Rebels on the Border

Bad Mexicans: Race, Empire, and Revolution in the Borderlands, by Kelly Lytle Hernández, W.W. Norton, 2022

“Pobre Mexico! Tan lejos de Dios, y tan cerca de los Estados Unidos.” 

 (“Poor Mexico! So far from God, and so close to the United States.”)

This famous quote is generally attributed to Porfirio Díaz, the Mexican general and autocrat who ruled Mexico almost completely uninterrupted from 1876 to 1911. His rule, known as the Porfiriato, brought rapid industrialization and proletarianization to agrarian Mexico. He attracted considerable investment from the U.S. industrial elite, using the powers of the Mexican state to create new markets and industries – mining, manufacturing, and rail corporations – all while functionally turning Mexico into a client state of the United States. His government routinely suppressed labor agitation and consistently rigged elections to ensure stable markets for his corporate allies. Díaz’s regime arrested dissident journalists, shut down opposition newspapers, and eliminated the right to assembly. But his autocratic rule sowed the seeds of its own demise. By the early 1900s, Díaz faced the forces that would ultimately end his reign and launch the first major revolution of the 20th century: Ricardo Flores Magón, his magonistas, and the Partido Liberal Mexicano (PLM).    

In Bad Mexicans: Race, Empire, and Revolution in the Borderlands, Kelly Lytle Hernández brings new light to the story of Magón, his comrades, and the forgotten role their politics and actions played in the lead-up to the Mexican Revolution. In a work of history that reads like a novel, we meet Ricardo and his siblings in Mexico City in the 1890s, where they are young activists organizing with Camilo Arriaga, the leader of the Liberals, the main organized faction that was publicly critical of Díaz. Their critiques of the government frequently lead them into trouble. In 1900, the Magón brothers helped to found a newspaper, Regeneración (Regeneration). The paper’s initial liberal criticism became a more radical line over time. This editorial shift was met with increased surveillance and crackdowns, and in 1904, the Magón brothers fled across the border to the United States with a plan to raise an army to overthrow Díaz.

The brothers agitated, raised money, and published articles in Regeneración against Díaz, organizing and energizing the small but growing Mexican diaspora in the United States. Along the way, they encountered some of the most famous socialists of their time, including Emma Goldman, “Big Bill” Haywood, Eugene Debs, and Mother Jones. They helped the Western Federation of Miners and International Workers of the World organize, and inspired cross-border radical action in the 1906 Cananea miners’ strike in Sonora. They used that moment to formalize their movement by founding the PLM in St. Louis, vowing to restore democracy to Mexico and remove Díaz “por todos medios” – by any means necessary. 

Although the platform they drafted demanded land reform, guaranteed public education, a national minimum wage, and restrictions on foreign land ownership, it was watered down from Ricardo’s more revolutionary vision of the total abolition of private property. It also very controversially included a ban on Chinese immigration, a provision that Ricardo was militantly against. Nevertheless, the platform was approved by the party and was wildly popular among the masses on both sides of the border.

The mobilizing effect of the magonistas words in Regeneración was a clear and present threat to the political and economic power of Díaz’s corporate-friendly regime, and the magonistas quickly found themselves in danger from the violent arms of two governments and the business class. They responded by building an army and launching raids to seize control of Mexican towns on the border. Thorns in the side of the Díaz regime, they evaded the Pinkertons (private security forces) and the U.S. and Mexican armies for years. And they generated sympathy for their cause both among the working people of Mexico and the growing organized Left in the United States. 

With every successful evasion and raid, they delegitimized Díaz’s government and emboldened the opposition. By 1910, many in Mexico rallied around a reformist presidential candidate named Francisco Madero. When it was clear that Díaz would lose, the government arrested Madero and declared Díaz the winner.

The uprisings that followed proved too large and numerous for the Mexican army to contain. Díaz fled the country; thus began the Mexican Revolution. Magón and his followers were popular, but Magón’s commitment to the anarchist belief in the immediate abolition of the state by an independent working class rising up meant that he was quickly usurped by others who claimed the mantle of the revolution. Many moved on from the PLM, joining instead with figures such as Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata as widespread fighting began.

Ultimately, Venustiano Carranza, a centrist friendly with U.S.interests, won out with U.S. help. He crushed the most radical elements of the revolution while making several major concessions to them in the new constitution, passing land reform and nationalizing natural resources. 

Magón stayed in the Los Angeles area through this period, writing further about his true revolutionary beliefs and attempting to agitate for the total abolition of the state and private property. He found himself in trouble with the U.S. government again during the First World War for his vocal criticisms of the draft; was arrested under the Espionage Act of 1917; and ultimately died in federal custody in Kansas in 1922. His name and memory live on in Mexico, albeit not with the same revolutionary fervor he maintained.

The history of the Mexican Revolution has been largely overlooked by the modern U.S. Left. When there is interest, it is largely in the heroics of the larger-than-life Villa and Zapata or to the constitutional provisions that expropriated the oil industry and redistributed communal land. In Bad Mexicans, Hernández pushes us to look earlier, to the battles of Magón and his comrades. We see how a band of everyday people became revolutionaries who inspired a nation to rise up against injustice and oppression to fight for land and liberty for all. And it’s a reminder that the struggles of our two countries often go hand in hand.