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Countless women have left their mark on El Paso, and choosing who to recognize for Women’s History Month felt like an impossible task. So El Paso Matters turned to someone who might know: Yolanda Chávez Leyva, director of the Institute of Oral History at the University of Texas at El Paso.
Chávez Leyva suggested four women, some better known than others, whose lives and work in El Paso can’t be contained in a single descriptor. There’s Teresa Urrea, famed healer, folk saint and revolutionary; Zephyr Chisom Carter, a civil rights activist, educator and singer; Virginia Varela Mendez, a policewoman and restaurateur; and Carmen Felix, a teacher and housing advocate.
Read more about their lives below – and if four people doesn’t feel like enough (because it isn’t!), check out volume II of the El Paso Women’s History Coloring Book to learn about more women who made – and are making – El Paso history.
“Teresita Urrea passed through El Paso like a comet — a heavenly potent that shone brightly for a brief period then vanished,” writes historian David Dorado Romo in his book “Ringside Seat to a Revolution.”
Raised in Rancho Cabora, Sonora, Urrea was schooled in herbal and folk remedies by a Yaqui curandera. At 16 years old, she fell into a coma for three and a half months. Her sudden awakening – after her family had already built her coffin – marked Urrea’s transformation into a miracle worker and saint in the eyes of many.
Urrea arrived in El Paso in the summer of 1896. By then, she was already a famous healer, folk saint, and a thorn in the side of Mexican dictator Porfirio Díaz, who blamed Urrea’s outspoken support of indigenous rights for a rebellion that broke out among Yaqui and Mayo Indians in Tomóchic, a small town in the state of Chihuahua. Calling themselves “Teresitas,” the rebels shouted “Viva La Santa de Cabora!” in their uprising against government troops. Díaz exiled Urrea from Mexico when she was just 19 years old. He called her the most dangerous girl in Mexico.
During her two years in El Paso, Urrea reportedly met with about 200 patients a day and charged nothing for her services. “The sick of all races, the curious, the insane, thieves, peddlers, upper-class admirers, anti-Díaz rebels, newspaper reporters, law-enforcement officers and paid government informants from both sides of the border, all hovered around Teresita’s Segundo Barrio home,” Romo writes.
And she continued to inspire revolutionary skirmishes, he adds. “Although she was hundreds of miles away in El Paso, federal soldiers claimed they saw Santa Teresa leading a group of rebels at Nogales, Sonora. They said she was riding upon a white horse that hovered above the ground.”
After surviving three assassination attempts, Urrea left El Paso and soon began touring the United States to display her healing powers to an awed American public.
She died of tuberculosis at the age of 33. Four years later, the Mexican Revolution began.
Zephyr Chisom Carter (Zephyr James Chisom)
Born in 1891, Zephyr James Chisom was a Black educator, civil rights activist and singer. As part of the first high school class to graduate from the segregated Douglass School in South-Central El Paso in 1909, she went on to attend Howard University in Washington, D.C., where she was described as “the leading spirit” of the college chapter of the NAACP.
At Howard, she became one of 22 founders of the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority – the second Black sorority in U.S. history, which now has more than 1,000 college and alumnae chapters worldwide, including El Paso.
“I believe that African American women created their own sororities as communities of resistance that would allow them to survive and achieve in an oppressive society, refute stereotypes, celebrate their own cultures and fight sexism and racism – including gendered racism,” wrote Tamara Brown, a Delta Sigma Theta alumna and provost at the University of Texas at Arlington.
The Deltas’ first act of public service was participating in the 1913 women’s suffrage parade down Pennsylvania Avenue. The 22 young women were segregated to the back of the procession, though some observed the Deltas break from their section to join the rest of the suffragists.
After graduation, Chisom worked as a teacher in San Antonio before moving to California. There, according to the El Paso History Alliance, she began singing with a chorus for movies and television shows.
Virginia Varela Mendez
“(A)rmed with a small pistol, came Mrs. Mendez, firing as she came,” reads an El Paso Times reporter’s 1922 account of a back-alley shootout between two suspected kidnappers and police officers. One of those officers was “Mrs. Mendez”: Virginia Varela Mendez, the first Mexican American woman on El Paso’s police force.
“A bullet through Mrs. Mendez’s hat was the first casualty,” the article continues. “It didn’t stop the policewoman, who, from behind another post, kept firing.”
After several rounds, the kidnapper escaped. Mendez “picked up her injured hat.”
“The hole can be sewed up,” she told the reporter. The rest was “just part of the day’s work for a policewoman,” she said. “I wish I’d got hold of that fellow though. When I do I’ll make him remember it.”
Mendez joined the police force in 1919 and served on and off throughout the 1920s, as positions for women officers were eliminated, restored, and eliminated again. She kept a daily logbook that’s now held in UTEP’s C.L. Sonnichsen Special Collections Department. Her hurried cursive details evenings spent “working the streets” – arresting prostitutes and rescuing abused children, but most often in search of runaway girls. According to the logbook, she’d usually find those girls in the company of a man – willingly or not – and most often concludes these cases with “parents agreed to marriage.”
“Said to be as tough and as strong as any policeman,” according to the El Paso County Historical Society, Mendez continued in law enforcement even after her position with the police department was eliminated, going on to work as a county probation officer.
Later, she joined her daughter and son-in-law to form La Hacienda restaurant. It was Mendez, according to a 1970 El Paso Times article, who helped develop the “changeless cuisine” popular with “many prominent El Pasoans” who’d lunch at La Hacienda and “relax over a game of gin rummy before returning to their offices.” The restaurant has closed and reopened under numerous owners over the decades and is now reportedly haunted.
“Hands down, it’s no contest. El Paso’s undisputed, No. 1 hell-raiser is Carmen Felix,” wrote the El Paso Times in 1988. A housing advocate known for her fearless organizing tactics on behalf of South El Paso tenants, Felix became interested in housing issues through her work as a teacher. “I kept seeing students whose families were being asked to leave their homes,” she told the Times.
Felix arranged occupations of tenement buildings threatened with rapid demolition in the Segundo Barrio, and in the 1970s helped form a tent city in the neighborhood to fight urban removal. For this work, she was arrested more times than she could count – on charges ranging from trespassing to terroristic threats. A proud Chicana, she also advocated for community gardens throughout the neighborhood, and as executive director of the nonprofit Southside Low-Income Housing Corp, began buying buildings and houses to provide affordable homes directly to Segundo Barrio residents. “I just don’t accept things as they are,” Felix said of her work, “and I feel it is our duty as citizens to make changes for the better.”
For more Women’s History Month events in El Paso, see the El Paso County Historical Society’s events listings and the UTEP Women & Gender Studies calendar.
With special thanks to Dr. Yolanda Chávez Leyva, UTEP Special Collections librarians Claudia Rivers and Abbie Weiser; Denise Verdant, member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Incorporated; and David Dorado Romo, author of “Ringside Seat to a Revolution: An Underground Cultural History of El Paso and Juárez: 1893-1923.”