El Paso Border Practices Influence the Holocaust

The Texas Story Project.

In 1917, the mayor of El Paso, Tom Lea, sent an alarmist telegram to Washington D.C. demanding a quarantine, claiming that "hundreds [of] dirty lousy destitute Mexicans arriving at El Paso daily [would] undoubtedly bring and spread typhus unless a quarantine [were] placed at once."

Although there had only been two cases of typhus in El Paso located during a search of the city, authorities hyped fear of disease to subject 127,123 Mexicans in 1917 alone to toxic fumigation at the bridge between Juárez and El Paso. Fumigation at El Paso continued for decades and was even referenced by Nazis.

At the Santa Fe International Bridge, Mexican immigrants coming into El Paso to work were forced to go through a humiliating process that was put in place due to the mayor’s fear of a typhus epidemic. Mexicans were forced to strip and put their clothes into a bath filled with gasoline and formaldehyde to kill lice. Then, their clothes were returned to them, doused in the hazardous mixture of chemicals. Mexicans’ naked bodies were also sprayed with toxins including gasoline, kerosene, sulfuric acid, DDT, and Zyklon B. Zyklon B is notably infamous for being a major agent in the gas chambers used by Nazi Germany during World War II.

In fact, in 1938, Dr. Gerhard Peters published two photos of the El Paso “Disinfection Plant” in a German pest science journal that advocated the use of Zyklon B in German Desinfektionskammern. Peters, who became managing director of the company that supplied Zyklon B to the Nazi death camps, was convicted of war crimes at the Nuremberg trials.

Mayor Lea’s irrational fear of typhoid was part of Americans’ larger fear of immigrants. Also in 1917, the U.S. Public Health Service published its Manual for the Physical Inspection of Aliens. The manual targeted populations which the Nazis also later targeted including, “imbeciles, idiots, feeble-minded persons, persons of constitutional psychopathic inferiority [homosexuals], vagrants, physical defectives…anarchists, persons afflicted with loathsome or dangerous contagious diseases…all aliens over 16 who cannot read.”

Even long after Americans knew about the devastation that Nazi Germany caused with Zyklon B and the dangers of the Nazis’ hate politics, El Paso continued to fumigate Mexicans. We cannot say that Americans did not know about the toxic baths either because Mexican women rioted on the bridge in protest of being stripped naked and sprayed. Carmelita Torres, a teenaged maid, led the demonstration of women which grew so large that it stopped street cars and ignored orders by U.S. soldiers from Fort Bliss. Newspapers all over the U.S. carried the story including Michigan, Ohio, Nevada, Iowa, and Virginia. Torres has even been called the fronteriza Rosa Parks, yet no monument marks her resistance. Despite national and even international knowledge of this history, it still does not appear in Texas History textbooks and El Paso students never learn this history.

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