‘Bodies Across the Border’ Event Addresses Race, Health and Eugenics in the US
The Consortium in Latin American and Caribbean Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Duke University invited scholars Sarah Horton and Natalie Lira to UNC-Chapel Hill on November 29, 2018 to present their work on the topics of eugenics, race and disability. The event showcased how interdisciplinary collaboration can contribute to important ongoing conversations.
Horton, associate professor of anthropology at the University of Colorado–Denver, has spent over a decade researching farmworkers’ health and labor conditions in California’s central valley, and is the author of the They Leave Their Kidneys in the Fields: Illness, Injury, and ‘Illegality’ Among U.S. Farmworkers. Her work uses ethnography to investigate how disabled and aging farmworkers see their circumstances and find alternative forms of support beyond limited federal assistance programs.
For immigrant farm workers, Horton explained, the body remains a source of both economic value and self-worth, yet it is often drained by the time an individual is disabled or aging. The process to obtain disability assistance is lengthy and difficult. A worker must prove they can not only no longer work their previous jobs, but that they “are unable to adjust to other work” in order to be considered permanently disabled. “Whereas their worth as workers once derived from their bodily vigor, [immigrant farmworkers] now find that their bodies have again accrued value only once they are truly finished,” said Horton. She also discussed undocumented immigrant farmworkers and their struggle to obtain wage deductions from their employers and pensions from the Social Security Association without legal status, thus making it impossible for them to receive disability or retirement benefits.
Lira is assistant professor in the departments of Latina/Latino studies and gender and women’s studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Currently, Lira is using quantitative and historical evidence to write a book on how race, disability and gender shaped practices of sterilization and confinement in California state institutions in ways that disproportionately affected Mexican-origin youth during the era of eugenics in the early to mid-twentieth century.
These institutions affected mainly Mexican American youths deemed “feeble-minded.” This term was purposefully vague to leave room for interpretation for eugenicists. IQ scores were used not only to define mental capacity, but to diagnose both perceived social worth and fitness to reproduce. The inmates’ mental incapacity, as measured by their IQ scores, was also used to justify state surveillance. Inmates were sterilized, restricted from an education and trained only in industrial labor. As a result, they could not support themselves outside the institution. Their inability to have children also left them with long-lasting physical and mental pain.
Lira explained that this was the goal of California eugenicists, who believed that “even if a purportedly feeble-minded person did not properly adjust economically or social once released, they were at the very least unable to propagate more unfit children.” She hopes that her historical research will expand our perception of how institutions use understandings of disability and race “to continue the work of policing bodies, boundaries, creating notions of worth and deservingness well beyond national borders.”
“Both Dr. Lira and Dr. Horton demonstrate how interdisciplinary techniques improve research, said Elizabeth Jones, a doctoral student in the Department of Romance Studies in the UNC College of Arts & Sciences and coordinator of the Transnational Bodies Working Group. “Together they gave our audience a broader picture of the dynamics of disability and health in California’s Latinx population.”
“Bodies Across the Borders” was sponsored by the Transnational Bodies Working Group, the Im/migration, Illegality, and Citizenship in the Americas Working Group and the Institute for the Study of the Americas. The working group plans to bring more speakers to campus in the spring to initiate further interdisciplinary conversations.
January 23, 2023