Toxic Networks: Science, Eugenics, and the Politics of Race in Latin America

AHA Session 85
Conference on Latin American History 16
Friday, January 6, 2012: 2:30 PM-4:30 PM
Armitage Room (Chicago Marriott Downtown)
Stephanie C. Moore, Salisbury University
Ann Zulawski, Smith College

Session Abstract

By the early twentieth century, eugenic ideologies incubated in the United States and Europe had won over prominent scientists in Latin America and had begun to permeate popular culture.  The Latin American scientific and medical establishments both welcomed foreign eugenicists with open arms and reformulated eugenic doctrines to address to what they saw as Latin America’s problematic racial diversity.  Grasping eugenics as a possible solution to Latin America’s elusive modernization, scientists unleashed their “race betterment” programs on their countries’ indigenous populations and sought the exclusion of Asians who they accused of undermining the Latin America’s “ethnic destiny.”  Focusing on Mexico and Peru in the period from 1920 to 1950, this panel will trace the circulation of international eugenic thought through Latin American elite scientific and popular commentators’ ruminations on race, as well as chart its reinsertion into Western scientific theories denigrating indigenous peoples.   

In both Mexico and Peru, scientists set upon indigenous peoples as problems to be understood and objects to be tested.  In Mexico, the Carnegie Institution of Washington funded experiments on the Yucatec Maya that sought to prove that the modern (and allegedly inferior) Maya were not only culturally but biologically separate from the ancient Maya.  Undeterred by his ability to discover such evidence, biologist Morris Steggerda fell back on eugenic theories to formulate and promulgate his conclusions that the modern Maya were genetically predisposed to lower intelligence.  In Peru, scientists excoriated highland indigenous coca use as a social and biological affliction that could possibly be passed on to future generations, hence dooming indigenista visions of modern progress for their nation.  U.S.-trained Peruvian scientist Carlos Gutiérrez Noriega initially tested this hypothesis on animals, mental patients, and prisoners by forcing them to ingest large doses of coca and cocaine, and subsequently subjected indigenous shepherds, peasants, and mineworkers to his study. 

Similar to eugenic science’s construction of indigenous peoples and their cultural practices as deleterious to the nation, Asian Latin Americans were objectified and deemed permanently unfit for full citizenship through the ideology of “yellow peril.”  In Peru, eugenics movement leader and indigenista Carlos Enrique Paz Soldán not only decried indigenous coca consumption, he also described Asian immigrants as “scum,” particularly singling out Japanese Peruvian women as imperial agents whose fecundity was the ultimate weapon against Peru’s “ethnic betterment.”  Eugenic notions intertwined with “yellow peril” and resonated through popular culture, generating images of Asians as villains, seductive and deceitful much like British writer Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu character.  In this way, eugenics can be seen not only seeking to control women’s sexuality, but also in its feminization of perceived challenges to power. 

Together, this panel’s three papers explore international eugenics’ dialectical permeation of science and culture in Latin America, revealing how the ideological connections between Latin American scientists and their counterparts in the West perpetuated Latin America’s marginalization of indigenous and Asian-descent peoples.

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