Sterilization Rumors and the Politics of Secrecy in 1970s Mexico City

Friday, January 6, 2017: 10:50 AM
Room 503 (Colorado Convention Center)
Vanessa Freije, University of Washington
Just as family planning campaigns were underway in Mexico, rumors surfaced in 1974 that foreigners were sterilizing school children under the guise of routine vaccinations against typhoid and other diseases. In response, many parents refused to vaccinate their children. First documented in January of that year, the rumors took hold in the nation’s capital by December, beginning in the impoverished Ciudad Netzahualcoyotl, located on the periphery of Mexico City. Parents heard that the Mexican government conspired to rid itself of its poor, and sightings were reported of foreign sterilization brigades patrolling the streets. Parents rushed to withdraw their children from school, and newspapers reported chaos, school closings, and isolated incidents of violence against administrators.

Conspiratorial thinking is a common thread in twentieth-century Mexican politics, but it has not received sustained scholarly attention. This paper analyzes rumors of sterilization as key sites of popular knowledge production and challenges to official discourse. Until recently, scholarly studies have tended to diminish conspiracy theories as “paranoid” or “irrational.” However, in Mexico’s case, rumors responded quite understandably to UN population control campaigns and development initiatives. This paper explores the methodological challenges of studying conspiracy theories, which often went undocumented. It also uses the vaccination case to illuminate the politics of secrecy and concealment in Mexican public life.