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The Bath Riots: Indignity Along the Mexican Border

Author David Dorado Romo stands near the site of the old Santa Fe Bridge, where the Bath Riots occurred. The bridge was torn down in the 1920s.
John Burnett, NPR /
Author David Dorado Romo stands near the site of the old Santa Fe Bridge, where the Bath Riots occurred. The bridge was torn down in the 1920s.

For decades, U.S. health authorities used noxious, often toxic chemicals to delouse Mexicans seeking to cross the border into the United States. A new book tells the story of what happened when a 17-year-old Mexican maid refused to take a gasoline bath and convinced 30 other trolley passengers in 1917 to do the same.

The maid, Carmelita Torres, crossed every day from Juarez to El Paso to clean American homes. The gasoline bath was noxious, but effective at killing lice, which carry typhus, says David Dorado Romo, an El Paso, Texas, author whose new book is called Ringside Seat to a Revolution. Before being allowed to cross, Mexicans had to bathe, strip nude for an inspection, undergo the lice treatment, and have their clothes treated in a steam dryer.

When Torres and the others resisted the humiliating procedure, onlookers began protesting, sparking what became known as the Bath Riots.

The Mexican housekeepers who revolted had good cause to be upset. Inside a brick disinfectant building under the bridge, health personnel had been secretly photographing women in the nude and posting the snapshots in a local cantina. A year earlier, a group of prisoners in the El Paso jail died in a fire while being deloused with gasoline.

U.S. and Mexican troops eventually quelled the riot, and young Torres was arrested. Though she's been compared to Rosa Parks, Torres' protest had little effect, Romo says.

The baths and fumigations (DDT and other insecticides were later used) continued for decades, long after the Mexican typhus scare ended. The practice was finally discontinued as health authorities realized the chemicals were dangerous.

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As NPR's Southwest correspondent based in Austin, Texas, John Burnett covers immigration, border affairs, Texas news and other national assignments. In 2018, 2019 and again in 2020, he won national Edward R. Murrow Awards from the Radio-Television News Directors Association for continuing coverage of the immigration beat. In 2020, Burnett along with other NPR journalists, were finalists for a duPont-Columbia Award for their coverage of the Trump Administration's Remain in Mexico program. In December 2018, Burnett was invited to participate in a workshop on Refugees, Immigration and Border Security in Western Europe, sponsored by the RIAS Berlin Commission.
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