U.S.-Mexican relations from a century ago reveal current labels

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By Andy Douglas

The book called “Bad Mexicans” has an intriguing title, to be sure. Written by UCLA historian Kelly Lytle Hernandez, its subtitle — “Race, Empire, and Revolution in the Borderlands” — contextualizes the irony somewhat.

Underscoring Hernandez’s title is the fact that humans have a history of labeling immigrants, using rhetoric to cast them as outsiders, less than, undeserving, or dangerous. Remember Donald Trump’s “bad hombres?”

The people Hernandez refers to were not bad people; on the contrary, they were fighting for an important cause. She tells the story of a small group of revolutionaries known as Magonistas, after their leader, Ricardo Flores Magon. Leading up to the revolution that overthrew Mexican president/dictator Porfirio Diaz in 1910, they traveled around the southern United States, rallying Mexican workers and American support for their cause.

It’s a fascinating story. The Magonistas published a regular newspaper (Regeneracion), created a network of supporters, raised a small army, and attacked several towns across the border. Under the banner “Tierra y Libertad,” they also formed a political party called the PLM (Liberal Mexican Party).

Their plan to redistribute land and nationalize industries in Mexico if they gained power threatened not only the Diaz regime but also American investors. And here was the rub.

What was going on in Mexico in the early part of the 20th century? Diaz had ruled as dictator for 27 years, flinging open the doors to foreign investors, and Americans were getting rich on railroads, oil, and mining. Meanwhile, thousands of Mexicans had been evicted from their land in order to make room for this “industrial development.”

By 1900, Americans owned 130 million acres in Mexico, a quarter of the country’s arable land. By 1910, 75,000 Americans lived there.

Said William Randolph Hearst, “I really don’t see what is to prevent us from owning all of Mexico and running it to suit ourselves.”

Diaz dispatched soldiers to quash any protests, especially of the Yaqui Indigenous people in northern Mexico, whom he sent to the jungles of southern Mexico to work as slave labor. In fact, his soldiers killed more than 10,000 during his rule.

Diaz’s cozy relationship with American elites allowed him to request the U.S. to crack down on the Magonistas. The search for Magon and his followers, in fact, led to the formation of the FBI, whose first case it was to track Magon.

The situation also represents one of the first uses of the U.S. Postal Service to track insurgents. Though intercepting letters was a federal crime, several loopholes were concocted, allowing feds to track many of Magon’s correspondents.

An important point to understand is that U.S. investment in Mexico precipitated the rise of Mexican migration. Dispossessed of their land, millions crossed the border in search of work.

It was the beginning of a pattern that would lead to Latinos being one of the largest demographics in the U.S. These migrants built the railroads and industries of the West while confronting white supremacy, low wages, and a racially-based immigration system dubbed “Juan Crow.”

They comprised up to 90% of railroad track crews in the region and worked the copper mines, cattle, and cotton.

In Texas, where many Mexicans settled, white settlers sometimes attempted to clear them from the land, often by raising land taxes. When debt failed, lynch mobs arrived. Between 1848 and 1928, 550 Mexican workers were lynched. There were also several widespread massacres of Mexican settlers.

As Diaz became more repressive, Magon and his followers, as well as other dissidents in Mexico, began making strides in their campaign. Their support grew as news of increasing corruption in Mexico reached the American public.

Labor relations in Mexico were described as “slavery” by the New York Times. A Congressional hearing on Mexican treatment of workers and U.S. complicity began to turn American opinion against Diaz.

Besides telling a cracking story about our closest neighbor’s fight for liberty (though the gains of the revolution are often transitory), the book prompts reflection. The irony of current anti-immigrant rhetoric is rich: talk of an “invasion” when it was originally an invasion of American land-grabbers that prompted the movement of Latinos into the U.S. (Of course, much of the U.S. once belonged to Mexico).

Similarly, the U.S. role in Central American politics has led to an influx of refugees coming here in recent years.

When we call people “bad,” it bears asking: Who is leveling the accusation and what do they stand to gain by it? Working people of various nations often have more in common with each other than they do with the wealthy elites of their own country. Are they “bad” for standing up for their rights?

By Andy Douglas

Source: Iowa City Press-Citizen

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