The morning of January 28, 1917, began like any other for Carmelita Torres. As she did every day, the 17-year-old juarense left her home early and made her way to the Santa Fe International Bridge spanning the Rio Grande and connecting Juárez, México to El Paso, Texas where she cleaned homes.
At the border Mexican workers were being stripped and bathed in kerosine and vinegar, their clothes and shoes steam dried, as part of a U.S. campaign to prevent a typhus epidemic from spreading to U.S. cities in the wake of an outbreak in Mexico the previous year. The gasoline mixture was used as an early insecticide to kill the lice that many Americans believed Mexicans were infested with. (In the 1920s the U.S. government would adopt the use of cyanide-based Zyklon B, which was later used by Nazi Germany in its infamous gas chambers.) Any migrant suspected of carrying lice had their head, armpits and pubic area completely shaved. Over 127,000 Mexicans were deloused at the Santa Fe International Bridge in 1917 alone.
Besides the obvious humiliation of such a procedure, Mexican women especially resented the treatment due to the discovery that they were secretly being photographed by customs agents to be displayed in local bars. Plus a few months earlier 16 prisoners being bathed with gasoline at the El Paso jailhouse were accidentally burned to death by a lit cigarette.
So, when a customs agent demanded that Carmelita Torres step off the trolley she was riding in and undergo the delousing procedure, the young lady refused, convincing 30 other women workers to join her. In an hour the number of protesters swelled to over 200, and by noon that day thousands of women had brought the traffic into El Paso to a standstill.
As author and historian David Dorado Romo writes in Ringside Seat to a Revolution:
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.
Eventually Torres was arrested and the “Bath Riots” ended as quickly as they began. The U.S. government would continue delousing Mexican migrants at the border for another 40 years, spraying bracero workers with DDT in the late Fifties.
But Mexicans found other ways to protest the procedure, leading to rampant illegal border crossings — which were virtually unheard of before then — as many looked to enter the country while avoiding customs agents. The health department created a mounted police force to round up border crossers for delousing, and the Immigration Act of 1924 created the U.S. Border Patrol, with El Paso being the site of only the second station built in the entire country.
While her refusal didn’t spark a nationwide movement like Rosa Parks’s would four decades later, Torres remains a Latina heroine nonetheless for refusing to submit in silence to injustice and calling on her fellow Mexicans to do the same.
Remembering Torres — and the long legacy of civil disobedience against a cruel immigration system — is how we celebrate our heritage.