“Mexicans Given Baths,” 1917 [via Rudy Acuña on Facebook]
Image source: Leonard Nadel Collection / National Museum of American History [LA Times]
There have been countless acts of courage by minority women who refused to suffer indignities. The border is full of incidents where people stood up and said yá basta! That’s enough! In El Paso, Texas Mexicans were routinely forced to undergo strip searches and were fumigated with toxic gases. In 1917, Carmelita Torres, age 17, refused to take a gasoline bath when she entered the United States. The excuses for administering baths was that Mexicans spread typhoid or that Mexicans had lice. Often the soldiers would stare at the disrobed women as they were forced to take the DDT baths. The year before, Mexican inmates in El Paso were given a similar bath with gasoline and were burned to death when a fire ignited the gas. Carmelita, tired of suffering this indignity, agitated the other passengers on a trolley. Thirty trolley passengers joined the protest, touching off two days of uprisings. The following article describes the encounter.
[BY A. P. DAY WIRE]
EL PASO, Jun. 30—Nine hundred and twenty-nine Mexicans were given baths at the United States immigration station today, the third day of the enforcement of
quarantine regulations as a preventative of typhus fever. No rioting occurred during the day, and the danger of a repetition of the “bath riots” is now believed by the United States health officers to have passed.
The only disturbance today was when two Mexican men and one woman were arrested by local police officers at the American end of the international bridge. They were placed in the City Jail on charges of inciting a riot, the specific charge being that they crossed the international line and assaulted Sgt. J. M. Peck of the Twenty-Third United States Infantry and Inspector Roy Scuyler of the customs service. The woman was later dismissed and the men fined in Police Court.
A mutual arrangement has been made by the American and Mexican health officers by which certificates from the Juarez disinfecting plant will be accepted by the American officers.
Source: Los Angeles Times, January 31, 1917, p. I5.
‘Viva Villa’ Shouted in Riots at Juarez,” 1917
Mexicans were often stereotyped as dirty by Euro-Americans and accused of bringing plagues and diseases into the United States. During the first decades of the twentieth century, U.S. health authorities sprayed Mexican commuters and visitors with noxious and toxic chemicals, they said, to delouse Mexican entering the United States. Mexicans were fumigated with DDT and other insecticides. In the 1920s, authorities at the Santa Fe Bridge that joined Juárez and El Paso deloused Mexicans with Zyklon B which was later used by the Nazis at their border crossings. Mexican women were often forced to disrobe as soldiers peeked. In 1917, Carmelita Torres, a seventeen–year–old maid, refused to disrobe and be gassed. A riot followed as other women joined her.
THOUSANDS OF MEXICANS BLOCK TRAFFIC IN ANTI-AMERICAN DEMONSTRATION
[BY A. P. NIGHT WIRE]
EL PASO (Tex.) Jun. 28—A misunderstanding over quarantine regulations led to a riot at the Juarez end of the main international bridge today, which threatened for a time to assume dangerous proportions. Energetic measures taken by the Carranza garrison and a conference between the American and Mexican immigration officials later brought about an arrangement satisfactory to the Mexicans and quiet was restored.
The rioters were mostly Mexican women, employed as servants in El Paso, who resented the placing in effect of an American quarantine order that all persons of unclean appearance seeking to cross the bridge be given a shower bath and their clothing be disinfected to kill the typhus-bearing vermin.
Women, stopped by the authorities, returned to Juarez and circulated stories that all were to receive a bath in a gasoline mixture, similar to that which resulted in a fire in the El Paso Jail last March, in which more than a score of persons wereburned to death. Stories also were circulated that American soldiers were photographing the women while bathing, and making the pictures public.
Excited women thronged the Mexican side of the bridge, held up streetcars and completely blocked traffic for several hours. They shouted defiantly, waved controller bars at the helpless manager of the street car system, scurried against the shade of the bridge walls when a moving picture man tried to take them, and had a good time generally. Some of the American carmen were roughly handled and several car windows were broken. Mexican men, who attempted to cross to El Paso, had their hats snatched off and thrown into the Rio Grande. Andres Garcia, inspector-general of Carranza consulates, and Sorlano Bravo, the Consul-General, advanced in a motor car that was shoved back by the women, some of whom later shouted, “Viva Villa” when they tried to address the mob. But the garrison soldiery appeared and pressed the women back from the bridge. The Villa demonstration seemed to be due to a sprit of mischief.
SHOTS ARE FIRED
Several shots were heard in succession at this time, but Carranza officers and government investigators say no one was hurt, despite a detailed story that spread through El Paso that a peon had been killed for shouting: “Long live Villa, death to Carranza.” It was said that the shots were intended to cow the mob.
At an international conference held at noon it was arranged that the American authorities would recognize bath and sterilization certificates issued by the Mexicans, who have an effective quarantine plant.
Because of the riot, the races on the Juarez track were called off and the gambling halls closed.
A black flag with skull and cross bones in white, which was displayed by the Carranza cavalrymen on the Juarez end of the bridge, created excitement among American spectators who were ignorant of its significance. The flag is the divisional flag adopted by Gen. Francisco Murguia on taking charge of the present campaign against Villa. Its significance was explained in “Death to Villa” and it was first made public when Murguia’s troops reoccupied Chihuahua City.
Source: Los Angeles Times, January 29, 1917, p. I1.