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Luis A. Marentes on "Ringside Seat to a Revolution"

Cover of "Ringside Seat to a Revolution": Group of Mexican Men

David Dorado Romo

Ringside Seat to a Revolution: An Underground Cultural History of El Paso and Juárez: 1893-1923

Cinco Puntos, 2005
293 pages
$26.95

Reviewed by Luis A. Marentes

In the years between 1893 and 1923 El Paso, Texas and Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua played a crucial role in the development of the Mexican Revolution and the future Chicano movement. Much has been said about the importance of these sister cities in ballads and novels, histories and memoirs, but David Dorado Romo adds new density and depth to our understanding of them during a crucial period in Mexican and US history. The book begins as a quest for Pancho Villa, but becomes a “microhistory” of the “five-square-mile area between downtown El Paso and the Juárez customhouse.” Within this limited space, many crucial battles, meetings, transactions and decisions were made, but, as Dorado Romo points out, “Microhistory at its best is more about small gestures and unexpected details than grand explanations.”

El Paso and Juárez, and the Mexican Revolution that swept through them, appear as a spectacle before the eyes of the readers who get a “ringside seat” to the show. The book’s impressive catalogue of pictures, newspaper articles, letters, advertisements, patents and other period documents allows readers to glance at primary documentation of “underground” aspects of the cities’ cultural histories as voyeurs. The cities and events shaping them, as documented by Dorado Romo with material from eight English-language and thirty-seven Spanish-language newspapers, and over twenty archival collections, are spectacles in themselves. The book consists of four sections, divided into smaller case studies. 

The first part, “Journalists, Radicals and a Saint,” focuses on important local leaders who would sow the seeds of the Mexican Revolution. As an underground history of spectacle, the book follows Teresita Urrea, Lauro Aguirre, Victor L. Ochoa and other Magonistas, on a variety of fronts: as political activists, journalists, inventors, saints and celebrities. The book recognizes the significance of these emblematic figures in the gestation of the Mexican Revolution and transnational labor organization, but it also pays close attention to the ways in which many of their activities were framed by the emerging mass media, and how their actions used these popular representations as part of their political strategy. Emblematic of this relationship is the arrival of Teresita Urrea to her El Paso exile in 1896, coinciding with the arrival to the city of Edison’s Vitascope. 

The second part, “The Revolution as Spectacle,” looks at the close relationship between the Mexican Revolution and the entertainment industry. Much has already been written about Pancho Villa’s relationship to the Hollywood studios. Dorado Romo’s book covers this relationship too, but also broadens our perspectives by looking at many other tense relationships between entertainment and the making of “history” in the popular imagination. Returning to the idea of the ringside seats, this part’s first section “Cheap Tickets to the Battle of Juárez” presents, through pictures and replicas of ads and programs, the business of selling a seat to the proceedings. Rooftops and binoculars afforded customers a close yet safe vantage point. Tours were organized to the battlegrounds, and social galas were given at nightfall. Tourists posed for pictures in “revolutionary” disguises. Postcards depicting the Mexican violence became popular throughout the United States, trivializing Mexican lives and perpetuating stereotypes of Mexican aggression. Dorado Romo documents a period rich in photography, a growing medium. He gives us well-known pictures from the Casasola archives, but adds a whole range of new images from North American photographers who profited by selling postcards of the carnage. 

Beyond the documentation of battles, the pictorial archive includes quotidian and peculiar aspects of these cities, including collections of social gatherings, accidents and spectacles like bullfights, which at times included female bullfighters and fights between bulls and bears or tigers. A section on musicians introduces us to a complex and rich relation across the border, documenting, on the one hand, the well-known growth of the corridos in the region, but also exploring the development of other musical genres like jazz, which grew in Juárez as prohibition sent many El Pasoans to bars in Mexico. Beyond El Paso bars, Dorado Romo introduces us to musicians like Trinidad Concha and Florencio Ramos who left their mark in North American jazz, not only at the border, but even in New Orleans, at the turn of the century. 

The book’s third part, “A City Divided,” begins with “A Racial Geography of El Paso,” which introduces us to a city divided along ethnic lines, giving brief narratives about the growth and interaction of the Chinese, Japanese, African American, Mexican and Anglo populations in the city. This section is also full of interesting pictures and anecdotes. Its second part, “The Bath Riots,” introduces us to a lesser-known moment in the history of these cities. On January 28, 1917, Carmelita Torres, a teenage maid who regularly crossed from Juárez to El Paso to clean houses, refused to subject herself to the humiliating practice of being “disinfected” with gasoline. Instead she led a group of women in a protest, which according to the El Paso Times numbered “several thousands.” The protest turned violent and both US and Mexican troops quelled it. Dorado Romo’s discussion of this episode introduces his readers to what he calls “the year the border was closed.” After more than half a century of relatively routine crossings between both sides of the border, 1917, in the context of World War I, the last years of the Mexican Revolution, and the growth of nativism and xenophobia in the United States, was marked by much stricter regulation of this line. This section traces the growth of nativism and anti-Mexican campaigns in El Paso, which not only excluded Mexicans from the region, but, in the spirit of “hygiene,” demolished many Mexican buildings and created a new landscape in the city. The last section, “Dying on the Border,” ends the book exploring the many ways in which people died in the sister cities during the Mexican revolutionary conflict. 

Although the book presents itself as a “microhistory,” Ringside Seat to a Revolution shows two cities, which despite their positioning on the margins of two nation states, are intimately linked to a broader world. El Paso and Juárez presented to us by Dorado Romo are cities, which eagerly received ideas from the outside world, from the anarchist thought popularized by local newspapers to the new popular culture of movies and jazz. These were also cities that had much to export: revolutionaries and jazz musicians who traveled the United States and the world; Víctor Ochoa’s inventions, like his patented improvements to windmills and his “Ochoa’s Chicken Pliers,” or his more daring flying machine called the ornithopeter; even Zyklon B, originally used by US border guards to disinfect Mexicans and later used by the Nazis to exterminate prisoners in their concentration camps. David Dorado Romo’s prose is engaging, informative and entertaining and the images he selected provide us with a rarely seen glimpse of the region. The book should appeal to a large audience, but its contributions are particularly useful to those in the fields of history, cultural studies, communications and border and urban studies. By emphasizing the scope and magnitude of the exchanges taking place through these cities, reading Ringside Seat to a Revolution will definitely complicate our understanding of the significance of the “five-square-mile area between downtown El Paso and the Juárez customhouse” at this crucial time.