In The Community
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.” https://texashistory.unt.edu/
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 well-being. 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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I had never been to the Dominican Republic before, but as an ardent long-time advocate for abortion rights, I was well-versed with U.S. and global examples of the travesties women and families endure under severe reproductive rights restrictions and total abortion bans. Despite this, after a week of meeting with advocates, educators, and activists, I found I wasn’t prepared to witness the real-life devastation of a total abortion ban.
At the end of 2023, I accompanied a delegation of U.S. state lawmakers who traveled to the Dominican Republic as part of a trip organized by the State Innovation Exchange and the Women’s Equality Center. The purpose of the trip was educational and experiential. The entire purpose was to get a first-hand account of what life is like for women in the Dominican Republic and to understand what the future may hold for them in a society plagued by violent patriarchy.
This is what I learned.
What is new is the community activism that’s been steadily growing to pressure politicians to, at the very least, adopt reforms known as “las tres causales” or the three causes.
After heavy and sustained national and international political and community mobilizing, Congress passed, and President Danilo Medina signed into law, penal code reforms that were set to take effect on December 19, 2014. Those reforms called for the decriminalization of abortion under certain circumstances - las tres causales. But after three religious and conservative pressure groups challenged the new law, alleging procedural errors, amongst other things, the Dominican Constitutional Court ruled that the reforms were unconstitutional.
And with that, Dominican women were once again stuck in the patriarchal culture of 1884, where science is entirely ignored and the opinion that life is guaranteed “from conception to death” reigns supreme.
The "Sanctity" of Life
The answers are grim.
The Dominican Republic has one of the highest rates of maternal mortality and adolescent pregnancies in Latin America and the Caribbean. UNICEF reports that nearly 20 out of every 1,000 babies will die within 28 days of birth, and 95 out of every 100,000 women will die during childbirth. The National Statistics Office of the Dominican Republic reports that 20% of girls and young women between the ages of 15 and 19 are mothers. The average across Latin America and the Caribbean, where abortion restrictions vary but where the majority still lean towards criminalization, is 18%.
In a society where abortion has been criminalized so deeply and where women’s lives have been deemed inferior to clumps of cells for over a century, it’s no wonder that women risk their lives to seek alternative methods of abortion or avoid seeking healthcare when they experience a normal miscarriage.
Miscarriage is very common. In fact, some research suggests that more than 30% of pregnancies end in miscarriage, and many end before a person even knows they’re pregnant.
Yet in the Dominican Republic, when a woman seeks medical assistance for a miscarriage, it’s presumed that she attempted an abortion and is immediately questioned by healthcare staff and often referred to law enforcement. The burden remains on her to prove she didn’t miscarry on purpose. And even when the viability of the fetus isn’t in danger, but the life of the mother is, healthcare professionals are so afraid of prison time that they will withhold medical treatment for the pregnant person if it means possibly inducing a medically necessary abortion.
The Public Maternity Hospital in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic is staffed with guards and armed police. Lucy Flores
This was the case of Rosaura Almonte, a 16-year old young woman who discovered she was 4 weeks pregnant when health complications led to the discovery of luekemia. Almonte, known as “Esperanzita” was denied treatment because the chemotherapy would put the fetus at risk of death. Both Esperanzita and her 13-week-old fetus died in 2012.
Poverty and forced childbirth are strongly correlated. The marked difference between better-resourced women and impoverished women is evident in the different levels of access to reproductive healthcare and, despite being criminalized, self-managed abortions.
In a briefing on the reality of reproductive health access that included local gynecologist and fertility specialist Dr. Lilliam Fondeur, she described how under the private health system there are privacy rights and providers who are willing to help circumvent the ban.
But under the public health care system, where no privacy rights exist for reproductive medical assistance, women like Esperanzita suffer disproportionate government-sponsored violence. Their lives are decidedly less valuable than that of a 4-week old fetus.
In a country where child marriage was still legal up until 2021, 31% of young women are in a legal or religious union before the age of 18, and 12% of girls are in a union before their 15th birthday. Much of the advocacy work being done throughout the country is still focused on the basic dissemination of information, letting families know that child marriage is now illegal.
CONAMUCA, a rural advocacy organization, educates young women and families about their rights and opportunities. Lucy Flores
It’s a daunting task to accomplish when so many barriers exist that make it socially acceptable for young girls to marry.
María Teresa Hernández with the Associated Press reports that poverty forces some Dominican mothers to marry their 14 or 15-year-old daughters to men up to 50 years older.
This cultural acceptance helps explain why nearly 7 out of 10 women suffer from gender violence such as incest, and families often remain silent regarding the sexual abuse.
The barriers for women in the Dominican Republic are steep. Dr. Fondeur shared that it’s estimated that up to 50% of Dominican Women don’t have access to birth control and that up to 30% of women are unknowingly sterilized. The forced sterilization rates highlight the hypocrisy of the “sanctity of life” argument. If god determines who gets pregnant and when, it’s curious that the government chooses to sterilize impoverished women without their consent after they have already been impregnated at least once.
While the future for Dominican women may appear grim, significant progress has been made in the last decade. Dominican activists, advocates, and educators are making inroads across society. Young women, girls, and boys are being taught medically accurate sexual education in innovative ways within and outside of the school system. Local advocates are benefiting from international support from leaders of the successful marea verde Latin-American abortion rights movement and U.S. reproductive rights leaders and elected officials.
The legislators who joined the delegation included New York assembly members Karines Reyes, Amanda Septimo, and Jessica González-Rojas; Arizona state Sen. Anna Hernandez; and North Carolina state Sen. Natalie Murdock.
Collectively, New York Assembly Members Reyes, Septimo, and González-Rojas represent the largest voting bloc of Dominican voters outside the Dominican Republic itself.
This voting bloc is so influential that in 2023 for the first time in the 41-year history of the annual National Dominican Day Parade, Dominican Republic President Luis Abinader, who is up for re-election this year, served as the parade grand marshal. He also attended the evening Dominican Day Parade Benefit Gala that same weekend in New York.
In a meeting with Dominican lawmakers, all of the lawmakers were very clear about why they where there. New York Assembly Member Septimo stated in no uncertain terms, “We’re here to support the three causes.” In an election year where U.S. influence can possibly determine the outcome of the Dominican presidential election, President Abdinar was put on notice. President Abdinar campaigned on his support of the tres causales, but has so far made no effort in moving it forward.
Photo by: ANA I. MARTINEZ CHAMORROANA I. MARTINEZ CHAMORRO
I must admit that seeing the abject misery that so many Dominican women are subject to in real time inspired a deep sense of despair and profound sadness. At the same time, however, I left with a sense of inspired pride and hope for the women of the Dominican Republic and the women of the United States as well, after witnessing the fire of perseverance in so many who refuse to let it be put out.
The future of Dominican women remains to be seen, but just as it’s happening in the U.S., and despite the crushing odds, there will always be an army of women who refuse to accept less than full dignity and the full freedom of self-determination that they deserve. And for this reason, the future feels hopeful despite it all.
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Self-Image is a highly complex concept. From a very young age children are taught about things that are and aren't deemed “acceptable” in our society. This isn't inherently wrong of course.
The problem arises when the standards we set for our children are wrong in and of themselves. Self-image around bodies is notoriously manipulated and societal standards tell us that bodies must look a certain way to be "healthy." This is often a child's first experience with a negative body image.
if this hit home, I’m sorry and I’m here for you. and there too (IG:laetidecaru) #momanddaughter #dietculture #relatable #teenagers #weightloss
if this hit home, I’m sorry and I’m here for you. and there too (IG:laetidecaru) #momanddaughter #dietculture #relatable #teenagers #weightloss
In Latino culture, making comments about another person's body is considered normal. It’s often disguised as concern coming from tias, moms, dads, etc. However, whether it comes from a place of concern or not doesn't matter; if someone makes negative comments about your body, like "estas gorda" or "te ves muy flaca," it’s going to affect a person's self image. When a child hears comments about their body coming from the people they love that affects how they perceive themselves, and it affects how they see other people.
gotta love the abuelas & tias 😐✨! #colombian #fuckdietculture #bodyacceptance
The comments don’t have to be made directly to the child. When a parent heavily engages in diet culture or makes negative comments about their own body, that can lead a child to believe they should feel the same way and engage in the same habits. It’s important to think of who is listening when you begin to self-criticize, as these comments can oftentimes be just as damaging, or more damaging for the audience.
Growing up in a Latino household means you’ve probably heard of the family members who "estan a dieta." Dieting tends to be normalized, but according to experts, dieting is one of the strongest predictors for the development of an eating disorder. The problem also arises from adding morality to food, calling a burger "bad" and a "salad" good, when the truth is, food is just food with varying degrees of nutrients. This concept of categorizing what you eat can quickly lead to disordered eating, as the guilt of consuming “bad” food can cause punishing behavior.
The sad reality is that parents who engage in negative self-talk and negative body image are victims of diet culture themselves. We’ve normalized wearing fajas on the daily, shapewear and slimming drinks taking up large spaces in our homes and budgets. We’ve invested so much into improving the things we don’t like about ourselves, that we aren’t taking time to celebrate the things we do.
So what can we do about it? Sure this kind of behavior has been largely normalized in Latino culture, but just because it’s something that is considered common, it doesn't mean we have to accept it. The community can repeat healthy self-accepting messages that highlight that there isn’t just one way to be and look healthy. We must unlearn bad habits of commenting on others’ physique, and learn to accept ourselves as we are, understanding that there cannot be an “imperfection” if there is no standard of perfection.Self-care involves a holistic approach of accepting the things you don’t like about yourself instead of always looking to change something, and focusing on the many things you do like about yourself.
If you or someone you love is suffering from an eating disorder, seek professional help. To start, you can find resources here.