“We are willing to bathe and disinfect all the dirty, lousy people who are coming into this country from Mexico”. This was a direct quote from Dr. B.J. Lloyd, the public health service official serving in El Paso office in 1917.

part 1

By A. Govea


This practice involved fumigating Mexican laborers with gasoline baths, DDT pesticides, and anything else official at the border could dream up. According to a report from the University of Texas special collections department; Jose Burciaga recalled that they would shave your head (man or women) and spray you with a white liquid that would run down your body. Then they would bathe you with cryolite, an extremely strong substance. Also, they fumigated your clothes and shoes in a part of the building called the Gas Chambers by the American officials. All this was to kill lice that could carry typhus. Unfortunately, if you needed to earn American dollars, this was part of the price of admission.  

  To be clear, they did this with you stripped down to your birthday suit (Naked) which with women led to all kinds of sexual harassment. Besides, it was also reported that some less than scruples border officials took pictures of the naked women.  Which would then be displayed at local drinking establishments. Most people now will say, I would never put up with that, I’d rather starve. And if so, I say more power to you. Pero, would you be willing to let your family starve because of your pride? I know I couldn’t. What these people went through to feed their families was a crime and sinful. This entire story is terrible, but perhaps the worst part is that the practice continued for more than forty years. Did anybody object or fight back? Good question and the answer is yes, which leads to the rest of the story. 

  On the morning of January 28th, 1917, a 17-year-old Carmelita Torres made her daily trip from Juarez into El Paso. Carmelita was part of the workforce that worked as a maid, caregivers, or any other task well-to-do El Pasions would delegate to others. This morning was different for her, though it is unknown if she planned an act of defiance or it was just a matter of ‘Enough is Enough’. When the customs officials ordered her off the trolly to be disinfected and bathe, she refused! She said “No”, and 30 other ladies joined her. By 8.30 AM 200 other ladies joined in protest by noon, the number had grown to several thousand. This caused all traffic coming into El Paso on the Santa Fe International Bridge to come to a screeching halt.  

  According to local news reports of that time, the demonstrators then marched to the building that housed the disinfection camp and called out people there to join them. When the officials at the site tried to break up the crowd, they were met with insults, bottles, and rocks. When Fort Bliss Commander General Bell was notified of the protest, he ordered troops to the scene. They thought that the sight of armed American troops would cause the women to immediately disperse. They did not, these women that the local paper labeled as Amazons lead by the Red-haired Carmelita jeered at the troops and changed their bottles and rock-throwing target to them. The women laid down on the tracks in front of trolley cars to prevent them from moving, while the troops looked on in bewilderment.  

Next Week – Part Two

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