Cenizo Journal Summer 2022 - Page 29

one case of rheumatism and one case of tuberculosis .
Lea obtained permission to build his disinfection plant in 1916 , and the doors opened on January 23 , 1917 . Dr . B . J . Lloyd , the U . S . Public Health official stationed in El Paso , suggested delousing stations rather than a full quarantine , writing to his superiors that he would “ cheerfully bathe all the dirty , lousy people coming up from Mexico .” When the plant opened its doors it boasted a hot steam dryer for killing vermin in clothing , bathing rooms for men and women , a vaccination room , a “ gas chamber ” for fumigation with pesticides and inspection rooms . Every person ( except “ firstclass citizens ”) passing from Mexico into the U . S . was made to strip completely naked and turn in their clothing and personal effects to be steamed and fumigated with pesticides . They were then searched minutely in their “ hairy parts ” for any sign of lice . If lice were found ( or imagined ), every scrap of hair would be shaved off the body and the person would be made to bathe in a mixture of kerosene and vinegar . This process would merit the recipient a certificate showing that he or she had been bathed , which was good for eight days — after which the process had to be repeated .
Over the years many different chemical agents were used to “ disinfect ” Mexicans seeking entry into the United States : gasoline , sodium cyanide , sulfuric acid and , in the 40s and 50s , DDT , which was sprayed liberally on the naked bodies of the migrant workers . Gasoline was one of the earliest insecticides used , until Mayor Lea ’ s disinfection campaign caused a fatal blaze in the El Paso City Jail in 1916 . Inmates about to be disinfected had to soak their clothing in one tub , filled with a mixture of gasoline , formaldehyde and creosote , before bathing in a second tub in a mixture of gasoline , coal oil and vinegar . Someone struck a match ; no one in the building escaped unscathed . Of the 27 fatalities , 19 were Mexican nationals .
So it was with rather a sense of relief that hydrogen cyanide was settled upon as the fumigation agent of choice for the delousing of
Mexicans . Hydrogen cyanide had been developed as a pesticide in the 1920s ; when the El Paso delousing stations began to use it to fumigate the clothing and personal effects of Mexican maids and day laborers , they had no idea of the role they were playing in history . The El Paso Herald boasted to its readers in August of 1920 : “ Hydrocyanic gas , the most poisonous ever known , more deadly even than those used on the battlefields of Europe , is employed in the fumigation process .” The trade name of the gas was Zyklon B .
It was this innovative use of the deadliest poison gas ever invented that earned El Paso the kudos of Dr . Gerhard Peters , a German scientist and one of several researchers responsible for later patenting Zyklon B in its stable solid form . Peters wrote an article in 1938 for a German magazine which praised El Paso for its delousing stations . The article included photographs of the El Paso disinfection rooms and detailed descriptions of the process used on the American border . Two years later , Dr . Gerhard Peters became the managing director of one of two German firms which acquired the patent for the mass production of Zyklon B , which they supplied to the Nazis and which was used to exterminate approximately 1.2 million people in the gas chambers of German concentration camps .
That first year of the closed border , 1917 , saw a difference in the El Paso / Juarez community like night and day . Where before there had been no “ illegals ,” now everyone had to have their papers in order and submit to chemical “ sanitation .” A backlash was inevitable ; it came on January 28th , 1917 , not quite a week after the opening of the disinfection stations . It came in the form of a 17-year-old maid named Carmelita Torres .
The women who crossed the border daily and now had to submit to being stripped , examined and bathed had learned that photographs of them without their clothes had been circulating in local cantinas . Carmelita crossed the border every morning to clean American homes for a living ; when she was directed to step off the trolley at the
Santa Fe Bridge to be bathed , she refused . She got off the electric car and quickly convinced 30 other women to join her . An hour later there were 200 women blocking all passage into El Paso ; by noon there were several thousand .
The women terrorized the street car drivers , sending them fleeing back to El Paso . They threw bottles and rocks at the customs officials who tried to disperse them , causing several to hole up in their own bathhouses to escape the riot . General Bell , the commander of Ft . Bliss , sent troops to the scene ; the women mocked them and swarmed around them , injuring several with projectiles .
Mexican General Fransisco Murguia brought his squadron to quell the riot . Murguia ’ s men , known as el esquadron de la muerte , brandished their sabers and raised their skull-and-crossbones insignia to no avail ; the furious women pummeled them , laughed in their faces and sent them back into Juarez .
The El Paso Times kept a flippant tone about the incident , stating “ The immigration men predict that as soon as the Mexicans become familiar with the bathing process they will not only submit to it , but welcome it .” The newspaper called Carmelita “ an auburnhaired Amazon ” and scoffed at the idea that the baths were in any way undignified .
There were no fatalities in spite of the size and anger of the crowd ; unfortunately , the demonstration did nothing to change the policy , and laborers and immigrants were still being “ deloused ” at some Texas border crossings in the late 1950s , more than 40 years after a wave of xenophobia had first swept the border .
Incidentally , typhus never saw an outbreak in El Paso . It was October of 1918 when the great epidemic hit , killing nearly ten thousand in Juarez and El Paso — it was “ Spanish ” influenza , which killed 50 million worldwide , and it was first observed in the United States in Haskell County , Kansas . Soldiers returning to Fort Bliss from World War I had brought it home — and no borders in the world could stop it . �
Cenizo Summer

2022 29