New Directions in Labor and Healthcare: Ethnic Mexican Struggles for Rights in the 20th Century

AHA Session 40
Thursday, January 6, 2022: 3:30 PM-5:00 PM
Napoleon Ballroom B1 (Sheraton New Orleans, 3rd Floor)
Lori A. Flores, State University of New York at Stony Brook
From Sugar Beets to Critical Environmental Justice Studies
Bernadette Perez, University of California, Berkeley
Lori A. Flores, State University of New York at Stony Brook

Session Abstract

The COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare, and exacerbated, the social ills of socioeconomic inequality, racism, and health disparities in the United States. Latinas/os, alongside Black Americans and Indigenous peoples, have been disproportionately affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. These groups are almost three times more likely to contract and die from COVID-19 than white Americans. The higher rates of infection and death among this vulnerable population is caused by the lack of access to medical care, mistrust of healthcare services, and the economic necessity to work in jobs deemed essential during the pandemic. The pandemic has made evident that the Latina/o laborer is an essential worker, who remains medically marginal.

This panel historicizes our current pandemic moment in order to understand how Latinas/os came to be viewed as essential laborers in the U.S. workforce and how they fought against their systematic racial exclusion from medical care services and demanded safe conditions in the U.S. workplace. Throughout the twentieth century, ethnic Mexicans became the most desired form of racialized labor in the fields and on the railroad lines. Farmers and railroad companies envisioned ethnic Mexicans docile workers who were predisposed to back-breaking work. At the same time, a patchwork of workplace health and safety laws, employer-based medical service programs, and social welfare programs was being developed unevenly across industries and regions, in ways that created systematic racial exclusion. This panel examines how ethnic Mexican workers and their families challenged these structural barriers by articulating a vision of health protections that linked across three spheres of rights discourse: civil rights, labor rights, and health rights. For these Latinas/os, health was inseparable from their lives as workers, members of a familial unit, and civic participants in the United States. Part of a growing dialogue on the intersections of race, medicine, and labor, this panel offers new approaches for understanding why Latinas/os are essential workers who remain medically marginal.

Beginning in the 1920s, Dr. Bernadette Pérez shows how migrant beet workers in Colorado saw their fight for labor rights and civil rights as inseparable from environmental injustice. Shifting to World War II, Dr. Chantel Rodriguez traces the rise and fall of a railroad bracero-led health movement on the East Coast in order to demonstrate that these Mexican guest workers drew on their status as good neighbor war workers to argue that they were entitled to comprehensive health rights that existed outside of the scope of protections outlined in the guest worker contract. Lastly, Dr. Michael Aguirre examines the intimately connected struggles of farm labor advocacy and the Chicano Movement on the California-Mexico borderlands. In particular, he highlights the first federally funded Migrant Health Act clinic in Southern California, the Clinica de Salubridad de Campesinos, to explicate debates of race, self-determination, and access to medicine between Chicanas/os and conservative physicians who decried the existence of a farmworker clinic.

Dr. Lori Flores will serve as the session chair and commenter.

See more of: AHA Sessions