In today’s La Times Opinion Section, David Dorado Romo, author of Ringside Seat to a Revolution: An Underground Cultural History of El Paso and Juarez, 1893-1923 wrote about the delousing of Mexican border crosses and related it to changes in immigration policy.
All immigrants from the interior of Mexico, and those whom U.S. Customs officials deemed “second-class” residents of Juarez, were required to strip completely, turn in their clothes to be sterilized in a steam dryer and fumigated with hydrocyanic acid, and stand naked before a Customs inspector who would check his or her “hairy parts” — scalp, armpits, chest, genital area — for lice. Those found to have lice would be required to shave their heads and body hair with clippers and bathe with kerosene and vinegar.
My great-aunt, Adela Dorado, would tell our family about the humiliation of having to go through the delousing every eight days just to clean American homes in El Paso. She recalled how on one occasion the U.S. Customs officials put her clothes and shoes through the steam dryer and her shoes melted.
My grandfather’s family moved to Juárez during the Mexican Revolution because if they would have stayed in their home state of Zacatecas, they probably would have starved. My grandfather was born in Juarez in 1920. I wonder if his mother, father or older siblings ever had to go through the humiliating delousing when they crossed in to El Paso.
Although this occurred in El Paso, there were also fears that Mexicans were dirty and spreading disease in Los Angeles. Social reformers in Los Angeles who advocated Americanization for Mexican immigrants. They worked with Mexican women being a good citizen also meant being of clean mind and body. However, the reformers were told that thei task would be difficult because, “Sanitary, hygienic, and dietic measures are not easily learned by the Mexican. His philosophy of life flows along the path of least resistance and it requires far less exertion to remain dirty than to clean up” (from Becoming Mexican American, by George J. Sánchez).
At the same time, many Mexicans in Los Angeles lived in slums constituted a quarter of the tubercolisis cases despite making up ten percent of the population at the time. However, a study found that those who had tubercolosis had lived in the US for over five years and suggested that the tubercolosis was a result of living in substandard conditions and was not specifically something they brought from Mexico as they escaped war and poverty.
A stereotype and Americanization programs are just words and indoctrination. However, when you see it in the form of the delousing, it really hits how messed up things are and makes me question how much still needs to change.