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Ringside Seat to a Revolution

Howard Zinn, author of A People's History of the United States
"It is 'people’s history' at its best."
David Romo’s Ringside Seat to a Revolution is a fascinating glimpse into unknown scenes of the Mexican Revolution of 1911. He takes us into El Paso and Juárez-facing one another across the Rio Grande-in the years just before and just after the exciting events of the revolution itself. It is close up and personal history-through the eyes of an extraordinary cast of characters. It is "people’s history" at its best."
Paco Ignacio Taibo II, author of Guevara Also Known As Che and The Uncomfortable Dead
David Romo’s micro-history is brilliant. Here you’ll find what official history seems to ignore: the salt of the earth, the surprising anecdote, rumors, the absurd. The odd relationship between El Paso and Mexico makes this book all the more fascinating.
Booklist
"The book sheds new light on a fascinating era."
Romo submits that his book is about what he calls an offbeat collection of individuals who were in El Paso and Juarez during the Mexican Revolution, "one of the most fascinating periods in the region's history." The author, who was raised in El Paso and Juarez, chronicles the point of view of those people whom official histories have considered peripheral to the main events—military band musicians who played Verdi operas during executions, filmmakers who came to the border to make silent movies, female bullfighters, anarchists, poets, spies with Graflex cameras, pool hustlers reborn as postcard salesmen, illegal Chinese aliens, radical feminists, and smugglers. More than 200 archival black-and-white photographs enhance Romo's lively text. They show spectators watching the Battle of Juarez from trains, women drinking from huge glasses at a Juarez bar, a bull killing a matador, a jazz band at an El Paso cafe, and executions. The book sheds new light on a fascinating era.
El Paso Times
"Border musician and writer David Romo has uncovered an El Paso more Mexican than some people care to acknowledge."
Author discovers racists, heroes

Border musician and writer David Romo has uncovered an El Paso more "Mexican" than some people care to acknowledge.

Romo intended to write a simple underground cultural history exploring the journalists, musicians, photographers, filmmakers and bullfighters in El Paso and Juárez from 1893 to 1923. He dug into archives across the United States and Mexico and unearthed a mostly untold history of the Mexican Revolution from an El Paso-Juárez perspective, shameful stories about officially sanctioned racism against Mexicans and heroic Mexican personalities in El Paso that popular historians have forgotten or ignored.

Four years later, the result is Ringside Seat to a Revolution (Cinco Puntos Press), a book released last week and already applauded as a fascinating glimpse into the crucial role that El Paso and Juárez played before and after the Mexican Revolution started in 1910.

"I haven't written a political pamphlet. I've written as truthful a map as I can," Romo said.
Romo is promoting the book -- billed as a micro-history and groundbreaking people's history -- today at the Texas Book Festival in Austin. Cinco Puntos and the Mexican Consulate plan an official release party Nov. 20, the day designated as "D’a de la Revolución" in Mexico, but the book will be in bookstores this week.

Ringside Seat covers complex characters such as the 22-year-old healer Teresita Urrea, who settled in El Paso after Mexico banished her as a rebel. Romo tries hard to contain his anger when he talks about the chapter in which he depicts how American authorities, under the pretext of keeping out diseases, forced thousands of working-class Mexicans to bathe in gasoline or sprayed them with pesticides at the Santa Fe Bridge in El Paso in 1917.

The policy enforced at the El Paso-Juárez border and other crossings in Texas influenced world history. German scientists praised the fumigating methods used on Mexican immigrants, according to Romo's research. When World War II started, Nazis used the same chemical product, known as Zyklon B, to delouse Jews and later used Zyklon B pellets in gas chambers to kill millions.

"I want people, especially young people, to see the complexity and fascination of our own history," Romo said. "The idea of El Paso as the Old West has always been frustrating. It's a very limited perspective."

Romo is convinced the book will help others understand how many contemporary issues, such as immigrant bashing across the United States and along the border, can be traced to officially sanctioned ethnic cleansing policies and racism against Mexican immigrants in the early 1900s. "El Paso has kind of a sophisticated history of racism, a lot more moderate," Romo said. "It's not as openly violent as it was in South Texas. Here, there had to be some accommodation because Mexicans were the majority during the revolution."

The book is filled with historical nuggets:
• Carmelita Torres, a 17-year-old Juárez maid who cleaned houses in El Paso, refused orders to get off a trolley to be disinfected with gasoline. The protest lured thousands into the streets and blocked traffic into El Paso.
• Victor Ochoa emerged as El Paso's first revolutionary long before 1910 and also excelled as an inventor, editor, spy, smuggler and science fiction writer.

Some historians applaud Romo's candid portrayal of El Paso's colony of radical Mexican journalists, curanderas, revolutionaries and regular people.

"In a city whose popular history has been portrayed...as one inhabited only by gunfighters and conquistadores, it is a breath of fresh air to read about the profound cultural and social influence of the Mexican Revolution and Mexican-origin people," said Yolanda Leyva, a University of Texas at El Paso history professor.

Romo points out that anarchists tried at least four uprisings against Mexico, starting as early as 1906 and using El Paso as headquarters. Other plotters were talking revolution in El Paso 15 years earlier.

"El Paso is to the Mexican Revolution as Boston is to the American Revolution," Cinco Puntos Press publisher Bobby Byrd said. "David gives the intellectual and cultural underpinnings of the importance of El Paso to this history that has been so important to Mexico and the United States."

Juan Carlos Foncerrada Berœmen, the Mexican consul general in El Paso, described Romo's book as a significant contribution to understanding social revolution in Mexico. "I found it very intriguing, an interesting way of telling us history that is not only ours as Mexicans but also part of the United States' history," he said.

Oscar Martinez, a history professor at the University of Arizona who has written extensively about the border, complimented the book for its original tone. "The approach is very different from what you get in the public literature now. He is creative and insightful," Martinez said. Martinez also applauds Romo for re-examining themes covered by other historians, such as El Paso as a haven for revolutionaries and how El Pasoans, filmmakers and photographers exploited the revolution as entertainment.

Romo's great-aunt Adela Doblado would tell stories about the humiliation she endured as a Juárez maid, having to disrobe at the border delousing station. "My reaction then to that shameful experience was doubt," Romo said. Years later, Romo went to the national archives and discovered that those deep wounds were real.
- Ramón Renteria, 
Dallas Morning News
"This is an extraordinary book. For those who love the tangled history of Texas and Mexico and their tragic border, it’s a treasure."

Bloodshed on the border
HISTORY: David Dorado Romo captures the Mexican Revolution at full boil

When radical journalist John Reed arrived on the border in 1913 to cover the Mexican Revolution, he wrote that El Paso was “the Supreme Lodge of the Ancient Order of Conspirators of the World. The personnel changes from year to year, but its purpose is always the same – to destroy the existing government of Mexico.”

The revolution was at full boil. Francisco Madero had led his revolt against the country’s old and corrupt dictator, Porfirio Díaz. Victoriano Huerta then murdered Madero and seized power. Venustiano Carranza, Pancho Villa and others rebelled against Huerta. And so it went, year after bloody year, from 1910 until 1920.Ciudad Juárez on the Rio Grande was the epicenter of the tumult. And across the river, El Paso seethed with spies, smugglers, con men, soldiers of fortune, agitators and political schemers looking for a piece of the Mexican action.

In the minds and everyday lives of the two cities’ citizens, the border was almost nonexistent. But whenever politically or commercially convenient, the Texas side became an easy sanctuary for revolutionaries, reactionaries and refugees for whom “the other side” was temporarily dangerous.
Many books have been written about the revolution, and dozens more about its most charismatic, complex, controversial protagonist, Pancho Villa. He fought three battles for control of Juárez and worked out many of his plots in the hotels, offices and ice cream parlors of El Paso. He’s the central figure of this book.

But David Dorado Romo’s Ringside Seat to a Revolution isn’t really about Villa. It’s a different kind of book, perhaps unique. Even its subtitle, An Underground Cultural History of El Paso and Juárez: 1893-1923, doesn’t describe it. It’s a tapestry of many small stories of the revolution as it was played in Juárez and El Paso by a huge cast of Mexican, Mexican-American, Anglo-American, European and Asian characters, most of whom you never heard of.

They’re people, says Mr. Romo, whom “official historians have considered peripheral to the main events.” They’re jazz musicians, moviemakers, female bullfighters, anarchists, poets, pool hustlers, photographers, Chinese baseball players, radical feminists, faith healers, journalists of every political stripe, soldiers of fortune and lunatics.

Ringside Seat is about the ordinary citizens of Juárez, who suffered, and the ordinary citizens of El Paso, who bought tickets for spots on rooftops near the Rio Grande where they could sit in the shade, drink lemonade and watch the fighting across the river. El Paso’s newspapers advertised binoculars: “Stay away from the danger zone, but see everything across the river today. It is foolish to expose yourself to any danger in connection with the troubles in our sister republic.”

Death became the ultimate spectacle, in which the about-to-die often embraced their roles. “It was not uncommon for those who were sentenced to be executed before a firing squad to want to make a show of dying proudly, even with a certain sense of style,” Mr. Romo writes. “It was as if dying itself had become an art.”

Some died while bands played operatic music, some while shouting viva for their causes. But dozens of photographs in Ringside Seat reveal them crumpled in dust beside the adobe killing walls, banal and ordinary.

This is an extraordinary book. For those who love the tangled history of Texas and Mexico and their tragic border, it’s a treasure.
RALPH: The Review of Arts, Literature, Philosophy, and the Humanities
"Romo could not get away from his hometown, and we should be grateful. He has collected a fine, fat book with more than 200 photographs and dozens of tidbits from El Paso-Juárez history."
El Paso's main role in the Mexican Revolution was as a center for arms smuggling and espionage. During this period, the battles of the Mexican Revolution were sometimes won and lost, not out in the field, but back in the streets of El Paso. Whether or not a faction was successful in getting arms across the border into Mexico through the major customs port of El Paso-Juárez often meant the difference between victory and defeat.

David Dorado Romo grew up in El Paso, didn't much care for it, tried to escape... to live anywhere but El Paso. "If you walk through downtown El Paso after 5 p. m., you'll find that the place is dead."

There's more action in Juárez. But it didn't appeal to me either. There was too much suffering there.

But it's not that you can't go home again; it's more that you can't ever get away from it. He returned, and started looking for Pancho Villa. And Francisco Madero. And Porfirio Diaz. And Venustiano Carranza. And the governors and generals and soldiers (male and female) who were part of that part of the Mexican Revolution that enveloped the city between 1911 and 1921. And the anarchists, spies, politicians, writers and photographers who came and went, along with the miracle workers (Teresite Urrea), radical journalists (John Reed), revolutionaries (Ricardo and Enrique Flores Magón), arms smugglers and spies (Victor L. Ochoa) and generals (Pascual Orozco) who came for a long or short stay in the cities.

Romo could not get away from his hometown, and we should be grateful. He has collected a fine, fat book with more than 200 photographs and dozens of tidbits from El Paso-Juárez history.

For instance: that tourists flocked to El Paso to watch the various battles across the border. That Ochoa was not only a key element to the Revolution, but an inventor at the same time.
That Ricardo Flores Magón spent the last part of his life in a U. S. prison for opposing World War I. That the Mutual Film Company came to El Paso to make The Life of General Villa --- with its star under contract: Pancho Villa. That Zyklon B ---yes, that Zyklon B --- was used as a disinfectant for Mexicans who crossed the border into El Paso during the war.

What the U. S. didn't do was to protect the Mexicans --- and its own citizens --- against the influenza epidemic which caused so many deaths in both countries in 1918 and 1919. It started, apparently, in a military barracks in Lawrence, Kansas.
Southern California Quarterly
A project inspired by the anarchic avant-garde “mappings” of the Situationist International, Ringside Seat to a Revolution is a cultural and historical exploration of two geographical sites: cities on either side of the Rio Grande and either side of the Mexico-U.S. border. The author, David Dorado Romo, tells the story of a region marked by hopes and violence of revolutionary energy, delving deeply into the history of individual players through a wide variety of textual and photographic sources. Beautifully written and illustrated, this alternative history cum urban exploration is a treat for readers interested in border culture and politics as well as local history and folklore.
A project inspired by the anarchic avant-garde “mappings” of the Situationist International, Ringside Seat to a Revolution is a cultural and historical exploration of two geographical sites: cities on either side of the Rio Grande and either side of the Mexico-U.S. border. The author, David Dorado Romo, tells the story of a region marked by hopes and violence of revolutionary energy, delving deeply into the history of individual players through a wide variety of textual and photographic sources. Beautifully written and illustrated, this alternative history cum urban exploration is a treat for readers interested in border culture and politics as well as local history and folklore.
The Monitor
"Romo’s book reads like its own shooting star for all those interested in this fascinating time period."
Most people know that to really uncover a city, one must find the places where the locals hang out and dig up the legends and tales that make each city what it is. David Dorado Romo has done just that with the West Texas city of El Paso.

Romo was inspired by a group of Frenchmen who tried to document the various aspects and ambiences of Paris during the 1950s. Their goal was “to use their emotional vibes emitted by their city to create a revolution.” Lucky for Romo, El Paso and Ciudad Juarez had already witnessed a revolution at the beginning of the 20th century, one of the most volatile times in Mexican history.

Romo’s tour guide is Pancho Villa. Everywhere Villa went in El Paso and Juarez he left his mark, from the hotels he stayed at during his American exile in 1913 to the houses in which he hid his mistresses. Romo is determined to follow all the tracks. Along the way, the author uncovered much of Villa’s tastes in music (“El Corrido de Tierra Blanca”), food (canned asparagus and peanut brittle) and drink (a teetotaler, Villa preferred strawberry soda pop to tequila).

Not surprising then, Villa is everywhere in Romo’s book. If we can take the title’s reference to a boxing match, then Villa is the ring announcer, but the camera is on the crowd. Romo is most interested in how the Mexican Revolution was seen by those residents that official histories often have considered peripheral to the main events: musicians, filmmakers, female bullfighters, anarchists, poets, spies, pool hustlers, radical feminists and arms smugglers.

Of course there are the revolutionaries themselves. John Reed, the author of 10 Days That Shook the World and the subject of the Academy Award—winning movie Reds, spent time in El Paso during this time and described it as “the Supreme Lodge of the Ancient Order of Conspirators of the World. The personnel changes from year to year; but its purpose is always the same—to destroy the existing government of Mexico.”

Romo believes the border city experienced a cultural renaissance born out of conflict. He’s determined to place his hometown in the American history books, which focus on Anglo gunslingers and Texas Rangers getting all the good lines and Mexicans relegated to cameo roles.

Romo takes a literary approach to his book, one that focuses more on “mysterious and the poetic than the schematic.” Part archaeologist and full-time prospector looking for the uncovered gold mines, Romo went far and wide across the Americas to dig up any and all the information on the revolution. Backed by a grant from the Fideicomiso-Rockefeller Foundation out of Mexico City, Romo took time off from his job as artistic director of the Bridge Center for Contemporary Art to research the book. The photographs, diaries, advertisements, and maps included go far and beyond the profile of these two cities published before. An amateur picture of Halley’s Comet streaking across the night sky on May 16, 1910 appears almost surreal on the pages as the author explains the phenomenon was celebrated in several corridos as the first portent of the Mexican Revolution.

Romo’s book reads like its own shooting star for all those interested in this fascinating time period.
San Antonio Express-News
"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."
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 
Big Bend Sentinel
"[Romo explores] the back streets and seedier neighborhoods of El Paso and Juarez with their bars and jazz clubs full of soldiers of fortune an their tiny printing shops churning out revolutionary manifestos, and his book chronicles plenty of offbeat doings."
David Romo is a man of many parts. He is a psycho geographer, a microhistorian and the grand-nephew of a saint. I had lunch with him the other day in El Paso because I was interested in a book he has just published called Ringside Seat to a Revolution” (El Paso: Cinco Puntos Press) and I learned a little bit about these matters as well as a lot about the side effects of the Mexican Revolution of 1910-1930 on Romo’s hometown of El Paso, which is the topic of his book.

I’ll start with psychogeography. This, Romo explained, is a technique of observing and recording a city’s essences by taking randomly motivated walks through it. It was developed by a now obscure group of French artists and anarchists who called themselves the Situationist International and flourished between 1957 and 1972. Romo is exactly the kind of fellow who would know about the Situationist International. The ultimate literary expression of psychogeography is a novel by Paul Auster called “Cities of Glass,” in which a detective follows a suspect on his daily walks around New York. When the detective plots the walks on a city map, he finds that their routes spell out the words “Tower of Babel.” Romo’s own strolls around El Paso and Juarez, and through those cities’ twin pasts, did not spell anything out but they led him to some very strange people.

Microhistory is a way of doing history that has become increasingly popular over the last 30 years. While ordinary historians try to understand the past through big events like wars and political movements, the microhistorian looks at the past on a very small scale and focuses on the doings of a group of ordinary people who live in a constricted area, like a 17th-century Chinese village or a Paris neighborhood during the French Revolution. Romo’s Chinese village is the back streets and seedier neighborhoods of El Paso and Juarez with their bars and jazz clubs full of soldiers of fortune an their tiny printing shops churning out revolutionary manifestos, and his book chronicles plenty of offbeat doings.

Ringside Seat to a Revolution takes its title from the fact that many El Pasoans treated the Mexican Revolution, and particularly the several battles in which the neighboring city of Juarez changed hands, as a spectacle to be observed from their rooftops. In fact, for several years the Paso del Norte Hotel advertised that it was the only hotel in the world with a view of a Mexican Revolution.” Romo’s view of the revolution, however, is far more intimate, and it focuses on the peculiar currents that flowed back and forth across the border and the characters that they carried with them. One chapter, for instance, is about Teresita Urrea, faith healer and inspirer of revolutionaries. Another outlines the career of El Paso journalist Victor Ochoa, who thought that revolution was a form of astral projection and invented flying machines in his spare time. A third is about the difficulties of shooting films on the border during the revolution—one gringo director is quoted as saying that the revolution needed was “a director and a scriptwriter.” Every chapter is illustrated with wonderful photographs and is permeated with Romo’s finely-honed sense of the absurd.

A scholarly-looking man in his late 30s or early 40s, Romo grew up in El Paso and went to Stanford, where he majored in Judaic studies. “But all you can do with that,” he told me, “is to be philosopher or teach chess.” He did in fact once teach chess in the El Paso public schools. He also spent five years in Florence, Italy, where he worked in experimental theater and had a radio program. He is fluent in Spanish, English, Hebrew and Italian, reads classical Greek and is working right now on learning Tarahumara. Above all, he says, he is research fanatic, and he spent five years plowing through archives scattered from the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles to the Smithsonian in Washington to write Ringside Seat to a Revolution.

Over lunch Romo told me that one of his great-uncles was a priest named Toribio Romo, who was murdered in Mexico during the Cristero War in the 1920s and was canonized by Pope John Paul II as one of the Martyrs of Mexico. He is known in California and Arizona as el santo pollero—the holy alien-smuggler —because he sometimes appears to illegal immigrants and helps them safely across the border. This has nothing to do with Romo’s book. I just thought I’d mention it because I’ve never had lunch with a saint’s grand-nephew before.
El Paso Times - Leon Metz
"This is as fine a local primer on the early Mexican Revolution as we will likely ever read."
A friend was kind enough to give me a copy of a just-released book titled Ringside Seat to a Revolution by El Pasoan David Romo. It is an oversized soft-cover item of 293 pages filled with Mexican revolutionary history and photos, published by Cinco Puntos Press.

Roughly one-third of this history is consumed by an excellent series of black-and-white photograph originals, plus a few cartoons, posters, diagrams, bibliography, notes, index, and so forth. The overall focus is on the 1911 first Battle of Juárez, the author justifiably looking forward to the upcoming 100th anniversary of this commencement of the Mexican Revolution. The book has a secondary title of “An Underground Cultural History of El Paso and Juárez: 1893-1923.” Thus this secondary title is essentially the book’s core, as the primary subject isn’t so much a history of fighting as it is of the underground activities in and around El Paso and Juárez, what went on and who was involved.

Romo divides his book into sections, such as the Prologue, “A Psychogeography of Two Cities;” “Journalists, Radicals and A Saint;” “The Revolution as Spectacle;” “A City Divided;” “Dying on the Border;” and “A Walking Tour of Mexican Revolutionary Sites in El Paso and Juárez.” Thus, this First Battle of Juárez (which is what the book “essentially” covers) moves back and forth in all of its many and fascinating aspects and elements.

In a chapter titles “The Mayor’s Silk Underwear,” Romo ridicules former El Paso Mayor Tom Lea, who took a tough stance during the Revolution. Romo found it difficult to let go of this subject, and thus the mayor’s alleged silk underwear becomes the implied foundation for the municipal crackdowns by the Lea administration on El Paso-based revolutionaries. But that’s but a brief item.

One of Romo’s best chapters—and are all good—include a piece titled “Musicians,” a specific reference to corridos, popular folk songs celebrating battles and heroes. These songs remain favorites by all classes even today. The author notes that Pancho Villa, upon capturing Juárez in 1915, had a federal officers shot and common soldiers imprisoned, but he spared the band, later forcing it to parade through the streets playing national tunes. But Romo also states that regardless of who controlled a particular town, bands always marched in the streets to reassure the citizenry that the government (or the rebels) had everything under control.

In an interesting chapter titled “A Racial Geography of El Paso,” the author notes that President Wilson in 1916 ordered a special census to determine El Paso’s racial composition. The subsequent count broke down as “Persons of Mexican Descent, 32,737, Whites (other than Mexican), 27,359; Negroes 1,514; Chinese 243; Japanese 41; Indians 5; Mexican refugees 6,554, and White Refugees 482.”

Overall, Romo seems to have touched the revolution locally in all its various and relevant aspects. Other than the layout of the El Paso-Juárez walking tour, the book ends with the last Battle of Juárez in January 1919. This is as fine a local primer on the early Mexican Revolution as we will likely ever read. Romo touches all the local and across-the-river bases.
- Leon Metz, 
Tucson Weekly
"Author David Dorado Romo comes off as one of those strange, quirky, brilliant folks you read about winning some sort of genius grant. .... It's about the previously untold story of the leading role Juarez and El Paso played in the Mexican Revolution, revealed through the lives of a collection of crazy, bizarre, offbeat individuals living there at the time."
Everyday People
David Dorado Romo masterfully weaves together border residents' stories of the Mexican Revolution


A hundred years ago, a massive tidal wave of blood was poised to sweep across the land 60 miles south of here. From 1910 to 1920, a million people died violently in the Mexican Revolution. Think about it--that's more than the population of the Tucson metropolitan area. Virtually every Mexican lost someone they knew.

The scale of the slaughter is mind-boggling. A sixth of the nation's population was wiped out. Yet from this epic carnage arose the most stable government in Latin America, dominated by a single political party for 70 years. A system of patronage, corruption, co-optation and violence was crafted by the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI. The party drove the boat for decades, until it was gravely wounded by the election of the Coca-Cola cowboy Vicente Fox. The PRI had become a dinosaur whose excesses and failures could no longer be ignored by the populace. After years of winning by hook or by crook, the PRI was unceremoniously booted out of the president's office in the last election.

Scholars have been busy for decades, scribbling dozens of dry, dusty tomes, picking apart every aspect of Mexico, Mexicans and their bloody revolution. It's what passes for history. Much of it is crap--white people making up stories. It's a lot like what archaeologists and anthropologists do in this country to Native Americans.

But once in a while, a book emerges from the din and whacks you across the head, reminding you that history is in the end about the stories of living, breathing, eating, drinking, loving, farting, sweating, screwing human beings. Ringside Seat to a Revolution: An Underground Cultural History of El Paso and Juarez: 1893-1923 is a book that surreptitiously sucks you into the world of the U.S.-Mexico borderlands, and before you know it, you're reading history and loving it--you can't put it down.

Author David Dorado Romo comes off as one of those strange, quirky, brilliant folks you read about winning some sort of genius grant. He grew up on the border he writes about, spent time in California, Jerusalem and Florence (Italy), and is an essayist, historian, translator and musician.
The book began when he received a grant to chart the underground cultural life of Juarez and El Paso. He was inspired by an obscure, defunct group of French intellectuals called "Situationnistes" who wandered the streets of Paris in the 1950s trying to chart the city's "zones and ambiences." It was avant-garde; it was wacky; it was very French, but Romo felt they might be on to something. He notes: "Their idea of the city as a koan, an archaeological dig, a puzzle, intrigued me. I too wanted to investigate the unknown nooks and crannies of my city, its hidden poetry." So he began work on what he calls a "psychogeography" of this massive border organism that calls itself Juarez and El Paso.

His wanderings through the streets of the two cities eventually focused in on an obsession with finding traces of Pancho Villa and those who knew him. He wanders into the El Paso Public Library, emerging after three or four years having just read every single newspaper published in El Paso between 1893 and 1923. This guy is hard-core.

Villa eventually led Romo to College Park, Bethesda, Bisbee, Austin, New York, Zacatecas and Chihuahua. But in the end, the book really isn't about Villa the bandit, or Villa the hero/general. It's about the previously untold story of the leading role Juarez and El Paso played in the Mexican Revolution, revealed through the lives of a collection of crazy, bizarre, offbeat individuals living there at the time, including Villa.

History as we learn it in school is about the Big Events and the Big Men who make them happen. But in real life, the majority of people go on living their lives day to day, adapting and surviving as best they can under circumstances frequently beyond their control. El Paso and Juarez were places of great cultural fermentation and activity where two extremely different cultures pressed against each other, as they still do today. Romo seeks to understand history and this fermentation from the bottom up as opposed to the top-down "official version." He calls himself a microhistorian, someone who believes "there's no such a thing as a definitive history--only a series of microhistories." His book weaves together a mosaic of stories from musicians, filmmakers, female bullfighters, anarchists, poets, spies, Chinese illegal aliens, radical feminists, arms smugglers, revolutionaries, counterrevolutionaries, counter-counterrevolutionaries and others.

Ringside Seat to a Revolution is a treat, a history book that is funny, beautifully illustrated, well-written and deadly serious. It's a highly dangerous book--the kind you might read and actually learn something from.
El Paso Inside & Out Magazine
"Romo’s book is fascinating reading for any denizen of the El Paso/Juarez region."

The title of David Romo’s book refers to the spectacle that the Mexican Revolution became for many Americans. Romo focuses on some of the fascinating individuals and startling events from the period when El Paso served as auditorium for the theater of war across the river. Judge Joseph Sweeney, a former El Paso mayor, watched the unfolding drama from a choice seat atop the El Paso Laundry building. People flocked to the spectacle. One observer described the crowd’s reaction when a rebel lost his rifle: “He made a dash for a tree near the federal lines, and sheltered by its trunk from their bullets, he wound a lariat from his waist. With it, he roped the nearest federal as if he had been a steer, dragged him up and disarmed him. A loud cheer went up from the many spectators on the American side.”

Filmmakers joined the crowds at the border, shooting six films immediately following the Battle of Juarez. One of the many striking photographs from the book shows a cameraman intently shooting film flanked by two indigenous Mexican rebels who are also intently shooting. Photos from executions, another popular entertainment, were turned into postcards. One photographer wrote home, “Business is simply great…am making 5,000 postcards a day…I heard there were to be more executions in Juarez tomorrow morning so am planning to be on hand.”

Romo’s history traces the shifting attitudes towards immigrants, particularly poor ones, during the war’s years. Prior to 1917, El Paso’s border with Mexico was open with constant travel back and forth. WWI changed that. Immigrants were required to show identification and the U.S. Public Health Department began an unprecedented program to ensure the foreigners entering America were clean. Government officials started “bathing and delousing an average of 2,800 Mexicans a day at the Santa Fe International Bridge.” Immigrants were required to remove all of their clothing and submit to a bodily inspection. If lice were found, they were sprayed with Zyklon B, a fumigator, or forced to bath in kerosene. After being treated, they were given a certificate verifying their cleanliness. This humiliating experience had to be repeated every eight days if they wished to cross the border.

This unsettling piece of El Paso history becomes more disturbing when Romo reveals that a 1938 German scientific journal “specifically praised the El Paso method of fumigating foreign immigrants with Zyklon B.” The Nazis used Zyklon B to decontaminate prisoners in their death camps and to murder millions of Jews.

Romo’s book is fascinating reading for any denizen of the El Paso/Juarez region. His riveting narrative will keep you glued to your seats.
- Ann Branan Horak, 
Yolanda Leyva, a University of Texas at El Paso history professor
"In a city whose popular history has been portrayed...as one inhabited only by gunfighters and conquistadores, it is a breath of fresh air to read about the profound cultural and social influence of the Mexican Revolution and Mexican-origin people."
Tucson Citizen Review
"He documents in rich detail the political renaissance that changed life along the border forever."
The Boston Tea Party of the Southwest was served up along the Rio Grande in El Paso, Texas, and it’s sister city Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua, Mexico, during the early years if the last century. A series of events, which began in about 1893, triggered what would become the first modern revolution in Latin America.

Drawing on contemporary eye witness accounts and archival records, David Dorado Romo, the son of Mexican immigrants, documents this pivotal period of Mexican-American history with a fresh prospective. He documents in rich detail the political renaissance that changed life along the border forever. The bloody conflict to overthrow the Diaz regime was led by the fronterizos, a hybrid group of people, part Mexican and part American, united and determined to bring about both political and social change.

Like a gathering storm, the events of 1893 set the stage for the final conflicts that led to the Mexican Revolution of 1911. The years just before and just after the revolution are the among the most important in the region’s history. The revolution and the consequences that followed helped establish the odd, uneasy relationship that exists even now between the two cities.

The photographs and walking tour of the Mexican revolution sites in both El Paso and Juarez make this stunning book essential. Romo, who is both an essayist and historian, is to be commended for this excellent work. It is highly recommended.
Taos Daily Horse Fly Review
"Romo weaves together biographical, historical, and at-first-glance inconsequential facts, from the comical to the tragic, to convey a heady cultural and political intensity among the Mexican population along the border at the time."
Books: ¡Viva la Revolucion!

Women and journalism played an integral role in fomenting revolution at the U.S.-Mexico border, according to David Dorado Romo’s Ringside Seat to a Revolution: An Underground Cultural History of El Paso and Juárez 1893-1923. Romo documents Mexican insurgency from the first rebellion launched in El Paso to the assassination of Pancho Villa.

The author calls his work micro-history because it dwells not on the powerful figures and milestones perennially taught in history classes but on little known but pivotal events and people. Teresita Urrea, for instance, a striking and renowned 22-year-old Mexican healer, arrived in El Paso in 1896. Trained by a Yacqui curandera, Urrea’s fame followed her across the border, and thousands of pilgrims camped outside her new home.

Although she insisted on her commitment to peace and healing, Romo suggests that the once pacifist Urrea was radicalized…like many of her compatriots…by the slaughter of Tomóchic villagers in 1892, at the direction of Mexican president Porfirio Diaz. She became affiliated with Mexican intellectual and journalist Lauro Aguirre, who published several incendiary newspapers in El Paso. (More than 40 Spanish-language newspapers flourished in the city during the book’s 30-year timeframe.) Photos and letters signed by Urrea were found on rebels killed in Mexican revolts, or “Teresista” attacks.

Romo weaves together biographical, historical, and at-first-glance inconsequential facts, from the comical to the tragic, to convey a heady cultural and political intensity among the Mexican population along the border at the time…and shatters stereotypes along the way. The big, soft-cover book also has a jazzy graphic design and brims with compelling photographs.
El Paso Inc.
"Books, articles and columns about the Mexican Revolution have floated around for decades. But this is one is different from anything we’ve ever read!"
Books, articles and columns about the Mexican Revolution have floated around for decades. But this is one is different from anything we’ve ever read!

Not only does it reveal intriguing information about the starring performers: Pancho Villa, Victor Ochoa (named instigator of the first rebellion against Porfirio Diaz in 1893), Pascual Orozco, Francisco Madero, Victoriano Huerta, Venustiano Carranza and other famous participants in the ongoing revolution, it exposes overlooked or ignored underground historical facts.

David Dorado Romo, former artistic director of the now dormant Bridge Gallery, spent four years digging, researching and winnowing interesting nuggets of information about the turbulent years of the Mexican Revolution - information that never saw the light of day in U.S. history school books.

We’ve heard for years that the 1911 Battle of Juarez became a prime object of entertainment for El Pasoans who watched the action atop the roof of El Paso Laundry. It’s still there near the downtown bridge with bullet holes bearing testimony to its uncomfortable proximity. It also provided Romo with an obvious title for his well written and meticulously documented book.

It’s chock-a-block with archival photographs, some never seen before by the general public, some by well known photogs Otis Aultman and Walter Horne. Others came from collections in the El Paso Public Library, UT El Paso Special Collections, National Archives, Smithsonian Museum and Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, UT Austin.

Romo said in some of his many talks at book signings that one need not start at page 1 and plow doggedly to the Epilogue on page 261 (there are 32 pages of map and photos in the useful APPENDIX: A WALKING TOUR.) Start anywhere you want.

He divided the text into stand alone essays with all but a dozen pages without photographs or illustrations. Beside the Prologue and Appendix the titles are JOURNALISTS, RADICALS AND A SAINT, THE REVOLUTION AS SPECTACLE, A CITY DIVIDED and DYING ON THE BORDER.

The most shocking and disturbing historical event Romo turned up was the little known practice of requiring working class Mexicans to take a bath and be sprayed with pesticides when crossing the bridge into El Paso. Romo is a true fronterizo, born in El Paso and reared in Juarez and El Paso. His parents were immigrants.

He heard as a boy from a great-aunt the unlikely story of this humiliating inspection during the Mexican Revolution. But there was nothing in the history books about it. It wasn’t until he began digging into files at the National Archives in Washington, D.C. that he discovered photos taken in 1917 in U.S. Public Health records of the steam dryers used to disinfect border crossers’ clothing at the Santa Fe Bridge.

He also found other files equally disturbing that linked this procedure in the 1920s to the German Nazi disinfection chambers. Nazis praised and adopted the U.S. use of Zyklon B by making pellets of greater strength in their gas chambers in WWII.

Another surprising discovery, to us, was the role of women in Revolutionary years. In 1917 both the El Paso Times and Herald ran headline stories about the Bath Riots sparked by a brave Mexican version of Rosa Parks. Seems there was a 17-year-old girl, Carmelita Torres, who worked as a day maid in El Paso.

One morning she was told to disembark the electric trolley at the bridge, take a bath and be disinfected with gasoline. She refused to comply. At first 30 other women joined her protest. Before noon newspapers estimated there were “several thousand” blocking the trolleys. A riot erupted with the women throwing rocks and bottles while soldiers from both sides of the border showed up to quell the ruckus.

What is even more appalling is that versions of this practice continued in other parts of the Rio Grande Valley until the 1950s!

Carmelita was not the only woman to be venerated in Mexico. Teresita Urrea is a name few El Pasoans could identify. She was the illegitimate daughter of a rich Sonoran hacendado, Don Tomas Urrea. She was said to have the power to heal and she dedicated her life to healing the poor.

Romo writes “the masses considered her a saint…the Catholic church considered her a heretic…and the Mexican government considered her a dangerous subversive…At 19, Teresita was forced into exile by President Porfirio Diaz.” She came to El Paso in 1892 and took up residence at 500 South Oregon.

Her reputation as a spiritist was already spreading around the world. Her role as an anti-Diaz revolutionary was enhanced by newspaper editor Lauro Aguirre. He also believed she had supernatural abilities. Details that Romo uncovered about the woman called The Saint of Cabora make fascinating reading.

Two references to locally well-known personalities in El Paso attract special attention. Romo exposes the obsessive mind-set of then mayor Tom Lea Sr. about cleanliness, dirty, germ-laden Mexicans, and, according to Romo, “probably did more than anyone else to shut down the border between El Paso and Juarez during his administration.”

The other personality Romo mentions is the El Paso icon of history, Leon Metz. He credits Leon with being a best-selling author from the Wild West cowboy perspective. He challenges Metz’s denunciation of the Spanish newspapers of that era as “badly written ‘handbills’” when Metz neither reads nor speaks Spanish.

He also points out that Metz claims one of those newspapers was published out of the Caples Building by Ricardo Flores Magon who, says Romo, established his headquarters in El Paso in 1906. “The Caples wasn’t constructed until 1909.”

Romo’s book “Revolution” is getting rave reviews around the country and well-deserved they are. It’s high time we have a creditable publication like this one from a Mexican viewpoint, but written for an Anglo audience. Much as we honor our historical western traditions and cowboys, it’s important to see the Mexican Revolutionary era through the eyes of those who actually lived it.
- Betty Ligon, March 12, 2006 

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