Public Health and Infrastructures of Care

Endorsed by the Western History Association

Friday, March 31, 2023, 1:30 PM - 3:00 PM

Type: Paper Session

Tags: Borderlands; Disability Studies; Ethnicity; Gender; Latino/a; Legal and Constitutional; Native Americans and Indigenous Peoples; Science, Medicine, and Public Health; West

Papers Presented

Calling the Shots: Civil Liberties and Anti-Vaccination Lawsuits in the Progressive Era United States, 1900-1920

This paper examines alternative visions of public health infrastructure and policy in anti-vaccination lawsuits brought by liberal civil libertarians during the Progressive Era in the United States, as well as the definitions of disability that litigants constructed in their attempts to more clearly define abstract rights to bodily autonomy. In particular, the paper focuses upon the arguments made by the state of New York and the prominent civil liberties attorney Harry Weinberger in People v. Ekerold, 105 N.E.670 (N.Y. 1914). In Ekerold, Weinberger and the attorneys for the state advanced competing visions of public health management in response to the ongoing and severe global smallpox epidemic. Weinberger’s vision far exceeded the basic quarantine and masking mandates discussed today. Most notably, archival material such as drafts of briefs and correspondences with policymakers reveal imaginative plans for large, state-run quarantine centers where infected individuals would be incentivized to voluntarily admit themselves in exchange for state-provided benefits. Furthermore, specific conceptions of disability served as an important shorthand for the litigants on both sides as they attempted to defend their visions and to define the precise contours of rights to bodily autonomy. Ultimately, cases like Ekerold exemplify how definitions of disability became linked to expansionist views of the state, even as most of those visions failed to materialize in full and as other civil libertarians sought to create further distance between themselves and the mechanisms of government.

Presented By
Rebecca A. Boorstein, Yale University

Cholera and Nineteenth-Century Crises of Care

For more than three decades in the nineteenth century, the deadly bacterium Vibrio cholera created crises of care across the continent. While many historians have explored cholera as an urban disease that thrived in the dense and dank cities of the urbanizing United States, the disease also dramatically impacted Native peoples and white settlers as they moved west. On forced deportation marches, Native peoples such as the Cherokee struggled to access traditional medicines and to gain permission form U.S. military and subcontractors to properly care for the sick. When their loved ones died, the government paid local white settlers a few dollars to bury the dead, sometimes without the benefit of Native funeral rites. For Native peoples, the disease compounded the traumas of deportation. But, like COVID, cholera also dramatically impacted the privileged settlers who voluntarily made their way to California’s gold fields. For these settlers, most of them white men, cholera induced a crisis of care that was also a crisis of masculinity. White miners expected to test their masculine mettle against Native foes, instead they tested themselves against a deadly bacterium that made them lose control of their bodies. Solving this crisis required men to perform duties of care gendered female. Ultimately, white miners used narrative to recast cholera as a warrior-like foe. By situating disease and the ensuing crises of care at the center of westward expansion in the mid-nineteenth century, this paper realigns the voluntary migration of white settlers with the forced deportation of Native peoples. Moreover, it examines how two distinct groups of people responded to the major public health crisis of their time. Their responses suggest lessons for how we might respond to our own.

Presented By
Sarah Keyes, University of Nevada, Reno

Making Partners in Poverty: Private Land and Social Life in the Texas-Mexico Borderlands

In 1991, the Texas Legislature formally recognized the thousands of rural and unincorporated communities (las colonias) along the state’s southern border that had grown exponentially since the middle of the twentieth century. While colonias exist in California, Arizona, and New Mexico, it is Texas that has cultivated the most by far, totaling more than 2,200 in a recent count. Today, more than a half-million Texans, a vastly poor and Mexican-American population, live there in shoddy, seller-financed units often lacking potable water and paved roads. This paper examines the creation of Texas’s Colonias Program as a first-of-its-kind statewide policy intervention aimed at disrupting these communities’ entrenched poverty. In particular, the paper considers the role of programmatic “social infrastructure” — a common phrase among policymakers, bureaucrats, and colonia residents tasked with enforcing the new law in the early 1990s, more than 40 years after las colonias’ initial appearance. A notable example is the state’s partnership with Texas A&M University’s College of Architecture, which trained dozens of colonia residents (almost exclusively women) to become promotoras, or community members who connected neighbors with health care, employment, and day care opportunities. Drawing on oral histories and government archives, I argue that this alliance and its related initiatives, such as the establishment of permanent community centers, did more than anything else in the proceeding decades to alter las colonias’ long-isolated physical landscape. However, the colonias’ novel integration with municipal and state institutions also heaped fresh public attention on the plight of their residents. I contend that this intense scrutiny met with tenants’ rising expectations just as transnational globalization currents (exemplified by the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement) further fueled borderlands poverty and easily overwhelmed ongoing self-help efforts. As a result, las colonias saw an unprecedented population boom after the mid-1990s as land developers scrambled to indebt newly arrived migrants lured to the border by low-wage work. Overall, this paper explains the historical limits of “social infrastructure” and similarly targeted investments in the face of systemic impoverishment and chronic neglect.

Presented By
Bobby Cervantes, University of Kansas

Session Participants

Chair: Matthew Francis Bokovoy
Senior Editor
Native American and Indigenous Studies
Cultural Anthropology and Ethnography
History of Anthropology, Trade Nonfiction of the American West

Presenter: Rebecca A. Boorstein, Yale University
Rebecca Boorstein has obtained a JD from the University of Chicago Law School and is currently a PhD Student in History at Yale University. Her work focuses upon the legal histories of disability and public health.

Presenter: Bobby Cervantes, University of Kansas
Bobby Cervantes is a Ph.D. candidate in American studies at the University of Kansas, as well as a Mellon/ACLS Dissertation Completion Fellow and the Jefferson Scholars Foundation’s Birdsall National Fellow. His interdisciplinary work explores the transnational nature of racial capitalism, migration, and profit in the contemporary Americas. His dissertation is the first comprehensive history of the thousands of rural and largely unincorporated Texas communities (las colonias) in the U.S.-Mexico borderlands, where today more than a half-million people live in one of the greatest concentrations of American poverty. His research has been supported by the Organization of American Historians, the Texas State Historical Association, and the Lyndon B. Johnson Foundation, among others. He may be reached at

Presenter: Sarah Keyes, University of Nevada, Reno
Sarah Keyes is a historian of the United States. She specializes in the 19th century and the history of the U.S. West with a focus on the environment and intercultural interactions between Indigenous peoples and Euro-Americans. Her current work explores these topics along the overland trails to Oregon and California in the mid-19th century. Her book manuscript, "American Burial Ground: A New History of the Overland Trail," is under contract with the University of Pennsylvania Press. Keyes has also begun work on her second project, a regional and transnational study of suffrage in the U.S. West, for which she was recently awarded a Mellon-Schlesinger Summer Research Grant from the Schlesinger Library at Harvard University.