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Echoes of Mexican Revolution in today’s border dramas

December 30, 2018

A common joke among Mexican expats and Mexican-Americans is the story of the boy with the shoeshine box who solicits a wealthy Latino in downtown Laredo.

“My colonel, please let me shine your shoes,” the waif asks. The towering, rotund Mexican-American businessman smiles at the boy and asks, “Why do you call me colonel?”

“Please let me shine your shoes and after you pay me, I’ll tell you,” the boy replies.

The Mexican-American businessman agrees, and after his shoes are glossy and shiny, he flips him a silver dollar.

“OK, so why do you call me colonel? Do I look like a colonel?”

The boy grins and runs away yelling, “Hoy en dia cualquier imbecil es un coronel!” “Nowadays, any imbecile is a colonel!”

It’s been more than 100 years since the Mexican Revolution spilled over into el otro lado (the other side), as thousands sought asylum in the United States. It began as a rebellion for democratic independence from the authoritarian dictator Porfirio Díaz, who sided with the landowning elites. Many would challenge Díaz’s rule in Mexico, including Francisco Madero, candidate of the Antirreeleccionistas. Seeking to quell any political threat to his reign of power, Díaz had Madero arrested, declaring himself the winner of a pseudo-election. Madero eventually published a cry for revolution, a la Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense,” titled “Plan de San Luis Potosí.”

Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata answered the call.

The revolution brought much violence and instability to the civilians of Mexico. My grandmother’s family on my father’s side crossed over from Monterrey, Mexico, with all her belongings, finding refuge in Laredo. They had forfeited their land for a better life on the other side.

Seemingly, the Mexican Revolution ended in 1920 after a bloody interlude between Pancho Villa and Gen. John “Black Jack” Pershing, leaving much collateral damage on both sides, from the Bath Riots of 1917 to innocent Tejano citizens, mistaken for insurgents and revolution sympathizers, slaughtered or shot by Texas Rangers.

Life on the borderlands was like living on the “edge of the world,” according to David Dorado Romo’s “Ringside Seat to a Revolution.” The people living on the borderlands, fronterizos, were “unclassifiable hybrids … people on the margin … Not real Americans. Nor real Mexicans.”

Many fronterizos traveled to and from Ciudad Juarez and El Paso along the Santa Fe Bridge. During the revolution, El Paso residents displayed xenophobic attitudes toward the travelers, promoting stereotypical accusations of uncleanliness. As a result, El Paso Mayor Tom Lea promoted a sanitation campaign along the border checkpoint. Border crossers were stripped in public, and doused with gasoline and DDT to remedy the false narrative of lice infestation. Exposure to these dangerous chemicals led to an atrocious incident in which a border agent lit a match, igniting the room and burning 19 of the detainees.

One woman would challenge the inhumane practices at the border. Aware of the mistreatment of Mexicans who crossed the checkpoint, Carmelita Torres, a 17-year old maid who frequently traversed the border for work, refused to follow a Border Patrol agent’s orders to exit the trolley. She began a protest right at the bridge, urging all commuters to follow suit. The number grew to the thousands as pedestrians flooded the bridge in protest, pelting agents with rocks and bottles. It would be known as the Bath Riots of 1917. Historians have shown affinity toward Torres, labeling her the “Mexican Rosa Parks.”

We have seen incidents recently like the ones witnessed by Carmelita at the border over 100 years ago with the mistreatment of Honduran migrants. The xenophobic mindset of the Trump administration to paint these poor, desperate people as disease-ridden threats to our democracy is reminiscent to the false stereotype of Mexicans infested with lice in 1917.

If Trump seeks validation as leader of a secure border, he needs a silver dollar to find a response.

Alfredo Torres Jr. is an independent historian working at Palo Alto College, researching the history of the Texas Good Neighbor Commission.

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