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Review: David Dorado Romo's Ringside Seat
to a Revolution: An Underground Cultural History of El Paso and Juárez: 1893-1923
Ringside Seat to a Revolution: An Underground Cultural
History of El Paso
and Juárez: 1893-1923, by David Dorado Romo, (Cinco Puntos Press: El Paso), is a vital
historical work for the Southwest. This
book's originality and importance reach beyond the history of the ephemeral ambiente of many El
Paso neighborhoods during the Mexican Revolution. That would be accomplishment enough to
encourage everyone to read this historical tour
de force, and yet this book accomplishes so much more.
Romo’s central point is that El Paso and Juárez
became a hotbed of intrigue before and during and after the Mexican Revolution,
with spies and counter spies angling for information, money flowing between
revolutionaries and their benefactors, plots and counter plots concocted on
Stanton and Oregon Streets, at the Caples Building
and the Mills Building. El
Paso’s Anglo newspapers derided the Mexican rabble’s
radicalization, promulgated xenophobia, and often justified the United States
government’s inhumane treatment of Mexicanos and
Chicanos in El Paso.
Romo’s colorful portrayal of these turbulent times begins
with people and events predating the Mexican Revolution. Twenty-two-year-old Teresita
Urrea, the Saint of Cabora,
arrived at El Paso’s Union Depot train station in 1896, and to the horror of
the Anglo press she attracted and healed hundreds of "peons and pelados" in the Segundo Barrio. Teresita inspired
countless followers, including the Chihuahuan rebels
of Tomóchic, to fight the oppressive Porfiriato. Yet this
‘saint’ also cohabited with an Anglo man, with whom she had two daughters out
anarchist Flores Magón brothers, Ricardo and Enrique,
hatched a plan in South El Paso, in a house at First and Tays
Streets, to take over Juárez in 1906. The Magonista plot
was foiled because Mexican spies infiltrated the Partido
Liberal Mexicano, but the brothers did not give up,
and attempted to take over Juárez again in 1908.
In 1910, the
lynching of a Mexicano by a Texas mob incited riots in Mexico, and
unleashed national protests during the fraudulent elections between the
dictator Porfirio Diaz and Francisco Madero. Madero called for the overthrow of the
Mexican government from his exile in El
Paso in 1911.
Not only were Madero and Pancho Villa in and
out of El Paso
and Juárez during these historic days, but also Pascual Orozco, Giuseppe Garibaldi, Felipe Angeles, and
John Reed. From the rooftop of the El
Paso Laundry on Santa Fe Street,
many from El Paso
had a "ringside seat" to the Mexican Revolution.
Romo also turns his critical eye to El Paso’s many Spanish newspapers, which
provided a voice for the city's Mexicanos and
Chicanos, against the ugly stereotypes propagated by the El Paso Times and the El Paso
Herald. In 1916, El Paso Mayor Tom
Lea, Sr. attempted to suppress these Spanish dailies, and encouraged the
closure of the border because of his paranoid fear of ‘unclean’ Mexicans.
But probably the
most remarkable piece of history Romo unearths is the
systematic and shameful delousing of Mexicanos on the
Santa Fe Bridge.
American authorities, enthusiastically encouraged by the mayor, forced
thousands of Mexicans to strip naked as they were about to cross the bridge,
and sprayed them with insecticides, gasoline, kerosene, and cyanide-based
pesticides. This racist practice
continued for decades until finally, and amazingly, Zyklon
B was used in El Paso
in 1929, the same chemical agent that in more concentrated form was
subsequently employed by the Nazis in their death camps to exterminate the
uncovers evidence to suggest that the use of Zyklon B
along the Mexican-American border directly inspired German scientists to start
looking into its properties for cleansing a country of its 'pests.'
And unlikely heroes
emerged, such as Carmelita Torres, a Juárez maid,
who, on January 28, 1917,
refused demands by American custom officials at the Santa Fe Bridge
to be disinfected with gasoline. A riot
broke out, and hundreds of women blocked the bridge into El Paso to protest the humiliation of
delousing at the border. Why aren’t
children’s books written about Carmelita Torres? Why isn’t this history taught, analyzed and
debated at our local high schools? Why
has El Paso not
organized more walking tours, plaques, and monuments to reveal this history
that lies in front of our eyes?
Truly, what author
David Romo achieves in Ringside Seat to a Revolution is the return of a sense of
participation, struggle, accomplishment, and self-worth to the Mexican-American
community of El Paso,
to those Mexicanos who fought for a better society
during the Revolution, to many who faced discrimination and abuse because of
the irrational xenophobia of the United States.
Romo successfully rebuts decades of cowboy history to
explain El Paso's
past, where Chicanos and Mexicanos existed only as
marginal historical actors, or as 'dirty Mexicans,' or as stereotypically
treacherous villains. Romo's meticulously researched and well-written book gives
us the past we knew was there, the past we experienced, in our neighborhoods
and in our families, and yet a past that is rarely the subject of history
books, until today. Ringside Seat to a Revolution is a gift to anyone serious about the
truth of history, and how it has shaped who we are today.
article appeared in the Sunday Books section of the El Paso Times on November 13, 2005.