Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Pandemic Flu and Xenophobia: A History Lesson

The year 1918 was an exciting and terrible time for El Paso and the border: the Mexican Revolution was nearing its bloody end and an outbreak of Spanish influenza incited one of the most shameful and neglected episodes in American history: the decades-long delousing of Mexicans, with insecticides, gasoline, kerosene, and cyanide-based pesticides to make them ‘clean.’ David Romo’s Ringside Seat to a Revolution recounts this remarkable story.

Today when we are facing another pandemic flu, it is useful to review the irrational decisions made back in 1918, by demagogues who already hated Mexicans and who used the fear in the populace to advance an agenda that didn’t in fact help to stop the spread of Spanish influenza. Delousing physically harmed and psychologically scarred thousands of Mexicans, including my grandfather Santiago Troncoso. Let’s not repeat this kind of American history, but learn from it.

First, facts. The ‘Spanish influenza’ began in Kansas. Why it was given this misnomer is probably another legacy of how easily it is to blame the poor and those not media savvy. Also, of course, gasoline and kerosene and pesticides did not kill the Spanish flu, but it did harm and shame many people who were forced to strip naked at the border as they were sprayed with ‘the solution.’ Finally, and most remarkably, Zyklon B was used in El Paso in 1929, the same chemical agent that in more concentrated form was subsequently employed by the Nazis in their death camps to exterminate the Jews. Romo even uncovers evidence to suggest that the use of Zyklon B in El Paso directly inspired German scientists to start looking into its properties for cleansing a country of its ‘pests.’

Today the possible pandemic is swine flu, and we should redouble our efforts to act on facts, rather than on fears or prejudices that end up hurting innocents, or worse. I am waiting for a weak politician, or media loudmouth, to exploit the swine flu fears to further a xenophobic agenda. I am waiting to see whether stereotypes of Mexicans are privately reinforced and maybe even publicly acted upon, with the same bloody results. I hope I will have to wait forever, but I am still wary.

I don’t know if we as a country have a mature-enough political discourse to resist such temptations. The glib media rule the airwaves, including Twitter, and passing along short bursts of fear, instead of thoughtful analysis, is our modern forte. Moreover, the groundwork for xenophobia against Mexicans has already been reinforced by the many years of attacks demonizing undocumented workers in the United States. Perhaps the saving grace of the current situation is that we have a new administration that I believe will be more sensitive to the abuse of public hysteria to further a xenophobic agenda.

Early reports, in the Wall Street Journal, for example, indicate that this swine flu outbreak did start in Mexico. But even here the picture is more complicated than we might think. One of the first swine-flu cases was that of a five-year-old boy from Veracruz who lived near a pig farm operated by Smithfield Foods Inc., an American company based in Virginia. The company denies any involvement in the swine flu outbreak.

All this tells me is that we are interconnected, whether we like it or not. We get our food from all over the world. We get our people from all over the world. This has been our world for a long time, and I don’t attempt to imagine some false pure state where I am island and if I return to this island I will somehow be safer, or better, or truer in some metaphysical sense. Reaching back, or forward, to false utopias, especially during crises in our communities, has always prevented us from solving the problems in the first place, and too often spawned horrific ‘solutions’ that expose our greatest human frailties and moral failures. Work the problem, people. Not the fear.