Updated: Feb 6
What would you say is one of the most polarizing political conversations of today? Climate change? Abortion? The wall? “The Wall” has been a major talking point for President Trump and one of his favorite go-to chants at rallies. Trump most recently made headlines for diverting billions of dollars intended for military construction projects in order to finance this wall. But Americans didn’t always care so much about Mexicans crossing the border. Both sides used to cross willy nilly without much of a care. In today’s episode, we’ll explore the beginnings of our history with the Mexican border. This is America the Bizarre. *Music*
Welcome to America the Bizarre. I’m your host Jordan Rausch. If you watched the first democratic debate of this presidential race season, you probably remember a lot of the candidates talking about policy with the border. This is such a big issue this race mostly because it was one of President Trump’s main talking points with his 2016 campaign. But it’s been a political talking point way before Trump and we’re going to dive into that today. There are a lot of Mexican names in this episode and I apologize ahead of time for mispronunciations and terrible accents.
Mexico declared independence from Spain in 1821 and controlled territories from Central America all the way to what is now California, Texas, and the American Southwest. Mexico encourage white Americans to move to present-day Texas since it was hard to convince Central Americans to move there. The Mexican government offered religious freedom and Protestants jumped all over that. Soon, white American immigrants outnumbered Mexican-born citizens in Texas. In 1836, Texans declared independence from Mexico to create the Republic of Texas. Texans famously fought the Mexican government in the Alamo and lost horribly to Santa Ana’s military. Despite the loss, the Alamo became a symbol of heroism and a battle cry for Texans that were still fighting for their independence. On April 21, 1836, Sam Houston and 800 other Texans defeated Santa Anna’s force while shouting “Remember the Alamo”.
The Republic of Texas was now an independent country, but the border was never settled on. Texans claimed land up to the Rio Grande, but Mexico disagreed. The United States annexed Texas while still not having a clear boundary line between the two countries. President James K. Polk proposed to purchase Alta California and Santa Fe de Nuevo Mexico along with agreeing on the Rio Grande as the southern border of the United States. Mexico rejected President Polk’s offer, so Polk sent US troops to his proposed border to secure it by force. Mexican forces and American forces clashed, which started the Mexican-American war. After two years of fighting, Mexico could no longer defend itself against the United States and signed the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo on February 2, 1848. This treaty formally established the Rio Grande as the US-Mexican border and also gave the United States control of land that would become California, Nevada, Utah, and parts of New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, Oklahoma, Kansas, and Wyoming.
Mexico had abolished slavery between 1829 and 1830, but Texas re-established slavery when it seceded and had 30,000 slaves by the time that it was annexed into the United States. Slaves that were able to flee often went to Mexico since it was so much closer than the Northern Free States. The US then enacted the Fugitive Slave Act which required captured slaves to be returned to their owners. This gave rise to slave catchers patrolling the border, hoping to catch and return slaves for a reward. The Texas Rangers were formed as a border patrol force to maintain the newly created border between America and Mexico. They were a very violent group and are responsible for returning escaping slaves and removing Native American populations from west Texas.
Even though things were tense between Mexico and America, there weren’t any laws stating who could and who couldn’t enter the United States or any rules for those that did enter. Mexicans and Americans freely crossed the border between the two countries. This started to change when America passed the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 that allowed only Chinese that were students, merchants, or diplomats to
enter the United States. Chinese immigrants that didn’t meet these standards started to enter the United States through Canada and Mexico. These were the first “illegal” aliens into the United States. Still, Mexicans were able to come and go over the border without trouble.
Porfirio Diaz was a general in the Mexican army and was elected as president in 1876. The next election was won by Manual Gonzalez Flores in 1880 and then Diaz was reelected to the presidency in 1884. Diaz ruled until 1911. Diaz’s time as president was known as Porfiriato and was marked by economic growth and stability in Mexico. In 1908, Diaz announced he would not run for president again, saying that it was time as president to end. But then he changed his mind and ran again. A wealthy landowner named Francisco Madero ran against Diaz in the election. Madero lost to Diaz, but the results had been rigged in Diaz’s favor like any good election held under a dictator. This greatly upset many Mexican citizens and kicked off what is known as the Mexican Revolution or Mexican Civil War.
Just because it was called a civil war, does not mean the foreign powers didn’t take an interest. The United States couldn’t ignore the turmoil to the south. The United States deploys troops to several border towns to make sure that the fighting between the rebel and federal forces in Mexico stayed in Mexico.
Pancho Villa, a Mexican general lead rebel forces in the civil war and his battles would often spill onto American soil. Pancho Villa lead a raid for supplies on March 9, 1916 in Columbus, New Mexico. Villa’s 500 men were defeated by the United State’s 300 that were stationed just outside of the town. Columbus was heavily damaged though and over a dozen American troops and civilians were killed during the raid. In response to this attack, President Woodrow Wilson send General John J. Pershing to go into Mexico with over 5,000 men to take Pancho Villa dead or alive. Pancho Villa continued to lead raids on American border towns while Pershing searched for him. Pershing lead his men into the town of Carrizal. Federal Mexican troops, not Pancho Villa, attacked the American troops and defeated them.
World War I was starting to really get started in Europe and it was making President Woodrow Wilson that America might soon have to join the fight. Since Pershing wasn’t making progress on capturing Pancho Villa, Wilson ordered him and his troops to withdraw from Mexico. A telegram was intercepted by the British in 1917. In the telegram, the Germans requested that the Mexican government join them in World War I if the United States ever declared war on Germany. The Germans promised Mexico the return of the Southwestern United States and any other land that Mexico had lost to America. Mexico denied to join Germany, but the U.S. used this as a reason to declare war on Germany and to continue to brew resentment against Mexico.
America is still neutral in World War I, but it’s becoming more and more apparent that we are going to join soon and whenever America enters a war, we tend to get hyper patriotic, like America on steroids. We fly flags, sing songs about America, we change names of food. In 2003, France wanted no part in helping America with our invasion of Iraq so Americans started calling French Fries and French Toast freedom fries and freedom toast. The same thing happened during World War I. We changed the name of frankfurters to hot dogs and sauerkraut to liberty cabbage. We even changed the name of german measles to liberty measles which blows my mind.
Along with absurdly changing the names of food, America tends to also get very anti-immigrant and paranoid of foreigners in our country during wartime. Due to the xenophobia of world war 1, he immigration act of 1917. This act imposed new barriers to entry of the United States including a literacy test, a head tax, and a prohibition against contract labor. Along with these new requirements, Mexicans were now required to present passports when crossing the border. Many Mexican nationals would cross the border daily to eat, shop, and visit. This was now much harder due to the mounting restrictions.
Tom Lea Sr. was elected as mayor of El Paso in 1915. Lea touted himself as a progressive politician and promised to clean up El Paso. He would rid to city of it’s corrupt politicians like incumbent mayor Charles Kelly along with his Mexican supporters. Lea promised to demolish hundreds of germ infested adobe homes and replace them with good, clean American brick buildings. Lea also passed the first laws against marijuana, which was popular among the Mexican revolutionaries at the time.
Tom Lea also was a germaphobe and had a deep-rooted fear of typhus. Tom wore silk underwear because he believed that lice carrying typhus wouldn’t be able to stick to the silk. Tom was convinced that Mexican nationals were bringing typhus infested lice across the border and sent letters and telegrams to Washington officials asking for a full quarantine of Mexicans at the border. Tom’s vision for the border was a quarantine camp that would hold all Mexicans crossing the border for two weeks to make sure that they were free of any typhus before making their way into the United States.
A public health service official that was stationed in El Paso wrote to the U.S. Surgeon General stating “Mayor Lea wants an absolute quarantine against Mexico. When Mayor Lea gets excited, he always wires some one in Washington. The last time this occurred he sent a message to the President. Typhus fever is not now and probably never will be, a serious menace to our civilian population in the United States.” The health official went on to explain that there was probably already plenty of typhus in the United States without Mexicans bringing it in and that quarantine camps wouldn’t make a difference.
Before you get excited that there is a reasonable, non-racist official in this public health position, the health official then wrote to the surgeon general that he was “cheerfully willing to bathe and disinfect all the dirty, lousy people who are coming into this country from Mexico.” The official suggested delousing stations along the border and stated that “we shall probably continue the work of killing lice in the effects of immigration at the Mexican border for many years to come, certainly not less than ten years, and probably twenty-five years or more.”
A fumigation facility was approved to be built at the foot of the Santa Fe bridge which connected Juarez and El Paso where many border crossers used the trolley service to move between countries. Mexican nationals wishing to cross into America would have to take off all their clothes which would be taken to be washed. While waiting for their clothes, Mexican citizens would have to stand naked and be inspected by federal agents. They were then doused in a mixture of gasoline, insecticide, and other toxic chemicals. After this so called bath, they were given a card to present at the border that stated they had been bathed and could be permitted access to America. Mexican nationals that worked in America had to go through this bathing process every day.
This process was degrading, humiliating, and had both short and long term health effects. A group of inmates died in an El Paso jail when a fire ignited the gasoline on their bodies and they burned alive. The federal agents inspecting the bathers would take photographs of the women while they were nude and post the pictures in a local cantina.
On January 28, 1917, 17 year old Carmelita Torres was on the trolley taking her from Juarez into El Paso over the Santa Fe bridge so that she could go to her job as a maid. A trolley operator ordered the riders to step off the trolley and enter into the bath house for fumigation. Carmelita had had enough, she wasn’t going to take any more baths. Carmelita refused to go into the bath house and began to beg other women not to go in either. About 30 women joined with Carmelita to protest the baths and yell insults at the fumigation officials. Soon, a group of over 200 Mexican women had banded together and blocked all traffic into El Paso. By noon, the number was around several thousand. The main body of the protestors was women, with men standing on the sidelines cheering them on.
The group walked towards the bath house and called out to other Mexicans that were in line to take baths to stop letting themselves be humiliated by this process. Both immigration and public health officers tried to scatter the growing crowd of protesters, but the protestors began to throw bottles and rocks.
The protestors laid down on the trolley tracks preventing the trolley cars from moving. Once all the trolleys were unable to move, other women grabbed the trolley controllers from the operators and beat any trolley operator that tried to escape.
General Francisco Murguia was called in to calm down the female protestors. He brought his cavalrymen known as “el squadron de la muerte” or death troops. Their insignia was skull and crossbones. When they arrived at the riot, they drew their sabers and pointed them at the women. They women protestors just yelled and cursed at the soldiers. Some yelled “Viva Villa” and continued to throw rocks and bottles, injuring some of the soldiers. Eventually, mounted soldiers on both sides of the border worked to break up the crowd by that afternoon. The next day, the rioting started again mostly by men this time. The Juarez police chief ordered all of these protestors to be arrested and the Mexican cavalry soon dispersed this crowd as well. By January 30th, the riots were no more and both the bridge and border were back open. El Paso agreed to allow Mexico to have their own fumigation center and would accept certificates from border crossers that had been bathed there.
Unfortunately, that is the only progress that the bath riots were able to make. We don’t know what happened to Carmelita Torres also known as the “Latina Rosa Parks.” Fumigations continued for the next forty years until the sterilizing baths on the border would stop. Beginning in the 1920’s, officials at the Santa Fe bridge fumigation center started to use a cyanide-based pesticide named Zyklon B (Cyclon B). Because they were using this pesticide gas instead of a gasoline liquid mixture to fumigate the border crossers, they changed the name of the fumigation center from bath house to gas chamber.
A 1938 German scientific journal praised El Paso for fumigating Mexican immigrants with Zyklon B and adopted this process at their own border crossings. Soon the Germans began to use this process at their concentration camps to not only delouse prisoners, but as the preferred method of murdering millions of humans during the holocaust.
The United States established the Border Patrol in 1924 to police both Mexican and Asian immigrants as well as bootleggers during the prohibition. 95 years after creating the federally armed force, the border patrol is a $4 billion per year agency and employs around 20,000 agents.
If you would like to know more, David Dorado Romo wrote a great book titled “Ringside Seat to A Revolution: An Underground Cultural History of El Paso and Juarez, 1893-1923” where he details how his great Aunt lived through the baths at the border.
My other sources were NPR’s article titled “The Bath Riots: Indignity Along the Mexican Border” and History Channel’s article “The Violent History of the U.S. – Mexico Border” on their website.
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