Chemical Baths

Just imagine the following: you are on your way to work riding on the local transit system. An official enters the transit system and orders you to get off. You are taken to a facility where you are ordered to remove all of your clothes. You are then doused with a disinfectant to remove any traces of a possible disease-carrying organism. You are then bodily searched to ensure the organism is no longer present. Unknown to you at the time, you are being photographed, and your pictures are being distributed. How would you respond to such treatment?

Would you be as angry as Carmelita Torres was when she encountered this situation when trying to get to her job in El Paso, Texas? The year was 1917 and the mayor of El Paso had promised to do something about the “dirty lousey destitute Mexicans” coming into his city to work. The mayor’s rationale was that the Mexican workers were bringing deadly diseases into his city, although there was no proof of this.

Carmelita refused to comply and led others to engage in what became known as the Bath Riots. The women joined Carmelita and blocked traffic. They seized trolley cars. Before long the number of protestors grew to the thousands. When officials tried to disperse the crowd, the protestors started throwing anything available at the police. The U.S. military was called in but was unable to quell the rioters. Eventually, the rioters were arrested.

When businesses and households in El Paso began to complain about the lack of workers, the mayor decided to relax some of the rules. The situation was never resolved and eventually, it became worse. Soon after, Congress passed the Immigration Act of 1917 which imposed taxes on Mexican workers coming into the U.S. Workers were also required to pass literacy tests. The punitive actions of Congress were eventually relaxed when the U.S. entered World War I and experienced workforce shortages.

What happened to Carmelita Torres? She was arrested but went “missing” after her release. There was one unforeseen impact of the Bath Riots. The publicity that resulted from them inspired a little-known corporal in the German Army by the name of Adolf Hitler.

Just imagine how the anti-vaccine and anti-mask crowd in our society today would react to the forced dehumanizing baths imposed on immigrant workers. Would they be outraged and demand they cease? Or is outrage as class-conscious as so much of our society?

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“I think people should be angry at things that are worthy of anger. Injustice is outrageous and deserves outrage.” – Chris Hayes (journalist)

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