How the US Thwarted Radical Revolution in MexicoHistorians in the News
tags: radical history, mexican revolution, Ricardo Flores Magon, Magonistas
Geraldo Cadava is a professor of history and Latino studies at Northwestern University, and the author of The Hispanic Republican: The Shaping of an American Political Identity, from Nixon to Trump.
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.”
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