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.