Bom Retiro

Structural Health: Immigrants, the State, and the Built Environment in São Paulo, 1870-2020


Bom Retiro Health Clinic

“Structural Health”examines interactions between immigrants and representatives of the state like health professionals, policymakers, and police.  Combining historical research, oral histories, and spatial analysis of the built environment, I use humanistic approaches to understand cultural and physical permanencies between the past and the present.  I analyze “Public Health” and its relation to “The Public’s Health” as overlapping categories that are often at odds.  My work broadens “Public Health” beyond disease to include institutional projects that lead to policies and professional training of generally non-immigrant and monolingual actors.  “The Public’s Health” often diverges from state-driven approaches and represents the multiple ways that residents of immigrant-populated urban districts like Bom Retiro understand issues like disease, noise, abuse, crime, and space as critical components of their health.  Unlike traditional ethnic histories that often focus on single immigrant groups and their relationship with the state, “Structural Health” uses a multi-ethnic neighborhood to analyze how the state and its representatives often flatten cultural differences and why immigrants, despite different historical and cultural trajectories, often generate similar responses to policies. In addition to archival and literary research, the Lesser Research Collective has been constructing an interactive cartographic platform of Bom Retiro and conducting research in the Bom Retiro Basic Health Clinic to explore long-term continuities in the relationship between health professionals and the public 

Members of the team carrying vaccines

I have chosen the micro approach for a number of reasons.  First, my observation of the medical team allows me access to buildings and inhabitants, including sweatshops, unregulated multi-family housing settlements, and formal and informal businesses. Bom Retiro also contains two important institutions related to public health and the public’s health.  One is the Central Disenfectory, built in 1893 built over Brazil’s first immigrant hostel (think Ellis Island), is today operated by the São Paulo Secretary of Health as a museum/archive and as a medical warehouse. Across the street, the Public Health Clinic sits on a lot that has housed a leprosy treatment center, a pro-natalist education site for expectant mothers, and a sexual health inspectory.

Members of the Lesser Research Team

“Making Space for Migrant Health” is funded by the University of São Paulo’s Institute for Advanced Study, the São Paulo State Research Foundation (FAPESP), the Emory University Research Council, and the Emory College of Arts and Sciences Interdisciplinary Faculty Fellowship.

Dr. Uriel Kitron and I recently published an article [in English and Portuguese] on the “Social Geography of Zika in Brazil” that uses many of the multi-disciplinary approaches the Lesser Research Collective uses in Bom Retiro.


The S. Daniel Abraham Center for International and Regional Studies, Tel Aviv University (January 2019)