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SCOTT SIMON host:

In 1917, the Mexican Revolution was good business in El Paso, Texas. Customers paid 25 cents to scramble under the roof of the El Paso Laundry Company to see the battle of Juarez. But a fight was also brewing at home. US health authorities who were concerned about a typhus epidemic in Mexico had begun delousing Mexicans who were crossing from Juarez into El Paso.

NPR's John Burnett reports that on this date in 1917, the El Paso Juarez Bath Riot broke out.

(Soundbite of mariachi music)

JOHN BURNETT reporting:

A native El Pasoan named David Dorado Romo has written an eye-opening popular history of El Paso Juarez titled Ringside Seat to a Revolution. As he says, it presents the history they never taught us in school. One chapter is about the Bath Riot.

Mr. DAVID DORADO ROMO (Author): January 28th, 1917 at 7:30 in the morning, Carmelita Torres, who was a 17 year old Mexicana who was crossing the border everyday from Juarez to El Paso to clean American homes is stopped at the border by the US Customs' agent, and she is required to take a gasoline bath.

BURNETT: Of kerosene and vinegar, it was noxious but effective at killing lice, which carry typhus. Before being allowed to crossed, Mexicans had to bathe, strip nude for an inspection, undergo the lice treatment and have their clothes treated in a steam dryer.

Mr. ROMO: So that morning, Carmelita Torres refused. She gets the other 30 women in that electric trolley to get off the bus. Suddenly other people start seeing what's going on. They go up and start protesting, and there's a huge riot.

BURNETT: The El Paso Morning Times bannered the story the next morning with this headline.

Unidentified Man (reading): Auburn-haired Amazon at Santa Fe Street Bridge Leads Feminine Outbreak. Juarez women incensed at the American quarantine regulations led a riot yesterday morning at the Santa Fe Bridge. Women ringleaders of the mob hurled stones at American civilians, both on the bridge and on the streets of Juarez...

BURNETT: The Mexican housekeepers who revolted had good cause to be upset. Inside the brick disinfectant building under the bridge, health personnel had been secretly photographing the women in the nude and posting the snapshots in a local cantina. What's more, the women were doubtless aware of what at the time was called the El Paso Jail Holocaust that happened the year before.

Tom Lea was El Paso mayor at the time. His son, Tom Lea Jr. described what happened in an interview on file at the Institute of Oral History at the University of Texas El Paso. A group of prisoners was taking a delousing gasoline bath in the city jail.

Mr. TOM LEA Jr. (Son of Former El Paso Mayor, Tom Lea): And somebody--they never discovered just who--either threw a spark from a cigar or a cigarette or something, got the gasoline, just a flare like that. Terrible thing. The gasoline was on some of these poor devils, and they burned to death.

BURNETT: The Bath Riot continued into the afternoon. US troops from Fort Bliss under General John J. Pershing had to be called out. More soldiers, under the command of a Carrancista general in Juarez showed up. They eventually quelled the riot, and the young Carmelita Torres was arrested.

David Romo stands state a spot near the Rio Grande, overlooking the site of the old Santa Fe International Bridge.

Mr. ROMO: Unfortunately, not much happens after the bath riots in terms of, you know, Carmelita Torres has been called the Rosa Parks of the border, but Rosa Parks actually had an effect. The baths continued. The fumigations, in a sense, they get even worse. In 1917, there's 127,000 Mexicans that are deloused and fumigated at the border, and the fumigations go on for decades.

BURNETT: The Mexican typhus scare ended by 1918, but the fumigations by the US Public Health Service did not. They spread up and down the 2,000 mile border, yet in no other ports of entry, not Ellis Island, not San Francisco, not Detroit were a class of foreign nationals required to strip naked, bathe and be disinfected. Only Mexicans on the southwest border.

The mandatory disinfections became an unpopular right of passage for Mexicans seeking entrance into the United States.

This is a crudely recorded interview made 32 years ago with Jose Cruz Burciaga who was a janitor in El Paso in the 1920s. He's the father of the Chicano author Antonio Burciaga.

Mr. JOSE CRUZ BURCIAGA (Mexican Immigrant): (Through a translator) At the customs bath by the bridge, they would spray some stuff on you. It was white, and it would run down your body. How horrible. And then I remember something else about it. They would shave everyone's head: men, women, everybody. They would bathe you again with creolite. That was an extreme measure. The substance was very strong.

BURNETT: The forced fumigations were so hated by Mexican laborers that they led to a new problem for the United States: illegal immigration. Alexandra Ministern(ph) is a medical historian at the University of Michigan who's written about public health along the southwestern border.

Ms. ALEXANDRA MINISTERN (Medical Historian, University of Michigan): Once those policies were implemented, many immigrants decided I don't want to subject myself to this; I'm not going to pass through the designated port of entry at the Santa Fe Street Bridge or any other point of entry. I'm going to cross into the United States at a remote area of the river or of the desert.

BURNETT: There were so many illegal crossings that the US government created the short-lived Mounted Quarantine Guard in 1921. Their job was to patrol the international divide on horseback and round up undocumented Mexicans. The Quarantine Guard was dissolved when the US Border Patrol came into existence in 1924.

The fumigations continued in one form or another for four decades. As late as 1958, contract Mexican laborers, known as braceros were sprayed with insecticides, including DDT, before they were admitted. The practice was finally discontinued as health authorities realized the chemicals were dangerous.

Looking back on the disinfection campaign, one must ask, were they justified? Were they racist? Leon Metz, who writes a local history column for the El Paso Times, believes they were both.

Mr. LEON METZ (Column Writer, El Paso Times): I understand the policy of bathing and delousing. The only problem is that whenever you try to defend or describe what's going on is, it makes you, even in your own mind, sound racist because you're sitting in my home right now, but if you had showed up at the door filthy and with fleas and obviously many days from a bath, I might have taken water to you, but I would not have let you in the house.

BURNETT: This is not dead history for author David Dorado Romo. When he listens to the acrimonious debate today over how to stop illegal immigration, with more fences or troops on the border, he hears echoes of an earlier time.

Mr. ROMO: Back then, in a very literal sense, it was about ethnic cleansing, about trying to clean the dirty foreigners and exclude them from this country, and I don't think that much has changed today. I mean, the arguments are more sophisticated, but it isn't new. It's been going on for a century.

BURNETT: Romo says Mexican Americans have come up to him and thanked him for writing the book. They said their relatives had passed through the Santa Fe Bridge bath house, but had always been ashamed to talk about it. Finally the story can be told.

John Burnett, NPR News

(Soundbite of Mexican music)

SIMON: And the song is La Persecucion de Poncho Via by Los Cinco(ph) Devalia(ph). You can historic photos of the border quarantine and disinfection program and read an excerpt from David Dorado Romo's book, Ringside Seat to a Revolution, on our website npr.org.

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