Jessica in Washington, D.C.

Jessica is a graduate student in cultural anthropology and a candidate for a graduate certificate in women’s and gender studies in Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences. Jessica is working on her dissertation, which compares middle-class, heterosexual Mexican-American couples and Anglo couples in the U.S. with the goal of understanding why these individuals choose to be child-free and how gender influences power relations in decision-making. During summer 2013, she is attending the Smithsonian Latino Museum Studies Program in Washington, D.C., to expand her knowledge of Latino studies and explore how her work as an anthropologist can be utilized in a museum setting.

Research at the Smithsonian: Investigating Latinos, reproduction, and disability

The 2013 LMSP Fellows at the Smithsonian Castle

The 2013 LMSP Fellows at the Smithsonian Castle, Jessica is in the back row, 7th from the left. Taken by Diana Bossa, Smithsonian Latino Center.

The final part of my practicum at the National Museum of American History allowed me to further explore intersections of reproductive decision-making and disability among Latinos. As I finished my research on eugenics and coercive sterilization in the U.S. (see previous post for more details), I came upon allegations raised this summer that from 2006-2010 at least 148 female inmates in a California prison underwent coercive sterilizations. Unfortunately, the history I explored is still incredibly relevant today.


This poster from the United States Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (year unknown) reminds Spanish-speaking individuals of the lasting consequences of sterilization procedures.

In addition to a historical eugenic context wherein some Latinos/as were denied reproductive agency, I also had questions about how more contemporary sociopolitical factors affect reproductive decision-making and disability for Latinos. That is, what structural factors affect how Latinos negotiate these areas of their lives? Some research suggests that having a child with a disability is a reason for some Latinos to migrate to the United States, where it is perceived that there is better health care. Unfortunately, structural barriers have historically prevented Latinos from accessing disability services. Stigma surrounding disability in the United States also makes many Latino immigrants feel that it is difficult to “fit in,” which is a stated goal for many.

The role of culture may also be a research consideration. Some research suggests that children’s diagnoses with disabilities may be difficult for some Latino parents. This may mean more than translation issues for Spanish-speaking parents – for example, a poor translation of an intellectual disability as loco (crazy). The definition of culture may also be culturally constructed. Latino parents may not understand or accept a disability diagnosis if the child appears to have all of the skills needed to go through her/his life. Again, diagnosis of an intellectual disability may not be accepted as a disability, as the child can still do all necessary tasks at home.

These larger themes in the literature can be illustrated by a contemporary case study: prenatal screening for fetal disabilities. If a pregnant woman matches certain criteria, her doctor may suggest that the fetus be screened for genetic abnormalities. Latinas (often with their partners) may face specific challenges in negotiating this situation, such as clinicians’ efforts at “cultural competency” that may result in stereotyping Latina patients, thus negatively affecting their care; working through translators, whose style of translation may affect patients’ decision-making process and outcome; and, for some, a lack of understanding of biomedical models. Further, they are often negotiating prenatal screening decisions in the historical context of the eugenic sterilization practices described above.

As part of the program’s closing activities, I presented the research that I have shared here at the Smithsonian Latino Center. The Latino Museum Studies Program was an invaluable opportunity to learn more about Latino issues, in particular in museum settings. Undertaking research in a museum setting and job shadowing a curator also pushed me to think about new ways to do research and to disseminate information.

Jessica exploring the collection at the Division of Medicine and Science

Jessica exploring the collection at the Division of Medicine and Science

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Behind the scenes at the National Museum of American History


Curator Katherine Ott explains pieces from the National Museum of American History collections. Photo by Diana Bossa, Smithsonian Latino Center.

This month I’m getting a true behind-the-scenes experience at the National Museum of American History (NMAH). In the last month of the Latino Museum Studies Program, I am getting acquainted with work in Latino Studies by working in a Smithsonian museum. The NMAH is part of a large institution (The Smithsonian Institution), is a very large museum with many divisions, and is currently undergoing a major renovation. I have been going to staff meetings, learning about (and looking through!) collections and archives, and working with my practicum leader to get some understanding of how this large and complex museum works.

I am working in the Division of Medicine and Science, which manages the largest collection of health-related artifacts in the Western Hemisphere. As a Cultural Anthropologist, I am interested in understanding issues of health, illness, and the body in their cultural context. Working at the NMAH is teaching me to be attentive to historical contexts as well. I am working with an NMAH curator, Katherine Ott, who was the project director and lead curator of the online exhibition “EveryBody: An Artifact History of Disability in America,” which uses objects to illustrate histories of  people with disabilities and their part in American history. (If you want a taste of a behind-the-scenes museum experience for yourself, follow Dr. Ott on Twitter, where she shares images from the collection, and more.)

My main job at the NMAH is working on a research project exploring reproductive choice and disability among Latinos in the United States. There are a variety of ways to discuss this topic, but I started my research by reviewing the literature on coercive sterilization, eugenics in America, and Latino populations. For this post, I will focus on Mexican Americans in California, though there is also a well documented history of coercive sterilization of Puerto Ricans, both in Puerto Rico and in New York City.

When we hear “eugenics,” we may make the mistake of associating the movement as something that happened far away and a long time ago, such as in Nazi Germany. However, eugenic ideas and practices can be seen in the early 1900s in the United States, and scholars argue that many of the prejudices established during the heyday of American eugenics are still around today.

Eugenicists wanted to breed a superior human race, which was understood to be of Nordic, German, and Anglo-Saxon heritage; therefore, those who were not in this group (minority groups, immigrants, those with physical or intellectual disabilities) would pollute the gene pool. Mexicans and Mexican Americans were one group that American eugenicists felt had an “inferior” stock and would weaken American stock if the two groups interbred.  We now know that eugenic arguments do not hold water. However, at the time, eugenic prejudice marked Mexicans as different (dirty, impure) from white Americans and meant that Mexicans were subjected to rigorous “disinfection” procedures at the border, which, in the 1940s, even included being doused with DDT. Eugenic practice also meant that Mexican Americans should be prevented from reproducing, which was accomplished through sterilization of both men and women; rates of sterilization for Mexican Americans in California (a notoriously pro-eugenics state) in the 1920s were disproportionately higher than their percentage of the state population. Mexican Americans were often given biased IQ tests, which would regularly result in a low score and provide legal justification for forced sterilization.

Eugenic ideas can be seen in more recent California history, as well. In 1975, a group of Mexican-origin California women filed a class-action suit (Madrigal v. Quilligan) against County hospital obstetricians for being coerced into postpartum tubal ligations. More recently still, California was the first state (1986) to pass a law requiring that pregnant women be offered prenatal screening (MSAFP) to assess risk of fetal disability, such as Down Syndrome. Given the pressure many women feel to go through with the screening, A. M. Stern argues convincingly that this (and other) legislation should be understood within a historical context of eugenics that saw Mexican women as “hyperbreeders” and Mexicans as producing “inferior” offspring.

This case study weaves together histories of ethnicity and disability, illustrating how the concepts were mobilized for prejudice against the two groups. It also provides a backdrop for contemporary reproductive decisions of Latinos/as. For more information on American eugenics and Latinos, see Natalia Molina’s Fit to be Citizens? Public Health and Race in Los Angeles, 1879-1939, Alexandra Minna Stern’s Eugenic Nation: Faults and Frontiers of Better Breeding in Modern America, and Laura Brigg’s Reproducing Empire: Race, Sex, Science, and U.S. Imperialism in Puerto Rico.

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What is the American experience, anyway?

Our group on tour. Photo by Diana Bossa, Smithsonian Latino Center.

Our group on tour.
Photo by Diana Bossa, Smithsonian Latino Center.

Much of the first two weeks of the Smithsonian Latino Center’s Latino Museum Studies Program (LMSP) have centered on the question: What is the American experience? This seemingly innocuous topic takes many twists and turns and quickly becomes complicated. Whose stories are we telling? From what point of view? Who counts as “American”?  Further, how can and should these questions be fruitfully explored by museums in the Smithsonian, an institute that is deeply invested in telling the American story?

I have explored the above questions with a cohort of 14 accomplished graduate students selected from around the county. We are from different academic disciplines, but are all interested in what it means to be Latino and how Latinos have contributed to the American story. We have participated in a variety of tours, talks, and debates surrounding issues of representation and interpretation of Latino cultures and Latino participation in museum settings.

The first two weeks have been a whirlwind of activity. Some highlights include:

Even though the above is only a sample of our two-week schedule, we have also had time to explore Washington, D.C., on our own to learn about the city and seek out other museum experiences of interest.

As I wrap up my first two weeks, full of ideas and questions, I look forward to the next four weeks, where I will be doing hands-on work at the National Museum of American History.

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