Dehumanization Through Delousing
In the early 1900’s, most Mexican laborers in the U.S. maintained legal visas to work, and traveled through ports of entry to and from nearby border towns. During this time Mexicans could pay an annual fee to secure a work and commerce visa permitting laborers to legally cross the border. Following the typhus breakout in 1916, this process of legally crossing the border as a Mexican laborer became inhumane and deadly. The outbreak was determined to have originated from the El Paso, Texas port of entry. The Mayor of the time, Thomas Calloway Lea Jr., disagreed with the Public Health Service officers conclusion that there was little danger of typhus being spread by Mexican laborers. He utilized his position to lobby Congress to install quarantine stations in El Paso, and other ports of entry across the border soon followed suit.
The Bracero Program
During this time, all Mexicans crossing the border were subject to delousing procedures on a daily basis. In the delousing procedures men, women, and children had to strip naked and be fumigated. In 1917 C.C. Pierce, the senior surgeon for the U.S. Public Health Service, described the process:
“The men and women are separated, men entering one side of the building and women and small children the other. In suitable rooms all clothing is removed and pushed through an opening in the wall into the disinfecting room, where the bundles are placed in the steam-chamber carriage run out to receive them. Shoes, hats, belts, and other articles injured by steam are dropped through another opening into a large laundry basket, and when necessary are exposed to cyanogen.”
The Bracero Program
Cyanogen is toxic to humans, with inhalation resulting in headaches, dizziness, rapid pulse, nausea, vomiting, loss of consciousness, convulsions, and death. As they were stripped naked, the migrants would be examined by an inspector for lice. If any lice was located, the individual’s hair was immediately shaved or their entry would be denied. Furthermore, a mixture of acetic acid and kerosene was placed on their heads before receiving a fully-body spray of liquid soap. After this, all individuals had to bathe in front of an inspector.
It was this process which sparked the first protest against the U.S.’s policies at the Southern Border January 28, 1917, when seventeen year old Carmelita Torres refused to remove her clothes. Likewise, to the over 127,000 Mexicans who crossed the Santa Fe port that year, Carmelita Torres crossed the border daily to reach her job as a housekeeper in the U.S. and despised the delousing procedures. Torres understood customs agents photographed the women when they were naked and hung the photos up at local bars. As she approached the entry that day she became resolute in her disgust with the procedures, and convinced 30 other women to join her resistance. Within the hour, over two hundred people joined, and by the end of the day thousands filled the streets in protest.
At the conclusion of the protest, Torres was arrested for inciting the “bath riots” and became a symbol for the Mexican community labeled the Mexican Rosa Parks. Despite this and the end of the typhus scare in 1918, the delousing of Mexicans at the border continued for an additional 40 years. However, those who previously crossed via the Sante Fe port began circumventing the procedure by crossing into El Paso illegally.
El Paso Morning Times Newspaper Article on Bath Riots
-Sand and Blood: America's Stealth War on the Mexico Border by John Carlos Frey