I was halfway through writing a first draft for a novel set in El Paso in the mid-1800s, when researching I chanced across an incident in El Paso that set my mind’s wheels spinning. I knew here was a story I had to write – now! I set aside my other story. This is something I have rarely done. Out of fifty novels, if I count rightly, I have only put one on the backburner. It is still there. Maybe, one day . . .
*** And now the story that stopped me in my tracks: In 1917, a seventeen-year-old redheaded Mexican housemaid, Carmelita Torres, started a riot on the El Paso-Juarez bridge to protest being stripped naked, every bodily orifice probed, and forcibly sprayed with chemicals for typhus by the Public Health Department. Look her up and the accompanying, horrifying photos. The riot made international news.
It eventually involved over a thousand protestors and for three days shut down traffic both ways on the bridge. Dubbed the Redhaired Amazon by newspapers, Carmelita was arrested that day – and then abruptly disappeared from history and time. Most likely, authorities worried that to keep her incarcerated would martyr her and to set her free would risk her creating even greater havoc. Their solution, most likely, was to remove her from the El Paso City Jail and dump her in the desert. Who is alive today to know what really happened? But disappear overnight, she did.
I knew I wanted to write a happy ending for this intrepid young woman, whom I fictionalized as Pia Arellano. I fell in love with the young man I created who comes to her aid most reluctantly. Walter Stevenson is an agent with the newly formed Bureau of Investigation, on a mission to identify the “master spy” being handled by the precursor of the Nazi party there in the Pass. No two lovers were ever more mismatched.
Unfortunately, the disinfecting of Mexicans at El Paso continued for another 40 years until 1958. Ironically, the Spanish Influenza pandemic that spread across the world a year later, in the fall of 1918, taking its toll also of soldiers stationed at Fort Bliss, proved far more deadly to border residents than the perceived fears of typhus.
**And now for “The Rest of the Story”: Like the title of the renowned Paul Harvey radio program, the rest of the Bath Riot’s story is far, far more mind-blowing.
A 1937 German scientific journal specifically praised the El Paso method of fumigating Mexican workers with Zyklon B. Then, at the start of WWII, the Nazis began practicing this Zyklon B fumigation formula at its concentration camps. Later, when Hitler put the Final Solution into effect, the Nazis used Zyklon B in their gas chambers not only to exterminate lice but also millions of human beings.
As our globe faces the assault of yet another unhinged despot in Vladimir Putin, I firmly have faith that there will be enough individuals like Carmelita Torres/Pia Arellano to topple the tyrant.