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Picturing Parteras, Framing Otherness: Transhemispheric Visions of New Mexico’s Public Health Department

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Abstract:

Following the 2007 American Studies Association Convention theme, América Aquí, this presentation examines the role of public health photography in shaping the visual limits of national belonging. During the 1930’s, the New Mexico public health department published a number of photographs featuring parteras—Spanish-speaking, empirically trained, midwives. The photos featured a “line-up” of variously aged, Latina women wearing long black dresses and shawls, with an additional black shawl covering their heads. Published in public health literature, these images of parteras were often juxtaposed with photos of young, female, Anglo nurses wearing uniforms replete with starched white collars and aprons. In my presentation, I argue that these photos served two, often contradictory, purposes. First, perhaps most obviously, the pubic health department utilized these photos to depict parteras as unsophisticated, even atavistic, health care practitioners. Contrasted with images of public health nurses, these photos additionally highlighted not only divergent medical practices, but also constructed visual clues about cultural and racial difference in New Mexico. It is important to note that during the 1930’s in New Mexico, the U.S. Census classified people who claimed Spanish or Hispano identity as “white,” thus, I read partera photographs as part of a larger struggle over racial identification in New Mexico. If the first purpose of these photographs was to malign the practices of parteras and call, as some public health officials did, for their “elimination,” then, ironically, their second purpose was to draw attention to the need for “preservation” of “traditional” New Mexican cultural practices. Deployed towards this end, photographs of parteras were championed by anthropologists and tourist-boosters to highlight the “uniqueness” and cultural “authenticity” of New Mexico. However, these efforts attempted to freeze parteras in time, denying them agency to confront the rapid cultural changes surrounding them.
To further analyze the photographic significances of parteras, this presentation draws on Edward Said’s theory of Orientalism, which explains how European culture developed its identity in contradistinction to the Orient as that which is perpetually “other.” Interestingly, in the public health archive there are several telling comparisons between the birth practices of New Mexicans and the people of colonial countries such as India, New Zealand, and the Philippines. Often these transhemispheric references can be found directly in the text describing the photographs of parteras. This presentation explores the uses and limits of Orientalism in explaining images and descriptions of parteras. Overall, this presentation argues that public health photographs played a central, if yet unexamined, role in the process of gendering and racilizing New Mexicans. Furthermore, this specific historical example can be extrapolated to explain how visual images were deployed as a technique to continually defer legitimate belonging to people of color within the United States.
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MLA Citation:

McQuade, Lena. "Picturing Parteras, Framing Otherness: Transhemispheric Visions of New Mexico’s Public Health Department" Paper presented at the annual meeting of the The American Studies Association, Philadelphia Marriott Downtown, Philadelphia, PA, Oct 11, 2007 <Not Available>. 2013-12-15 <http://citation.allacademic.com/meta/p186357_index.html>

APA Citation:

McQuade, L. , 2007-10-11 "Picturing Parteras, Framing Otherness: Transhemispheric Visions of New Mexico’s Public Health Department" Paper presented at the annual meeting of the The American Studies Association, Philadelphia Marriott Downtown, Philadelphia, PA <Not Available>. 2013-12-15 from http://citation.allacademic.com/meta/p186357_index.html

Publication Type: Conference Paper/Unpublished Manuscript
Abstract: Following the 2007 American Studies Association Convention theme, América Aquí, this presentation examines the role of public health photography in shaping the visual limits of national belonging. During the 1930’s, the New Mexico public health department published a number of photographs featuring parteras—Spanish-speaking, empirically trained, midwives. The photos featured a “line-up” of variously aged, Latina women wearing long black dresses and shawls, with an additional black shawl covering their heads. Published in public health literature, these images of parteras were often juxtaposed with photos of young, female, Anglo nurses wearing uniforms replete with starched white collars and aprons. In my presentation, I argue that these photos served two, often contradictory, purposes. First, perhaps most obviously, the pubic health department utilized these photos to depict parteras as unsophisticated, even atavistic, health care practitioners. Contrasted with images of public health nurses, these photos additionally highlighted not only divergent medical practices, but also constructed visual clues about cultural and racial difference in New Mexico. It is important to note that during the 1930’s in New Mexico, the U.S. Census classified people who claimed Spanish or Hispano identity as “white,” thus, I read partera photographs as part of a larger struggle over racial identification in New Mexico. If the first purpose of these photographs was to malign the practices of parteras and call, as some public health officials did, for their “elimination,” then, ironically, their second purpose was to draw attention to the need for “preservation” of “traditional” New Mexican cultural practices. Deployed towards this end, photographs of parteras were championed by anthropologists and tourist-boosters to highlight the “uniqueness” and cultural “authenticity” of New Mexico. However, these efforts attempted to freeze parteras in time, denying them agency to confront the rapid cultural changes surrounding them.
To further analyze the photographic significances of parteras, this presentation draws on Edward Said’s theory of Orientalism, which explains how European culture developed its identity in contradistinction to the Orient as that which is perpetually “other.” Interestingly, in the public health archive there are several telling comparisons between the birth practices of New Mexicans and the people of colonial countries such as India, New Zealand, and the Philippines. Often these transhemispheric references can be found directly in the text describing the photographs of parteras. This presentation explores the uses and limits of Orientalism in explaining images and descriptions of parteras. Overall, this presentation argues that public health photographs played a central, if yet unexamined, role in the process of gendering and racilizing New Mexicans. Furthermore, this specific historical example can be extrapolated to explain how visual images were deployed as a technique to continually defer legitimate belonging to people of color within the United States.

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