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<< Back to Ringside Seat to a Revolution

Ringside Seat to a Revolution

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!

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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