Eugenic Legacies in Mexico and the Americas

Symposium August 11th-12th

'17 Instituto de Estudios Criticos, Mexico City


Description of event

The primary goal of the proposed project is to develop a transnational space of critical reflection and research dissemination on the continuities and disjunctures between eugenics in history and the repercussions of this movement in our evolving present. Participants from the University of Toronto and the 17 Instituto de Estudios Críticos in Mexico City, along with co-presenters from the National Autonomous University of Mexico and other institutions, will meet together in a two-day, live-streamed colloquium in Mexico City in August of 2021, to examine the historical roots of eugenics, as well as the contemporary contexts of racialization and sexuality and disability-based inequalities, and the ways in which critical and creative research practices might work towards greater equity and more nuanced awareness of injustice. If conditions do not permit an in-person meeting, the event will be held virtually, with an in-person colloquium the following year.

We agreed to hold this event in Mexico to more effectively include a number of Mexico-based researchers who are closely engaged in the topic. This project will effectively showcase Mexican and Canadian research on an international stage, while placing it in productive dialogue with the work of other international researchers. The event also includes the collaborative work of four doctoral students, two in Canada and two in Mexico. The students will be hired to assist in communications, translations, research, and logistics.


One of the objectives of this project is to promote transnational dialogue, research, and public policy informed by greater knowledge of eugenic history and its evolving permutations. Another is to facilitate critical and creative intervention in current practices and behaviours pertaining to education, public health, and social relations, with greater awareness of disability and racial justice in their historical and transnational contexts. By bringing aspects of eugenic history into conversation with the growing challenges of public health, socioeconomic inequity, racism, and ableism facing our contemporary world on both regional and global levels, the project will enhance our ability to grapple with the evolving meanings of eugenics, and to recognize the persistent and historical complexities of injustice.


The project aligns with SSHRC’s Future Challenge Area, “Global Health & Wellness for the Twenty-first Century,” as it is attuned to the nuanced dilemmas of equity in healthcare, especially as impacted by the roles of epigenetic therapy, DNA prediagnosis of chronic conditions, and bioinformatics. These technologies all hold promise for improving public health outcomes, while at once carrying echoes of debates in eugenics history regarding the role of government in healthcare and hygiene, environment and behaviour as predictors of future health, and the value of human differences. A second key Future Challenge Area related to this project is “Humanity+.” If biotechnological human enhancement creates “opportunities for nullifying disabilities,” our project insists on a critically and historically informed interrogation of the notion that disability can and should be nullified. Moreover, biotech-driven shifts in human inequality and in definitions of human-ness remain central to debates in disability studies, and in the repercussions of eugenics in the world today.


Participants’ work will centre on interlinked topics pertaining to:

-the history of the intelligence testing of children, particularly in racialized communities (Acevedo Rodrigo, 2015)

-the figure of the child and the politics of hygiene and education (Schell, 2004)

-the biopolitics of disability and race, especially in the context of normative medical and social discourse (Maldonado Ramírez, 2018)

- the genealogy of disability, social relations, and citizenship in national and international legal contexts (Brogna, 2014).

-the corporeal, situated knowledge of lived disability and its potential for confronting ableism and contemporary forms of subtle eugenics (Vite Hernández, 2020)

-the uses of ethnography, institutional histories, and the history of archaelogy as tools for unveiling a genealogy of eugenics (Miranda Galarza, 2017; Jullian Montañez, 2013)

-the roles of literary and artistic production in the articulation of eugenic legacies (Antebi, 2021, Antebi 2020).

Research dissemination plans

The colloquium and follow-up events will culminate in a collective publication, in the form of a series of essays by the participants, to be published in bilingual (Spanish/English) online and print formats. Our publication platform will be the 17 Instituto, a highly respected and critically rigorous open-access venue. This is the ideal publication space for our work, allowing for both immediate, accessible, open access worldwide. The 17 Instituto is arguably the foremost space of disability studies research and teaching in Mexico. Many events and online resources are open to and well attended by a diverse public audience, including international participants. The online version of our publication in both English and Spanish will also be linked to digital resources produced by our colleagues at the University of London, thus allowing for a broader, transnational space of dialogue on the topic of eugenic legacies in specific locations and worldwide. We will create a 30-minute podcast on our research, to be featured on the website, along with podcasts from the other regional groups in the international project.



The audience for this event and for the publication will be diverse, including a combination of academic interlocutors and members of the broader general public. Given the current uncertainty regarding in-person gatherings of large groups, we are planning for the alternative option of a virtual event, in case an in-person gathering is not feasible. In either scenario, we will live-stream all or most of the sessions, allowing for the virtual participation of academic and general audiences from around the globe. It is important to us to maintain an open and transnational dialogue for this activity, especially as our event is part of a larger project that examines eugenics as both a global and regional phenomenon, in history and in its present-day repercussions. We will offer interpretation between English and Spanish, as well as live captioning as needed, so that our work occurs in active dialogue with other regional activities and to improve the accessibility of the event.

The geographical breadth of the audience for this event is important because one of our goals is to increase knowledge of the diversity and scope of the eugenics movement in its regional histories, and to create transnational space for further exploration of the implications of eugenic legacies in our contemporary moment. We also emphasize that both academic audiences and the broader general public will be welcome to attend our event, and it is our explicit goal to engage with these diverse audiences. Our research in topics related to eugenics has shown that eugenics itself cuts across a wide range of disciplinary areas, and indeed that many scholars contribute to the study of eugenic legacies without describing an explicit link to eugenics in their work. In this sense, we hope that our activity will also result in a deeper and more nuanced scholarly engagement with eugenics in history and in our evolving present. We will achieve this goal by including participants from diverse disciplinary backgrounds in the project, and by extensive advertising through a range of academic and mainstream networks.

Engagement with a broader audience from the general public, in addition to academic audiences, is also particularly important for this project. This is because our work reveals how eugenics, both in its historical manifestations and its contemporary repercussions, violently devalues human differences, whether in explicit or subtle ways, and therefore potentially impacts every mode of social engagement, shaping institutions and practices in education, health care, the arts, public policy, and law, among other areas. By involving a wider audience, we will promote an active awareness of the roles and implications of eugenics in our world today, and the urgency of confronting these continuing legacies of injustice. This work will take place in academic spaces, but also in the practices of daily life and the ongoing reshaping of institutions.



Importance of the Project

In the early decades of the twentieth century, eugenic programs designed to “improve” the population through reproductive control, including forced sterilization, institutionalization, immigration restrictions, and in some cases, genocide, were developed in a number of countries in Europe, North America, and other world regions (Dolmage, 2018; Mitchell and Snyder, 2003). The term “eugenics,” meaning literally “well born,” was coined by the English scientist Sir Francis Galton in 1883. The concept built on prior notions of degeneration, or the theory that human lineages marked by unfavorable inherited characteristics would tend to weaken and disappear over time. Eugenics, in contrast, sought to emphasize active interventions so as to encourage a purportedly optimal reproductive future within a given nation and worldwide (Turda, 2010; Esposito, 2008).

In Mexico, as was also the case in a number of other Latin American countries, the concept of eugenics was closely intertwined with that of hygiene, resulting in policies that emphasized anti-alcoholism, public sanitation, child-rearing practices, and the health monitoring of school children, as well as some forms of reproductive control (Reggiani, 2019; Urías Horcasitas, 2010; Stepan, 1991; Stern, 2000; Suárez y López Guazo, 2005). In this context, undesirable characteristics, often associated with racialized populations, were not generally marked for absolute elimination. Instead, Mexican physicians and educators sought to document and monitor human differences with the goal of absorbing them over time into an ostensibly homogeneous and harmonious national collective (Stepan, 1991; Vargas Domínguez, 2015).

The atrocities of eugenics in its varied global forms stemmed from a violent devaluation of racialized differences and disabilities, coupled with the statistical monitoring of these differences (Dolmage, 2018; Antebi, 2021). While the policies and institutions once aligned with eugenics have largely shifted away from explicitly eugenic orientations, the ongoing effects of eugenic theories nonetheless continue to reverberate in our contemporary moment. Debates on topics such as epigenetics (Meloni and Testa, 2014), genomic medicine (López Beltrán 2016) and the politics of reproductive choice (Minieri, 2017; Ferrari, 2020) suggest fraught implications for racialized and disabled populations in Mexico and in the Americas, at times linking contemporary experiences to the medical discourse of a prior historical moment. This is the case, for example, when statistical projections of health outcomes for a given population sector come to define the treatment and lived experiences of that population (Montoya, 2013; Razack, 2013).


Over the last two decades, publicity surrounding the state-sponsored Mexican Genome Project has built on popular associations between a supposed Mexican racial heritage and an ostensible predisposition to specific health conditions (López Beltrán and García Deister, 2013; López Beltrán, 2018). More recently, the current global pandemic has highlighted radical disparities in access to basic healthcare and other resources, as well as the troubling marking of certain population sectors as both more vulnerable and more expendable than others (Donají Nuñez, 2020; Tsaplina and Stramondo, 2020). At stake in each of these cases are not only the lives and well-being of disabled and racialized individuals and populations, but also our understanding of the historical trajectories of eugenic violence that may continue to shape contemporary experience.




Susan Antebi – Chair (University of Toronto), Laura Cházaro y Ariadna Acevedo-Rodrigo (Ciudad de México), Rachell Sánchez Rivera (Cambridge University), Christian Giorgio Jullian Montañez (Unidad 16), Patience Schell (University of Aberdeen), Beatriz Miranda Galarza (17 Instituto de Estudios Críticos), Diana Vite Hernández (UMSNH), Patricia Brogna (UNAM), Jhonatthan Maldonado Ramírez (UAM-X)

Emblem from the Mexican Eugenics Society for the Improvement of the Race, published in each edition of the Society’s Bulletin. The text on the right reads as follows: “El emblema representa dos brazos de los sexos masculine y femenino, empuñando la antorcha del saber, cuyas flamas se confunden en el ideal que inspira la enseñanza eugénica; todo esto emergiendo del mar agitado por la ignorancia y las pasiones. Al fondo, se destaca la ponderosa rueda del progreso” [The emblem represents two arms of the masculine and feminine sexes, holding up the torch of knowledge, whose flames merge into the ideal that eugenic teaching inspires; all this emerges from the sea, agitated by ignorance and passions. In the background, the powerful wheel of progress stands out].