TAKING THE FIFTH WITH DAVID DORADO ROMO

DAVID DORADO ROMO

TAKES THE FIFTH WITH DANIEL LIBMAN

Dr. David Dorado Romo is an independent scholar with training in transnational and borderlands history. He is the author of the award-winning Ringside Seat to a Revolution: An Underground Cultural History of El Paso and Juárez, 1893–1923. He has been the recipient of a Ford Foundation Fellowship, a Fulbright Fellowship, and the Clements Center for Southwestern Studies Fellowship. Romo is codirector of the Museo Urbano, a public history project based in El Paso that has received national recognition. His historical essays and editorials have appeared in the Texas Monthly, Texas Observer, and Los Angeles Times. He is currently writing a book about propaganda and intelligence on the US–Mexico border during World War II. For this project, he has conducted research in archives in Germany, Mexico, and the United States.

 

DANIEL LIBMAN

An interview with David Dorado Romo, author of Ringside Seat to a Revolution: An Underground Cultural History of El Paso and Juárez, 1893–1923.

 

Fifth Wednesday Journal: I was really interested in this idea of fronterizos — how do you define the term?

David Dorado Romo: Somebody who throughout his or her life goes back and forth across the border, the geographical line we know as the border. Their cultural identity is one based on both linguistic and cultural code switching. Along the border you usually get a “twin cities” feel as represented by El Paso and Juárez. A lot of us have this dual sense of cultural identity. A lot of us — and people in older generations too — remember when it was easy to go back and forth. There wasn’t a kind of extreme militarization there is today. It was nothing to go across the border and play with friends on the other side. There was almost this unified sense that both cities were the same. But there came a time, maybe in the late ’80s, where all that began to change. Things became more militarized and separated. One feels now like you have to choose what side of that barbed-wire fence you are on. It becomes political to say, “I refuse to let a barbed-wire fence divide my mind.”

 

FWJ: Have there been other moments in history like this?

DDR: I have a chapter in my book about the Bath Riots in 1917, where the closure of the US-Mexico border underwent a radical change. Before 1917, Mexicans were not at all considered illegal. They were part of the landscape of the southwest. That was before World War I and the Mexican Revolution. You didn’t need a passport. The only interdiction was against the Chinese. The first calls for a border fence back in 1904 by the local newspapers in El Paso were to keep out the Chinese who were so-called “illegal immigrants,” not the Mexicanos. They had free access. Before 1919, there was this idea that goods and labor should travel freely throughout the world. World War I changed things because there was an extreme paranoia that German spies were going to infiltrate the United States from the border. There were squads watching in El Paso who were convinced the Germans were going to launch an air attack from Ciudad Juarez. And just like in Germany, where there was a long series of anti-Semitic caricatures of the “dirty Jew,” here the idea of the “dirty Mexican” took hold, the “greaser” gained in strength because of the popularity of the eugenics movement. Eugenics became the powerful impetus for the movement toward national closure. And that’s when, on the US-Mexico border, you get the first delousing camps. Every Mexican border crosser was considered a second‑class citizen and now not only needs a passport, but they also have to go through a very humiliating delousing process.

 

FWJ: You wrote about one girl who refused to undergo that process.

DDR: Carmelita Torres. She was kind of the Rosa Parks of the US-Mexico border. She was out there with a trolley full of women and she refused to undergo this really humiliating treatment where they had to strip naked and then be deloused. If they found any lice they would shave your head and then bathe you in kerosene.

 

FWJ: A person had to go through that every time they crossed?

DDR: Actually it was just once a week. They would give you a ticket when you went through and then the next week you would have to do it again.

 

FWJ: It seems to me then that even though rhetoric has changed, the level of paranoia really hasn’t. What’s different now, a hundred years later?

DDR: The US-Mexico border is best understood through the lens French historians call a “longue durée” history. It seems like the events themselves are superficial little blips, but a lot of the narratives are entrenched and never really change. Once in a while one part gets altered or de-emphasized in favor of another narrative, but the narrative is always used to produce anxiety of invasion. That can be genetic invasion, or that immigrants will come and harm the body politic. The Mexican revolutionaries were seen as “bandits” and the word had the same affective force as “terrorists” does today, and now there are all these conspiracy theories that ISIS has camps in Juárez and along the border. Conspiracy theories are often rampant on the border, not just in the period my book looks at, but throughout World War II they had the same stories that said the Nazis had ten thousand pilots hiding along the border ready to invade El Paso and the rest of the United States. This was in the summer of 1940, during the Battle of Britain, when there was no way the German Luftwaffe could afford to spare ten thousand pilots. Outlandish conspiracy theories have always been part of what I would say is the deliberate production of anxiety. So it’s not only Trump, of course, but this has been going on for a long, long time: a century at least.

 

FWJ: You live in El Paso. Is there something happening on the border that you’re seeing that hasn’t been reported much in the media? What’s it like near the border on a day-to-day basis that someone like me, living in the Midwest, might not know about?

DDR: What do I see on a day-to-day basis? I’m very involved in trying to save one of the immigrant neighborhoods from being demolished to build a sports arena. I’ll give talks to groups of people, and a lot of them are young students from the Midwest and they’re learning to see border issues with their own eyes. Because of the media coverage they expect to see shootings, bullets from across the river. They don’t know about the richness, the subtle, cultural mixing that goes on here. That’s something that’s hard to capture because it seems like as soon as something is reported in an article, it becomes political. You almost have to come in with the eyes of a novelist to see the small details which evade these national stories.

 

FWJ: Life feels normal then. You don’t feel under siege all the time?

DDR: Of course. People here don’t close their doors at night. You can walk down the streets of El Paso at 2 a.m. and no one’s going to assault you, whereas in other major cities I don’t think you could.

 

FWJ: When you say “novelist’s approach” I think about Robert Bolaño and the Ciudad Juárez section of 2666, which isn’t exactly the same spot — but your book, Ringside Seat to a Revolution, feels novelistic in many ways as well, though it’s a history.

DDR: I have a PhD in borderland history, but I try to make very few concessions to academic jargon. For me those little details, like a bullfight with a woman matador or tourists in the pyramids in 1896 — these are micro-histories. Micro-histories, as I talk about them in my book, are much closer to literature. The eye of a novelist can see a small detail, which opens up a window. The details open up the story. I found something in the national archives from 1929 that said one of the pesticides being used to delouse people in El Paso who were border crossers was Zyklon B. That one little detail, my heart jumps. That opens up the whole investigation. It takes me to Germany and into their archives and takes me to London. There is a photograph of Zyklon B being used at El Paso in a German pest control magazine in 1937, an article written by a man who was later indicted for crimes against humanity. So there are all these incredible and rich connections. I didn’t start the book as a historian, I didn’t even have a PhD at that time, but I followed the direction of the city, and these micro-historical details led me to a whole underground.

 

FWJ: It seems in reading the book that a lot of what you gathered was from talking to people, doing a Studs Terkel kind of interview, and less historical research.

DDR: I’d say both. It was wonderful to sit down with people in their living rooms, getting that human dimension that you aren’t going to get from secondary sources, from the books that have been written. But I also did a lot of ground work in the basement of the El Paso Public Library, spending about three years reading every single newspaper chronologically. I started in 1893 and finished in 1923. I didn’t start writing my book until I read every word of those newspapers published in those thirty years.

 

FWJ: These were daily papers?

DDR: Absolutely. The El Paso Times and the El Paso Herald. Something drove me to do that, to get the whole context.

 

FWJ: Did you get any sense of how journalism itself has changed over the years?

DDR: It was so much better back then. They were better writers. They caught the essence — there was one particular local writer in El Paso, Norman Walker, just an excellent writer. But even back then they would make fun of some writers who would report on the Mexican Revolution without stepping outside their hotel in El Paso. So not all of them, but lots of times when I would be reading these stories I would think, “Man, this is actual literature.” They just had an eye for quirky details. You still see some of that in the better journals nationally, but not at the local level. Most local papers today have become just franchised fluff. They miss everything.

 

FWJ: How did you decide to organize the material?

DDR: I didn’t organize it chronologically. In a sense there are two parts of the book, both organized thematically. One is cultural, so I look at film, I look at photography; the role of musicians who were in the middle of the battlefields and played at executions. All those unexpected elements of the cultural terrain. And culture itself was part of the battlefield. And then the second part was where I charted the underground parts of the city. I called the second part “A City Divided,” and it talks about the fragmentation of the cultures, how the two sides of the border river are fragmented. I looked more on bifurcations and fragmentations and divisions. I’m looking at a different sort of cultural terrain, closer to how anthropologists look at it. It’s almost like a series of short stories rather than one linear academic history book. When someone sets out to write a linear book I get annoyed. I think they’re imposing a linearity that’s not there in history. I get annoyed by a large majority of academic histories.

 

FWJ: I see Howard Zinn blurbed your book. Was his method influential to you?

DDR: This idea of a People’s History, a history from below, yes absolutely. My book starts out with people who traditional histories would have considered peripheral people. Individuals who very few people had heard about. Even people who were experts in the field would be surprised to hear about some of these stories. They know about Pancho Villa and four or five other men who supposedly did all the shooting.

 

FWJ: I didn’t realize he had so many wives!

DDR: That’s the thing — I look at his four wives and I try to find the details, the jewelry, where they live, where they walked in this psycho-geographical tour I write about. Most people will consider that the trivial stuff of a historical investigation, but no. It’s quite the opposite. It’s the heart of it.

 

FWJ: Let’s end then by talking about some of that peripheral history under threat. You mentioned earlier a historical neighborhood being threatened by development. What can you tell our readers about this situation and how can they get involved if they wish to?

DDR: It’s called Duranguito, and it was officially designated as El Paso’s First Ward back in 1873. It’s basically where El Paso was born, the site of its foundational settlement. In 1827 it was a Mexican land-grant by Juan María Ponce de León. The city in 2016 decided it would destroy nine acres: four blocks of this neighborhood to build a sports arena for basketball. This land has more than a dozen historical sites, not only above the ground, but also below the ground. There are records indicating there was a confederate cemetery under part of the neighborhood. There are Native American artifacts; there are three acequias, which are irrigation ditches that were predominant throughout the Southwest in Spanish times and even before the Spanish colonization. They could be hundreds of years old. It’s a place that has all kinds of archeological richness, including some of the last remaining structures from when El Paso had the largest Chinatown in Texas. When the railroad arrived most of the workers were Chinese, and hundreds of them stayed behind to live. People wouldn’t expect El Paso to be a global community, but it was a major passageway from north to south and east to west once the railroad came. You had everything you find in a major port city except that the port was inland. It’s a place that is incredibly rich in history, and we think it’s an utterly bad idea for the local government to destroy something that can be restored into an “old town Duranguito,” which could bring in tourists from everywhere. Albuquerque has one and so does San Antonio. Our city is very nearsighted, and they don’t see the worth of historical preservation to develop a city. They’d rather have a big-box sporting arena which will be publicly subsidized. They’re talking about it costing 250 million dollars from people’s taxes for what we essentially see as corporate welfare. But the worst part is that it’s going to destroy history and displace people. It’s already displaced forty mostly immigrant, mostly elderly, families. If your readers want to learn more about the project, they can look at the Facebook page, which is “PasoDelSurEP.”

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Daniel Libman became the first person to ride a bicycle the length of the Rock River. A series of radio reports on the trip aired on several Midwest public radio stations, and he and fellow rider Carl Nelson were recently featured on the public radio show The 21st. Libman is the winner of a Pushcart Prize and a Paris Review Discovery Prize, and is the author of the short story collection Married But Looking.

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