The old El Paso border crossing , complete with electric tram , was the site of the 1917 bath riots after Mexican day workers and “ second class citizens .” Photo courtesy Beincke Ratre Book and Manuscript Library .
It is not common knowledge in West Texas that it was accepted government practice to corral all Mexicans and “ second class citizens ” wishing to enter the United States across the Mexican border and cause them to strip , be shaved and be doused with chemicals before they were allowed to continue on their way — which for most of them was to work , as day laborers and housekeepers .
The madness that was taken as a matter of course along the Texas / Mexico border for almost half a century began in 1916 , as the U . S . was preparing to enter World War I . As so often happens in times of war , patriotism mingled with anti-foreign sentiment ran wild through the population at large — sauerkraut became liberty cabbage and frankfurters became hot dogs . It was in January of 1917
Cenizo Summer 2022 that the Mexican border at El Paso closed with a bang : for the first time anyone entering the U . S . was required to have a passport , take a literacy test and pay an eight dollar head tax . It was also the year that the United States Public Health Service published its Manual for the Physical Inspection of Aliens , outlining procedures for the exclusion of “ undesirables ” from the United States — from homosexuals and “ physical defectives ” to contract laborers and anyone over the age of 16 who was illiterate .
1917 was also the year that El Paso mayor Tom Lea , Sr . saw the opening of his grand disinfection plant on the border . Lea was mortally afraid of contracting typhus , and was forever sending telegraphs to Washington , D . C . asking permission to quarantine the city . ( There were in the years of Mayor Lea ’ s term fewer than ten cases of typhus in the region .) In June of 1916 he wrote to Rupert Blue , the Surgeon General : “ Hundreds of dirty lousey ( sic ) destitute Mexicans arriving in El Paso daily / will undoubtedly bring and spread typhus unless a quarantine is placed at once .” In the summer of 1916 he sent health inspectors into Chihuahuita and other south El Paso communities . Wherever lice were found , the inhabitants were forcibly deloused and the adobe huts were simply demolished . Hundreds of homes were destroyed and entire city blocks wiped out . The El Paso Times remarked that “ Those places were cleaned up and disease stamped out ”— in spite of the fact that in visiting over 5,000 homes , the health inspectors had uncovered nothing more than one case of chicken pox , two cases of typhus ,