Special Report: Carmelita and the 1917 El Paso bath riots

Texas

EL PASO, Texas (KTSM) — It’s no secret El Paso is rich and culture and rich in history. And just like anywhere else, our history is full of the good and the bad, particularly when it comes to our border with Mexico.

In 1917, Mayor Thomas Lea — father to the famed artist Tom Lea — initiated a practice with the help of the U.S. federal government in which Mexican citizens crossing into El Paso were first forced to strip naked to be decontaminated with chemicals. A disinfection station was set up right at the Santa Fe Bridge.

“It was very humiliating for those passing through,” UTEP history professor Yolanda Chavez Leyva told KTSM 9 News.

“The mayor at the time was very afraid of germs and he was afraid the Mexican migrants were bringing lice,” she said. “And he was really concerned they were bringing typhoid.”

The baths would become a part of life for the Mexican nationals traveling daily into El Paso for work. That is, until a 17-year-old domestic worker from Ciudad Juárez named Carmelita Torres said “enough,” and refused to enter the baths.

What followed was a revolt of mostly women that lasted for days, according to the El Paso Morning Times.

Carmelita, labeled an “auburn-haired Amazon” by the paper, would come to be known by local historians as the “Mexican Rosa Parks.” But what became of the young woman remains a mystery to this day.

“We don’t even have a picture of her,” said Meagan O’Toole-Pitts, author and producer of “No Más,” a radio play telling Carmelita’s story, which you can listen to here.

“You let it make you angry; you let it make you enraged, and then you put that on paper,” she told KTSM. “That was my process.”

“I think it’s a story that’s not really known,” added Celia Aguilar, the local performer who portrayed Carmelita. “Sometimes, when I would say a line, I would get the chills because it was so powerful.”

“It amazes me that we don’t talk about it more,” continued O’Toole Pitts. “It amazes me that we don’t have a school named after (Carmelita) or a street named after her or a park named after her.”

KTSM asked all three women interviewed what they think happened to the teen.

“I would like to believe that she escaped somewhere and lived happily,” said Aguilar. “But I just have this deep fear that she was disappeared.”

“I would like to think that she led a very prosperous, happy life,” said O’Toole-Pitts. “But the reality is probably something much different.”

“Because she was 17, I think she had to be very strong,” said Chavez Leyva. “I like to think the strength she had carried her through life, but I am very curious about her. Did she get married? Did she have children? What happened to her?”

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The mission of BorderReport.com is to provide real-time delivery of the untold local stories about people living, working and migrating along the U.S. border with Mexico. The information is gathered by experienced and trusted Nexstar Media Group journalists hired specifically to cover the border.