Rebels on the Railroad: Confronting the History of the El Paso Holocaust
EL PASO, Texas (KTSM) – A local museum honors victims and survivors of the Holocaust by hosting a series of educational events.
“The importance for us is of course to remember the victims of the Holocaust. The six million Jewish men, women and children who were murdered just for who they were because of racism, anti-Semitism and the ideology of hate, ”9 News told KTSM Jamie Flores, Executive Director of the El Paso Holocaust Museum.
This week, educational events will be organized at the museum from Thursday to Sunday. Holocaust Remembrance Day coincides with rising rates of hate speech and violence across the country.
El Paso knows firsthand the suffering caused by hate following the August 3 shooting at Walmart Cielo Vista.
But Borderland shares a story by participating in practices designed to deter minorities from entering the United States and marginalizing people of color. Certain practices in the region influenced the Nazi regime of the 1940s.
In the early part of the 20th century, El Paso lawmakers experimented with procedures designed to alleviate migrant crossings across the US-Mexico border, which were then studied and militarized by the Nazis during World War II.
The practice coincided with an ongoing conflict between US authorities and Mexican revolutionary factions struggling to change their country’s future.
The ongoing armed conflict in Mexico and anti-Mexican sentiment created a climate of racial intolerance and prejudice early in El Paso’s history.
Local leaders on both sides of the border were convinced that the threats made by the Mexican revolutionary leader Pancho Villa had been mitigated during the winter of 1916. On December 30, 1916, General Carrancista Alvaro Obregon was honored by the city of ‘El Paso for ushering in an era of peace in Mexico that would protect American business interests by calling for Villa’s withdrawal.
General Obregon was feted by El Paso Mayor Tom Lea, US Army General John J. Pershing and Mexican Consul Andres G. Garcia, all of whom anticipated impending prosperity for US mining interests in Chihuahua.
The celebration, however, would prove to be premature and fatal.
Carrancista soldiers secured Chihuahua Town and the surrounding area while General Obregon declared the region safe for US investment and travel – neither went well with Villa.
Villa was quick to respond, warning mining company Cusihuiriachic that it was no longer safe. Villa informed company director CR Watson that American employees would not be protected either; they needed to flee the country.
Watson gathered the employees and boarded a train for safe passage through El Paso.
General Obregon, however, insisted that Watson and the men make plans to return to the mines, passports and salvo conductos were obtained.
The challenge would not stand.
On the afternoon of January 12, 1916, in Santa Ysabel, Chihuahua, 100 soldiers under the command of Colonel Villista Pablo Lopez stormed a passenger train containing the returning minors. Five American men attempted to flee the train after hearing cries of “Viva Villa!” and “Death to the Gringos”, but were quickly captured and executed.
Mexican soldiers ordered the remaining American passengers to get off the train and undress. Lopez ordered two of his men to kill the American miners.
The next day, the train carrying the remains of the 18 Americans killed in Santa Ysabel arrived in Ciudad Juarez and then proceeded to the Santa Fe Railway freight depot in El Paso. Civilians unloaded the corpses, which were then escorted armed to the funeral homes.
US soldiers from Fort Bliss were outraged and took to the streets of downtown El Paso. The soldiers attacked two Mexican men near Chihuahuita, where violence continued.
“Because of the attack – because they executed the Americans – there was an incredible backlash once the train got to El Paso,” Chicana historian and associate professor Yolanda Leyva told KTSM. ‘University of Texas at El Paso.
“The military and white citizens of El Paso started beating Mexican Americans who had nothing to do with the attack. Some men were attacked, but also women, children and the elderly were attacked, ”she continued.
The violence in Chihuahuita escalated into a riot, with approximately 1,500 men participating.
Residents of El Segundo Barrio got wind of the riot in the city center and were activated, taking with them wooden sticks and sticks, metal pipes and other items that could be used as weapons.
“And the tensions got so high that the military had to step in, declare martial law to stop Mexican-Americans, and this event really shaped the story of how people felt about each other for many. years thereafter, ”Leyva said.
Fort Bliss, General John J. Pershing ordered the Sixteenth Infantry to go to downtown El Paso because local law enforcement was overwhelmed.
According to the Texas State Historical Association (TSHA), American soldiers marched through downtown El Paso in search of weapons and Villa sympathizers well after midnight. Curfews for all residents have been issued, unless someone has a permit signed by the provost marshal.
Americans and Mexicans continued to clash in the streets, leading Pershing to declare martial law and put in place a containment plan (known as “Dead Lines”) in Mexican neighborhoods and in the United States. Santa Fe Bridge entry port in downtown El Paso. TSHA reports that Pershing claimed Mexicans should be separated to avoid further riots, and the Dead Line Directive created a ghetto-like state by banning Chihuahuita residents from leaving and Americans from entering.
The order extended to the border crossings, preventing Americans from entering Ciudad Juarez and barring Mexicans from entering El Paso. The Dead Line was in effect for about a year, negatively affecting the inner city economy and race relations along the border.
“Tensions really increased in 1917 when Mexicans crossing the border came to El Paso to work, for example. El Paso was known when I was young as the maid capital of the world because everyone had a domestic worker, ”said Leyva.
“Hundreds of people came to El Paso daily to work and they were forced to take what were called baths of very heavy chemicals, including DDT and, in the 1920s, Zyklon B – which was used by the Nazis in the extermination camps. So these chemicals would be used on people and they would force them to take off their clothes and then the clothes would be put in a dryer. They came out very wrinkled, so people knew who had to take these baths and it was very humiliating for them, ”said Leyva.
The gasoline baths used on Mexican migrants were already infamous in El Paso.
In March 1916, a group of mostly Mexican inmates at El Paso prison – as part of Mayor Tom Lea’s disinfection campaign (who ordered gasoline baths on international bridges) – were forced to undress. City officials filled two tubs with gasoline and other chemicals, one for inmate uniforms (gasoline, creosote, and formaldehyde) and the other for the inmates themselves (gasoline, coal, oil and vinegar).
A match has been struck.
According to Herald of El Paso, “The air was so heavily impregnated with explosive vapor that the lightning of the match instantly set the entire prison ablaze. ”
The bodies of around 50 detainees caught fire. The thick-soled firefighters’ boots melted under the heat of the metallic floor.
The city said it was an accident.
A grand jury was assembled to determine whether the tragedy was criminal negligence, which Mayor Tom Lea vehemently denied, citing “the police department was in no way responsible, if there was any liability.”
Lea was criticized in an article by Dr A. Margo, who said: “The mayor of the city of El Paso announced that this was all an inevitable accident and that no one was to blame. These kinds of accidents happen quite often to Mexicans in Texas.
The city’s rejection of the fire escalated already strained race relations in the city, prompting retaliation from Pancho Villa.
Villa soldiers killed 17 Americans in an attack in Columbus, New Mexico four days later.
The humiliating baths were then adopted for the purpose of extermination of the Nazis during World War II.
David Dorado Romo, author of At the forefront of a revolution: an underground cultural history of El Paso and Juarez 1983-1923, archival documents highlight the links between the Borderland disinfection facilities and the Desinfektuibskammern (disinfection chambers) used by the Nazis across Germany and Poland.
During the 1920s, Mexicans entering the United States were scrubbed by government officials using Zyklon B, a cyanide-based pesticide.
According to Romo, El Paso’s use of Zyklon B on immigrants was used as an example of a successful model in a German scientific journal in 1938. The author of the article was later convicted of war crimes in the trials of Nuremberg.
On the morning of January 28, 1917, Carmelita Torres, a 17-year-old servant from Ciudad Juarez, crosses the Santa Fe International Bridge and refuses to take a gas bath. Torres got out of the streetcar she was in and convinced 30 other domestic workers to leave with her.
An hour later, more than 200 Mexican domestic workers – all women – joined Torres and blocked traffic to El Paso in protest. As of noon, estimates indicate that there were thousands of people present to rebel against the humiliating chemical baths.
Many protesters stretched out on the streetcar tracks, and the women grabbed the motor controllers after the streetcars were inert to the bikers.
The female-led group of protesters faced the threatening cavalry of Carrancista General Francisco Murguia (known as “el esquadron de la muerta”) but did not retreat.
According to El Paso schedules:
“The scene recalled the swarming of bees. The hands of the female crowd would scratch and tear the roofs of passing cars. The rear windows of the cars were torn off, the roofs torn, and parts of the accessories such as lamps and horns were torn off. “
In 1917, 127,173 Mexicans were sprayed on the Santa Fe International Bridge under Lea’s policies.
Mexican workers entering the United States through the Texas borders were subjected to disinfection in the 1950s.
According to Flores, fighting contemporary racism, xenophobia and hatred means facing the horrors of the Holocaust.
“The importance of remembering and continuing these lessons remains incredibly relevant,” she said. “As we all know, hatred, racism and anti-Semitism are higher than ever.”