They Wanted To Strip And Spray Her At The Border, So 17yo Carmelita Torres Started A Riot
17-year-old Carmelita Torres, a maid from Juarez, refused to be humiliated and poisoned. Thousands joined her.
Immigrants crossing the border were forced to strip, inspected, shaved and doused in kerosene and vinegar, their clothing fumigated with toxic chemicals in "gas chambers."
Nazis praised these procedures and later implemented them in the concentration camps of the Holocaust, using the same chemical to exterminate millions of people.
It was 1917, the U.S. had just entered the first World War, xenophobia was surging, and Mexicans crossing the border were declared "illegal" for the first time.
Not only were Mexicans, many of whom crossed the border daily to work in the U.S., suddenly required to have a passport, they were stripped, inspected, and exposed to toxic chemicals like the infamous Zyklon B. Health officials said the procedures were necessary, to, "disinfect all the dirty, lousy people coming into this country from Mexico."
According to David Dorado Romo of the Zinn Education Project:
"Those whom U.S. Customs officials deemed 'second-class'...were required to strip completely, turn in their clothes to be...fumigated with hydrocyanic acid, and stand naked before a Customs inspector who would check his or her 'hairy parts' — scalp, armpits, chest, genital area — for lice. Those found to have lice would be required to shave their heads and body hair with clippers and bathe with kerosene and vinegar."
Romo writes that his own great-aunt told her family about the horror and humilation of the procedure, saying that the fumigation process was so toxic it melted her shoes.
To add insult to injury, Customs officials herded women into the basement to disrobe and took pictures of them naked, posting the photos in local bars.
On January 28th, 1917, Carmelita Torres, a 17-year-old maid from Juarez, had had enough. She refused to disrobe and convinced the other women in the group to join her. By afternoon, hundreds of women had rallied around her. Ultimately, thousands rose up in protest.
On #MayDay, I am thinking about Carmelita Torres, a transborder worker who started a women-led riot in 1917 objecting to inhumane treatment of workers from CD. Juarez. U.S. border officials sanitized workers at POEs using kerosine oil and exposed their belongings to cyanogen gas. pic.twitter.com/xSJXll3Hq1— Estefanía C.P. (@transb0rder) May 1, 2019
The ensuing "Bath Riots" shut down the border for two days.
Unfortunately, law enforcement eventually put down the riot and Carmelita was arrested, along with many others. Some were executed. Carmelita was never heard from again.
The "delousing" procedures continued up until the 1960s, when bracero workers were still being sprayed with DDT, an incredibly toxic insecticide.
Campesinos mexicanos son rociados con DDT antes de ingresar a Estados Unidos con el Programa Braceros, de 1942 a 1964 pic.twitter.com/XTpW3PDavr— ???? Arte ⛵???????????????? (@DMariella3) May 20, 2015
But perhaps the most infamous legacy of these dehumanizing procedures is their link to the Nazi gas chambers of the Holocaust.
Romo writes that German scientists who visited the border "praised the El Paso method of fumigating Mexican immigrants with Zyklon B."
"At the start of WWII, the Nazis adopted Zyklon B as a fumigation agent at German border crossings and concentration camps. Later, when the Final Solution was put into effect, the Germans found more sinister uses for this extremely lethal pesticide.
They used Zyklon B pellets in their own gas chambers not just to kill lice but to exterminate millions of human beings."