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<< Back to Ringside Seat to a Revolution

Ringside Seat to a Revolution

San Antonio Express-News

Mexican Revolution revisited: Book examines cultural aspects of conflict in El Paso/Juarez.

Author David Dorado Romo is a cultural cartographer of sorts. He subscribes to a French philosophy that says the “vibe” of different parts of a city can be mapped.

“Urbanists will search for poetry of the streets,” Romo said in a recent interview.

In writing this book Ringside Seat to a Revolution, Romo went searching for the micro history – the economic, social and cultural aspects – of the El Paso/Juarez area during the years of the Mexican Revolution. In his search, he says, “The ghost of Pancho Villa was everywhere.” But Romo didn’t want to write “the traditional view of the Mexican Revolution.”

“A lot of history focuses on the shooting, but not so much what was going on at the cultural level.”

He said that at the time of the war, Porfirio Diaz was kicking musicians, filmmakers, bullfighters and other artists out of Mexico. Many of them settled in El Paso, and in their own ways, they had as much to do with the outcome of the battles as any soldier or politico did. “Culture also was a battleground,” Romo points out.

Photographers from Mexico, the United States and even Europe came to the El Paso border to photograph the “spectacle” of war. Downtown building owners in El Paso sold tickets to their rooftops, where El Pasoans (who could afford it) could watch from a safe distance the Mexicans battle it out just over the river. Mexican government musicians played Verdi during executions. And Hollywood filmmakers sought out the most sensational details of the war to produce films with titles such as “Sin and the Greasers,” “The Greaser’s Revenge” and “A Species of Mexican Man.”

“While Mexicans were waging a revolution,” Romo says, “Americans were running around trying to make a buck…The popular vision (of the area during the Mexican Revolution) was of gunsliners; the other history was suppressed.”

As part of the “other” history, Romo reveals a disturbingly unsavory dark side of the U.S./Mexican border. It started with the Bath Riots in 1917, when a young Mexican woman who worked as a maid in El Paso refused to be “disinfected” with gasoline by U.S. Customs agents at the border. She began to protest, and others joined her; blocking the bridge and even prompting a Mexican general to call up his troops.

Romo found records from the early 1900s of the then-U.S. Public Health Department detailing what was called “the gas chambers” at an El Paso bridge. In the facility, Mexicans crossing into the United States were forced to bathe and have their clothes deloused with the chemical Zyklon B.

Romo notes that in his research, “I discovered an article written in a German scientific journal written in 1938, which specifically praised the El Paso method of fumigating Mexican immigrants with Zyklon B.”

Later, during World War II, the Nazis used Zyklon B at German borders and concentration camps. Then they used the chemical in their own deadly “gas chambers.” The fumigation of Mexicans, Romo writes, continued until the 1950s and the bracero program. It was a sad time in Texas history.

Romo’s book is entertaining, from the compelling photo on the front cover to the “walking tour” he includes at the back of the book. It’s filled with beautiful photos, and his prose reads breezily and easily, as an old friend speaking about something he loves. Romo has documented a history that, unfortunately, is seldom shared, even among El Pasoans and Juarez residents, and he’s done it with great style and even better research.

Ringside Seat to a Revolution is a must-read not just for those interested in the history of a war, but for those interested in the history of two nations and the Mexican American culture.
- March 19, 2006 

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