The Bath Riots: Indignity Along the Mexican
BorderJanuary 28, 2006
Contract Mexican laborers being fumigated with the pesticide DDT in
Hidalgo, Texas, in 1956.
Leonard Nadel, Courtesy National Museum of American History
Author David Dorado Romo stands near the site of the old Santa Fe Bridge,
where the Bath Riots occurred. The bridge was torn down in the 1920s.
John Burnett, NPR
For decades, U.S. health authorities used noxious, often toxic chemicals
to delouse Mexicans seeking to cross the border into the United States. A
new book tells the story of what happened when a 17-year-old Mexican maid
refused to take a gasoline bath and convinced 30 other trolley passengers
in 1917 to do the same.
C. L. Sonnichsen Special Collections Department, University of Texas at
El Paso Library
At the customs bath by the bridge... they would spray some stuff on you.
It was white and 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 cryolite. That was
an extreme measure. The substance was very strong.
Jose Burciaga, a janitor in El Paso in the 1920s
The maid, Carmelita Torres, crossed every day from Juarez to El Paso to
clean American homes. The gasoline bath was noxious, but effective at
killing lice, which carry typhus, says David Dorado Romo, an El Paso,
Texas, author whose new book is called Ringside Seat to a
Revolution. Before being allowed to cross, Mexicans had to bathe,
strip nude for an inspection, undergo the lice treatment, and have their
clothes treated in a steam dryer.
When Torres and the others resisted the humiliating procedure, onlookers
began protesting, sparking what became known as the Bath Riots.
The Mexican housekeepers who revolted had good cause to be upset. Inside
a brick disinfectant building under the bridge, health personnel had been
secretly photographing women in the nude and posting the snapshots in a
local cantina. A year earlier, a group of prisoners in the El Paso jail
died in a fire while being deloused with gasoline.
U.S. and Mexican troops eventually quelled the riot, and young Torres was
arrested. Though she's been compared to Rosa Parks, Torres' protest had
little effect, Romo says.
The baths and fumigations (DDT and other insecticides were later used)
continued for decades, long after the Mexican typhus scare ended. The
practice was finally discontinued as health authorities realized the
chemicals were dangerous.
Excerpts: 'Ringside Seat to a Revolution'David Dorado
Mexican contract workers undergo medical inspection before being sprayed
with pesticides, ca. 1942. The disinfections along the U.S.-Mexico border
continued until the late 1950s.
Courtesy Carlos Marentes, Proyecto Bracero Archives, Centro de
Trabajadores Agricolas Fronterizos, El Paso
A telegram from El Paso Mayor Tom Lea to the U.S. surgeon general,
calling for a full quarantine against Mexican border crossers.
USPHS, National Archives
Mexicans wait to be bathed and deloused at the Santa Fe Bridge quarantine
USPHS, National Archives
Blueprints for the El Paso disinfection plant, 1916.
USPHS, National Archives
A steam dryer was used to sterilize clothing at the Santa Fe Bridge,
USPHS, National Archives
Cinco Puntos Press
The Bath Riots
MY INTEREST IN the El Paso-Juárez Bath Riots didn't start with
something I read in any history book. Most historians have forgotten
about this obscure incident that took place on the border in 1917. I
first heard of the U.S. government's policy that provoked these riots
while I was still in high school. One evening, during a family dinner, my
great-aunt Adela Dorado shared her memories with us about her experiences
as a young woman during the Mexican Revolution. She recalled that
American authorities regularly forced her and all other working-class
Mexicans to take a bath and be sprayed with pesticides at the Santa Fe
Bridge whenever they needed to cross into the United States. My
great-aunt, who worked as a maid in El Paso during the revolution, told
us she felt humiliated for being treated as a "dirty Mexican."
She related how on one occasion the U.S. customs officials put her
clothes and shoes through a large secadora (dryer) and her shoes melted.
Many years later, as part of my research for this book at the National
Archives in the Washington, D.C. area, I came upon some photographs taken
in 1917 in El Paso. The pictures, which were part of the U.S. Public
Health records, showed large steam dryers used to disinfect the clothes
of border crossers at the Santa Fe Bridge. Here it was.
But I also unexpectedly uncovered other information at the National
Archives that took my great-aunt's personal recollections beyond family
lore or microhistory. These records point to the connection between the
U.S. Customs disinfection facilities in El Paso-Juárez in the 20s and the
Desinfektionskammern (disinfection chambers) in Nazi Germany. The
documents show that beginning in the 1920s, U.S. officials at the Santa
Fe Bridge deloused and sprayed the clothes of Mexicans crossing into the
U.S. with Zyklon B. The fumigation was carried out in an area of the
building that American officials called, ominously enough, "the gas
chambers." I discovered an article written in a German scientific
journal written in 1938, which specifically praised the El Paso method of
fumigating Mexican immigrants with Zyklon B. At the start of WWII, the
Nazis adopted Zyklon B as a fumigation agent at German border crossings
and concentration camps. Later, when the Final Solution was put into
effect, the Germans found more sinister uses for this extremely lethal
pesticide. They used Zyklon B pellets in their own gas chambers not just
to kill lice but to exterminate millions of human beings. But that's
Our story, instead, begins with the account of the 1917 Bath Riots at the
Santa Fe Bridge. It is the story of a traumatic separation, an event that
perhaps best epitomizes the year that the border between El Paso and
Juárez, in the memories of many of its citizens, shut down for
REVOLT OF THE MEXICAN AMAZONS AT THE SANTA FE BRIDGE
"The soldiers were powerless."
--The El Paso Herald
THE EL PASO TIMES described the leader of the Bath Riots as "an
auburn-haired Amazon." She sparked an uprising against a policy that
would change the course of the history in El Paso and Juárez for decades.
Some even consider her a fronteriza Rosa Parks, yet her name has been
mostly forgotten. The "Amazon" was Carmelita Torres, a 17-year
old Juárez maid who crossed the Santa Fe International Bridge into El
Paso every morning to clean American homes. At 7:30 a.m. on January 28,
1917, when Carmelita was asked by the customs officials at the bridge to
get off the trolley, take a bath and be disinfected with gasoline, she
refused. Instead, Carmelita got off the electric streetcar and convinced
30 other female passengers to get off with her and demonstrate their
opposition to this humiliating process. By 8:30 a.m. more than 200
Mexican women had joined her and blocked all traffic into El Paso. By
noon, the press estimated their number as "several thousand."
The demonstrators marched as a group toward the disinfection camp to call
out those who were submitting themselves to the humiliation of the
delousing process. When immigration and public health service officers
tried to disperse the crowd, the protesters hurled bottles, rocks and
insults at the Americans. A customs inspector was hit in the head. Fort
Bliss commander General Bell ordered his soldiers to the scene, but the
women jeered at them and continued their street battle. The
"Amazons," the newspapers reported, struck Sergeant J.M. Peck
in the face with a rock and cut his cheek.
The protesters laid down on the tracks in front of the trolley cars to
prevent them from moving. When the street cars were immobilized, the
women wrenched the motor controllers from the hands of the motormen. One
of the motormen tried to run back to the American side of the bridge.
Three or four female rioters clung to him while he tried to escape. They
pummeled him with all their might and gave him a black eye. Another
motorman preferred to hide from the Mexican women by running into a
Chinese restaurant on Avenida Juárez.
Carrancista General Francisco Murguía showed up with his death troops to
quell the female riot. Murguía's cavalry, known as "el esquadrón de
la muerte," was rather intimidating. They wore insignia bearing a
skull and crossbones and were known for taking no prisoners. The
cavalrymen drew their sabers and pointed them at the crowd. But the women
were not frightened. They jeered, hooted and attacked the soldiers.
"The soldiers were powerless," the El Paso Herald reported.
THE MAYOR'S SILK UNDERWEAR
EL PASO MAYOR Tom Lea, Sr. used to wear silk underwear. This bit of privy
information was passed on many years later by his son Tom Lea, Jr. to
Adair Margo during an interview that is now at the Institute of Oral
History at UTEP. The reason for the mayor's peculiar choice of lingerie
was not extravagant dandyism, but rather, his deeply-rooted fear of
contracting typhus from Mexican immigrants. The mayor's good friend, Dr.
Kluttz, had informed him that the typhus lice does not stick to silk.
Tom Lea Sr.--silk underwear and all--represented the new type of Anglo
politician during the "Progressive Era." Progressive didn't
necessarily mean liberal back then. In Lea's case, "progress"
meant he would clean up the city.
And Tom Lea was definitely obsessive about cleanliness. He would get rid
of the old "Ring" of "dirty and corrupt" politicians,
like the Irish Catholic incumbent mayor Charles Kelly and his Mexican
supporters, who illegally paid the poll taxes for large numbers of both
El Paso Mexicans and Juarenses. (The poll taxes were used to insure that
most working-class Mexican Americans were excluded from the electoral
process.) With the help of Pershing's troops, he would demolish hundreds
of "germ-infested" adobe homes in Chihuahuita and substitute
them with American-made brick buildings. Under Lea's administration, El
Paso passed the first ordinance in the U.S. against Mexican hemp, or
marijuana--a drug associated in the popular mind then with Mexican
Tom Lea sent letters and telegrams to Washington officials for months
asking for a full quarantine against Mexicans at the border. He wanted a
"quarantine camp" to hold all Mexican immigrants for a period
of 10 to 14 days to make sure that they were free of typhus before being
allowed to cross into the United States. The local Public Health Service
officials viewed the mayor's request as extreme.
"Mayor Lee (sic) wants an absolute quarantine against Mexico. When
Mayor Lee gets excited he always wires some one in Washington. The last
time this occurred he sent a message to the President," complained
Dr. B. J. Lloyd, the public health service official stationed in El Paso.
"Typhus fever is not now and probably never will be, a serious
menace to our civilian population in the United States," Lloyd
explained to the U.S. Surgeon General. "We probably have typhus
fever in many of our large cities now. I am opposed to the idea (of
quarantine camps) for the reason that the game is not worth the
Instead of quarantine camps, Lloyd suggested setting up delousing plants.
Echoing the El Paso mayor's racist language, Lloyd told his superiors he
was "cheerfully" willing to "bathe and disinfect all the
dirty, lousy people who are coming into this country from Mexico."
Lloyd added prophetically that "we shall probably continue the work
of killing lice in the effects of immigration the Mexican border for many
years to come, certainly not less than ten years, and probably
twenty-five years or more." (If anything, Lloyd underestimated
things. The sterilization of human beings on the border would continue
for more than 40 years.)
From Ringside Seat to a Revolution, An Underground Cultural
History of El Paso and Juarez: 1893-1923 by David Dorado Romo.
Published 2005 by Cinco Puntos Press.
Monsanto's Roundup: The Politics of Pesticides (SkyHorse, 2019),
authored by Mitchel Cohen, is now available at bookstores everywhere!
Please click on link to learn more.