Wendy. 2001. Building
a Better Race: Gender, Sexuality, and Eugenics from the Turn of the Century
to the Baby Boom. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.
LACHD (Los Angeles City Health
Department). 1918. Monthly Bulletin 5 (April–May).
———. 1917. Monthly Bulletin
———. 1916a. Annual Health
———. 1916b. Monthly Bulletin
———. 1915. Annual Health
Molina, Natalia. 2000. "Contested
Bodies and Cultures: The Politics of Public Health and Race within Mexican,
Japanese and Chinese Immigrant Communities in Los Angeles, 1879–1939." Ph.D.
diss., University of Michigan.
———. Forthcoming. Fit to
be Citizens? Public Health Policies and Discourses in Ethnic Los Angeles,
Pernick, Martin. 1997. "Eugenics
and Public Health in American History." American Journal of Public Health
Stern, Alexandra. Forthcoming.
Eugenics Beyond Borders.
Tagg, John. 1988. The Burden
of Representation: Essays on Photographs and Histories. Amherst: University
of Massachusetts Press.
Watts, Jennifer. 1998. Los
Angeles History Workshop. San Marino, Calif.: Huntington Library.
Fig. 1. "Housing Exhibit
Put Up during ‘Nation-Wide Baby Week."" LACHD 1916, 107. [cs1] 1916 a
Fig. 2. "Southern California
Home." LACHD 1916, 116. [cs2]
Fig. 3. "Thirty-Five Shacks
on the City"s Land." LACHD 1916, 102.
Fig. 4. "Some of the Nationalities
Cared for through Our Welfare Conferences and Milk Stations." LACHD 1915,
106 [DA3] .
Fig. 5. "The Foundation of
Good Citizenship." LACHD 1916, 27. [cs4]
Fig. 6. "An Early Start Towards
Sanitation." LACHD 1916, 41. [cs5]
Fig. 7. "Nothing Wrong Here."
LACHD 1916, 76. [cs6]
Fig. 8. "Teaching How to
Modify Milk in the Home." LACHD 1915, 106. [DA7]
Fig. 9. "Before Arrival of
the Maternity Service Physician and Nurse." LACHD 1916, 16. [cs8]
Fig. 10. "After Arrival of
Maternity Service Physician and Nurse." LACHD 1916, 16.
This article was written with
the support of a Rockefeller Postdoctoral Fellowship from the Center for the
Study of Race and Ethnicity at the University of California at San Diego.