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Book Review: David Dorado Romo's Ringside Seat to a Revolution: An Underground Cultural History of El Paso and Juárez: 1893-1923

By Sergio Troncoso

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 of wedlock.

Later, the 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 Jews.  Romo 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.


This newspaper article appeared in the Sunday Books section of the El Paso Times on November 13, 2005.