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Ringside Seat to a Revolution

El Paso Times

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 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 Berśmen, 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, 

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