Pass of the North Mural and Parking Garage (Tracks 2 and 3)
The parking garage at 200 South Campbell Street is an unremarkable urban architecture. Sounds of sirens, busy feet walking, buses, and beeping pedestrian crossing lights overwhelm the senses. This structure is an unassuming building with several warning and no trespassing signs affixed to its exterior and is guarded by security guards and surveilled constantly with cameras. At the current location of the parking garage stood the El Paso jail and courthouse where a fire broke out in 1916 because of kerosine baths that guards and health officials imposed upon the people incarcerated inside the facility.
El Paso “Clean-Up”: March 1914-May 1915
In March 1914, General John J. Pershing attempted to establish order and protect the border in El Paso from the chaos that resulted from the Mexican Revolution. Previously, Pershing was in charge of imperialist efforts in Cuba, the Philippines, and Panama, “cleaning up” those nations, and Pershing offered this same expertise to the elites in El Paso. The main focus of the “clean up” were the areas in South El Paso referred to as Chihuahuita and El Segundo Barrio. Not only was Pershing brought in to contain the Mexican refugees from crossing the border, the El Paso elites expected Pershing to eradicate the “dirt” from South El Paso. Pershing’s enemy consisted of the jacals, thatched roof homes in South El Paso, and the South El Paso “pathogens,” perceived carriers of disease.
Tom Lea’s son, Tom Lea Jr., recalled in an interview how “They [Mexicans] had all those crib houses down on Ninth Street and all that stuff, and they [Pershing and Lea] had to police the area with all these young soldiers pretty thoroughly, so he had quite a connection with the post.” In fact, Lea Jr. commented on how his father and Pershing were “great friends,” two elites with the common goal of containing and eradicating “dirt.” Pershing and Mayor Lea not only used their influence and army to intimidate and “clean up” the city, but effectively used the media to directly link Mexicans living in South El Paso with “plague, pestilence, and widespread death and suffering.”
The “clean up” efforts in Chihuahuita and El Segundo Barrio escalated and provisions were implemented to ensure that everyone obeyed the sanitation efforts. Offenses were “Punishable by imprisonment or severe fine” along with “Rigid enforcement of reasonable sanitary rules.” It was clear that any violation or attempts at not complying were met with criminal persecution. Yet, this “clean up” occurred only in South El Paso and further associated Mexican American citizens with “defilement” and criminality. Local newspapers described Chihuahuita residents as living in “shameful conditions” and a “problem” as dangerous as a “volcano,” spreading devastation and trapping anyone who dared to get in its path. However, Pershing's troops and Mayor Lea left behind their own devastation. They destroyed hundreds of adobe homes in Chihuahuita and created “American” housing for the “clean” residents of El Paso.
El Paso Holocaust: March 6, 1916
The “cleaning up” of Mexicans and Mexican Americans was not limited strictly to El Paso. In March 1916, a little less than a year after the “clean up” in El Paso, Mexicans living in Laredo-Nuevo Laredo started to complain about being stamped by US Public Health Service (USPHS) officials. The Mexicans were forced to bathe in a kerosine solution, then underwent an examination by medical officials, and finally received the stamp “admitted” on their arms at the international border crossing. H.J. Hamilton, the leading health inspector for the USPHS in Laredo, declared that the branding of Mexicans was “for their own benefit.” Furthermore, Hamilton claimed that the branding was necessary in order to stop disease and harmful germs from entering Texas. The El Paso jailhouse also implemented these same baths.
Tom Lea Jr. recalled in his interview the conditions of the people imprisoned and the reasons for the implementation of the baths: “They were caught and put in jail, and they all were unwashed and in pretty poor shape from the troubles they had had in Mexico. They were lousy and full of fleas and there was a typhus thing going on in Juárez.” Lea Jr. continued his narrative and described how “The prisoners were quite willing to get something about it. It wasn't done by force or anything by any means.” The people detained welcomed their sanitation baths, according to Tom Lea Jr., but he did not mention the power dynamics that existed between a guard and the people they detained. Lea Jr. complicated his narrative when the infliction of his voice changed, and he reflected how “The gasoline was on some of these poor devils, and they burned to death.” Lea Jr. could not recall how many people incarcerated had burned to death. What he did remember was how his father, Mayor Lea, was “devastated,” and how Lea’s father “Thought about it an awful lot and thought that somehow or other he took the blame for it, you know, as he would.” Tom Lea Jr. described his father as devastated, not because people burned to death, but because Mayor Lea was “blamed” for the incident.
The incident in question came to be referred to as the El Paso Holocaust. Twenty-five people detained at the city jail were fatally burned on March 6, 1916, at 3:30pm. The initial report from the El Paso Herald claimed that “A tub of gasoline in which the prisoners were being given baths to kill lice, exploded.” The scene at the jail was horrific, and “The smell of burning flesh filled the air in the jail and made the rescue work more difficult.” In addition, the article mentioned fifty other detainees who were taken out of the jail and escorted to other parts of the jail not on fire. The article also made sure to mention that the police, at all times, guarded the detained individuals. There was a clear indication throughout the article that the people detained, and not the fire, were the real threats. In bold capitalized letters, the article read, “GASOLINE BLAZE THE CAUSE,” not the policy of bathing humans in gasoline and vinegar or fumigating their clothes in turpentine. The article placed a clear emphasis on the criminality of the detainees, and transferred the blame onto the detainees and not on the policies that caused the explosion.
R.H. Bagley, a guard at the El Paso jailhouse, described the process of the baths, “A bucket of gasoline, one bucket of coal oil and a bucket of vinegar.” Another bucket contained gasoline and disinfecting solution for the detainees’ clothes. Then, the detainees stripped naked and their clothes were dipped in the gasoline and disinfectant. After the detainee finished “bathing,” they showered off in the water, and then waited naked inside their cell while their clothes dried. Another guard, Barry Morris, testified hearing Dr. Clanan, the head health professional at the prison, say “Time and again, tell the prisoners not to light any matches and I told them myself to look out for matches.” A.B. Pery, alias T.L. Deal, a detainee at the prison provided an alternate account, “They never did warn us not to smoke. I had smoked a cigarette about 45 minutes before and received no warning. Neither did they tell us what we were bathing in. I had no idea what it was.” The guard and inmate provided testimony for the committee charged with investigating the explosion. Instead of asking why the inmates had to bathe in gasoline and vinegar, the main question asked was if the sanitation officials or guards had warned the inmates not to smoke.
On March 8, 1916, the El Paso Herald sub-headline for the El Paso Holocaust read: “MAYOR LEA SAYS FIRE WAS UNAVOIDABLE ACCIDENT.” In two separate statements, Mayor Lea “deeply deplores” the El Paso Holocaust, and “statements made by irresponsible people.” On March 9, 1916, the El Paso Holocaust became page four news. The article contained only a simple statement about indictments. Indictments returned after the explosion were “completely investigated.” However, there were no indictments made in the El Paso Holocaust.
El Paso Bath Riots: January 1917
The headline on January 29, 1917, in the El Paso Morning Times read, “AUBURN-HAIRED AMAZON AT SANTA FE STREET BRIDGE LEADS FEMININE OUTBREAK.” Several women protested because of the fumigation and baths recently implemented at the border. These women protested with the “Auburn-haired Amazon,” Carmelita Torres, who was only 17 at the time. Claims about nude photographs taken of women undergoing the baths, and posted at local bars and cantinas in the El Paso area, added to the volatile situation. The El Paso Morning Times also reported, “Not only was the civil population of Juarez permitted to make a disgusting exhibition, but the Mexican soldiers were turned out as though to encourage the civilians in their anti-cleanup demonstration.” The Times reporter focused on the “disgusting exhibition,” and mentioned that the demonstration did not occur because of the humiliation experienced by the women, or their bodies defiled, but because the women were against cleanliness. The journalist displayed confusion as to why the women demonstrated against the “clean-up,” because those at the border subjected to the baths and fumigation, “Came out with clothes wrinkled from the steam sterilizer, hair wet and faces shining generally laughing and in good humor.” The women did not find the humiliating process at the boundary warranted or jovial. The protest escalated from a few hundred women to several thousand by the end of the day.
The women’s protest occurred on January 28 and was reported on January 30, the same day the El Paso Morning Times reported the women’s protest, the men protested as well. Inspired by the women, the men joined in the protest, including 200 men from the El Paso Smelter company. The article in The Times assured residents that the demonstrations would lessen once “More Mexicans are bathed and receive certificates,” suggesting that the Mexicans would comply once they realized that the baths were for their own good. The article also reminded the reader of the trouble and inconvenience that these “unclean” Mexicans had caused. The men created a “serious shortage” of labor at the Smelter company, and the women protesting denied El Paso families of their servants. The El Paso Holocaust and 1917 bath riots created an image of the immigrant as “unclean” and “diseased.” This image allowed the implementation of processes that sought to contain, eradicate, and expel any undesirable elements from crossing the boundary into the United States. The portrayal of “unclean” elements, first associated with the detainees at the El Paso jail, eventually carried over to the Mexicans crossing the boundary.
511 E. San Antonio Ave.: Federal Building & U.S. Bankruptcy Court Clerk – “Pass of the North Mural” – “Giants of El Paso history”
Located in downtown El Paso, Texas inside the Federal Building stands a larger than life mural of the “giants of El Paso history” titled “Pass of the North” by the artist and historian Tom Lea Jr. Along with housing the mural the Federal Building also contains the United States Marshals Services, United States Pretrial Services, and the El Paso Divisional Office. The mural, painted in 1938, measures 11 × 54 feet and includes depictions of a conquistador, mounted soldier, Mexican vaquero, Franciscan priest, Apache trackers, white pioneer woman, “American” cowboy, prospector, and sheriff. Lea's mural claims to be an appreciation of the multicultural diversity in El Paso and an homage to various groups that have significantly contributed to El Paso’s heritage. Yet, except for the Mexican vaquero (who is one of the few not holding a weapon or on a horse, which can be read as positions of power), the representation of any women of color and other historical Mexican group is glaringly absent. This omission of marginalized groups extends to conventional historical accounts and archives throughout American history.
The “Pass of the North” mural depicts mythologizing “giants of El Paso history” and “founding cultures of El Paso history” In order to gain access to this mural you must first relinquish everything on your person and answer the question “Do you have any firearms, weapons, or explosives on your person?” After passing through the metal detector, a security officer will conduct another measure of security that includes the handheld metal detector wand. Constant surveillance is not only visible, but felt while viewing the mural.
Not only are the histories of Mexicans silenced in historical narratives and public records, but typically the only time Chicano/a/x people received recognition came alongside white Euro-Centric dominated accounts of colonization, like the “Pass of the North” mural pictured above. American social constructs and aspects of Americanization sought to assimilate or segregate other non-white groups, not only from or into white society, but attempt to separate all racially constructed groups from each other. Other historically oppressive tactics, like red-lining, created a barrier between the “wanted/desirable” population, and the “unwanted/undesirable” marginalized groups. Furthermore, the interactions and relationships between any racial groups, especially in historical texts, becomes isolated, indicating that each race and/or ethnicity interacts separately, and experiences history within a vacuum. The segregation of marginalized communities hides the solidarity and influential relationships present amongst multiracial neighborhoods. In addition, looking at historical accounts through a relational perspective adds texture and complexity to all histories.