A Threat to the Nation: Migrant Farmworkers, Public Health, and US Medical Racialization during the New Deal

Friday, January 4, 2019: 8:30 AM
Salon 12 (Palmer House Hilton)
Veronica Martinez-Matsuda, Cornell University
Beginning in 1938, the U.S. Farm Security Administration (FSA) launched one of the largest, most far-reaching experiments in health care delivery ever undertaken by the federal government when it established various state-based Agricultural Workers Health Associations (AWHA). Through these associations, the FSA provided farmworker families critical aid to combat the alarming rates of disease, malnourishment, infant mortality, and poverty that plagued their lives. In an unprecedented manner, the FSA’s health plans brought national attention to the seriousness of migrants’ health condition and supported the claims farmworkers advanced about their inability to receive medical care. In the process of conducting this promising effort, however, the FSA’s medical program also reflected and deepened problematic cultural biases that further exploited and racialized rural poor people. In California, Texas, and Florida, as this paper will show, the FSA celebrated the rationality and modernity of European American culture over the ignorance and backwardness of “off white” Dustbowlers, Mexicans, and African Americans to promote and help affirm the medical program’s contributions to U.S. social reform.

This paper examines the tension between U.S. public health care and medical racialization, particularly as it intersected with migrants’ civil rights in the 1930s and 1940s. Despite growing research in the biology of disease, the emergence of new treatments, and the recognition of environmental factors as most influential to infection, racial discourses of degeneracy and cultural deficiency continued to shape how the FSA framed its medical intervention and how the broader public received it. Characterizing migrant families as “unfit” fueled the logic existing among many communities that positioned migrants as outside the realm of social membership. As World War II began, the FSA relied even more dramatically on the link between health and productivity as essential to the growth of a democratic body in both the individual and national sense.

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