Kelly Lytle Hernández and her book “Bad Mexicans.” Photo of the author by Sebastian Hernández.
On Tuesday evening at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, historian Dr. Kelly Lytle Hernández talked to a Hatfield Lecture Series audience about her book Bad Mexicans: Race, Empire & Revolution in the Borderlands, which highlights the role of Ricardo Flores Magón and his followers (called “magonistas”) in setting the stage for the Mexican Revolution in 1910.
The lecture series is sponsored by the Oregon Historical Society.
Hernández, a professor of history and African American Studies at UCLA and the Thomas E. Lifka Endowed Chair in History, explained how Magón and the dissident magonistas fought against the regime of Mexican President Porfirio Díaz and American corporate interests in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, paving the way for the revolution that deposed the iron-fisted rule of Diaz.
The political and economic support given to Díaz, Hernández said, established U.S. imperialism in its early stages. Bad Mexicans tells the story of the magonistas’ revolt and the failed efforts to stop them by a counterinsurgency team led by the United States and Mexico.
Hernândez delivered her presentation in a well-organized, conversational style that portrayed a story little-known to white Americans of an important aspect of Mexican and cross-border history with the United States. She mentioned that school history textbooks in the U.S. do not discuss Mexican history, and Mexican American Studies are not taught in K-12 classrooms.
Magón was a writer who, along with his followers, began to criticize Díaz. In reaction, Diaz began persecuting Magon and his magonistas so much that they fled to St. Louis, Missouri by way of the Texas cities of Laredo and San Antonio. In St. Louis, they relaunched their newspaper, called “Regeneracion” (Regeneration), established a political party called the PLM, and even started an army.
Eventually the rebel army raided the small town of Jimenez, Mexico. This raid stoked incredible fear across the United States, because U.S. investors owned about a quarter of the arable land in Mexico. In addition, these investors owned key industrial holdings in mining, railroads, and more, and comprised some of the most powerful “Robber Barons” in the U.S., including the Rockefellers, the Guggenheims, and the Hearsts. By 1910, 50 percent of all U.S. foreign investment was in Mexico.
According to Hernández, the United States government decided to work very closely with the Mexican dictatorship to hunt down the magonistas in the United States, organizing a large group of spies and U.S. and Mexican agents working together to prevent a revolution in Mexico. Between 1906 and 1910 the United States departments of War, Justice, State, Labor & Commerce, along with U.S. Immigration agents and U.S. Marshalls, worked closely with the Díaz regime to extradite, deport, or imprison hundreds of magonistas across the U.S.-Mexico borderlands.
By 1910, the magonistas had organized four armed raids across Mexico from Texas, which incited the outbreak of the Mexican Revolution against Díaz. Hernández noted that the 1910 Mexican Revolution is significant because it was the world’s first social revolution of the 20th century. The belief was that if you could squash the revolution in Mexico, you could squash it anywhere. As a result, all of the world’s eyes were on Mexico in the early 20th century.
Hernández expertly explained how the magonistas were able to outrun and outsmart the combined efforts of the United States and Mexican governments by using the U.S. postal services. They sent their letters, written in code, to the post office, allowing the magonistas to being one step ahead of their pursuers.
Hernández also noted that women played an important role in the magonistas organization. For example, Maria Brousse, who was the partner of Ricardo Flores Magón, was successful in transmitting important correspondence by sewing coded messages into his clean clothes. Magon would read the message, add his comments, place it inside his laundry, and return it to Brousse, who took the message to a safe house so that important decisions about future rebel actions could be made.
Hernández also spoke about the actions of President Theodore Roosevelt and U.S. Attorney General Charles Bonaparte, who co-founded the Bureau of Investigation, a predecessor of the FBI. In an attempt to stop the Mexican Revolution from occurring, the bureau pursued the magonistas even more aggressively. These efforts resulted in rounding up and imprisoning record numbers of magonistas in the federal penitentiary in Leavenworth, Kansas.
Ultimately, these strenuous efforts by both governments were not successful. The result, according to Hernández, was that the magonistas had successfully sown the seeds of insurgency, and Mexico was en route to revolution.
According to Hernández, the success of Magón and the magonistas cannot be underestimated, because they had to battle some of the most powerful people on the earth in order to help Mexico’s poor and dispossessed. They also had to battle U.S. capitalism and economics at the dawn of the 20th century. By helping to end the 35-year regime (1876-1911) of Porfirio Diaz, the magonistas gave hope to Mexicans along the borderlands and throughout Mexico.
Hernández’ presentation was not only illuminating, but also provided an opportunity to learn about a little-known aspect of the entwined history of Mexico and the United States. This history needs to be brought to the attention of Americans and taught in schools and universities. By understanding the past, we can make more informed decisions about the issues impacting us today. Stated in another way: “The past is prologue.”