When we think about the U.S.–Mexico border, it’s hard not to think about the current immigration conflict and the contentious idea to build a wall. But the concept of a border wall isn’t new: proposals for walls have been made for more than 100 years. Our story starts in 1947 when a group of Texas ranchers demanded a fence along their state’s border with Mexico. Their motivation, though, was to stop an outbreak of a disease that struck farm animals. The response to the crisis was complicated and often messy. But in the end, two countries came together to solve a complex predicament—instead of building a wall.
Hosts: Alexis Pedrick and Elisabeth Berry Drago
Senior Producer: Mariel Carr
Producers: Rigoberto Hernandez, Alexis Pedrick
Photo illustration by Jay Muhlin
Special thanks to Rebecca Kaplan for bringing us this story.
Music courtesy of the Audio Network.
Cervantes Sanchez, Juan, Roman Diaz, Ana Bertha Velazquez Camacho. “Una historia de vacunos y vacunas: Retrospectiva de la epizootia de Fiebre Aftosa en Mexico a 65 años de distancia.” Revista electronica de Veterinaria 11:B (May 2011).
Clements, Kendrick. “Managing a National Crisis: The 1924 Foot-ad-Mouth Disease Outbreak in California.” California History 84:3 Spring 2007.
Domel, Jessica. “USDA Expands Fever Tick Fencing in South Texas.” Texas Agriculture Daily, January 2, 2019.
Dusenberry William. “Foot and Mouth Disease in Mexico, 1946-1951.” Agricultural History 292 April 1955.
Fox, M. Kel. “The Campaign against Foot-and-Mouth Disease in Mexico, 1946-1951.” Journal of Arizona History 38:1 Spring 1997.
Ledbetter, John. “Fighting Foot-and-Mouth Disease in Mexico: Popular Protest against Diplomatic Decisions.” The Southwestern Historical Quarterly, 104:(3), (January 2001).
Machado, A. Manuel. “Aftosa and the Mexican-United States Sanitary Convention of 1928.” Agricultural History 39:4. (October 1965).
Mendoza, Mary. “Battling Afotsa: North-to-South Migration Accross the U.S.-Mexico Border, 1947-1954.” Journal of the West, 54:1 (Winter 2015).
Mendoza, Mary. “Treacherous Terrain: Racial Exclusion and Environmental Control at the U.S.-Mexico Border.” Environmental History 23 (January 2018).
Mulvey, Ruth. “Cattle Killing Turns Peon against Doctor.” The Washington Post, January 4, 1948.
Outbreak. Department of Agriculture, Office of Public Affairs. 1949.
Proctor, George. “An American Tragedy in Mexico: The Death of Robert Proctor.” Journal of Arizona History38:4 (1997).
Sill Wickware, Francis. “Crusade in Mexico.” Collier’s, August 20, 1949.
“Texas Cattle Fever.” U.S.Department of Agriculture, National Agricultural Library.
High Steaks at the Border
Alexis: Hello and welcome to Distillations a podcast powered by the Science History Institute. I’m Alexis Pedrick.
Lisa: And I’m Lisa Berry Drago. In each episode of Distillations we take a deep dive into a moment of science-related history in order to shed some light on the present.
Alexis: In this episode we examine a lost-to-history angle of a very relevant controversy the U.S.– Mexico border.
Lisa: When you hear the words border or wall, I’m guessing that something like this comes to mind:
NewsClip: Man: So there’s a very good likelihood that I’ll be closing the border next week.
Newscaster: The president renewed his threat today to shut down the flow of people and goods across the southern border.
Alexis: The term U.S.-Mexico border is loaded with meaning it’s hard to hear it and not think about the current immigration conflict. But the idea of a wall along the border is not new. And today our story starts back in 1947 when a group of Texas ranchers were demanding one.
Rebecca: And they said yes, let’s Build That Wall.
Alexis: This is Rebecca Kaplan. She’s a historian of medicine and public health as well as a research fellow here at the Science History Institute.
Rebecca: So I’m looking through the records of the Texas Southwestern Cattle-Raiser Association. And they’re passing all sorts of resolutions at their annual media, etc. etc. etc.
Lisa: And she noticed that one of them was about building a wall along the border they said:
Rebecca: There should be an animal-proof fence across the U.S. Mexico border and I was like: wait what? And like obviously it never happened, and I was like, huh? I wonder why it never happened?
Alexis: We wondered the same thing, so we started looking into it. And what we found made us think differently about borders and about what happens when two countries come together to solve a complex problem.
Lisa: When we learned that the U.S. had decided not to build a wall back in the 40s, we thought “wow, we have a border story that isn’t centered on racism,” which seemed hard to believe.
Alexis: Because it wasn’t true. I mean, this is a different kind of border story than the ones were used to hearing, but it was complex and messy and never about just one thing.
It turns out border problems don’t happen in isolation.
Lisa: Chapter 1: The Mexican Outbreak
Alexis: It all began with some bulls. A-hundred-and-thirty of them to be exact. In October 1945 they were unloaded onto the Isla de Sacrificios and island off the coast of Mexico, near the state of Veracruz.
Lisa: And these weren’t just any bulls. They were Zebu, a breed of cattle known for their size and for the distinctive fatty hump on their shoulders. Their thick skin makes them resistant to insects and gives them a really high tolerance for extreme heat.
Alexis: The Bulls came from Brazil. And after that first group was brought to mainland Mexico, another 327 came in a separate shipment. It was a risky move because foot and mouth disease was rampant in Brazil.
Outbreak: Foot-and-mouth disease a centuries-old plague sweeping over the old world time and again. Foot-and-mouth disease, a contagion so virulent once taken root, it spreads like wildfire.
Alexis: Foot-and-mouth disease or “aftosa,” its Spanish name, is a highly contagious disease. It strikes animals, specifically cloven-hoofed ones, like cows, sheep and pigs. An outbreak would have disastrous consequences for farmers. As the name suggests, the virus causes brutal blisters in the hoof and mouth of the animal.
Outbreak: But the most common loss is a general often permanent debilitation of the animal, loss of weight, impairment of its future usefulness. Dairy cattle give less milk. The earning power of the herd is cut way down.
Rebecca: Foot-in-mouth disease is endemic in most of the rest of the world. So a disease that is always around that is always present. But in the Americas, and in particular North America, in those three countries, it is not.
Alexis: The United States, Canada and Mexico had all managed to keep foot and mouth disease from taking permanent root on the continent. One thing that helped was a treaty between the U.S. and Mexico that said they wouldn’t import cattle from places where the disease ran riot. Importing those Zebu bulls from Brazil was in violation of that treaty.
Lisa: And this is when things like politics and the economy start influencing what seems like an otherwise pretty straightforward public health issue.
Alexis: The Mexican office of agriculture was against importing the bulls.
Lisa: But the Mexican office of foreign affairs was for it. Brazil was their trading partner, and they wanted a good relationship with their Latin American neighbor.
Cervantes: They had the idea there should be a brotherhood between Latin American countries. And in the end that was the one that won.
Alexis: That’s Dr. Juan Manuel Cervantes Sanchez a veterinarian and university professor in Mexico who studied foot-and-mouth disease for more than 20 years.
Lisa: And, of course, don’t go thinking Mexico was the only one breaking the rules. Everyone wanted Zebu cattle. These are coveted cattle.
Rebecca: So at the time there is a group of livestock owners in the US who are pushing for import of Zebu cattle as well, who are saying like “this is, it’s good breeding stock. We should be bringing in these animals from Brazil as well.”
Alexis: So the bulls arrived on the island. They’re held for a while, inspected and declared foot-and-mouth disease free. Everyone breathes a sigh of relief. Everything’s good, until three weeks later.
Outbreak: An outbreak of the dreaded plague in Mexico.
Rebecca: So in late November early December, there’s rumblings that there might be foot-in-mouth disease in Mexico. There’s something that looks like foot-and- mouth disease.
Lisa: Foot and mouth disease does look like another virus called vesicular stomatitis. That causes fevers and ulcers on snouts feet and teats. It is, however, treatable by antibiotics, which they tried. But the bulls didn’t get better, and the virus continues to spread.
Alexis: By mid-December the disease had infected five states and Mexico City.
Rebecca: And so the Mexican government actually invites Americans to come down. They’re saying, “we think there might be foot and mouth disease, can you come down and double check for us?” And so The United States officials come down and December 26, 1946 the United States and Mexico officially declare that there’s foot and mouth disease in Mexico.
Lisa: It might sound strange that Mexico asked the U.S. to come double-check. But remember that treaty? It also said that the two countries would work together if there was ever an outbreak. And there was another reason. In all of Mexico there were only 300 veterinarians in 1946. 300.
Alexis: So in the United States the alarm goes off on December 27th, 1946 the Department of Agriculture calls for the border to be close to livestock. Because, remember, up until this point they’ve managed to keep foot and mouth disease at bay.
Rebecca: And so there’s a vested interest in preventing the disease from becoming endemic so to control those outbreaks.
Lisa: They clearly see that if it’s not addressed, the disease is going to spread to the U.S.. Because even though there are borders drawn on a map, a cow doesn’t know when it’s crossing them.
Rebecca: Animals are constantly crossing our borders. Animals don’t respect human borders. It’s not like they look at a map and say, “oh this is one place, and that’s one place. And we don’t cross between the two.” That’s not how non-human animals work.
Alexis: Up until this point, the border was pretty fluid. I mean at least for ranchers and their animals. There was a whole economy between the northern states of Mexico and the southern United States.
Rebecca: At the time, the livestock industry in the U.S. for cloven-hoof animals, it’s a multibillion-dollar industry and that’s billion with a “B” industry. And that is in that time period in the 1940s.
Alexis: So it was big business. A lot was at stake. And the timing wasn’t great. This is 1946, World War II just ended. Americans had just been told that food rationing was over and now its food supply was threatened again.
Lisa: The 1946 foot-and-mouth outbreak had everything it needed to bring about complete chaos. The United States and Mexico had to figure something out because disease, also like cattle, doesn’t care about borders either.
Outbreak: Foot-and-mouth disease knows no distinctions. It can reach the largest cattle grower, the smallest farmer. Even the nation’s industries. Foot-and-mouth disease has weakened the economic life of many foreign countries. Because this is what the disease does to animals:
*sounds of animals crying*
Alexis: So this is why in 1947 those Texans demanded an animal proof fence. To keep out the disease. Seems simple enough, right? But of course there’s a lot more to the story.
Alexis: Chapter 2: The First Fence
Lisa: The Texas ranchers in 1947 didn’t get their idea for a fence out of nowhere. Some infrastructure was already in place from decades earlier, when people were panicking about another much smaller animal.
Mendoza: The first federally-funded border fence was actually built in 1911, and it was built to control the movement of a tiny bug called the Texas Fever Tick.
Alexis: This is Mary Mendoza. She’s a history professor at Penn State University. She studies the border and the relationship between the United States and Mexico.
Lisa: “Texas Fever” is the common name for the harder to pronounce Babesiosis. It’s a terrible disease that gives cattle high fevers, swollen spleens, and bloody urine. It was killing cattle as far north as Illinois, but the disease is being spread by ticks carried by cows that came from Texas, hence the name.
Alexis: The US Department of Agriculture, or USDA, launched the Cattle Fever Tick Eradication Program in 1906. First, they tried dipping cows and arsenic. Then they turn to crude oil. All in hopes of killing off the tick. It worked, but Texas cattle kept getting re-infected by tick caring animals crossing over from Mexico, because Mexico had not launched the same campaign.
Mendoza: And the reason Mexico didn’t do that is because the tick itself was endemic to all of Mexico.
Lisa: Most cattle in Mexico had already been exposed when they were calves. So they developed immunity to it as they grew up.
Mendoza: So the US Department of ag. built the first border fence to stop cattle from wandering back and forth across the border and carrying the tick.
Lisa: Which made life pretty difficult. If a Mexican rancher wanted to bring in cattle, they had to fill out paperwork dip their cattle and crude oil and quarantine the animals for 60 days. And American ranchers occasionally had to do the same because sometimes their cattle would wander into Mexico.
Mendoza: In order to get them back across the border, because Mexico had ticks, the USDA required ranchers from the United States to funnel their cattle through ports of entry and quarantine them.
Lisa: American cattle ranchers saw this is a massive inconvenience. So they wrote letters to the USDA, to their Senators. The ranchers would say things like “I have so much money I pay taxes. Why do I have to do this?”
Mendoza: Another cattle rancher said something like. You know, “my cattle are good old American cattle and they just need to come home. They’re not like those filthy Mexican cattle.” So that not only do these cows become, these Mexican cows, become seen as inferior and dangerous, but the entire landscape of Mexico is seen as this sort of inferior place that’s infested with these diseases carrying parasites.
Alexis: So when we looked into this part of the story, we didn’t just find justification for cattle ranchers thinking that an animal proof fence could keep out disease. It wasn’t just about disease or microbes. It was about race. The tick issue just fan the flames.
Mendoza: Of course there were already racialized ideas well before this tick problem about Mexicans in Mexico. But what I do think happened because of the tick problem is that Mexico became associated with disease and filth.
Lisa: Chapter 3: The American Outbreaks
Alexis: Before we go any further. It’s time to talk about how the United States had its fair share of foot and mouth disease outbreaks.
Lisa: In 1914 there was a major foot and mouth epidemic in Chicago.
Outbreak: Proper authorities and foreign countries were notified by our state department of the presence of the disease in the United States. Notice is hereby given that a contagious, communicable disease known as foot-and-mouth disease exists.
Alexis: The entire country was on alert.
Outbreak: U.S. bureau of animal industry Oregon. Inspector in charge U.S. bureau of animal industry in Nevada. Inspector in charge U.S. bureau of animal industry, Arizona. Inspector in charge U.S. bureau of animal industry, Utah.
Inspector in charge…
Alexis: The U.S. eradicated the disease after spending the equivalent of a hundred- million dollars. We stamped It out by using a basic but brutal tactic: slaughtering and quarantining every infected and possibly infected animal.
Lisa: Then in 1924 there was another major outbreak in California. It was nothing short of a national emergency. Every hoofed animal in California and neighboring states was
threatened. And by the way, it wasn’t just farm animals. Wild animals, like deer can also catch and spread the disease
Alexis: Anxiety-inducing headlines like “fatal germs in California fruit,” appeared in newspapers. And this time Canada and Mexico close their borders to us.
Mendoza: Things couldn’t travel from the U.S. into Mexico because there was a risk that this disease would spread to the cattle in Mexico.
Alexis: Just like in Chicago the used quarantine and slaughter to eradicate the disease. The U.S. government said quote, “there would be no half measures,” which meant armed guards near the entrances of farms and ranches animals herded it into trenches shot in the head then covered in lime, dirt no exception.
Outbreak: By noon of the next day the trench was ready. The cattle had been appraised. By nightfall the herd was slaughtered and buried. Before burial the body cavities were exposed. The carcasses were blanketed with quicklime, a precaution against scavenging animals. But this was only the first step.
Lisa: At the time people thought the solution seemed rash considering that the disease itself doesn’t usually kill the animal. Some animals can recover from it, but the newly formed American Foot-and-Mouth Disease Commission explained to ranchers that even those animals who recover can spread the virus. So slaughter was the method
Outbreak: Well, that’s the way we fought foot and mouth disease: inspection quarantine, slaughter the infected and exposed animals, payment of a fair indemnity for them, and finally disinfection and testing of the premises.
Mendoza: There were veterinarians everywhere quarantining everything car travel was limited within California. And then people at the borders of the of the state were monitoring cars as they went in. Cars would have to drive through this like solution, like crude oil or something, to kill the virus as that might be on the tires.
Lisa: More than a hundred thousand animals were dead. And it seemed as if the virus was gone, but it wasn’t. In fact, California was hit again just a few years later in 1929. Surprisingly we know exactly how this next outbreak started.
Rebecca: It was meat from a ship that had been discarded in the Los Angeles area that then gets picked up for scrap and fed to animals that happen to have foot-and-mouth disease that causes the outbreak.
Outbreak: Before the leftovers were transferred to a sister ship, the meat was trimmed. And the trims discarded into the ship’s garbage for incineration, as
provided for by regulations. But sometimes regulations have a way of being defeated by human negligence.
Lisa: The 1929 outbreak was controlled quickly using the tried-and-true method of quarantine and slaughter. But it really seems like there should have been a better solution, right?
Alexis: Funny you should ask, there was. There was a vaccine, but the U.S. didn’t consider using it. They were too scared of the disease to even study it.
Rebecca: The USDA does not even experiment on foot-and-mouth disease. They don’t have samples of foot-and-mouth disease. So yeah, they aren’t working on a vaccine, they aren’t testing because they don’t even want the disease in the United States, even in a laboratory setting because what if it gets out of that lab?
Alexis: Mexico didn’t have the same fear and right after the outbreak, they immediately started investigating a vaccine that was being developed in Europe. The vaccine had potential, but it wasn’t perfect. It wasn’t a hundred percent effective all of the time and when it did work, it only lasted for four to six months and then you had to re-vaccinate. So the U.S. held on to their original brutal tactic of complete eradication through slaughter.
Lisa: Which makes sense if you’re only looking at part of the picture. The U.S. was thinking about what worked best for itself in isolation. Slaughtering quarantine had worked before in its home turf, but that process was going to prove extremely tricky in Mexico.
Rebecca: So once it becomes entrenched in a livestock culture, unless you’re willing to kill every single animal and replace it with known clean animals, which it would be a very expensive prospect, you can’t eradicate it.
Lisa: Chapter 4 Why the Wall Didn’t Get Built
Alexis: We started looking into this story because we wondered why that 1947 wall never got built.
Rebecca: There should be an animal-proof fence across the U.S. Mexico border. And I was like: wait what? And like obviously it never happened, and I was like, huh? I wonder why it never happened?
Alexis: And the answer is pretty simple, obvious, even. It never got built because it wouldn’t have worked. Those ranchers were reacting out of fear, not logic.
Rebecca: Like so that you can’t just wall yourself off. Like if it becomes endemic in Mexico. There’s no way, sooner or later will come to the U.S.
Alexis: The U.S. And Mexico had a colorful past. I’m not going to give you a history lesson here, but there have been invasions, ongoing territory disputes and a full-fledged war but in the late 1940s they were in a relatively chummy point in their relationship
Lisa: And they were new to working together, just a few years before the outbreak Mexico came to the rescue of the U.S. during World War II what became known as The Bracero Program. Bracero is Spanish for laborer.
Mendoza: The bracero program was a guest worker program a program to fill labor gaps left by men who had gone to fight in World War II. That was collaborative, bilateral program, an agreement between the United States and Mexico. So American men left to go fight. And the United States needed folks to come and farm or work in other industries.
Lisa: The program was designed to keep Americans fed during the war, but it was so successful It kept going for 22 years. The American southwest was built in large part because of these Mexican workers, and the program helped Mexico’s economy too.
Alexis: So it makes sense then that when the 1946 outbreak happened, and those ranchers are demanding a wall, Congress says, “no that’s not going to work.”
Rebecca: And so that the much more sensible thing to do is to work with the Mexican Government and to actually go to where the problem is, figure out what the problem is, figure out how to work, and like figure out how to work with the people there. And deal with the problem.
Alexis: So Congress votes to work with Mexico and not build a wall. But before you get too excited about how enlightened they were there’s more to the story. We just told you about the Bracero Program where Mexican laborers were coming to the U.S. to work, but not everyone could come. You had to be young and healthy.
Mendoza: And of course women were not allowed at all. Many, many historians argue that this program really created two streams of migration at the same time that it institutionalized migration from South to North. So it literally was a government-sponsored program to move people from Mexico into the United States to work but not everyone qualified. So people started coming on their own.
Lisa: People were not happy about those quote-unquote, unsanctioned crossers, especially when the crossers were women who were determined to come to the United States. Mary Mendoza looked into what border patrol agents at the time were saying about it.
Mendoza So this is where it gets pretty disturbing and interesting. They were saying that the apprehensions of women had increased dramatically from 1942 to
the mid-1950s and border patrol agents actually asked for fences to put them up in urban areas to stop women from crossing the border. They weren’t really worried about men. They were worried about women.
Alexis: And the reason why they were worried about women is because women can do something men can: get pregnant. And because the U.S. has birthright citizenship. They were worried that women would come across the border, get pregnant and have their babies on American soil. And they couldn’t do anything about it.
Apprehending women also came with another concern.
Mendoza: Border patrol agents, ultimately said “we feel like these women are using their femininity to make us look like monsters for apprehending them. So let’s put up border fences to funnel them to areas where people won’t see us doing this them.”
Lisa: So when those Texas ranchers asked for a fence to keep out animals and disease in 1947, people had already been asking for a fence to keep out people women people.
Rebecca: So in Congress, what happens is to say look we still want the fence built for immigration reasons, but don’t tie it to this disease. So let’s go ahead and create the commission. Respond to Mexico by saying “yes, we will help you out and we will send people and equipment and money to help out with the eradication initiative, and the fence is another issue for another day.”
Outbreak: Aid was sought from the United States and Congress authorized large- scale assistance to help wipe out the most serious outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease that had ever appeared on the North American continent.
Lisa: Chapter 5 The Joint Commission.
Alexis: Mexico in the U.S. formed a joint commission to battle the disease in Mexico. There was equal representation on the administrative boards. They had a joint office in Mexico and within a few months there was a policy and a method for conducting field operations
Lisa: But everything was not equal. Although both countries were contributing funds, the
U.S. was putting in more money and therefore imposed quarantine and slaughter as a condition of working together.
Alexis: Meanwhile, the veterinarians in Mexico were split. One camp was against the American method of slaughtering the animals and favored vaccination. And the other side was all for it and worked with the commission. And made three times as much money because they were being paid in dollars, which just created more tension.
Lisa: These are only a few of the issues on the table when the commission was formed. It’s not surprising that for every problem they solved a new one popped up in its place. Because they weren’t just fighting foot-and-mouth disease. They were battling cultural divides dealing with historical tension. All of this in a post-World War II climate.
Alexis: As we said the commission’s approach was quarantine and slaughter and then reimbursing farmers, to an extent, for their lost animals. So the first thing they needed to do this was manpower, veterinarians in the U.S. who were willing to relocate to Mexico to help fight the disease remember Mexico only had 300 veterinarians. They worked in small groups made up of Americans and Mexicans. There was a veterinarian, a person who appraise the livestock, a paymaster and a group of soldiers from the Mexican Army.
Lisa: They put out a call for American volunteers and one of the nine-hundred people who answered was a veterinarian named Donald Williams. He was born in El Paso where he learned Spanish, but when he answered the call about the commission he was thousands of miles away in North Dakota.
Williams: And evidently it was pretty miserable. He got kicked by a cow that left him in an airplane cast for six months and looked up one day and saw a one of those outdoor thermometers that was registering, I think he said, 30 degrees below zero. He said “I’m out of here.” And, he went and joined up in the commission to go to Mexico.
Alexis: That’s Donna Glee Williams. Donald Williams’ daughter. She explained how in the beginning the work was essentially finding, inspecting and killing any hoofed animal.
Williams: There was a term they use called. The “rifle sanitario” of the sanitary rifle where they would come in and just kill all the cows and in an infected heard.
Outbreak: The slaughter method of fighting foot-in-mouth disease was often something strange. Often something beyond his understanding.
Williams: The smaller farmers, the cows were virtually part of the family and some of them, you know slept in the same building with the cows. The idea of killing their cow was a much bigger deal.
Alexis: Not surprisingly the commission’s tactics began creating some tension. All of these veterinarians, many of them American, had the authority to go in, search any home that they thought might have a cloven-hoofed animal. And if there was any sign of the disease, they had the authority to kill the animal. And the Mexican Army was there to protect them and help carry it out.
Here’s Mary Mendoza again
Mendoza: They went into a house, and they found a grandmother in bed, and she had a pig under the blankets with her because they were trying to hide it from the people who are doing the killing and the slaughtering because they didn’t want to lose it. They didn’t want to lose the pig. They didn’t want them to know that they had a pig, right? And so this pig comes running out from under the blanket, so they really had to be thorough.
Alexis: It might be easy to look at this situation and think the response was just something specific to Mexico, but it’s not. American farmers have reacted in similar ways during other public health campaigns.
Rebecca: So this is not something that yeah always just “oh because it’s Mexico.” This is something that is more universal experiences. When someone comes from your animals your which is your way of living and your way of making money and it’s threatening your family livelihood. There can be resistance unless you actually spend time talking to someone and explaining why you need to kill this animal.
Alexis: It was naive to think they could just duplicate their methods in a different country. The commission had to battle a cultural divide, and they weren’t doing such a great job. A perfect example was the mule for oxen program. Oxen were essential work animals on many small Mexican farms, but they’re susceptible to foot-and-mouth disease. So the U.S. decided they just replace them with mules, easy enough right?
Lisa: Except they didn’t really understand the details. No offense mules, but mules can be mean and hard to work with. They’re also faster than oxen, which on its face sounds like a positive thing, but they weren’t as careful as the oxen they replaced.
Alexis: The commission’s work wasn’t just creating cultural tensions. It was decimating Mexico’s agricultural economy. It was too simplistic to think that they could just pay small farmers off for the animals they slaughtered. Often, they were only paying a fraction of the actual value of the animal.
Lisa: Thousands of campesinos fled to the U.S. looking. Campesino, by the way, roughly translates to Peasant in Spanish except it has a more dignified connotation. They went to the US because their farms were failing everything. We just talked about contributed to Rising tensions in Mexico. Here’s Dr. Cervantes again a veterinarian and professor in Mexico City.
Cervantes: It was a huge problem. We were on the brink of a revolution. Crops were not planted. There was a scarcity of maize, beans.
Lisa: There were military checkpoints everywhere. Mexico was already coming off a series of peasant revolts from years prior. Things were adding up and to make matters worse, disaster vultures started exploiting the crisis.
Rebecca: So you have lots of scams going on where people are coming in before the commission comes into a community and saying “these people are just going to take your animals and kill them. But if you sell them to us, even at very low, low prices much below what the animal is worth. You can at least get some money for them.” And so people would sell their animals for little prices in the commission would get there and be like, “we would have paid you more for your animals, plus now those animals are somewhere else we don’t know if they have foot-and mouth-disease like it’s helping the spread the disease.”
Cervantes : A lot of things that would expect, ended up happening. Popular county fairs were cancelled. People were very, very desperate. And there were these groups of people who didn’t even buy the crisis. They thought it was a government conspiracy.
Lisa: The effects of quarantine and slaughter on the lives of everyday people really can’t be emphasized enough. We talked to a woman named Rosa Beasley, now 84-years-old, about her memories of the time. She’s from Mexico and wound up marrying one of the American veterinarians, and she actually knew Donald Williams.
Beasley: You had get off the cars, off the buses. You had go through places that made you clean your shoes so that you wouldn’t spread the virus through your shoes. It was very bothersome. And poor people in the buses, if they had eggs they would take them away from them. It was very heavy for people who sold their products to have their products confiscated the moment they passed through there. It was very difficult for Mexico. Very expensive.
Alexis: Things eventually reached a boiling point; many Mexican peasants were tired of having their cattle killed some didn’t even believe their cattle was sick at all.
Cervantes: Of course, September of 1947 there were a few killings. This could have even cause an international crisis. They killed American veterinarians as well as Mexican ones.
Lisa: Augusto Juarez Medina was a beloved veterinarian in Mexico. He felt strongly that the commission needed to do a better job of communicating with farmers before killing their animals.
Alexis: One day in late summer 1947, he went to a small town. He knew the peasants didn’t trust the military, but he reluctantly went in with a small group of soldiers because
he had already been shot at on an earlier visit. At first things seem to be going okay, but suddenly a mob of 500 people surrounded the Jeep.
Lisa: One of the soldiers asked the veterinarian if he should shoot. But he said “no,” he wanted to explain why they were there first. To try and bridge the gap. He got out of the Jeep to start explaining, but a blow to his head knocked him down. Then he was stabbed.
Alexis: The mob attacked the soldiers. When it was all over all but one of them lay beaten and dead.
Lisa: Later a larger continued later a larger contingent of the army returned. They were furious for their fallen friends and they killed anyone with a trace of blood in there close. This loss was devastating and obviously, obviously something had to change.
Alexis: Chapter 6: Eradication by Vaccination.
Rebecca: So by November 1947 almost 900,000 animals have been killed and it doesn’t seem like it’s working. The disease seems like it’s still spreading.
Alexis: The U.S. had to admit that their tactic wasn’t working.
Outbreak: To resort solely to slaughter meant a far greater loss of livestock than the people of Mexico could endure.
Alexis: It’s now clear that this was more than just an animal disease. It was about people too. So finally in November 1947. The U.S. agreed to try vaccination.
Lisa: Vaccination was a game-changer the commission volunteers had a new job. They still had to find and slaughter sick animals, but now they vaccinated the healthy. The quarantine and vaccination campaign ran from North to South, from East to West, heading towards the center. It was hard work, but by 1951 they were seeing results.
Rebecca: They re-vaccinate every three months. So a lot of animals, they go through a first stage, a second stage, a third stage, and even into a fourth stage of vaccinating just to make sure animals are actually covered. And the program, this is working.
Alexis: A whole year goes by without any more cases and they declare Mexico free of foot-and-mouth disease. The outbreak never reached the U.S.
Lisa: The American veterinarians go back home. Some do end up staying around just in case something happens.
Rebecca: And it’s a good thing that they do that because in May of 1953, they go out to look as a possible case of foot-and-mouth disease, and it was a case of foot-
in-mouth disease. It reemerged in Veracruz. But again, at that point it was such a well-oiled machine and had been so sort of adapted to accept it in that they eradicate the cases quickly. It doesn’t spread like it did in the 1940s.
Alexis: The vaccine brings about other changes to the state of veterinary science changes in Mexico. Now, there are more veterinarians. And the Mexican diet changes. After all those years of cattle being a problem. They had to find a way to get a new main source of protein. Chicken and pork emerged as staples and it changed the way everyone ate.
So we went looking for one story and found something much more thorny and tangled. We were right about the core of the story though, border problems are never just about one thing and the wall wasn’t an effective solution. It wasn’t what saved us.
Rebecca: And so what really eradicated foot-and-mouth disease in Mexico was the work on the ground that’s done by the government, by veterinarians and livestock owners who, many of them who might be resistant at first, but as the events wear on are more and more readily contacting the government saying, “I have a suspected case of foot-in-mouth disease, come check out my animals” and, you know, figure out what we need to do.
Lisa: Turns out that most stories are messy. They have some good. They have some bad. For example, the braceros were not treated well. Even though it was a government- sponsored program that was supposed to help both the US and Mexico.
Mendoza: There are being placed in really subpar working conditions and housing conditions. Many of them got really sick and had to go back home. Never able to really work again. They’d be dismembered sometimes in the line of work. They would starve to death occasionally, be even malnutritional mean have farming accidents you name it? It was really dangerous out there.
Alexis: At the same time the American volunteers on the commission in Mexico were treated quite well. They had hardships, but they were welcomed as people who were there to help.
Lisa: For decades afterwards the volunteers from the commission even gathered together for regular reunions.
Williams: It was like a reunion of veterans of a war. And I really like the idea of honoring it like that experience because these are people, they left their country. They went down to fight off a threat to their country’s food supply. And they did it in a way that I think is exemplary of how countries can work together on public health issues. Because public health issues are just the kinds of things that you cannot be well and safe unless your neighbor is well and safe.
Lisa: So what do we take away from a very complicated story like this? We asked Mary Mendoza. Her work involves looking at what environmental narratives around the border leave out?
Mendoza: We often look at problems as siloed. They’re sitting alone in these vacuums, but in fact a lot of these things are related. Looking at problems together, I think could allow us to come to a more holistic solution, right? I talked about socio-ecological systems in my work. If we look at something together, the human environment, the cultural world and the nonhuman world as a whole system. Maybe we can come up with better solutions. And then if we look to the foot-in-mouth disease program we can also think about ways that we could work with Mexico to address the problem of people crossing the border, or all of Latin America really, rather than trying to build fences that are going to destroy nature and kill people. It just seems just seems like we’ve tried this for like a hundred years or more now and it’s not working.
Alexis: Distillations is more than a podcast. We are also a multimedia magazine.
Lisa: You can find our stories at Distillations dot org.
Alexis: And you can follow the Science History Institute on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. This story was reported and produced by Mariel Carr, Rigo Hernandez, and myself.
Lisa: This show was mixed by James Morrison. For Distillations I am Lisa Berry Drago.
Alexis: And I am Alexis Pedrick. Thanks for listening.