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The Anarchist Who Authored the Mexican Revolution

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2022-10-05
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The Anarchist Who Authored the Mexican Revolution

From The New Yorker By Geraldo Cadava, October 5, 2022

A new history of the rebels led by Ricardo Flores Magón emphasizes the role of the United States in the effort to take them down.

n 1901, Ricardo Flores Magón, a journalist and political dissident in his late twenties, stood on the stage at Teatro de la Paz, in San Luis Potosí, Mexico, and denounced President Porfirio Díaz. “The Díaz administration is a den of thieves!” he shouted—not once, not twice, but three times. The crowd of anti-Díaz liberals sat in disbelief. They may have agreed with the sentiment: Díaz had stolen from too many Mexicans their land, rights, and wages. But they hadn’t heard it expressed so brazenly. At first, they hissed. Eventually, they stomped their feet and clapped loudly. The man who had convened the gathering, Camilo Arriaga, an admirer of European critics of capitalism and state power such as Karl Marx and Mikhail Bakunin, asked himself, “Where is this man taking us?”

At the time of the gathering in San Luis Potosí, Mexico was a tinderbox. Díaz had held power for two decades with support from armed henchmen called rurales, spies listening for whispers of dissent, and powerful business and political interests in Mexico and the United States. Díaz had modernized and brought stability to a young nation that, prior to him, had more than thirty leaders in its first fifty years, but, because of his ruthless tactics, his opponents had worked to dethrone him from the early years of his Presidency.

Flores Magón’s family was not among them at first. His father had fought for Díaz, but by 1901, after Díaz had persuaded the Mexican Congress to alter the constitution to allow his continuous rule, Flores Magón and his brothers had become dissidents. Ricardo Flores Magón’s radicalism helped spark the Mexican Revolution. Liberal and radical intellectuals were some of his closest associates, and poor workers were his followers—the magonistas. He communicated with them through a newspaper that he founded in 1900, called Regeneración. At first, the newspaper stood against the corruption of those who propped up the Díaz regime, including police, lawyers, and judges, but by the end of the year, as Díaz was about to be sworn in for his fifth consecutive term, it took direct aim at Díaz himself. Dissidents across Mexico took notice, and Regeneración circulated widely, earning Flores Magón the invitation to speak in San Luis Potosí. Díaz was taking notice, too.

After Flores Magón’s thunderous speech, he returned to Mexico City. Díaz’s crackdown against him was swift. Díaz had Flores Magón locked up in the dark, sewage-filled basement of Mexico City’s Belem Prison. Police raided Regeneración’s office and shut down its printing press. After Flores Magón’s release, he concluded that he couldn’t wage his campaign against Díaz from the nation’s capital, so he fled north to Laredo, Texas.

When Flores Magón was forced into exile in the United States and Canada, Regeneración was published and distributed from cities across North America. At the height of its influence, in 1905, the newspaper had nearly twenty thousand subscribers. Readers included fellow-revolutionaries Francisco Madero and Emiliano Zapata, who made a Regeneración motto—“Tierra y Libertad,” or “Land and Liberty”—his own.

Working in the United States, the magonistas became an even greater threat to Díaz. They formally established the Partido Liberal Mexicano (P.L.M.) in 1905, as the political arm of their movement. In 1906, they started building an army that, two years later, was launching military raids in northern Mexico.

The borderlands weren’t far enough to evade Díaz. The tentacles of his regime reached Mexico’s northern frontier, deep into the United States, and even into Canada. With the coöperation of U.S. agents, Mexican officials pursued Flores Magón in San Antonio, St. Louis, Montreal, and Los Angeles, where police caught up with him on August 23, 1907.

Flores Magón spent the final fifteen years of his life in and out of prison in the United States, convicted of crimes from espionage to violating U.S. neutrality, for his efforts to spark a revolution against Díaz from U.S. soil. During this period, he revealed his anarchist politics, which led many allies to abandon him. He died at Fort Leavenworth in 1922, twelve years after the start of the revolution he helped to ignite. From Leavenworth, Flores Magón wrote that a pen had been “the only weapon I have ever wielded”—“the weapon that accompanied me through the infernos of a thirty years’ struggle for what is beautiful.” He was losing his eyesight quickly, and when that happened, he lamented, his pen would be “as useless as a broken sword.”

Kelly Lytle Hernández, a historian at U.C.L.A., tells the story of Ricardo Flores Magón and his followers in her new book, “Bad Mexicans: Race, Empire, and Revolution in the Borderlands” (W. W. Norton & Company). “Bad Mexicans” is what Díaz called his opponents. But instead of bandits, swindlers, rabble-rousers, and mortal enemies, as Díaz characterized them, Lytle Hernández’s “bad” Mexicans were, and are, the dispossessed, exploited, marginalized, working-class poor, who, when working together in common cause, can topple dictators. The magonista leaders shaping the collective’s political platform were socialists and anarchists who didn’t always see eye to eye. The rank and file, as Lytle Hernández describes them, were “poor men and women, mostly miners, farmworkers, and cotton pickers, many of them displaced from Mexico when President Díaz gave their land to foreign investors.” They wanted to take back their land and get rid of Díaz “por todos medios”—by any means necessary. They helped spark a revolution.

The coming of the Mexican Revolution is hardly a new subject for historians. For decades, they have debated what ignited the decade-long conflict, from 1910 to 1920, and what interests propelled it. Were its main protagonists middle- and upper-class reformers, outlaws in the north, rural peasants in the south, or urban workers? Were they fighting only for Díaz’s removal from office and the restoration of democratic elections, or were they interested in a more fundamental transformation? These factions tussled for power and sometimes assassinated one another as they vied to shape and reshape post-Díaz Mexico.

Lytle Hernández’s contribution is her focus on the radical magonistas and the U.S. government’s collaboration with Díaz to combat them. Historians and politicians have long recognized them as “precursors” of the Revolution. Political radicals on both sides of the Atlantic have expressed admiration for the magonistas for a century. The magonistas have received some attention, but less than figures such as Francisco (Pancho) Villa, a leader of the División del Norte, of Chihuahua, Mexico. Photographers, filmmakers, and journalists followed his exploits. He was a revolutionary made for Hollywood. So was Emiliano Zapata, the agrarian leader from Morelos, Mexico, who inspired Elia Kazan’s 1952 film, “Viva Zapata!,” starring Marlon Brando as a rather unconvincing Zapata.

There is no Hollywood movie about the magonistas, although reading “Bad Mexicans” is like watching one. It moves from scene to scene as characters make bold proclamations, write letters in code, escape the grasp of government agents, become romantically involved, slander one another, get arrested and imprisoned, and live and die by the sword—and gun, and pen. The scene of Flores Magón’s August, 1907, arrest is particularly dramatic. Two private detectives had been tracking Flores Magón for months. By the time they caught up with him, they had enlisted the help of the Los Angeles Police Department. Two Mexican American L.A.P.D. detectives, Tomás Rico and J. F. Talamantes, busted into the home where he was staying, and an hour-long brawl ensued. They broke dishes and chairs inside, then spilled out into the yard, where Flores Magón fell to the ground, bloody and unconscious. Rico and Talamantes tied Flores Magón down with ropes. Once he was revived, Flores Magón kicked and screamed—like a “clawing cat,” the Los Angeles Times reported—the whole way to jail. The Los Angeles businessman Edward Doheny, the owner of a Mexican company that produced a majority of Mexico’s oil, celebrated by hosting a lavish party.

Rico and Talamantes had arrested Flores Magón with neither a warrant nor formal charges, making it seem for a brief period that he would be released. But the Mexican and U.S. governments had been devising a plan that proved successful: Flores Magón would be charged with violating the U.S. Neutrality Act, for attempting to incite a revolution in Mexico, a friendly nation, from within the United States.

Lytle Hernández pieces together the magonista story from their writings in Regeneración, newspaper clippings, books and stories about them, and thousands of letters intercepted by Mexican and U.S. agents, which they shared with one another and with their bosses in Mexico City and Washington, D.C., respectively. These letters are curated for researchers in archives managed by the Mexican and U.S. governments, such as the Secretary of Foreign Relations and the Porfirio Díaz archives in Mexico City, and the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration in College Park, Maryland, where they have inspired a handful of recent books, including Gabriela González’s “Redeeming La Raza,” Nicole M. Guidotti-Hernández’s “Archiving Mexican Masculinities in Diaspora,” and Sonia Hernández’s “For a Just and Better World.” It is ironic that a full accounting of the history of the magonistas is only possible thanks to the preservation of archives by governments that anarchists hoped to banish from existence.

When Díaz rose to power, one of his supporters argued that Mexicans were less concerned with rights and more concerned with bread. He said, “We have already enacted innumerable rights, which produce only distress and malaise in society. Now let us try a little tyranny, but honorable tyranny, and see what results it brings.”

Díaz’s approach achieved results: there were no more coups or foreign invasions, the health of Mexicans improved, literacy rates increased, and Mexico was electrified. His regime’s motto was “Order and Progress.” But the cost of order and progress was the violent suppression of dissent. Díaz imprisoned or executed those who challenged him publicly, eroded the democratic principles of the 1857 constitution, rigged elections, and imposed his will on the Mexican Congress, which he called his “herd of tame horses.”

Díaz literally sold Mexico to foreign interests. Millions of acres were sold to U.S. agriculture, railroad, and mining companies. Ninety-eight per cent of Mexico’s rural and Indigenous population was left landless, whereas U.S. businessmen and the élite Mexicans who collaborated with them grew rich. The Guggenheim, Rockefeller, and Doheny families in the United States, and the Terrazas and Madero families in Mexico, among many others, reaped the profits of Díaz’s rule. As a result, titans such as Andrew Carnegie claimed that Díaz was “one of the greatest rulers in the world, perhaps the greatest of all, taking into consideration the transformation he has made in Mexico.”

Flores Magón’s politics in the early years of his career were shaped by a focus on overthrowing Díaz himself. He criticized the regime for catering to foreign and domestic capitalists instead of workers, its anti-democratic tendencies, and its theft of lands held by rural and Indigenous people. According to Lytle Hernández, the magonistas argued that a blow to Díaz would be a blow to U.S. investors, because, without Díaz, they “would no longer be able to make and multiply their fortunes in Mexico.” And a blow to capitalists would be a boon for the U.S. labor movement, because employers would have fewer resources with which to suppress their employees. The P.L.M.’s 1906 platform proposed a ban on Chinese immigration, but Lytle Hernández claims that Flores Magón probably opposed it. For him, it was capitalism that fomented “racial hatred.”

Flores Magón was in some respects a feminist, denouncing marriage as an institution that “placed the wife under the custody of the husband.” He also argued that women should take up arms. Yet he and other magonistas criticized same-sex relationships and didn’t always challenge traditional gender roles. “Your duty is to help man,” an article in Regeneración, published on September 24, 1910, said, right before the outbreak of the Revolution. Still, women played important roles in the movement. One magonista in Texas was a poet named Sara Estela Ramírez. After reading Regeneración for the first time, she started a club for local supporters of the movement, as well as her own feminist newspaper. Women also smuggled letters to magonista leaders in jail, and when the men were imprisoned they held the movement together.

Flores Magón’s life partner, María Brousse, whom he had met shortly after arriving in Los Angeles, managed all of the magonista correspondence sent to and from Los Angeles. She sheltered magonistas when they passed through town. Flores Magón said, of her, “She is prepared for any excursion no matter how dangerous. She does not inquire if she will be in danger of death. She simply gives herself to the cause. Such self-abnegation is not to be found among our brothers.”

Magonistas evaded the reach of the Mexican government by seeking refuge in California, Arizona, and Texas. They planned raids that were carried out in northern Mexico. Some of their most loyal followers were Mexican immigrants who lived in the borderlands and experienced the violence of “Juan Crow”—the Jim Crow era’s analogue for Mexicans and Mexican Americans, during which they were kept out of certain schools and restaurants, and became victims, as an article in Regeneración put it, of the “racist mob or the abusive police that, inebriated with the savage spirit of Lynch, has bloodied its hands, taking the lives of the innocent and defenseless.”

Publicly, the Díaz regime tried to reassure Mexicans and U.S. investors that the magonistas were only a minor bother. Privately, Díaz understood the threat they posed and tried to crush them. He sent his most loyal officers after the magonistas, to plot kidnappings, intercept mail, and beg U.S. officials to take their challenge seriously. He argued repeatedly that instability and regime change wouldn’t be good for U.S. investments. Investors and politicians stood by Díaz until his final months in office.

Lytle Hernández adds magonistas to the list of threats that led to the establishment of the Bureau of Investigation—the precursor to the F.B.I.—in 1908. Among the most oft-cited are European anarchists, the Mob, sex traffickers, and land fraud, but Lytle Hernández shows how the U.S. government built a modern surveillance state in response to the magonistas as well. One of the first assignments of the Bureau of Investigation was to follow magonistas from hideout to hideout. The magonistas also forced conversations between U.S. and Mexican officials about extradition, laws governing the opening of mail sent through the U.S. Postal Service, and whether the magonistas violated U.S. neutrality laws. The establishment of the F.B.I. in response to the magonistas depicts how the U.S. government has approached the borderlands as an entry point for dangerous individuals and ideas for more than a century.

Throughout the life of the magonista movement, its socialist and anarchist members debated whether they would challenge Díaz electorally through the P.L.M. It seemed like a possibility in the early years of the movement, when the socialists persuaded Flores Magón to suppress his anarchism in official pronouncements. But, as the Revolution broke out, the socialists in the magonista movement either abandoned Flores Magón or were rejected by him. The remaining members of La Junta were committed anarchists.

By the time the Revolution began, in November, 1910, anti-Díaz forces had rallied around Madero, who charted a more moderate course, calling for Díaz’s removal but not for the destruction of the Mexican state. Government officials in Mexico and the United States recognized that the tide had turned against Díaz. His stalwart supporters in the U.S. declined to come to his aid. Díaz proposed to serve out his term but swore he would not run for reëlection. Díaz’s opponents, whose ranks grew every day, insisted that he step down immediately.

After nearly thirty years, Díaz finally vacated the Presidency on May 9, 1911. He boarded a ship headed for France, never to return. A few months after Díaz left, Madero became the President of Mexico. Following the Revolution’s course from the sidelines, Flores Magón still tried to shape its animating ideas.

In September, 1911, Flores Magón and his remaining allies published a new magonista manifesto. In it, he openly identified as an anarchist for the first time. He was dismayed that Mexicans were rallying behind moderates such as Madero. Every leader promised “political liberty,” they wrote, but only his movement would help marginalized Mexicans “take the lands, the machinery, the means of transport, and the houses immediately, without waiting for anyone to give you all this, without waiting for some law to decree these things, because the laws are not made by the poor, but rather by the frock-coated bosses who guard well against making laws to the disadvantage of their own caste.”

In practical terms, Flores Magón’s vision rested on the abolition of private property, which would necessarily mean “the annihilation of all political, economic, social, religious, and moral institutions that comprise the ambient within which free initiative and the free association of human beings are smothered.” Without private property, they continued, “there would be no reason for government, which is necessary solely for the purpose of keeping the disinherited within bounds in their quarrels or in their rebellions against those who hold social wealth; neither would there be reason for the church, whose only object is to strangle the innate human rebellion against oppression and exploitation through the preaching of patience, resignation and humility, and through quieting the call of the most powerful and fertile of instincts through immoral, cruel, and unhealthy penances.”

By the time he articulated his radical vision, few were listening. Subscriptions to Regeneración were declining. The number of core leaders had dwindled to just a handful of devotees. The starkness of Flores Magón’s position alienated even Mother Jones, who concluded that the remaining magonistas were “one and all a combination of unreasonable fanatics, with no logic in their arguments.” But Flores Magón was also criticized for not being committed enough. One of the most militant magonistas, Práxedis Guerrero, asked, “¿Hombres?” (“Are you men?”), when Flores Magón and a handful of others decided to remain in Los Angeles to write for Regeneración instead of joining him in battle.

Yet in the minds of Flores Magón’s followers, even those who would eventually abandon his cause, his ideas had helped to inspire a revolution. When Flores Magón died, in 1922, Antonio Díaz Soto y Gama, a former magonista who had become a Mexican congressman, called him the Revolution’s “intellectual author.”

Like Flores Magón, Lytle Hernández’s pen is her sword; her writing is a monument to the belief that language can change the world. As much as any historian, she has shone a light on the injustices of systemic racism, the cruelty of immigrant policing, and “white settler supremacy,” as she describes it, which has led to the mass incarceration of Black and brown people for a very long time. She keeps lit the torch of radical activism, especially for liberals and progressives in search of historical inspiration for their ongoing struggles against racially motivated police brutality and an exploitative capitalist system that empowers bosses instead of workers.

Her first book, “Migra!,” published in 2010, is a history of the U.S. Border Patrol that lays bare the racist discrimination experienced by Mexican immigrants, and the Mexican government’s complicity in it. Her second book, “City of Inmates,” is a sweeping history of “human caging” in Los Angeles. Its final pages, “The Rebel Archive,” are written not by Lytle Hernández but, rather, by the activists and organizers she is in dialogue with. She gives them the final words, which establishes a conversation between the history she has written and the present moment.

For Lytle Hernández, the magonistas offer two main lessons for today. The first is that Mexicans and Mexican Americans like them—and Latinos in general—should be recognized as “major players in U.S. history,” instead of getting “shunted to the sidelines.” This much is inarguable, but feels bland considering that the people she wrote about were revolutionaries intent on eliminating state institutions. The second lesson packs more of a punch: the ordinary people who were magonistas—migrants, exiles, farmworkers, sharecroppers, miners, intellectuals—comprised an “extraordinary political force.” But here their legacy is less clear.

As Lytle Hernández sees it, the magonistas were in many ways successful. A relatively small band of intellectuals and ordinary Mexicans helped topple powerful politicians, business interests, and well-armed forces in Mexico and the United States. Many of their ideas were incorporated into the Mexican constitution of 1917, which appropriated and redistributed land, and stripped the Catholic Church of authority. She concludes, “In the process of confronting the Díaz regime in Mexico, they rattled the workshop of U.S. empire, challenged the global color line, threatened to unravel the industrialization of the American West, and fueled the rise of policing in the United States. . . . Some of the most powerful people on earth tried to suppress them and their story, but Ricardo Flores Magón and the magonistas altered the course of history, defining the world in which we live by defying the world in which they lived.”

But in other respects the magonistas also clearly lost, and their story offers more complicated lessons. The movement’s leaders grew estranged from one another, their final military maneuvers ended in defeat, Díaz repressed their raids mightily, and their increasingly radical calls for anarchism alienated even some of the most committed magonistas, not to mention the followers of those who seized power during the Mexican Revolution. Moreover, even though Mexico hasn’t since had a single dictator like Porfirio Díaz, it was ruled by a single party—now called the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (P.R.I.)—for seventy years. The P.R.I. maintained its power through political repression, state monopolies on major industries, and electoral tampering.

Indeed, over the past century, Mexico has hardly become the kind of nation that Flores Magón wished to bring into existence, which is to say that it is a nation, with a government. Instead of latter-day magonistas, drug cartels and the military, suspected of being involved in the killing of forty-three students who had participated in left-wing protests, threaten political stability. Mexico also remains a nation of yawning inequalities. The top ten per cent of Mexican earners make fifty-seven per cent of all income. As for the United States, it is unclear whether this nation—where the top ten per cent of earners make forty-five and a half per cent of the total income—is more like Mexico in the early eighteen-seventies or Mexico in the early nineteen-hundreds. We may well be a nation prepared to accept authoritarian rule, instead of a nation willing to fight for a multiracial democracy that makes real stated principles like liberty and equality for all.

Given these difficult realities, to simply uplift the magonistas doesn’t do justice to the gravity of their moment, or ours. When we consider how the magonistas might shape our present and future activism, should we be inspired by their unbending principles; their socialism or anarchism; their belief that ideas can change the world; their civic protests or calls for armed revolution? Maybe the answer is all of the above, although it is unclear which will be most likely to rattle power today, when the tools of state repression feel as powerful as ever. Some of Flores Magón’s beliefs are in line with progressivism today, but his most radical conclusions probably wouldn’t find much more of a following now than they did a hundred years ago. Reading Lytle Hernández’s admiring words about the magonistas, many Americans might ask a question similar to the one Camilo Arriaga posed in 1901, after Flores Magón’s speech in San Luis Potosí: Where will this take us? ♦