From Humiliation to Heroism: The Inspiring Story of Carmelita Torres and the Bath Riots

Mexican male workers in the Bracero Program being doused with chemicals while undergoing a routine sanitization.
Leonard Nadel, 1956, National Museum of American History.

The United States is a country built on immigration, and for generations, people from all over the world have come to its shores in search of a better life. However, the journey was riddled with danger and humiliation for Mexicans entering the U.S. in the early 20th century to work under federal work programs.

One demeaning and dangerous process required by the U.S. health authorities used highly flammable and toxic chemicals including kerosene to "delouse" Mexican workers entering the United States, subjecting them to degrading strip searches and dangerous procedures on a daily basis.

Tensions started when El Paso mayor Thomas Calloway Lea Jr. requested a quarantine be put in place to prevent the spread of typhus allegedly by "dirty, lousey, destitute Mexicans" coming into El Paso from Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. This led to U.S. authorities implementing a process for sanitizing Mexican immigrants at a “disinfecting station” in El Paso, a practice that would eventually extend throughout the entire U.S.-Mexico border.

According to reports, men and women were placed in separate disinfecting facilities where they were stripped of all their clothing and valuables. Their possessions were then steamed and treated with toxic cyanogen gas, while the people themselves were scrutinized for lice.

Mexican male workers in the Bracero Program undergoing a routine health inspection while nude.Carlos Marentes, Proyecto Bracero Archives, Centro de Trabajadores Agricolas Fronterizos, El Paso

If a man were found to have lice, his hair would be shaved close to his scalp. Women's hair would be immersed in a blend of vinegar and highly flammable kerosene, covered with a towel, and allowed to sit for at least 30 minutes. After the lice inspection, people were gathered in a shower area and sprayed with a liquid made from soap chips and kerosene oil. After collecting their disinfected garments, they received a vaccination and were issued a certificate indicating their completion of the process.

Keep in mind that these were workers employed in El Paso, meaning they had to undergo this procedure almost every day, potentially leading to a buildup of highly toxic chemicals in their bodies. Furthermore, rumors that the border patrol officers supervising the searches took nude photos of women and shared them at local bars quickly began to spread.

State border plant inspection maintained by the USDA between Mexico and the United States. Shoppers returning from Mexico (Juarez) to the United States (El Paso) over the bridge which carries all the traffic are required to open their packages for inspection, June 1937. Library of Congress

One January morning in 1917, a brave 17-year-old Mexican woman named Carmelita Torres would lead what is now known as the 1917 Bath Riots. Working as a maid in the United States, Carmelita had heard that nude women were being photographed while in the baths, and that bathers were at risk of catching fire due to the flammable substances used in the baths.

Concerned for her health and safety and outraged by the inhumane treatment, she refused to comply with demands by inspectors to disembark from the trolley she was riding to work and submit to the humiliating disinfection process.

Upon her arrival, she asked to be granted entrance without undergoing bathing. After her request was denied, she proceeded to shout at the authorities and persuaded other women to support her in her demonstration.

Within an hour, more than 200 women had blocked the entrance to El Paso, throwing rocks at officers as they attempted to break up the protest. Most of the early protesters were young women employed as domestic workers in homes in El Paso. But soon, the crowd grew to several thousand people demanding to be treated with dignity.

The Bath Riots headline an El Paso newspaper on January 29, 1917. The report describes Carmelita as an “auburn-haired amazon.”

WIthin three days, the agitation had eventually subsided, but the sterilization of Mexicans at the United States border would persist for decades to come.

Carmelita's story, deemed as the "Latina Rosa Parks" by some, seemed to be forgotten by history once she was detained and subsequently went missing. Her destiny remains shrouded in mystery to this day, with no concrete knowledge of what really happened to her.

Nevertheless, her legacy endures. The migrant residence located on the other side of the Stanton Street Bridge in El Paso, known as “Casa Carmelita,” was named in her honor. In his book “A Peculiar Kind of Immigrant's Son,” Sergio Troncoso composed a short story titled "Carmelita Torres," part of a sequence of interrelated short stories about immigration.

The narrative explores hypothetical scenarios in her life and underscores the reasons why she should be remembered by scholars and readers for generations. David Dorado Romo's impactful book, "Ringside Seat to a Revolution," was published in 2006, reigniting public interest in the Bath Riots story.

Mexican male workers in the Bracero Program being doused with chemicals while undergoing a routine sanitization.Photography by Leonard Nadel, 1956, National Museum of American History.

Still, the fight for equality was far from over. Dangerous and humiliating policies, like the fumigation process, continued to be enforced until the late 1950s. Even the Bracero Program, which brought Mexican workers to the U.S. to work in agriculture and other industries, was plagued by countless abuses and violations of workers' rights.

The history of mistreatment and discrimination against Mexican guest workers at the U.S. border left a lasting impact on their health and wellbeing. Yet, the 1917 Bath Riots unveiled the appalling mistreatment of Mexican laborers at the United States border and the unjust practices of American officials.

The protests prompted a movement for workers' rights and kindled future activism in the Mexican-American community.

But in the face of such adversity, one individual stood out. Carmelita's courage and determination in the face of oppression serve as a testament to the resilience of marginalized communities and the power of collective action. Her legacy is a reminder of the importance of fighting for justice and human rights and the ongoing struggle for equality in our society.

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