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The Gas Bath Riot and Other Tales of Mexican-American Resistance

by RODOLFO ACUÑA

If you haven’t read David Dorado Romo’s “Ringside Seat To a Revolution: An Underground Cultural History of El Paso and Juarez: 1893-1923,” (Cinco Puntos Press), do so. It is a book I wish that I would have written. A pictorial history of the Mexican Revolution, it also sees events through a trans-border prism that includes a Chicana/o lens.

My favorite story is of the Mexican gas baths forcefully given Mexican immigrants upon entering the country (for over 50 years) and the little known story of Carmelita Torres, a seventeen year old Mexican maid who crossed over into El Paso from Juarez to clean houses in 1917.

Carmelita refused to take a gasoline bath when she entered the United States. The soldiers would often stare at the disrobed Mexican women as they were forced to take the baths. Carmelita was aware that a similar gasoline bath had burned the inmates in the El Paso jail to death when a fire ignited the gas. Carmelita, tired of suffering this indignity, agitated the other passengers on the trolley. Thirty passengers joined the protest, touching off two days of uprisings.

The Los Angeles Times reported on January 30, 1917,

“Nine hundred and twenty-nine Mexicans were given baths at the United States immigration station today, the third day of the enforcement of quarantine regulations as a preventative of typhus fever. … The only disturbance today was when two Mexican men and one woman were arrested by local police officers at the American end of the international bridge. They were placed in the City Jail on charges of inciting a riot, the specific charge being that they crossed the international line and assaulted Sgt. J. M. Peck of the Twenty-Third United States Infantry and Inspector Roy Scuyler of the customs service. The woman was later dismissed and the men fined in Police Court.”

The night before the Times reported that “THOUSANDS OF MEXICANS BLOCK TRAFFIC IN ANTI-AMERICAN DEMONSTRATION.” The Mexican government of Venustiano Carranza cooperated with American authorities in putting down the rebellion. The Times continued, “The rioters were mostly Mexican women, employed as servants in El Paso, who resented the placing in effect of an American quarantine order that all persons of unclean appearance seeking to cross the bridge be given a shower bath and their clothing be disinfected to kill the typhus-bearing vermin.”

The Times added that “Stories also were circulated that American soldiers were photographing the women while bathing, and making the pictures public.” The account described the women as defiant:

Excited women thronged the Mexican side of the bridge, held up streetcars and completely blocked traffic for several hours. They shouted defiantly, waved controller bars at the helpless manager of the street car system, scurried against the shade of the bridge walls when a moving picture man tried to take them, and had a good time generally. Some of the American carmen were roughly handled and several car windows were broken. Mexican men, who attempted to cross to El Paso, had their hats snatched off and thrown into the Rio Grande…

The women also defied Mexican authorities shouting, “Viva Villa!” The Mexican troops of Venustiano Carranza pressed the women back from the bridge. They fired supposedly to scare the crowd. A demonstrator was later executed by the Carranza’s army.

Despite the importance of the Carmelita Torres story, it like hundreds of others was untold. Romo is one of the first scholars to highlight it. Significantly many such incidents have emerged in the last twenty years.

This no doubt can be attributed to the dramatic growth in the Latino population that has forced changes not only on public policy but in scholarship. It is no longer strictly a white narrative. While Latino students made up 4.6 percent of the school-age population in 1968, twenty years later they comprised 10.5 percent of the populace. In 1970 the census estimated that 9.07 million Spanish-surnamed persons lived in the United States; at least 4.53 million were of Mexican origin, living mostly along the 2,000 mile border separating Mexico and the United States. There were small pockets in the Midwest and Pacific Northwest. There are now 35 million Mexican Americans and they span the entire nation.

In 2010, the Los Angeles Times reported that Latinos would become majority California-born by the time the 2010 census. There was also an exponential growth in Mexican popular culture and scholarship. In the Southwest a cultural revolution took place — not only in music and the arts but in foods. Salsa is the No. 1 condiment in the United States. Mexican folklore, music, Cinco de Mayo, the Day of the Dead and foods all became part of American culture. Mariachi music has become a standard part of most statewide and national political events. The only thing that has marred the fiesta is a vicious rise in white supremacy and racist nativism rhetoric.

An almost unnoticed consequence of the shift in population is the growth of Mexican American and Latino research. Before December 31, 1970, there was not a single dissertation written under the category of “Chicano”; by 2010 870 dissertations had been recorded under this grouping. Under “Mexican American” 82 dissertations had been accepted before 1971, and 2,824 after that date — under Latinos, 6 before 1971 and 2,887 after. The growth of the Chicano population also produced a renaissance in interest on Mexico. Before 1971, 660 dissertations on Mexico could be found in the Proquest data bank contrasted to 9,078 that were written after this date to 2010. The number of books and journal articles on Chicanas/os and Latinos exploded.

A growth in the Chicana/o middle class took place because of the Chicana/o Movement. This is in spite of the horrendous Mexican American dropout rate.

This advance in the production of knowledge will have future implications for places like Arizona because it will determine what future generations know and think about today. It will not be like in the case of Carmelita Torres who was discovered a century after her courageous stand for human rights.

Take the case of the Tucson Unified School District: Most of the local coverage has been controlled by local news media, which are controlled by a cabal.

In just the past couple of months two books have been published that are highly critical of what is happening there, i.e., Jeff Biggers’ State Out of the Union: Arizona and the Final Showdown Over the American Dream and Otto Santa Ana’s anthology Arizona Firestorm have just come out and I know of at least six other books including one by me that are in the works. Most take a definite stand against the privatization of the state’s resources, exposing the chicanery of school and state officials. Some even name names.

Many of those who are relying on anonymity will be exposed; books on Tucson will have a much wider reader ship than let’s say my book Occupied America simply because the Mexican American population has grown exponentially so much larger than in 1972. It is at that point that the Southern Arizona Leadership Council will become universally known as the Robber Barons and Arizona as the Mississippi of the West.

Based on my reading of history the stock of Sean Arce will reach epic levels. If he were living in California or Texas there would have been at least a half dozen corridos (ballads) written about him.

Like in the Ballad of Gregorio Cortez, Arce took on the gringo or more specifically injustice. Like Aurelio Pompa he may lose but the sacrifice will be recognized. It is very rare that a corrido is dedicated to a politician and almost never to a businessman. It is reserved for a hero. Arce even looks the part. (You can picture Sean riding with Pancho).

History will absolve those who stood with the Tucson Mexican American Studies program. In this case the truth comes in numbers. Who would you prefer standing with? Carranza or Pancho Villa?

However, how this awareness is translated into progressive change will greatly depend on Democrats who should recognize that their future depends on Mexican Americans knowing about Carmelita Torres and the Sean Arces and that it is better to have Mexicans in the schools than in prison.

RODOLFO ACUÑA, a professor emeritus at California State University Northridge, has published 20 books and over 200 public and scholarly articles. He is the founding chair of the first Chicano Studies Dept which today offers 166 sections per semester in Chicano Studies. His history book Occupied America has been banned in Arizona. In solidarity with Mexican Americans in Tucson, he has organized fundraisers and support groups to ground zero and written over two dozen articles exposing efforts there to nullify the U.S. Constitution. 

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RODOLFO ACUÑA, a professor emeritus at California State University Northridge, has published 20 books and over 200 public and scholarly articles. He is the founding chair of the first Chicano Studies Dept which today offers 166 sections per semester in Chicano Studies. His history book Occupied America has been banned in Arizona. In solidarity with Mexican Americans in Tucson, he has organized fundraisers and support groups to ground zero and written over two dozen articles exposing efforts there to nullify the U.S. Constitution.

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