For decades, the United States deloused Mexicans seeking to cross the border into the country by stripping and bathing them in a toxic, sometimes deadly, gasoline mixture. But on January 28, 1917, exactly 99 years ago, a 17-year-old maid from Juárez named Carmelita Torres refused the procedure, inspiring thousands to join her in an important protest known today as the "Bath Riots."
Often forgotten, here’s how the Latina resisted the racist, humiliating and dehumanizing gasoline baths.
1. Things to Know About Carmelita Torres & the Bath Riots
In the early 20th century, following the 1916 typhus outbreak in Los Angeles, the U.S. Public Health Service performed noxious health examinations on all Mexicans entering the country at the border. Migrants and travelers from Mexico were stripped nude, undergoing dangerous lice treatments and baths, while their clothes were sprayed with Zyklon B, a cyanide-based pesticide later used by Nazi Germans as a fumigation agent in concentration camps. Ominously, the rooms where Mexicans were deloused were called "the gas chambers." Women experienced an additional layer of violence and shame, as their naked bodies were photographed and shared in cantinas. The belief that Mexicans spread diseases stuck, and is often upheld today by racists and xenophobes who refer to the group as “dirty,” allowing for the procedure to continue well after the typhus epidemic.
2. Things to Know About Carmelita Torres & the Bath Riots
On January 28, 1917, 17-year-old Carmelita crossed the Santa Fe International Bridge into El Paso, just as she did every day, to clean the homes of U.S. families. But when the Juárez woman was asked to get off the trolley for her bath and gas disinfection this morning, she refused. Soon, the young women left the vehicle to protest the brutality. Carmelita convinced 30 other female passengers to join her. An hour later, 200 women were blocking traffic into El Paso in dissent. Newspaper articles covering the event report that by noon, Carmelita, who was called an “Amazon,” was accompanied by “several thousand” demonstrators.
3. Things to Know About Carmelita Torres & the Bath Riots
After sparking an unplanned protest of thousands of people in just five hours, Carmelita was arrested. Together, U.S. and Mexican troops stopped the riot.
4. Things to Know About Carmelita Torres & the Bath Riots
Despite Carmelita’s efforts, the hazardous baths and fumigations carried on for decades. Some Mexicans protested in different ways, like organizing illegal border crossings, which weren't common at the time, where they could avoid custom agents and, consequently, the dangerous delousing. By the 1950s, the U.S. government was spraying the men and women with the deadly pesticide DDT. The procedure was abolished later that decade, after health officials learned the chemicals were harmful.
5. Things to Know About Carmelita Torres & the Bath Riots
Carmelita Torres is often referred to as the “Latina Rosa Parks,” though her refusal to respect unjust laws, her bold move to lead a riot and her ultimate arrest didn’t have the same impact as her African American successor. But that in no way diminishes Carmelita’s bravery, badassary and legacy. The mexicana, an early chingona, is remembered in David Dorado Romo's 2005 book "Ringside Seat to a Revolution," and today we celebrate her brave resistance.