What makes California the very picture of health? It’s neither sunshine nor silicone.
Our health secret is immigration.
While the president blames immigrants for being sources of disease, Californians have long known that immigrants make us healthier.
Those health benefits go beyond the “immigrant health advantage,” the fact that new arrivals to this country are healthier than the native-born. Throughout California history, immigrants have adapted cultural practices and introduced new ideas that have expanded our definition of health.
Today, it is impossible to separate the issues of health and immigration in California. For one thing, our rapidly aging state relies heavily on immigrants to deliver our health care. In many communities, more than half of doctors are foreign-born, and statewide, one-third of the health care workers are immigrants.
You can see the impact of immigration on health across all stages of life. In matters of birth, East Asian cultural practices — like the Chinese tradition of “a soup nanny” to assist a new mother in recovery after birth — have been imported and are prompting greater attention to postpartum care. In our homes, multigenerational living, long associated with immigrants, has gone mainstream; sharing a house both saves money on rent and helps older people live longer, while reducing stress for kids.
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At life’s end, immigrants from Latin America have opened up conversation around death and turned it into a celebration everywhere from Hollywood Forever Cemetery to Dia de los Muertos. In the process, we’ve validated Canadian immigrant Mort Sahl’s quip: “You haven’t lived until you’ve died in California.”
For better and worse, Californians associate health with our bodies, and immigrants have shaped how we maintain them. Our devotion to wine as elixir dates to Frenchman Jean-Louis Vignes, California’s first commercial winemaker, who used his fortune to build a hospital.
When we burn off those calories so we can look more like the beautiful immigrants Hollywood casts in films, we lean heavily on practices brought here by immigrants. What is more California than a yoga workout? The state has seen waves of immigrant yogis make and remake yoga practice, from the guru Paramahansa Yogananda to Indra Devi to Bikram Choudhury (known for hot yoga before he became a fugitive).
And after an hour on the yoga mats, Californians love nothing more than a soak in a hot tub, an idea that came from Japan and was adapted by California winemakers, who used their barrels to make the first such baths. Or if you’re really hurting, you might slip into a whirlpool bath, with jets first invented as a rheumatoid arthritis cure by an Italian immigrant to California named Candido Jacuzzi.
It is no exaggeration to say that Californians have chosen to be ruled by immigrant visions of health. After all, it was two brothers from Canada, Joe and Ben Weider, who popularized bodybuilding and working out with weights, sparking the gym industry, which is an inescapable feature of the state landscape.
The Weiders were helped in this work by a young man who, at their urging, immigrated to Los Angeles from Austria. Arnold Schwarzenegger became such an avatar of muscular American fitness that Californians elected him governor in 2003.
He couldn’t balance the budget, but he got good reviews for his policies on health care.
Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public
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