The El Paso Bath House Riots occurred in 1917 when Mexican citizens protested the mandatory “delousing” treatments required to cross the border. The protest was initiated by seventeen-year-old Carmelita Torres, a Juarez, Mexico, resident, who first refused the bath treatment. Her protest action evolved into a “riot” that lasted for the better part of the day and shut down the international border at El Paso.
The election of Mayor Tom Lea, Jr., an ardent “law and order” politician, set the stage for the border confrontation. Lea was apparently “obsessive about cleanliness.” After his election in 1916, Mayor Lea sent telegrams to Washington senators and demanded a quarantine station at the border. In one such message to Surgeon General Rupert Blue, Lea wrote:
“Hundreds [of] dirty lousey destitute Mexicans arriving at El Paso daily will undoubtedly…bring and spread Typhus unless a quarantine is placed at once.”
But the El Paso County Medical Society had strong reservations about the “delousing” project. After their own survey they stated, “This report...would indicate that Chihuahuita (barrio of El Paso) is not the festering plague spot that it is pictured to be”.
By 1917 a federal fumigation facility was built at the foot of the Santa Fe bridge connecting Juarez and El Paso. Because it was a long bridge, there was a regular trolley service between both cities, and it was used by hundreds of border crossers.
On January 27, 1917, a notice appeared in the newspaper advising that any Mexican citizen wishing to cross into El Paso was required to carry a card guaranteeing that they had taken “a bath” at the fumigating facility.
Memories of the disinfection station burned vividly in the minds of Mexican nationals who were required to take a “bath.” Not only was their clothing submitted to a laundry service, but they had to stand naked for inspection by federal agents. The border crossers were then doused in a “bath” of gasoline, insecticide, and other toxic chemicals. Health officials apparently had little concern for the “health” of those Mexican citizens who were subjected to dangerous chemicals.
Soon, the humiliating nature of the facility was the talk of the town. Rumors ran rampant on the Mexican side that the U.S. agents were taking pictures of the naked women. El Paso police investigated reports that photos of the women were on display at a local bar. Mexicans also worried about the inflammable ingredients of the baths and the danger of fire.
On Sunday morning, January 28, 1917, Carmelita Torres was headed for work as a maid in El Paso. On the Mexican side of the border, a trolley operator ordered her to debark and enter the “bath house” for fumigation. She refused to undergo the dehumanizing procedure and began verbally berating the trolley conductor. Carmelita urged her bus mates to join her, and quickly the other women (most of whom were also domestic workers) on the bus began shouting insults at the officials. Soon there was a crowd of about 200 women. Rocks and bottles were flying, and several trolley operators were injured.
The crowd of protesters quickly swelled to 500 women, as reported by the El Paso Herald on January 29, 1917. The women placed themselves in front of the tracks to prevent the trolley from moving. They removed the trolley conductors from the cabins and destroyed the consoles. The men generally stood on the sidelines and encouraged the women protestors.
On the Mexican side, the local Carranza troops were called to the scene, but the commanding officer apparently choose to stand by and watch the proceedings. The El Paso Herald reported that one of the male onlookers in the crowd shouted “Viva Villa” and was quickly apprehended by the soldiers, court martialed, sentenced, and reportedly “executed during the afternoon.” The standoff with the protestors continued for most of the morning. The international bridge was closed.
The “riot” shut the border down for Sunday and Monday. Juarez police arrested eight women and charged them with “inciting riot.” By Tuesday morning the bridge and border was open again. In the days following the riot, El Paso health officials negotiated with Mexican health authorities. A Mexican health official offered to provide a fumigation station on the Mexican side and issue certificates to border crossers. El Paso officials agreed to accept the certificates on a limited basis. The paradigm, however, had changed. No longer were international neighbors able to freely cross the border to exchange goods and services.
Not much is known about seventeen-year-old Carmelita Torres after the incident. The “red haired Mexican woman” became the face of the “bath house riots” and sparked the protest to the dehumanizing fumigation stations. Ironically, the Spanish Influenza pandemic that spread across the United States in the fall of 1918, including soldiers stationed at Fort Bliss, proved far more deadly to border residents than the perceived fears of typhus.
Unfortunately the fumigations continued for the next forty years, thereby further straining border relations. The days of easy and friendly border crossing between two international cities divided by a small stream had come to an end, and fears regarding border security heightened with the United States entry into World War I. Before the war, hundreds of Mexican citizens crossed the border to work in the fields, factories, and homes in El Paso each day. U.S. citizens also crossed easily into Mexico to eat, shop, or visit. The time of the “El Paso Bath House Riots” brought restrictions, and tensions on the El Paso/Juarez border promoted a climate of suspicion that has remained for decades.