Things That Matter

Remembering Carmelita Torres, The Teenage Mexicana Who Started A Riot At The Texas Border

In 1917, newspapers called Carmelita Torres the leader of an anti-American riot. Today, the Mexican heroine is remembered as “the Latina Rosa Parks.”

At 17 years old, the maid Carmelita Torres from Juárez refused to be stripped and doused in toxic gases, as was required for people crossing the southern border into El Paso, Texas, inciting hundreds of other women migrants to follow suit and thousands more to rise up in protest against the violently racist practice that inspired the gas chambers of Nazi Germany.

Described as an “auburn-haired amazon,” Torres, just a teenage girl at the time, initiated a little-known revolt called the bath riot.

The unplanned rebellion occurred during the early morning of January 28, 1917. Like most days, Torres was on a trolley filled with mostly women crossing the Santa Fe International Bridge into El Paso to clean the homes of US families. But when she arrived to her destination this time, she refused to participate in the standard delousing process — a humiliating, dangerous and also legal exercise required of Mexicans entering the US at its border. 

The quarantine-like procedure, developed by El Paso Mayor Tom Lea who believed Mexicans were spreading lice that led to a disease called typhus, aimed at disinfecting the migrants, who he called “dirty, lousy and destitute.” The plan, which had the support of the surgeon general in Washington, DC, came into practice in 1916. The process was hazardous and dehumanizing. In a facility at the El Paso border, travelers had to strip naked. Their clothes were taken to a large steam dryer and then fumigated with toxic pesticides in an area called “the gas room.” Meanwhile, an inspector would check each person’s body, including their genitals, for lice. If they found the parasitic insects, migrants would have to shave their head and body hair and then bathe in a mix of kerosene and vinegar. After this process, they received a ticket as proof they were disinfected, though they were mandated to undergo the same procedure every eight days in order to re-enter the US.

“So many people didn’t speak about it,” historian and author David Dorado Romo told Vox in an episode about the bath riot for its new docu-series Missing Chapters. “They didn’t talk about this humiliating process. They kind of internalized it. it’s that psychology of shame”

The process was particularly terrifying for women, who also experienced sexual humiliation, according to Chicana historian and writer Yolanda Leyva.

“There were rumors that, you know, when they entered the plant and they were told to strip, officers were taking their photos and then posting them in bars,” an associate professor and chair of the department of history at the University of Texas El Paso told the news site. “So I can’t even imagine that kind of feeling, like the feelings of violation and the feelings of, you know, outrage.”

Understanding those emotions firsthand, Torres refused to participate in the baths and convinced most, if not all, of the 30 women in the electric trolley to join her in defiance. An hour later, nearly 200 more women joined their protest. By noon that day, “several thousand” were demonstrating.

According to reporters, “the scene reminded one of bees swarming.” Crowds threw bottles and rocks at police officers while yelling insults at them. Protesters blocked traffic into El Paso. Some even laid down on the tracks in front of the trolley cars to create a blockade. One news article said, “the hands of the feminine mob would claw at the tops of the passing cars.” Together, the group shut down the border for two days.

Unfortunately, despite migrants’ public expression of outrage and dissent of their brutal mistreatment, the uprising was quelled.

Torres, among many of her fellow demonstrators, were ultimately arrested and imprisoned. Some men were even publicly executed. Historians do not know what happened to the bold young female insurgent after she was incarcerated. As Romo says, “we’ve lost every trace.”

“She was called an instigator, a ringleader. But she was just a young woman that was just sick of the injustice, the humiliation that other women had gone through,” he added.

As for the toxic baths, the procedure not only continued but also became more dangerous. By 1917, more than 100,000 Mexicans were deloused at the border. That same year, a new immigration law required that migrants also needed a passport, had to take a literacy test and were required to pay an $8 head tax. The following year, US Public Health Service instructed border agents to turn away “imbeciles, idiots, feeble-minded persons, physical defectives, persons afflicted with loathsome or dangerous contagious diseases.”

The fumigations even inspired the gas chambers of the Holocaust. In 1929, Zyklon B, a poisonous acid gas, was added to the baths.

Almost a decade later, in 1937, a scientist suggested in a German pest science journal that Zyklon B be added in Nazi disinfection chambers. Citing its use in El Paso, even including two photos of the US border city’s delousing facilities as an example of how effective the dangerous acid gas is at killing unwanted pests, he pushed for its use in concentration camps. Eventually, the dosing process murdered millions of people.

“The fumigation of Mexican immigrants wasn’t just reminiscent of Nazi Germany — it was directly linked to it,” Romo said. “It’s not so much that the United States was copying Nazi Germany; it’s the opposite. Nazi Germany was copying the United States. “

Back in Texas, agents added more harmful products to the fumigation process, including spraying DDT, a now-banned toxic pesticide, in migrants’ faces and private areas.

 It wasn’t until the 1960s, less than five decades ago, that health authorities stated the delousing process was hazardous and put an end to the practice.

While the gas chambers at the southern border have since shut down, they have now been replaced with shoddy detention centers that house hundreds of thousands of migrants who similarly await to hear if they are suited for entry into the country. Like those who came before them, these migrants are unjustly mistreated, some, including children, even dying, and are deemed by mainstream media and the federal government as being defective and a hazardous threat to the US. 

Read: Another Migrant Tragically Died In US Custody Leaving Behind An 11-Year-Old Daughter

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9-Year-Old Migrant Girl Drowns While Trying to Cross the Rio Grande in the U.S.

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9-Year-Old Migrant Girl Drowns While Trying to Cross the Rio Grande in the U.S.

Photo via Getty Images

On March 20th, U.S. Border Patrol agents found a 9-year-old migrant girl unresponsive along with her mother and sibling on an island in the Rio Grande.

U.S. Border Patrol agents attempted to resuscitate the family. The agents were able to revive the mother and her younger, 3-year-old child. The Border Patrol agents transferred the 9-year-old migrant girl to emergency medics in emergency medics in Eagle Pass, Texas, but she remained unresponsive.

In the end, the 9-year-old migrant girl died–the cause of death being drowning.

The mother of the two children was Guatemalan while the two children were born in Mexico.

The death of the 9-year-old migrant girl is notable because this is the first migrant child death recorded in this current migration surge. And experts worry that it won’t be the last.

And while this is the first child death, it is not the only migrant who has died trying to make it across the border. On Wednesday, a Cuban man drowned while trying to swim across the border between Tijuana and San Diego. He was the second migrant to drown in just a two-week period.

Why is this happening?

According to some reports, the reason so many migrants are heading towards the U.S. right now is “because President Trump is gone”. They believe they have a better chance of claiming asylum in the U.S.

Another factor to take into consideration is that a large number of these migrants are unaccompanied minors. According to migrant services volunteer Ruben Garcia, Title 42 is actually having the opposite effect of its intent. President Trump enacted Title 42 to prevent immigration during COVID-19 for “safety reasons”.

“Families that have been expelled multiple times that are traveling with children,” Garcia told PBS News Hour. “Some of them are making the decision to send their children in by themselves, because they have families someplace in the U.S., and they know their children will be released to them.”

Is there a “border crisis”?

That depends on who you ask. According to some experts, the numbers of migrants heading to the U.S./Mexico border aren’t out-of-the-ordinary considering the time of year and the fact that COVID-19 made traveling last year virtually impossible.

According to Tom Wong of the University of California at San Diego’s U.S. Immigration Policy Center, there is no “border crisis”. “This year looks like the usual seasonal increase, plus migrants who would have come last year but could not,” Wong says.

As the Washington Post explained: “What we’re seeing right now is a predictable seasonal shift. When the numbers drop again in June and July, policymakers may be tempted to claim that their deterrence policies succeeded.”

What is the Biden Administration planning on doing about it?

As of now, it is pretty evident that the Biden Administration has not been handling this migrant surge well, despite ample warning from experts. As of now, President Biden has put Vice President Harris in charge of handling the issues at the border.

As of now, the game plan is still very vague. But in the past, the Biden Administration has stated that they plan to fix the migrant surge at the source. That means providing more aid to Central America in order to prevent further corruption of elected officials.

They also want to put in place a plan that processes children and minors as refugees in their own countries before they travel to the U.S. The government had not tested these plans and they may take years to implement. Here’s to hoping that these changes will prevent a case like the death of the 9-year-old migrant girl.

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Biden Administration’s Handling Of The Border Criticized By Both Sides Of The Aisle

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Biden Administration’s Handling Of The Border Criticized By Both Sides Of The Aisle

The Biden administration inherited more than an out of control pandemic when they got to work in January. The former administration also left the Biden administration an orchestrated crisis at the border. For some, President Joe Biden is not acting fast enough to fix the problem.

President Biden announced that Vice President Kamala Harris will lead the response to immigration at the border.

The approach, according to Politico, is going to be a two-pronged approach to effectively curb irregular immigration. First, the vice president will focus on stopping the migration journey by addressing the issues in the countries that people are fleeing. Particularly, Vice President Harris will be focusing on the issues in the Northern Triangle countries, which are El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras.

At the same time, the vice president will be working with the countries directly to solve the root problems. Vice President Harris will be working to strengthen the nation’s relations with Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras.

“I can think of nobody who is better qualified to do this,” President Biden told reporters at the White House.

There is a lot of talk about the U.S.-Mexico border right now from both Democrats and Republicans.

Bruno Lozano, the Democratic mayor of Del Rio, Texas, is calling on the Biden administration to take steps to curb the issue. Mayor Lozano was a guest on Fox News recently and spoke about what he saw as an influx of migrants coming into his town. Mayor Lozano told Fox News that the number of people coming to the border has strained Customs and Border Patrol in his city.

“You have a breach on national security levels that have never before been seen in modern history and you’re not even batting an eye about it, you’re not even calling it a ‘crisis‘, you’re calling it a quote-unquote challenge,” Mayor Lozano, told the New York Post on Sunday. “It’s a slap in the face.”

Some residents of Del Rio are critical of their local leaders shifting blame for their own shortcomings.

The brutal winter storm that recently shut down Texas depleted many municipalities of their resources. Residents in Del Rio are putting the blame on their local leaders who have tried to pass the buck. Weeks after the winter storm crippled Texas, grocery store shelves remained empty and residents felt overlooked.

Mayor Lozano has been pleading with President Biden to step up and help them deal with the influx of migrants. Del Rio has one processing center for migrants and the increase has left the city and the processing facility strained.

The Biden administration has faced backlash after photos of detention centers show people sleeping on floors.

There have been several reports that the Biden administration is building new places to hold migrants that have come to the border seeking asylum. The administration is currently taking in unaccompanied minors who are arriving at the border while preventing other migrants from crossing the border.

The Biden administration promised to change the approach to the border, but Title 42 has been left intact. Title 42, which was enacted by the former administration at the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, keeps people from entering the U.S. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued an order that invoked Title 42, which closed the border indefinitely due to public health concerns.

At the root of the attention is the claim that there is a surge of migrants.

Some Republican politicians are claiming that news of more lenient immigration laws is prompting a “surge” of arrivals. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California claims that what is happening is a “crisis … created by the presidential policies of this new administration.”

Yet, a Washington Post report debunks the idea that there is a sudden surge. Rather, what is happening, according to the report, is a usual seasonal trend. CBP has reported a 28 percent increase in apprehensions at the southern border in January and February but data shows an annual spike in migrants from March to May every year.

The issues on the border are complex and will require a lot of time and energy to handle effectively and compassionately. The Biden administration promised to tackle the complex issue of immigration during the campaign.

READ: Biden Is Counting On Mexico’s President To Help With Immigration But That’s A Risky Move

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