Crisis Cities is a public symposium on the 2020 crises and their impact on urban life, co-organized by Public Books and the NYU Cities Collaborative. Read series editor Thomas Sugrue’s introduction, “Preexisting Conditions,” here.
I remember the first time I cried in an archive. I was doing research in 2001 in the Archives of the Secretary of Exterior Relations in Mexico City, which houses the papers of Mexican consulates in the US. I came across a 1916 document about the quarantine station at the US-Mexico border in El Paso. The document described how Mexicans who lived in Juárez and crossed the border every day to their jobs in El Paso were regularly stripped naked and forced into showers while their clothes were washed in kerosene—all at the direction of the US Public Health Service. The stated rationale for this practice was that Mexicans were the cause of a typhus outbreak in the US, even though Mexicans had only been associated with four cases in the previous months. When a local jail adopted the same practice, using a kerosene solution to deal with an outbreak of lice, someone lit a match and the explosion killed all 20 Mexican prisoners.
I cried because of the cruelty and dehumanization. But I also cried because these conditions were not the exception but the rule for Mexican laborers at the turn of the century. I was well into writing my first book, Fit to Be Citizens? Public Health and Race in Los Angeles, 1879–1939, and I knew that workers would continue to be treated as either the solution or the problem, depending on demand for cheap labor in the US, for decades to come. Mexicans provide a ready supply of inexpensive labor in times of plenty, but they regularly suffer from disease and injury due to the lack of clean and safe working conditions. In both cases, Mexican workers’ lives are treated as disposable.
Today Latinx workers, especially immigrants, are concentrated in the front-line occupations of health care, food service, transportation, agriculture, and meat processing. Yet while we now call these occupations essential, the actual workers are considered just as expendable as they were one hundred years ago, and the emergence of COVID-19 has only highlighted that reality. In California, the Latinx community composes 39 percent of the population but represents 55 percent of coronavirus cases.
Meatpacking was dangerous even before COVID-19. Low-wage workers endure crowded, cold, and noisy conditions and face punishment for absences and no sick pay, which encourages them to work when they are ill. With the arrival of the pandemic, these dangerous conditions have been exacerbated by a failure to provide personal protective equipment (PPE) and sanitation stations, and a drop in the number of safety inspectors. The conditions are often just as bad for agricultural laborers, who are exposed to pesticides, live in crowded and inadequate housing, and lack PPE and sanitation stations.
Yet far from joining together in outrage, most Americans tacitly accept these conditions for a few so that the majority can continue their lives uninterrupted. Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Patience Roggensack recently provided a pungent example of how ingrained in society this “otherness” is. She explained that one county’s surge of COVID cases—from 60 to 800 in two weeks—was “due to the meatpacking.” “That’s where Brown County got the flare. It wasn’t just the regular folks in Brown County.” In other words, “regular folks” are not diseased; Mexicans are.
For over a century, we have excused systemic inequalities, justifying them by pointing to Mexicans’ difference from “us.” In the early 20th century, employers, particularly those in agriculture and railroad construction in the Southwest, relied heavily on Mexican immigrant labor. Agribusiness leaders argued that Mexicans should be exempt from immigration quotas because they were biologically suited to perform stoop labor in 110-degree heat that would overwhelm other workers. This argument foreclosed any discussion of workplace conditions and justified giving these workers the worst jobs, at the worst wages, in the worst conditions.