“Mexican Rosa Parks” who Led the El Paso Bath Riots of 1917
This is a real “TIL” situation for me.
Today I learned…there was something called the “1917 Bath Riots” in El Paso.
The more I learned, the more I can’t believe there hasn’t been a movie made about it yet.
The year is 1917.
The United States, which HAD been involved in the Mexican Revolution (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mexican_Revolution) found itself much more invested in the Great War in Europe.
The mayor of El Paso at the time, Thomas C. Lea Jr., had petitioned senators in Washington D.C. to do something about the outbreaks of disease, especially typhoid fever, along the Mexican border.
In his own words, Lea asked for a quarantine to stem the tide of “dirty, lousey destitute Mexicans”.
The politicians said “no” to a quarantine. Instead, they opted for de-lousing plants.
In other words, people coming into the U.S. from Mexico, found that they now had to take a chemical bath before they could enter.
Not a bath with water and soap. Mexican nationals were required to bath in a mixture of vinegar and kerosene.
Later, insecticides and DDT were added to the de-lousing process. In some cases, migrants’ clothes were fumigated with Zyklon B, which the Nazis would later use in their death camps.
You can imagine this might not have sat well with people coming in from Mexico.
In addition to the chemical baths there were reports that Mexican women were being photographed naked and never knew who got to see the pictures.
Again, in 1917, this was a brand new development.
A 17 year old “red-haired Mexican woman” named Carmelita Torres decided she just wasn’t having it.
Carmelita worked in El Paso as a maidand she refused to take the de-lousing chemical bath. Then, when she found out she wouldn’t be reimbursed for her trolley fare, she decided to protest.
In fact, Carmelita got THIRTY other Mexican ladies to get off the trolley and protest with her. Within an hour, a crowd of 200 protestors and sympathizers had gathered and they shut down the bridge into Juarez.
For the next two days, THOUSANDS of protestors blocked the bridge, blocked the trolley and threw rocks at anyone who tried to make them disperse.
So why hasn’t the story of the 1917 El Paso Bath Riots been turned into a movie yet? It could have something to do with the fact that the demonstrations didn’t accomplish anything.
The mandatory chemical de-lousing continued in El Paso for the next FORTY YEARS!
That means that as recently as 1957, Mexican nationals had to go through the de-lousing process before entering.
As far as Carmelita Torres goes, nobody knows what happened. After setting of the 1917 Bath Riots, Carmelita was arrested by El Paso police. Here Wikipedia entry (LINK: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carmelita_Torres) says that, after her arrest, nobody knows what happened to her “to this day”.
By the way, Tom Lea Park is NOT named after the El Paso mayor who decried the “dirty, lousey destitute Mexicans”.
That was his son, Tom Jr. He was a famous artist and, hopefully, not as racist as his dad.