The Bath Riots: Indignity Along the Mexican Border For decades, U.S. health authorities used noxious chemicals to delouse Mexicans at border crossings. A new book details violence that followed a 17-year-old Mexican maid's refusal to take a gasoline bath.

The Bath Riots: Indignity Along the Mexican Border

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


JOHN BURNETT: 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.

DAVID DORADO ROMO: 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.

DORADO 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.

L: 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: 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.

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

DORADO 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: 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.

JOSE CRUZ BURCIAGA: (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.

ALEXANDRA MINISTERN: 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: 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.

LEON METZ: 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.

DORADO 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: John Burnett, NPR News


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

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