Our Adair Margo article elicited an email from a reader who called themselves “Tom Lea,” obviously a reader unwilling to provide their real name. The email included three PDF attachments and an admonition to “correct the record” on the former El Paso mayor, Tom Lea. As readers may remember from the article, we had written that Adair Margo is an ardent supporter of Tom Lea’s art. The artist is Tom Lea III and his father is Tom Lea, Jr., the former mayor. In the article we reminded readers about the infamous border bathhouses where Mexican immigrants were forced to disrobe publicly and doused with chemicals before being allowed into the country.

The reader wrote that we are wrong about Tom Lea, the mayor. They wrote that Lea was “not responsible for the bathhouses because the federal government was in control of the border”. The reader went on to allege that David Romo’s historical portrayal of the elder Tom Lea “was a fabrication”. It is the David Dorado Romo book [14] that appears to be the catalyst for what appears to be an attempt by the email writer and the Tom Lea Institute to sanitize the narrative about Tom Lea. David Romo’s work in Ringside Seat To A Revolution added missing components to El Paso’s history that had been manipulated by certain powerful individuals in El Paso throughout history. The carefully distorted narrative about El Paso’s history had been exposed by Romo and it appears this made some El Paso leaders uncomfortable.

The story of Tom Lea and the book by David Romo demonstrates how El Paso’s narrative is manipulated by the minority Anglo community – with Hispanic enablers – to further empower the minority over the majority. However, the manipulation of the city’s narrative is not generally led by racism, although it plays a part in it, but by a class struggle between the marginalized poor – mostly the Mexicans in the community – against the wealthier class who wield the political power of the city.

We do not know who the letter writer is, but it is our belief that their email to us was a further attempt to obfuscate the uncomfortable parts of Tom Lea’s – both the artist and his father, the mayor – legacies. We attempted to contact the reader, but we received no reply from them. However, they had attached three PDF documents purporting to set the record straight. After reviewing the attached documents, we were able to track them down to the Tom Lea Institute’s website. The three documents are part of a page dedicated to “Questions and Answers Regarding Tom Lea II, City of El Paso Mayor from 1915-1917”.

We were struck not by the page, as the elder Lea was a former mayor, but on what the page addresses about the former politician. We felt it important to address what we believe is an attempt at revisionist history by proponents of Tom Lea. We should note that among the Board of Directors are Adair Margo (founder), as expected and J.P. Bryan (honorary).

The Tom Lea Website

The father’s page on Tom Lea’s website does not showcase the father’s legacy as a prominent El Pasoan. Instead, the website focuses on addressing six questions about Tom Lea’s father, in addition to clarifying that the artist was not the mayor of El Paso, but rather his father.

The first question the website addresses is whether the elder Tom Lea “shut down the border”. According to the website, “at no time did Mayor Lea even attempt to shut down the border between El Paso and Juarez”. It goes on to explain that El Paso mayors have “no authority” to close the border. Readers will note the lack of authority will be used consistently to defend Lea’s legacy. As readers will discover below, shutting the border down by El Paso officials is never an option because of powerful business interests. The website goes on to explain that when Tom Lea, the father, was mayor, there were four “factors affecting border traffic and demanded special attention by federal and local jurisdictions during this time”. (emphasis mine) During World War I they were “sugar smuggling,” and “draft resisters crossing into Juarez to avoid the war,” as well as the “fear that German spies and anarchists would invade the country through its southern border”. Finally, the website refers to the Immigration Law of 1917 that “required that all immigrants have a passport, take literacy test, and pay an $8 tax”.

On one hand, the website argues that the elder Tom Lea had no authority over the border while also emphasizing that there were “factors affecting” the border that required the attention of the “local jurisdictions,” at the time. Tom Lea, as the mayor, represented the local authority. Readers will see why this disclaimer is important as it become evident that the former mayor, Tom Lea influenced the decisions and events we will be discussing.

The site goes on to explain that the border was shut down, but that “at no time did Mayor Lea even attempt to shut down the border between El Paso and Juarez”. Again, the Tom Lea Institute argues that it was the federal government that had control over the border. Shutting down the border is equated to forced public bathing, however, the bathhouses did not close the border, instead they discouraged or impeded the working class migrants while allowing the elite class from both sides of the border easy access. Note how the narrative of closed borders distracts from the reality? Also note that the institute website is correct to say that Tom Lea never shut down the border without pointing out that it was the working class migrants that were the target of border enforcement.

Because history is generally written by those that control the community’s narrative, in the case of El Paso that would be the Anglo minority, it is difficult to find historical documents that do not support the accepted narrative. However, there exists a 1917 telegram in the Public Health Service’s section of the National Archives that Tom Lea, then mayor of El Paso sent to the Surgeon General on June 17, 1917. In the telegram we can read exactly what the elder Tom Lea wanted from the federal government.

Tom Lea, Jr. 1917 Telegram

As readers can observe, Tom Lea was not simply a bystander to the issues on the border. The elder Tom Lea demanded that the federal officials set up a quarantine station at the border. Readers should note that the institute obliquely refers to the telegram without naming it specifically. This is because Romo made the telegram public and thus it is in the open forcing the Tom Lea defenders to address it without bringing undo attention to it. The Tom Lea Institute offers four items that required “special attention” from the local government. None of the items mentioned included a typhus epidemic. This will become clearer in a moment.

The site goes on to explain that the elder Lea had requested a quarantine “to assist in stopping the spread of typhus from Juarez”. The site goes on to state that Tom Lea “was defeated in his desire to implement a quarantine” and that, instead, the federal government “opted to set up disinfecting stations” which led to the “Bath Riots”.

Accepting for a moment that the institute’s narrative is correct, that instead of the infamous bathhouses, Tom Lea, the mayor, was advocating for quarantine stations, that narrative misses an important element – that of keeping immigrants from their jobs in El Paso through weeks of quarantine instead of the indignity of forced public nudity and chemical baths. Before we continue, we need to understand the typhus scare before continuing our discussion of Tom Lea.

The Typhus Scare

Like today’s Covid-19 pandemic, typhus was little known in the United States in 1917. (see note 1 below) México had been embroiled in the Mexican Revolution that was just ending. Consequently, health conditions across México had deteriorated due to war. Typhus was spreading, but as a 1917 U.S. government public health reports reported, typhus “was largely limited to the class of the population which is suffering from extreme poverty”. [1] Note the description of “extreme poverty,” as it will become relevant when we get back to the former mayor.

In México, typhus was first experienced by the indigenous populations upon the arrival of the Spaniards. To the Mexican indigenous populations, typhus was known as the matlazahuatl. It appeared again in the 1910’s because of the Mexican Revolution. [8] By the 1970’s it was understood that the United States “never had real typhus” because for some reason the environmental conditions were not right for it to get a foothold in America. Also, it wasn’t the industrialized cities that prevented the spread of the disease. It had to do with the environment according to a 2006 medical research paper. [5]

The 2006 research demonstrated that the “typhus fever rarely if ever extended to the stablished populations of the United States, even when imported on immigrant ships into densely populated or unsanitary slums.” [5] However, we must accept that in 1917, this was not clearly understood. It should also be noted that the 2006 paper states that the history of typhus in the Americas is not fully understood because of the lack of scientific documentation and accurate records defining the typhus type. But typhus in America has been traced back to the founding of the country in 1776.

It must be acknowledged that at the time of the bathhouses, typhus was not as fully understood as it is today. Much like the Covid-19 pandemic, the typhus response was reactive to a developing situation. Against the backdrop of the danger of typhus was an eugenics movement in America that led to the implementation of new immigration laws restricting immigration to the country, the 1917 law mentioned by the Tom Lea apologetic website.

While the former mayor, Tom Lea, was demanding that Washington implement a quarantine, federal officials were already working in El Paso to curtail Juarez immigrants entering the city. In addition to the new immigration laws, the threat of typhus was another tool used by the American eugenics movement to further close America to immigrants.

Claude C. Pierce was the architect of the bathhouses in El Paso. Pierce was one of 12 surgeons at the time working for the United States Public Health Service (USPHS). On January 23, 1917, after working over a year at the Santa Fe bridge, Pierce announced that the United States was now implementing an “iron-clad quarantine” to protect Americans from typhus. From that moment on, immigrants entering were required to be inspected before being allowed into the country. The fear was “diseased immigrants”. This was about six months before Tom Lea, the mayor, implored federal officials to enact strict quarantines of poor Mexican immigrants the border. What Pierce described as a “quarantine” was in fact the bathhouses at the border.

Typhus never reached pandemic proportions in America.

In 1917, the architect of the bathhouses, Claude Pierce wrote an official report about his bathhouses. In the report, Pierce wrote that the disease was “largely limited to the class of the population which is suffering from extreme poverty.” Again, note the use of the phrase “extreme poverty”. The report goes on to explain that the only individuals at risk of contracting typhus “are those who have come into contact” with the poverty-stricken disease carriers. Among them were “doctors, nurses, and others whose duties have brought them into contact with persons actually ill with typhus.” [1]

Pierce goes on to explain that in December 1915, “three cases of typhus” were found in Laredo, Texas, which precipitated the federal government’s response to contain it. “Abandoned disinfecting plants that were established years ago in Nuevo Laredo, Piedras Negras, and Juarez, Mexico, were rehabilitated and put into operation”. [1] Readers should note that the disinfecting plants referenced by Pierce, the U.S. government’s official responsible for containing the disease, were in México. But because the politics behind the bathhouses was not about containing the typhus disease, the eugenics movement wanted America to have full control over who was subjected to the treatment of the bathhouses, for the purpose of controlling immigration.

Although, as Pierce notes in his report, the measures put in place in México “gave considerable protection,” the U.S. government wanted the “disinfecting plants” on “American territory at border ports, so that they might be better operated entirely under American control”. [1] By the time the report was published, quarantine stations had been completed in El Paso, Eagle Pass, Brownsville, Hidalgo and Rio Grande. All were in Texas. The disinfecting process for immigrants from México required them to bathe in bathhouses, those with headlice were sheared bald if they were men, or kerosene and vinegar were applied to the scalp of the women for about half an hour. [1]

After the inspection, the immigrants bathed in a mixture of one part soap, two parts kerosene oil and four parts boiled water. After bathing, the immigrants were handed back their clothing, which had been steamed at 259 degrees Fahrenheit (126.1C) for ten minutes. It took 25 to 35 minutes to process the clothing through the steamers. Their other belongings were also disinfected when necessary. [1]

An additional requirement was that “no Mexicans of the laboring class” were allowed to leave border towns by train “until they and their baggage have been treated at the disinfecting plant”. Again, note the phrase “laboring class”. [1]

By June 1917, after the degrading bathhouses had been implemented in El Paso, only three fatalities from typhus had been recorded by U.S. government officials. Across the country, 31 cases had been recorded. [9] The issue with typhus was regionalized to central México but was more of a problem in war-torn Eastern Europe. Nonetheless, the fear of an uncontrolled epidemic was used to target poor Mexicans crossing the border.

The Tom Lea Institute website would have readers believe that the issue ends here with the federal government the culpable party in the whole affair. However, there was more to the federal quarantine project in El Paso.

W.C. Kluttz was the El Paso health officer in 1917. Kluttz died of typhus on January 4, 1917. [2] The death of the former mayor’s friend, Kluttz, seems to have been the catalyst for Tom Lea to send the telegram to Washington on June 17, 1917. “Lea did not hesitate to politicize Kluttz’s death, calling him a martyr”. [7]

But there were also geopolitics along with the eugenics movement at play here. The death of Kluttz was also the excuse for Pierce to launch bathhouses. The second issue was to save face for the American Army after John J. Pershing conceded after ten months that he was unable to capture Francisco “Pancho” Villa. [9] Villa becomes an important part of the Tom Lea legacy as readers will see. Before we continue, we should take a moment to look at a rather interesting thing on the Tom Lea website – silk underwear.

The Silk Underwear

The inclusion of a statement of the elder Tom Lea having a preference for silk underwear may seem strange to some readers, but it ties directly to the elder Lea’s feelings about Mexicans, the bathhouses and how the Tom Lea Institute is trying to “correct the record” about Lea because of David Romo.

In a 1993 recorded interview of the artist Tom Lea by Adair Margo, the artist recounts how his dad, the elder Tom Lea was told that typhus “didn’t like silk”. According to the son, Tom Lea immediately ordered silk underwear to be made for him. [3] Using silk underwear was commonly suggested for visitors to México in the 1910’s to ward off the lice that led to typhus. [5]

In the case of Tom Lea, the silk underwear is representative of the class struggle between the working poor and the elite. That Lea supporters feel the need to address silk underwear in their narrative betrays a sense that they understand the class struggle they are afraid to let percolate in the community.

However, it wasn’t until three years later, during a typhus epidemic in Russia that the use of silk to ward off the disease began to circulate more commonly across America in the news media. [4] On the border it was a common belief that silk underwear would help protect the wearer from typhus. The belief that silk protects against the typhus lice remains a common belief today, but scientific studies have shown that the lice that carries the typhus disease will survive even on silk “especially when the choice is limited”. [6] Also, readers should understand that lice carriers of typhus are unrelated to cleanliness as demonstrated by outbreaks of head lice among school children in American schools today.

Nonetheless, the inclusion of the silk underwear in the Tom Lea narrative trying to correct the record was required because Lea’s own son, the artist, confirmed the story of the silk underwear and it needed to be addressed by the defenders of the Lea legacy. The reason has to do with the underlining driving issue about Tom Lea, both the mayor and the artist, and their legacy with Mexicans. But before we can address that we must look at the riot precipitated by the bathhouses.

The Bathhouse Riots And Carmelita Torres

The 1917 bathhouse riot betrays the euthenics influence over the forced disinfections of Mexican immigrants at the border. A Kentucky newspaper article in 1917 about the riot refers to an “auburn-haired maid” as leading “Amazons in Fighting Against Enforced Clean lines on the Border”. [10] Note the imagery weaved by the newspaper account.

According to the Kentucky newspaper, a woman from Kentucky who had moved to Juárez with her husband, had written to the newspaper her observations of her husband’s six-hour captivity and the riot itself. According to Elizabeth Cooke, the woman writing to the newspaper, the riot started due to “false reports” about Mexican women “being insulted” and “photographed” at the bathhouses. According to the woman, “the greater part of them refused” to go to the bathhouses and “became indignant when they were ordered off the street cars, after having paid their fares, and could not have their nickels refunded”. [10]

The Kentucky woman continues that when the immigrant women were not allowed into El Paso, the “women collected in an angry crowd at the center of the bridge” and “by 8 o’clock the throng, consisting in large part of servant girls employed in El Paso,” had grown considerably at the middle of the Santa Fe bridge. [10]

The Kentucky woman goes on to describe a chaotic scene on the Mexican side of the border, while the “American end of the bridge quiet efficiently prevailed”. She goes on to write the American soldiers patrolling the border “continued to walk their beats just as though a seething Latin mob scene was not being erected a few feet away”. Her description, betraying the anti-Mexican mentality prevalent at the time, continues with “composed largely of young girls, the mob seemed bent on destroying anything that came from the American side”. [10] Note how the Kentucky woman, who was living in Juárez at the time, describes the Mexican women protesting as “servant girls” and “seething Latin mob”.

Her continued description of her observations further betrays the anti-Mexican view by the Anglo woman. She adds, “the scene reminded one of bees swarming”. But more telling is the poem Elizabeth Cooke composed and published by the Kentucky newspaper. It read:

In Juarez

The cars stopped, the Greasers yelled,
“Give me my fare or there’ll be hell,”
“Nay, nay” we said, “that we cannot do;”
Then said the Greasers, “We’ll get you too.”
They rocked us, cursed us and robbed each man,
In Juarez down by the Rio Grande.

We sat in the custom house, we nine,
Guarded by the Mexican cavalry line.
Awaiting the major’s orders to say
That we could go back to the U.S.A.
When the word to go came at last,
Each man was ready, six hours had passed.
We rose as one man and fell in line,
And marched across the bridge double time.
The boys in khaki and “Old Glory” looked grand
As we stepped into the promised land.
[10]

Another California newspaper picks up the anti-Mexican immigrant theme on February 1, 1917 with its portrayal of the border riots by the Mexican women. The newspaper wrote that the “Mexicans are a childish people, and everyone who is familiar with the instincts of a small boy will realize what indignation there must be in the imposition of compulsory bathing on people still in the small boy stage of civilization.” [11] The paper was equating the riot to uncivilized people, an underlining tone in anti-Mexican rhetoric by some today.

There is scant news coverage of the time about the bath riots but there was more to the riot than what was portrayed as “uncivilized” Mexicans rioting because of a required bath. Readers should note that the requirement to bathe was at the discretion of immigration officials who decided on who was required to bathe and who was not based on appearance. In other words, by mere appearance, certain immigrants were ordered to bathe while others were excluded. This suggests that the social-economic underclass was targeted for dehumanized treatment at the border, and not the wealthy Mexicans. This will become more apparent as the underlining cause – class struggle – of the Mexican Revolution is added to the discussion.

Moreover, the riots were not about the demand to bathe, but the rumors of nude photography. This is important to understand because the rumors of photographing the Mexican women nude is lost in the narrative about “childish” Mexicans. This is how narratives are distorted to the benefit of those in control.

Historian David Dorado Romo in his 2005 book, Ringside Seat To A Revolution offers that Washington officials were so concerned about nude photographs of Mexican immigrants women appearing in local bars that they dispatched a detective to investigate the matter. [14] Thus, whether the rumors were true or not, the fact that an investigation was launched by U.S. officials suggests that there was substance to the rumors.

Another important issue missing on the day of the riot was the clear understanding of the policy and the procedures. More importantly was the capricious nature of who was selected for the baths. On January 30, 1917 the El Paso port of entry was reopened after the day of riot. Different from the first day was that the Mexican bathing certificates issued in Juárez were now valid in the United States. Bathing stations had existed on the Mexican side of the border and they were valid for use to enter the United States until Pierce created the American versions wanting more control. When authorities acknowledged that the Mexican certificates were acceptable, the resistance by Mexican immigrants ended. [12]

But more interesting was that El Paso’s economy was suffering as less Mexican immigrants crossed the border. According to the 1917 newspaper report, “the quarantine regulations” had “caused a shortage of laborers and servants”. It went on to state that the “smelter in El Paso was forced to operate with one-half of its usual force” the day before and that “more than 200 servant girls failed to appear for work in El Paso homes.” [12]

Pierce, the organizer of the bathhouses, made no mention of the acceptance of Mexican certificates in his 1917 progress report to Washington officials. When the border in El Paso reopened, it was reported that “a mutual arrangement” had been made where American officials would accept the Mexican certificates for border crossers. [13] This suggests that economic considerations were likely the reason for the accommodation to the bath protocols, and consequently an adjustment of the requirements for entering the United States.

The 17-year-old Mexican immigrant brought to the surface the underlining need to humiliate immigrant Mexicans. It forced the changing the narrative away from anti-immigration through humiliation towards “childish” Mexicans to reinforce the need to control the Mexican immigrants because of eugenics against the need to keep America’s labor supply intact.

Historian Alexandra Minna Stern best describes the effort to restrict Mexican immigrants against the need to keep Mexican laborers for America’s economy as “eugenic gatekeeping”. [9] The problem for the eugenics movement was not its white supremacy doctrine, but the fact that America’s economy suffered as Mexican immigrants stayed away. In El Paso, in addition to the Mexican labor, there was also the brisk business of war munitions brought on by the Mexican Revolution. American business interests exerted political power to keep the flow of immigrants flowing while the American eugenics movement found ways to limit how many Mexican immigrants were allowed in.

It should be noted that enforced sterilization of Mexican immigrants continued through the 1960’s in the form of the Bracero Program, enacted in 1942 to shore up labor shortages because of World War II with Mexican immigrants. “Eugenics gatekeeping” remains alive and well today through the Title 42 expedited expulsions of immigrants at the border under the guise of the Covid-19 pandemic, even under the Biden administration.

It is against this background that we circle back to Tom Lea, the mayor. Lea, as the Tom Lea Institute website correctly points out, “loved” México. There is evidence that Lea did not “dislike” México or Mexicans. It is how we define Mexicans that is the key to understanding this apparent contradiction. It wasn’t the elite class of Mexicans, like Victoriano Huerta, the former president despised by most Mexicans that Lea disliked, it was the “dirty lousey destitute Mexicans” that he hated. Huerta represented the elite class of Mexican society.

The 1993 son’s oral interview by Adair Margo obliquely makes this clear and exposes how the community narrative is distorted. When speaking about Huerta, the artist Lea minimizes the relationship between Huerta and his father, Tom Lea, Jr. According to the artist Lea, Huerta was nothing more than an official and professional acquaintance of his father. It is what the Lea son adds in his recollections about Huerta that exposes the distorted narrative. The artist Lea says to Margo that “I’m so vague” on the time his father was mayor, because the son never wanted to write about his father. This is because, as he states, “I’ve got some kind of block against going back to all the newspapers”. [3] In other words, the historical record was too uncomfortable for the son to better understand the motives of his father, even though the artist added that “there was much involvement with the revolution and other things”. [3] The “other things” were left unsaid.

Another fact ignored by defenders of both Lea’s is that the former mayor, Tom Lea, “headed citizens’ bands to patrol the area along the river” to keep Mexicans out. Lea, the mayor, sought and received help from John J. Pershing on the citizen border patrols. Pershing later led the failed punitive expedition to capture Pancho Villa. [20]

To be clear, this was not simply a case of discrimination by El Paso’s elite as class struggle was the underlining cause of the Mexican Revolution that had consumed the borderland and México over the last seven years. Wealthy Mexicans also discriminate against the poorer Mexicans on both sides of the border.

It is the “dirty…destitute Mexicans” that remains the narrative across American today and it is the underlining narrative in the Glass Beach Study that drives El Paso’s economy development strategy through downtown redevelopment today.

Was Tom Lea (Mayor) A White Supremacist?

The Tom Lea Institute website goes on to state that Tom Lea, the mayor, “loved Mexico”. This was in response to the questions about whether Tom Lea, the mayor, disliked Mexicans. Clearly the 1917 telegram gives rise to this question with the use of phrase “hundreds dirty lousey [sic] destitute Mexicans arriving at El Paso daily”. The telegram was signed by Tom Lea, the father. To understand the apparent contradictions – loves or hates Mexicans – we need to define what it meant by “Mexicans”.

The issue is not the racism that some may ascribe to Tom Lea and other Anglo leaders. The issue is socio-economic. This is better understood when discussing El Paso’s so-called oligarchy made up of Woody Hunt and Paul Foster. Specifically in the case of Foster, his marriage to Juárez’ Alejandra de la Vega and Adair Margo’s close relationship with Guadalupe Arizpe de la Vega makes the apparent disconnect easier to understand when racism is replaced with the conflict between the elites and the working class.

Socio-Economic Class Struggle – Elites Versus Workers

To understand the issue, it is important to understand the context of the time. Two important events collided together. They were the Mexican Revolution, which began on November 20, 1910 and an American eugenics movement that had been rising since the late 1890’s that drove immigration policies towards anti-immigration. The eugenics movement contributed to a change in America’s immigration policies in 1917 that for the first time required the restricted movement of Mexicans into the country under the newly enacted 1917 Immigration Act.

The 1917 Immigration Act (Asiatic Barred Zone Act) imposed limits on most Asian immigrants, barred convicted criminals and others deemed unacceptable and added contagious diseases as a reason to bar the entry of immigrants. It also introduced a literacy test requirement for immigrants. Woodrow Wilson vetoed the Act, but his veto was overridden by Congress. Because of the reliance on Mexican labor by states like Texas, Mexican immigrants were exempted from the literacy test requirement. Like today, the eugenics movement was confronted by the country’s need for Mexican labor against those wanting to limit immigration. However, it was the contagious diseases that empowered the eugenics movement to impose restrictions on Mexican immigrants.

Class struggle, or the battle between the ruling class and the working class remains ongoing to this day. It is often referred to as progressive politics today. Although not the Karl Marx of peasants versus the working class, today’s class struggle remains about social-economic equality. In the 1910’s the class struggle was between peasants and industrialization. Complicating matters is that the Mexican Revolution was more than a class struggle. The Mexican Revolution is recognized as the 20th century’s first major cultural, political and social struggle. In its simplest terms, the Mexican Revolution was a civil war between mestizos, generally the working class, against the wealthy landowners – criollos, mostly the Spanish upper class who, although few in numbers, controlled the wealth through land holdings.

There were many factions in the almost decade-long civil war, but two figures were prominent in the struggle. They were Francisco “Pancho” Villa and Emiliano Zapata. El Paso was the staging ground for Francisco Madero’s launch of the Mexican Revolution. It is this and Pancho Villa who had influence on El Paso’s politics of the time and on Tom Lea, the mayor.

By 1917, the Revolution had largely ended. Although it eventually achieved many of its goals, it left devastation and diseases like typhus in its wake. Many of it tied to México’s poor who filled El Paso’s labor shortages.

Pierce’s report on the bathhouses includes this observation: “since the establishment of quarantine restriction on border ports, a noticeable improvement in the appearance of local passengers from neighboring Mexican town has been observed as regards cleanliness of person and underclothing”. [1] It this “dirty” and “gritty” narrative that led the class struggle in the Glass Beach Study and was the underlining issue in 1917.

Pancho Villa represented the poor Mexican working class. For Tom Lea, Villa represented the undesirable Mexican. In his 1993 oral interview with Adair Margo, Tom Lea, the artist, recounts how his father and Pancho Villa “had some words when Villa crossed over into El Paso one time”. Lea, the artist goes on to state that his dad put “Luz Corral Villa, in jail when she came over”. Lea adds that “Villa never forgave” his father and that the jailing of Villa’s wife “made a very bad impression on Pancho”. [3] Contrast that with the lack of reports about the jailing of White-upper-class El Paso merchants profiting from the war.

To understand the antagonism between the working class Mexican and Tom Lea, the father and the artist, one simply needs to look at how devoid of the Mexican labor class Tom Lea’s art is. The Mexican Revolution is known for its Muralist Movement comprised of José Clemente Orozco, Diego Rivera and David Alfaro Siqueiros. The Muralist Movement lasted between the 1920’s though the 1970’s. Although the artist Tom Lea grew up close to major figures of the Mexican Revolution, his lack of artistic influence from it betrays a sense of disdain for the Mexicans, mainly the poor’s influence over the Southwest, especially when looked with the context of the Muralist Movement.

Readers should note that when Mexicans are portrayed by Tom Lea, they were generally the Spanish Conquistadors and missionaries. The vaqueros have been Anglicized into the cowboys he depicts in his work. One need not look further than Lea’s 1938 Pass of the North art/mural to see the lack of Hispanic/Mestizos in Lea’s art. Very little of Tom Lea’s art is about the Mexican Revolution, arguably one of greatest events of his father’s political career and surely an influence on the younger Tom Lea’s life.

The former mayor, Tom Lea, is described by his son in 1993 as preoccupied by the Mexican Revolution during his one term as mayor. Although Lea, the artist acknowledges that he remembers little about his father’s time as mayor, the artist chooses to focus on the people his dad put in jail for smuggling as “unwashed and in pretty poor shape” and “were lousy and full of fleas”. [3]

Tom Lea goes on to explain that the problem in México was the “revolucionarios” who were “the people who were causing this terrible trouble in Mexico”. [3]

The Tom Lea Institute website addresses the arrest of Villa’s wife as nothing more than upholding the law in El Paso. However, in the 1993 interview, the son says that he idolized his father and was afraid to ask him too many questions about his time as mayor, [3] which begs the question about what the artist was afraid to discover about his father.

To understand Tom Lea’s “love” for Mexicans one must understand how Tom Lea, the mayor, defined Mexicans. To do so, let’s further breakdown the Tom Lea Institute’s apologetic website and get a better grasp on the Lea family tree that is conveniently not documented by supporters of Tom Lea.

The Three PDF Documents

Nothing showcases the attempt to distort the historical narrative of Tom Lea, the mayor, and by extension El Paso’s history than the three PDF documents sent to us and published by the Tom Lea Institute website.

The first document is the Tom Lea profile by Nora Orozco. It attempts to paint a glorified image of Thomas Calloway Lea, Jr. as a lawyer who happened to decide to stay in El Paso because of a lost wallet. Orozco weaves the narrative around Lea retracing his steps back to El Paso to retrieve his missing wallet where he happened upon the “kind and generous El Pasoans” in the form of restaurant owner Oscar Uhling who refused Lea’s offer to wash dishes in return for meals. According to Orozco, Lea had used the last of his money to buy meal tickets and when those ran out, Uhling, instead of putting Lea to work on washing dishes for meals, “staked him until Lea found a job – as a bill collector”. [15]

The truth is not as glamorized as Orozco tries to reinvent for the former mayor.

The truth is rather uninteresting. After graduating from law school, Tom Lea the former mayor, with “no cash in 1900,” had heard “that money was to be had in El Paso”. He decided to head to his future home. Upon arriving in El Paso, Lea “got a job in a woodyard with Powell Steakhouse” and worked there for three years. When he had saved enough money to start his law practice, he quit his job at the steakhouse, opened his law practice and married Zola Utt. [16]

Orozco reinvented the three years of Lea’s history before he married Utt and started his legal practice by inventing the story that Tom Lea, the former mayor, was traveling “in Mexico, seeking gold with friends and hoping to strike it rich”. Unable to get rich from gold, “three years of adventuring later, but no gold, Lea married Utt in June 1906”. [15] This narrative is common in most modern stories about Lea. But there was no search for gold for three years. Instead, the elder Tom Lea was working in a restaurant saving money to get married and start his law practice. The marriage announcement in the El Paso Times on June 9, 1906 announced the marriage between “two popular and well known young people” was scheduled for June 20, 1906.

Likely the most important element to the former-mayor Tom Lea mystique is his one-term as mayor framed around the idea that he was a reformer trying to rid the city of the corrupt Ring political faction. It is true that the Ring political faction had controversially controlled El Paso’s politics for years, but to suggest that “the ‘Ring’ had been defeated and never recovered political power” because of Lea, as Orozco tries to suggest, is disingenuous. [15]

The entire Ring slate of candidates were defeated by another slate of candidates “headed by Tom Lea”. In addition to the missing context of one slate of candidates defeating another slate of candidates is that the votes were “unusually heavy and numbers of arrests were made at the polls”. [17] The Ring and the poll controversies will be explored in a later article.

Orozco, herself, makes it clear that her essay on the former mayor was in direct response to David Romo’s book when she writes that “El Paso historian David Dorado Romo equates with racism” Lea’s actions against a mob in Segundo Barrio intent on lynching pro Pancho Villa supporters. [15]

The second PDF document that was sent to us was the curricula for The Mexican Revolution Through The Eyes of Tom Lea & José Cisneros that the Tom Lea Institute offers as educational programs to the local schools. The curriculum, unfortunately, uses the paper written by Nora Orozco that we have shown as an exaggeration of the life story of Tom Lea, the father.

Another interesting item that the curriculum exposes is that Tom Lea’s artwork about the Revolution, what little of it exists is also a distortion of the revolucionarios fighting for class equality. The curriculum uses the Word in the Night artwork of three Mexican vaqueros getting ready to ride in the night. Lea’s own description of the artwork in the curriculum used by El Paso’s children to learn about history exposes the artist’s dismissiveness about México’s underclass fighting for equality.

Lea, the artist, describes the “spirit” of his art as “the trouble in the moonlight,” the “trouble” being the Mexican vaqueros who Lea further describes as “roughnecks”. Lea says that the night that the vaqueros paid a visit to his father he “sneaked down” to witness that “Revolucionarios were holding mysterious midnight” conversations with his father. Clearly the encounter made an impact upon the younger Lea, who waited 45 years to paint a picture depicting menacing Mexicans skulking around in the desert moonlight.

The students are then asked to answer the following questions. The first is “how did Mayor Lea try to keep the peace in El Paso?” That question is followed by “why were refugees flooding into El Paso?” Another question asks, “why was there almost a riot in the Segundo Barrio?” (emphasis in original). Then the students are asked to analyze Tom Lea’s description of his painting pointing out specifically the “spirit” in “the trouble in the moonlight”.

The curriculum supported by Orozco’s work that we have put into question is part of massaging the community narrative by indoctrinating El Paso’s youth with the version of the narrative acceptable to Adair Margo and the other Lea supporters. Readers should remember that Orozco’s work was published two years after David Dorado Romo’s work. This forces the question, was the curriculum used to teach El Paso’s history to school children a reaction to Romo’s historical work?

It is the third PDF that was sent to us that suggests that Tom Lea’s historical narrative is being manipulated in response to Romo’s work. The third PDF is a copy of a December 7, 2020 letter sent to the Texas Observer’s editorial board and signed by Holly Packard Cobb, the Executive Director of the Tom Lea Institute. [19]

The letter takes umbrage to the Texas Observer’s September 28, 2020 article titled, The Racist History Behind El Paso’s XII Travelers Memorial, written by David Romo. [18] In his article, Romo writes about The Equestrian, a statue of Conquistador Juan de Oñate that was placed by the El Paso International Airport. Because of the controversy the statue generated it was renamed The Equestrian. As Romo points out in his article, “the United States was founded on slavery” and for the activists, [18] the Oñate statue is a part of America’s racists past.

Romo goes on to discuss how the XII Travelers Memorial, a plan to erect 12 historical statues in El Paso, was conceived by “a long line of artists, politicians, and city boosters with ties to the Ku Klux Klan”. In the article, Romo describes how plans to build historical art in El Paso was driven by racist attitudes. [18]

According to Romo, the century-old art project was picked up by John Houser, the sculptor, who used Tom Lea’s The Pass of the North mural for the proposed twelve statues. The Lea mural, as previously discussed and as expressed by Romo, “celebrates European and Anglo men” who brought civilization to El Paso. [18]

In response to the article, officials at the Tom Lea Institute demanded that the Texas Observer “set the record straight and correct misinformation about the El Paso region’s history”. Specifically, the institute wanted the Texas Observer “to set the record straight…on the inaccuracies about Tom Lea (Tom Lea, Sr.) and his son, artist Tom Lea”. [19]

As has been the constant attempt to reframe the community’s narrative, the institute again argues that “the largest race riot in the city’s history” was not the then-mayor’s Tom Lea’s responsibility because it was the federal government’s responsibility. Although technically correct, the institute ignores the telegram signed by Tom Lea in 1917 demanding that the U.S. government place a quarantine on the border.

The issue with a quarantine was that like the bathhouses, the selection of who was required to bathe was at the discretion of the border guards who likely selected the immigrants that looked “dirty,” or “destitute,” as described by Lea. Furthermore, a quarantine forced those selected to undergo it to be separated from their jobs or kept away from their travels for several days while they waited the symptoms to appear if they were infected.

Regardless, the telegram demonstrates that Tom Lea, the mayor, was actively involved in influencing border policy, regardless of the institute’s attempt to minimize his involvement.

The next thing the letter tries to address is the former mayor’s membership in the Ku Klux Klan (KKK). The letter acknowledges that the elder Tom Lea was a member of the KKK and attempts to justify it as “Lea joined the Klan under false pretenses”. According to the letter, Tom Lea “quickly realized the Klan’s real agenda of prejudice against Mexicans and Catholics,” adding that after Lea realized the “purpose” of the KKK, “resigned and fought its activities”. Like most who try to defend prejudices, the institute adds that the former mayor, Tom Lea’s “second wife was a Mexican woman from Juarez”. [19]

Readers should note that the institute’s letter does not name by name Tom Lea’s second wife. There is a reason for this. The former mayor married Rosario Partida Archer, a “member of a leading family of Chihuahua”. [20] As pointed out previously, the issue is not about race, but rather a dislike of “destitute Mexicans” as the telegram clearly points out. Using the marriage to a wealthy Mexican woman further betrays the attempt at distorting the historical record.

The institute’s letter goes on to take umbrage over Romo’s other assertions in his Texas Observer article. The letter then closes with the demand that the Texas Observer “remove the article” from their website. As of March 25, 2022, the article remains online.

In addition to conveniently not naming the mayor’s second wife, the defenders of the Lea’s also ignore the history of the mayor’s father and the artist’s grandfather. As readers will discover, the reason is simple, the grandfather’s story exposes the rewriting of Tom Lea’s historical record. Specifically, the history clearly exposes that the elder Lea was clearly aware of the “real agenda” of the KKK in El Paso.

Thomas Calloway Lea

The reformulation of El Paso’s historical record by members of the Tom Lea Institute never mentions the protagonist of the Tom Lea legacy, the mayor’s father and the artist’s grandfather. His name was Thomas Calloway Lea. The reason he is not named is because he disproves many of the assertions the institute tries to make of both the mayor and the artist.

Part of the reformulation of the Tom Lea legacy revolves around Tom Lea, the father choosing El Paso as the place to set up his family after finding kind people in search of his lost wallet. The narrative insinuates that the arrival of the father, the mayor, was the first time the Lea family had been or understood El Pasoans. The distorted narrative further insinuates that the former mayor came to “love” Mexicans in his travels in search of gold and his interactions with the Mexicans in El Paso. Most important is the narrative that the elder Tom Lea was not a racist. We have already proven that the “search for gold” is fiction.

Lea Family Tree

Tom Lea, the mayor was not only fully informed about Mexicans and the KKK but likely had a distaste for Mexicans because of his ancestors who fought for the Confederacy during the Civil War. As readers will see, one ancestor fought for a Confederate general that tried to setup a Confederate colony in México after self-exiling himself to México.

Thomas Calloway Lea I fought for the Confederate Army under Confederate General Sterling Price. The grandfather was also the grandson of P. J. G. Lea who was killed in the Civil War. [20] The family name, Calloway, is also spelled Callaway in some newspapers of the time.

Joseph Callaway Lea, a “descendent of one of the three brothers who came from England to America in the early colonial days,” joined the Confederate Army, after his father “was killed in a most dastardly manner”. [21] P.J.G. Lea, of the Confederate Army was killed by Union soldiers at Lee’s Summit. [22]

It is important to point out that the grandfather fought under Confederate general Sterling Price. Price had previously attacked Chihuahua against orders a month after the Mexican America War had ended. When he returned to the states, Price became a slave owner. After his army was defeated by Union soldiers, “rather than surrender, Price fled with other rebels to Mexico in exile”. [23] In México, Price tried to set up a Confederate colony there with the support of Maximillian. After Maximilian was overthrown by the Mexican people, Price returned to Missouri where he died.

As readers can observe, the Confederate Army plays an important element in the legacy of Tom Lea, the former mayor. It is inconceivable to believe that it had no bearing on the Lea family. More important is the fact that the apologists for Tom Lea, both of them, do not mention the Confederate Army connection, likely because of the issue of slavery it would bring up.

More importantly is that the KKK had to have been known to the elder Tom Lea because of his family’s history. Thus to argue that the former mayor did not understand what he was joining when he joined the KKK is disingenuous at best.

How The Oligarchy Both Like and Hate Mexicans

The oligarchy’s control of El Paso’s political establishment has been framed as the wealthy abusing the taxpayers of the community. Framed within the debate is that the so-called oligarchy is mostly Anglo while the community of Segundo Barrio is overwhelmingly poor Hispanics, leading some to suggest that the oligarchy doesn’t like Mexicans in general. The problem with that framing is when dual nationals like Alejandra de la Vega and Miguel Fernandez are thrown into the mix, along with the numerous Latino surnamed politicos and officials that support their public policy agenda. As Mexicans, Fernandez and de la Vega and their Hispanic representatives could not possibly hate Mexicans.

It is true and it makes more sense when hating Mexicans is qualified between the Mexican elite, like Fernandez and de la Vega against the poor Latinos on both sides of the border. Tom Lea, the former mayor, liked Mexicans as long as they belonged to the elite class that the revolucionarios like Pancho Villa and Carmelita Torres were fighting against.

Changing the narrative to class struggles between the wealthy and the poor in the Latino communities, especially among the immigrants makes it easier to understand why some migrants are acceptable to the oligarchy (labor/economic) while others remain unacceptable to them (Torres/Villa).

Who writes the narrative is important to the community. The oligarchy controls the narrative because of their power and their wealth. The narrative from the poor is seldom brought to light. When it is, like David Dorado Romo’s book, the pushback to correct the narrative to an acceptable version is pushed forth, like the Tom Lea Institute does on its website. Readers should note that the Tom Lea Institute does not stop at only demanding publications take down articles that that they are actively involved in teaching their acceptable version of history in El Paso schools.

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We are on a mission to deliver the news and information important to you. Information that no one else is covering. We believe that public policy is grounded on an informed citizenry. We provide information based on analytical analysis that is well-sourced to allow readers to understand the policy decisions that affects their lives. We keep our reporting open to give everyone access to our reports. We are self-funded. This allows us to be independent and we are not influenced by stakeholders on how and what we report.

Help us to keep this resource available to everyone. Your support allows us to fund the site and pay for the research we use to bring important topics to your attention. Support our project by making a small donation today. We need your help.

Help Us To Keep This Valuable Resource Free To Everyone

We are on a mission to deliver the news and information important to you. Information that no one else is covering. We believe that public policy is grounded on an informed citizenry. We provide information based on analytical analysis that is well-sourced to allow readers to understand the policy decisions that affects their lives. We keep our reporting open to give everyone access to our reports. We are self-funded. This allows us to be independent and we are not influenced by stakeholders on how and what we report.

Help us to keep this resource available to everyone. Your support allows us to fund the site and pay for the research we use to bring important topics to your attention. Support our project by making a small donation today. We need your help.

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Notes:

  1. Typhus and typhoid are two different illnesses with similar symptoms but caused by two different bacteria. Typhus is caused by bacteria carried by fleas, lice and ticks, while typhoid is a food-born bacteria.

Footnotes:

  1. C.C. Pierce, “Combating Typhus Fever on the Mexican Border,” Public Health Reports (1896-1970), Vol. 32, No 12., March 23, 1917.
  2. “El Paso City Health Officer Is Martyr,” Los Angeles Evening Express, January 4, 1917.
  3. Interview with Tom Lea by Adair Margo, “Interview 800,” University of Texas at El Paso, Institute of Oral History, October 19, 1993.
  4. “Prescribe Silk As Typhus Preventive,” Greensboro Daily News, February 19, 1922.
  5. Margaret Humphreys, “A Stranger to Our Camps: Typhus in American History,” Bulletin of the History of Medicine, Vol. 80, No. 2, Summer 2006.
  6. Paul Weindling, “Epidemics and Genocide in Eastern Europe, 1890-1945,” OUP Oxford, February 3, 2000.
  7. Eve Galanis, “Border and Bodies: The El Paso Quarantine and Mexican Women’s Resistance,” The Crimson Historical Review, The University of Alabama, Department of History, Vol. II., No. II, Spring 2020.
  8. Martha Eugenia-Rodríguez, “Typhus in Mexico City in 1915,” Gaceta Médica de México, September 17, 2015.
  9. Alexandra Minna Stern, “Buildings, Boundaries, and Blood: Medicalization and Nation-Building on the U.S.-Mexico Border, 1910-1930,” The Hispanic American Historical Review, Vol. 79., No. 1., Duke University Press, February 1999.
  10. “Owensboro Man Held By Rioters,” Messenger Inquirer, February 11, 1917.
  11. “Bath Riots,” The Searchlight, February 1, 1917.
  12. “Troops Stop Renewal of Bath Riots,” The Sacramento Bee, January 30, 1917.
  13. “’Bath Riots’ at an End,” The Idaho Statesman, January 31, 1917.
  14. David Dorado Romo, “Ringside Seat To A Revolution,” Cinco Puntos Press, El Paso, Texas, 2005.
  15. Nora Orozco, “El Paso Mayor: Tom Lea Jr.,” El Paso Community College Borderlands, Vol. 26, 2007. (version published by the Tom Lea Institute website)
  16. G. A. Martin, “The Old Family Album,” El Paso Herald Post, December 20, 1919.
  17. “Mayor Kelly And ‘Ring Ticket’ Go Down In Defeat,” Austin American Statesman, February 17, 1915.
  18. David Dorado Romo, “The Racist History Behind El Paso’s XII Travelers Memorial,” Texas Observer, September 25, 2020.
  19. Holly Packard Cobb, Executive Director of the Tom Lea Institute, letter to the Texas Observer Editorial Staff, December 7, 2020. (as published by the Tom Lea Institute website)
  20. “Funeral Set For Tom Lea,” El Paso Herald Post, August 3, 1945.
  21. “New Mexico Loses Valuable Citezen [sic],” El Paso Herald Post, February 5, 1904.
  22. Penelope Johnson Allen, “Leaves From the Family Tree,” The Chattanooga Daily Times, December 15, 1935.
  23. Jenny Smith, “Cole County History: Gen. Sterling Price, hero or traitor?,” Historic City of Jefferson, September 5, 2020.

Martin Paredes

Reporting on public corruption, border politics, immigration and public policy in El Paso since 2000.

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