Defining the boundaries of care: Local responses to global concerns in El Paso public health policy, 1881--1941

Ann R Gabbert, University of Texas at El Paso


Public health policy is one of the main mechanisms for establishing and enforcing borders locally and globally. In an era when few simple effective therapies existed for infectious diseases, public health officials sought to prevent the spread of disease by improving the underlying environmental infrastructure of communities or by subjecting certain population groups to segregation, surveillance, inspection, and control. By deciding what neighborhoods to improve and which people to include or exclude through discriminatory policies, policymakers used medical science to establish explicit and implicit boundaries of care in response to rising mortality from tuberculosis, the national push for immigration restriction, increasing morbidity from venereal disease, and a concern for maternal and infant welfare. ^ El Paso's geographical location, economic situation, and political climate provided a unique social and cultural context for the participation of local El Pasoans in global conversations on disease and difference. Although El Paso boosters advertised the city as a healthy place, it was a diseased urban space due to the presence of tubercular health-seekers and lax enforcement of public health laws. Government officials struggled with medical inspection of immigrants and the protocols for quarantine at its port of entry on the Mexican border. A regulated "vice zone" gave El Paso a venereal disease problem. Prior to the mid-1910s, local public health officials targeted four different population groups for increased suspicion, supervision, and surveillance: indigent whites, Syrians and non-Mexican immigrants, "loose women," and all mothers. However, in the turmoil of the Mexican Revolution and during the interwar years, the Mexican portion of the local population became the primary focus for surveillance and control. Public health officials deloused local Mexican workers, questioned the morals of Mexican men and women, and "rounded up" Mexican mothers for prenatal care. By the 1930s, El Paso's city-county health officer was willing to re-label all Mexicans as "colored" to reduce the "white" statistical infant mortality rate. Theoretically informed and based on extensive archival research, this social history demonstrates that racialized procedures not only bolstered prejudices already present in the community but also constructed them, as El Paso established its own boundaries of care. ^

Subject Area

History, United States|Women's Studies|Sociology, Ethnic and Racial Studies

Recommended Citation

Gabbert, Ann R, "Defining the boundaries of care: Local responses to global concerns in El Paso public health policy, 1881--1941" (2006). ETD Collection for University of Texas, El Paso. AAI3214012.