This Day In History: January 28

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On the morning of January 28, 1917, a Mexican maid named Carmelita Torres refuses to put up with the indignity she has been made to suffer every morning since she started working across the border in the United States. Torres’ objection to the noxious chemical delousing visited upon Mexicans upon crossing the Northern border sparked what became known as the Bath Riots, an oft-overlooked moment in Chicano history.

Scared that a recent outbreak of typhus in Mexico could find its way to the United States, the Public Health Service instituted mandatory disinfecting for all Mexicans entering the country. The process was both humiliating and dangerous—men and women were directed to separate facilities, where they were made to strip off their clothes, which would be steamed. Officials examined the nude border-crossers and frequently doused them in harmful chemicals such as kerosene, a method which had resulted in the deaths of 27 prisoners in an El Paso prison in 1916.

Having heard that workers at the facility would regularly photograph women in the nude as they underwent this process, 17-year-old Torres refused to leave the trolley as it stopped at the Santa Fe Bridge border facility. Torres and her fellow passengers, most of whom were also young, female domestic workers, quickly seized four trolleys, hurling whatever they could find at the American authorities. A number of other Juárez residents joined them, and the ensuing riots lasted through the next day, although no one seems to have been seriously injured and there were only a few arrests.

Despite the riot, American officials continued with chemical disinfecting into the 1950s. In addition to these decades of indignity, another effect of their actions was to inadvertently inspire the gas chambers—a term Americans applied to the El Paso facilities at the time—used by the Nazis during the Holocaust. In 1938, a German scientific journal studied and praised the methods employed at El Paso, including the use of Zyklon B. The same chemical, as well as similar chambers, would become key components of the Nazi’s death camps.

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