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LibreOrganize 0.6.0 - Documentation

‘Workers of America! Have we Mexicans no message for you?’

from the Nov. 2, 2022 Bulletin

Christina Heatherton teaches American studies and human rights at Trinity College in Connecticut. For two decades she has been working with social movements to produce collaborative works of political and popular education. Her latest book, Arise! Global Radicalism in the Era of the Mexican Revolution, brings to light how activists worldwide gained inspiration just over a century ago from revolutionary México. She earlier co-edited Policing the Planet: Why the Policing Crisis Led to Black Lives Matter

 

Your family is Japanese-Okinawan. So what sparked your deep interest in Mexican revolutionaries? 

My Okinawan great-uncle came to the United States via México and became a labor organizer in the fields of California’s Imperial Valley, a place where Okinawan, Japanese, Chinese, Black, Filipino, South Asian, Indigenous, poor white, and Mexican workers all labored together. These communities saw FBI raids even before Japanese and Okinawans were forced into internment camps during WWII, and labor organizers were among the first to be targeted. Federal agents showed up at my great-uncle’s door, but, according to my uncle, his father “had been down fighting with Pancho Villa, so he knew how to take care of business!”

 

I had never considered how the radical resistance of Okinawans and Japanese in the United States might have been forged through their affinity with other people, namely Mexican peasants during the Mexican Revolution. That made me want to explore the global connections between the common people who make history.

 

The Mexican Revolution evolved mainly as a peasant-based struggle for land and freedom, but the Magón brothers saw workers as foundational to the struggle. What did they do?

 

Ricardo Flores Magón and his brother Enrique grew up in a fiery period of revolts against Porfirio Díaz’s government. They saw the need for revolutionary change. Influenced by the local traditions in Oaxaca where they grew up, their Zapotec lineage, and the circulation of global revolutionary thought, they developed their own radical theories of anarcho-communism and became leading anarchist agitators. Ricardo’s first arrest came in 1892 at a student protest. That arrest sparked a life of organizing, in and out of prison, and constant surveillance from the Mexican and US governments.

Ricardo wrote for and published the radical newspaper Regeneración and later became a leader in the Partido Liberal Mexicano. The PLM played key roles in labor struggles during the lead-up to the Revolution, including the 1906 Cananea mineworkers strike in Sonora the 1907 Río Blanco textile workers strike in Veracruz.

 

Magón successfully appealed to working-class people to join the revolution, and that made him “an enemy of the state.” The Magónes had to flee to the United States, constantly moving ahead of their pursuers, to San Antonio, St. Louis, and Los Ángeles. The PLM was also organizing US workers, playing significant but largely unrecognized roles in building the Western Federation of Miners and the Industrial Workers of the World, the IWW.   

“Workers of America! Have we Mexicans no message for you?” Ricardo Magón wrote in 1914. “Do you suppose that we, over whose wealth of mine and field and forest the earth’s money-lords have warred, do not comprehend the capitalist system, or that, until we have read Karl Marx, we can be robbed of surplus value without being aware of it?”

 

Your new book develops the key concept of “convergent spaces” where international solidarity gets forged. Can you explain?

 

“Convergence spaces” are sites where people of different backgrounds and radical traditions were compressed, forced to interact, and, as a result, were able to make new meaning of their lives in struggle. Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary in Kansas offered one example. 

During World War I, many anarchists, socialists, communists, pacifists, and nationalists were convicted under new US federal laws like the Espionage and Sedition Act, including the Magón brothers, and sent to Leavenworth. These incarcerated activists transformed the prison into a so-called “university of radicalism,” a school for political education and revolution. They organized their own university, offering regular lectures and classes to each other.

Ricardo Flores Magón. Photo: Mexicanist

Records reveal the astonishing number of international magazines and journals the prisoners ordered. Prisoners also ordered many foreign language dictionaries since people spoke so many different languages and were also trying to teach and learn new ones.

 

The prisoners also traded books. For example, Six Red Months in Russia, a reflection on feminism by socialist Louise Bryant, had a long line of people eager to read it. People sentenced to Leavenworth as “criminals” often left as organizers, steeped in the internationalism they experienced first-hand in the penitentiary.

 

You note that many revolutionaries became activists not just in their own countries.

 

At the turn of the century into the early 20th century, everything from colonial dispossession and imperial rule to military aggression and capitalist immiseration were constantly forcing people to move. That movement produced astoundingly unanticipated alliances and political formations.

 

Ho Chi Minh, for instance, became a founding member of the French Communist Party in Paris before becoming one of the fiercest opponents of French colonialism and US imperialism in Vietnam. Japanese revolutionary Sen Katayama, a key opponent of Japanese imperialism and a founding member of the Communist Party USA, became beloved by Black radicals in the United States who saw in him a fighter against racism and white supremacy. 

M.N. Roy, a staunch opponent of British colonialism in India, ended up in México seeking arms and support for the Indian anti-colonial struggle and began sympathizing with the Revolution there.

 

In México, “the land of my rebirth” as he called it, Roy became a founding member of the Mexican Communist Party.

Photo: The Indian Express

The global movement of capital produced its own contradictions. Tracing activist movements allows us to comprehend an alternate formation of internationalist traditions from below.

 

We’re seeing growing interest and scholarship in understanding how México has influenced US radical history, with your book as an outstanding example.

 

Understanding the 20th century requires a more global understanding of the Mexican Revolution. As scholars like Gilbert González have argued, México was annexed twice over: first in 1848 with the treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo when the United States annexed one-third of Mexican territory. Subsequently, dramatic foreign investment informally annexed the remaining land. The US became a creditor nation for the first time in relation to Mexico.

 

By the outbreak of the Mexican Revolution, a quarter of all US investments lay in México, with US investors owning over 80 percent of Mexican mineral rights and over 22 percent of Mexico’s surface. The Revolution often gets understood as a contained nationalist event. But it’s hard to envision internationalist opposition to US hegemony arising without it.

 

Finally, I’ll say that we sometimes see “solidarity” as charity people in the United States grant to other people’s struggles. But people in the US, at this moment, are looking outside their country, particularly to the fierce leadership shown by Mexican feminists who are boldly and unapologetically fighting for all forms of bodily autonomy.

 

These feminists are also concretely helping people in the US fight repressive laws and gain access to reproductive care. Their work shows that international solidarity is less something we offer and more something we build together. 

 

Interested in reading Christina Heatherton’s just-published new book, Arise! Global Radicalism in the Era of the Mexican Revolution? At the University of California Press website, México Solidarity Bulletin readers can now pick up a copy for 30 percent off with the promo code “21W2240.”