A stone’s throw from the Border Wall, a refuge for reflection and community is taking shape in the form of Casa Carmelita.
Named after Carmelita Torres – a hero of the 1917 Bath Riots – the building sits blocks from the Stanton Street Bridge. According to Zeb Green, a founding member of the space, the building is named to honor the resistance and memory of Torres.
For decades, migrants and day workers crossing from Juarez into El Paso were subjected to toxic chemicals in the form of a forced “delousing” gasoline bath. Men, women, and children were stripped naked and told to stand for inspection. Secret photographs were taken and passed around publicly, even posted at local cantinas.
Torres, who was just 17 years old in 1917, stood up to the callous treatment. Described at the time as “an auburn-haired Amazon,” Torres led 30 women in protest, inspiring others to riot.
Casa Carmelita speaks to her legacy – and the role of women of color in resistance work. “It’s women of color who often bear both the inspiration to resistance and the greatest brunt of oppression,” says Green.
The ultimate vision for Casa Carmelita is “connection.”
The proximity to the Border Wall is something Casa Carmelita grapples with; the wall “stands in contradiction with what we stand for,” says Green. “It is the antithesis of connection.”
Green, who holds a Master’s in Divinity and practices a form of liberation theology, came to El Paso in the wake of the Tornillo camp. Looking to disrupt the detention of children and the treatment of migrants and refugees on the border, he connected with a group called Tornillo: The Occupation.
Now, along with a handful of activists, Green has begun work on Casa Carmelita.
“People see our protests and think we’re only fighting,” said Green. “But this space is about investing in El Paso. It’s about wanting to create and not just tear down.”
Casa Carmelita currently requires some imagination. The walls are peeling, and the rooms are bare.
Remnants of the previous tenant, a bus company, remain. Green and his team of activists are working, in conjunction with their neighbors, to transform the downtrodden building into a space for worship and learning.
There are plans for a multi-religion congregation, with worship led by local and indigenous leadership, and an altar painted to reflect the spiritual needs of the community.
Just past the altar another sacred space is taking shape in the form of a library, with books donated from Green’s personal collection and Houston’s now-defunct Sedation Bookstore.
Known once as Houston’s only anarchist bookstore, Sedation lost their physical space, but their books found a home in Casa Carmelita.
Pointing to the idea of food as medicine, Casa Carmelita will also house an initiative known as Food not Walls. Currently run out of the homes and personal kitchens of leaders, Food not Walls provides home cooked and healthy meals that resonate culturally.
At Casa Carmelita, the group will have access to a full kitchen, a food pantry, and a community dining area. Green is quick to point out that anyone in need is welcome to dine or visit the pantry.
Green’s philosophy is rooted in “listening to the voices of the marginalized and following their lead.”
This way of thinking is clear in how he speaks of the building, showing his own enthusiasm and ideas, but making space to let the community lead. It’s important to Green, and his team, that the building is locally owned and managed.
Casa Carmelita is still under construction, but they hope to open their doors later this year.