The Forgotten History of Mexican American Militancy

Justin Akers Chacón

Too often, the militant, radical history of Mexican American workers is omitted or forgotten. But from resisting racist exclusion to building CIO unions in the 1930s, Mexican American workers have been central to left-wing politics in the United States.

Workers Alliance leader Emma Tenayuca speaks to a crowd outside San Antonio City Hall, March 8, 1937. (UTSA Special Collections)

Interview by
Arvind Dilawar

On January 29, 1911, a coalition of Mexican revolutionaries and members of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), a US-based anti-capitalist labor union, crossed the border between California and the Mexican state of Baja California to launch what would come to be known as the Baja Insurrection. Many of the Mexicans belonged to the Partido Liberal Mexicano (PLM), which had announced its intentions of toppling Mexican dictator Porfirio Díaz, transferring the ownership of factories to their workers, and returning lands to Indigenous communities. Driven from Mexico to the United States by Díaz, the PLM had found solidarity with the IWW, which similarly advocated for workers’ control of production.

Growing from a small band of less than two dozen revolutionaries to hundreds of PLM members, their supporters (including Indigenous tribespeople), and IWW members, the insurrectionists seized the towns of Mexicali, Algodones, Tecate, and Tijuana, opening an early northwestern front in the Mexican Revolution. The insurrectionaries were supported by arms and funds from US radicals, including the Socialist Party — which, combined with the prospect of thousands of US-based Mexicans joining the revolution, pushed president William Taft to act.

Twenty thousand US troops sealed the border, while the US Navy secured access to ports in Baja California for Díaz’s forces. The insurrectionists held out for six months, but, without any means of reinforcing or resupplying themselves, ultimately quit the campaign. Some of them subsequently flocked to the banner of Francisco Madero, a centrist, US-backed opponent of Díaz, but those who had crossed the border were summarily arrested by US authorities for violating neutrality laws.

While short-lived, the Baja Insurrection illustrates many of the characteristics that define the historic role of Mexicans in the US left: radical, transnational, and often targeted for steep government repression. Jacobin contributor Arvind Dilawar recently spoke with Justin Akers Chacón about his book on the history of transnational Mexican working-class struggle, Radicals in the Barrio, about how participants in the Mexican Revolution brought their experiences to the early US labor and civil rights movements, and the vital position that women occupied in Mexican radicalism. Their conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.

Arvind Dilawar

How would you define the barrio? What role did the United States play in creating the barrio both stateside and in Mexico?

Justin Akers Chacón

Barrios, within the context of early twentieth-century US history, refer to the formation of Mexican working-class communities that developed along migration corridors and in proximity to capitalist industries, particularly agriculture, mining complexes, railroad hubs, fisheries, and factories.

Along the California coast, for instance, you have barrios dotting the roadmap of the multibillion dollar harvest corridor that stretches from the Imperial Valley [in southeastern California] to the San Joaquin Valley [part of the Central Valley]. Others took shape or expanded in proximity to fisheries and canneries (San Diego), near garment factories (Los Angeles, Dallas) and railroad hubs (South Texas, Chicago), and near the Cotton Belt in Texas (San Antonio). Historic Mexican barrios have stretched from Arizona mining towns to the Yakima Valley in Washington State, east across Colorado’s hard and soft rock mining regions, near the sugar beet farm complexes spanning the Great Plains states, and into the environs of Chicago’s transcontinental railyards and beyond.

Ricardo Flores Magón (L) and Enrique Flores Magón (R), Mexican journalists and anarchists, in the Los Angeles County jail, 1917.


Some of the oldest barrios in the contemporary Southwest actually predate US conquest and colonization. For instance, San Diego was established as a Spanish Catholic missionary project through the forceful colonization and attempted conversion of the original Indigenous Kumeyaay people beginning in 1769, and Los Angeles was founded as a land-grant concession to Mexican migrants (mostly Indigenous and African-descendent people from Mexico City) by the Spanish Colonial government in 1781.

It’s impossible to understand barrio formation without understanding the long and sordid history of US colonialism and imperialism in what is today the southwestern United States, especially in the second half of the nineteenth century. The US invasion of Indigenous and Mexican lands began with the uprising of slaveholders in Coahuila y Tejas in 1835 and was followed in 1846 by full-scale military invasion. This opened up a period of more than half a century of conquest and settler-colonialism across the West and Southwest.

Conquest then continued in the form of economic imperialism, through which US capitalists exported vast stocks of capital and consolidated control over much of the Mexican economy. This induced widespread social and economic displacement within Mexico, as the exploitation and sale of Mexico’s vast natural resources were repatriated as profits for US investors. This transformation of Mexico into a resource colony of the United States pushed over a million displaced Mexican people to migrate north over the first three decades of the twentieth century alone. US economic domination and political and military meddling was entrenched by the turn of the century, and the US state played kingmaker in Mexican politics, backed by US Marines. These factors contributed to the outbreak of the Mexican Revolution in 1910.

After the US invaded Mexico in 1846 and annexed its northern half in 1848 — today’s Southwest — the federal and state governments treated the conquered inhabitants the same way as it did other Indigenous peoples in the path of settler-colonialism: through violent dispossession from the land, disenfranchisement from the political system, and racialized proletarianization and segregation.

Barrio, which means “neighborhood” in Spanish, now meant something different: poverty and underdevelopment. Indigenous people were forced onto reservations and Mexicans could only live within racially restricted neighborhoods that were systematically impoverished and marginalized, excluded from civil and political participation, and brutally over-policed to keep people subjugated.

Arvind Dilawar

How did Mexican radicals fuse Indigenous traditions with European ideologies to arrive at their own unique politics? How did those politics differentiate Mexican radicals from their Anglo counterparts?

Justin Akers Chacón

Many radicals operating within Mexican territory in the early twentieth century were Indigenous people or had Indigenous roots, with ties and networks connecting to Indigenous communities. One cannot fully understand Mexican history — especially the deep-rooted resistance of the people and episodes of rebellion and revolution — without identifying the centrality of Indigenous people within that history.

Indigenous communities resisted the dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz in Mexico over its four-decade span (1876–1910), especially when the government began to sell off large swathes of their communal and ancestral lands to foreign investors in the 1880s as part of its drive to build Mexican capitalism following the US model. By the early 1900s, Indigenous radicals from different groups across the country had joined (and formed a large part of the ranks of) the proto-socialist movement founded in 1901 as the Partido Liberal Mexicano, under the leadership of the Flores Magón brothers: Ricardo, Enrique, and Jesús.

In most cases, Mexican Indigenous people did not see themselves as Mexican or part of the nation, but rather victims of it. In understanding the dynamics of revolutionary movement-building in Mexico, the radical socialist left developing around the Flores Magón brothers understood and embraced this in their internationalist framework.

The Flores Magón brothers were radicalized while attending college in Mexico City, but also drew from their own cultural knowledge and experiences. Their father was an Indigenous elder in their hometown in the Mexican state of Oaxaca, and they came of age learning the important tenets of collectivism, reciprocity, other forms of communal obligation, and mutual well-being. They developed their radical philosophies by reading European texts available at the time (Karl Marx, Mikhail Bakunin, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, etc.), while also following news stories and instances of Indigenous rebellion happening across the nation, which were becoming more widespread in the 1890s. They refracted their vision of communism through the Indigenous courage to act and power to resist, and the real-to-life models of how it could work within their Mexican Indigenous context.

Unlike their Anglo and European counterparts, most of whom embraced the tenets of American exceptionalism and ignored the plight of Indigenous populations, the magonistas made the Indigenous struggle a central component of the class struggle. They situated the importance and relevance of Indigenous liberation and struggle alongside those of the industrial and rural working classes.

Aside from Indigenous people forming their ranks and providing bases of support, the magonistas supported and helped organize and coordinate revolt in defense of Indigenous lands, and returned ancestral lands to the people in the few instances when their insurrections were successful during the revolutionary period. The direct participation of magonistas in support of Mexican revolutionary leader Emiliano Zapata and his Army of the South played an influential role in the development of the Plan de Ayala, in which the Zapatistas pledged to restore all stolen Indigenous lands over the course of the revolution.

Arvind Dilawar

Mutualistas — mutual aid organizations — served as multipurpose vehicles for the Mexican working class, approximating labor unions during times of workplace strife and civil rights advocacy groups during periods of racial persecution. Why were mutualistas at the center of radical Mexican politics?

Justin Akers Chacón

The economy of late nineteenth-century Mexico was characterized by social underdevelopment, underwritten by imperialism. Unions were outlawed by the Mexican state to maintain low wages and a high rate of exploitation for foreign capital. Under these conditions, the working class had to develop its own means and methods of self-sufficiency, mutual support and reliance, and reciprocity to meet the basic needs that were not provided by the state or nongovernmental institutions. These included burial services, medical plans, support for destitute or disabled members, etc.

In their initial self-help form, mutualistas were tolerated by the state since they posed no threat. They could even be co-opted by the state for political patronage purposes, trading demonstrations of political loyalty in exchange for benefits and rewards. Nevertheless, the class-based infrastructure of mutualistas — collectivist practices, reciprocal obligations, family and kinship relations, and overlapping memberships within the working classes in local industries — meant that they could also become mechanisms for organizing strikes and other actions at the point of production. By the turn of the century, economic and political crisis and growing social inequality led to the formation of explicit “labor mutualistas,” which represented the evolution from self-help to class-conscious, working-class defense organizations.

In the United States, Mexicans brought their mutualista traditions with them and reconstituted them across the Southwest. This practice continued as a response to the racism experienced by Mexicans and the systematic neglect and social underdevelopment of the barrios. Also, with some exceptions, most US-based unions, especially the American Federation of Labor, largely ignored or excluded Mexican workers, leaving them to their own devices.

The mutualista organizations that formed across western US states in the first three decades of the twentieth century formed the class base and functional networks for the growth and spread of the radical and revolutionary Mexican left in the US in that period, especially the magonistas of the PLM, as well as the IWW. Later, the Mexican working-class rank-and-file members of these organizations were pivotal to the organization and growth of a new labor federation, the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), in Mexican communities across the Southwest from the 1930s to early 1950s.

Arvind Dilawar

What role did repression play in catapulting Mexican women in particular to the forefront of these movements? How did they overcome the machismo of Mexican culture and the early left more generally?

Justin Akers Chacón

It’s important to recognize that machismo has been a feature and function of labor exploitation embedded in US capitalism from its inception, and has impacted women across all cultures. Not only have women historically been paid less for the same work, but racialized labor exploitation has meant that women of color are paid even less than white women. Mexican women, alongside black women, were paid the lowest wages within the formal economy.

By the 1930s, Mexican women constituted a substantial part of the working class within the gendered divisions of labor that characterized industry and employment in the Southwest. For instance, women were the majority of workers in canning and packing, garment manufacturing, and nut-shelling, as well as in domestic service, laundry service, cigar-making, and a variety of other sectors. During World War II, Mexican women became a large contingent of the labor force in wartime industries.

Mexican women were at the forefront of some of the most important episodes of militant labor organizing and strike efforts. From the barrios, they emerged as mass leaders, radical theorists, and national figures within the Communist Party and the CIO. Their leadership at many junctures of the rising labor movement during the period impacted the thinking of many men, created the basis for wider discourse on gender and sex equality, and challenged the patriarchal structures of the unions and political organizations.

Mexican women shelling pecans in a factory in San Antonio, Texas, 1939. (Lee Russell / Library of Congress)

For example, women cannery workers negotiated the first union contracts to guarantee equal pay for all workers regardless of sex, race, or nationality, paid maternity leave, and Spanish-language rights provisions guaranteeing bilingual publication of contracts, work notifications, and all other company documentation. In fact, you can see how the concept of civil rights first emerges in the hard-fought labor struggles and union contract guarantees won at the point of production at this time.

Because of their resilience and militancy, Mexican women were brutally repressed alongside the men. There is a long history of police violence against Mexican people in the barrios, including women and children. Labor unions and worker-led civil rights organizations at the time, such as the Workers Alliance in San Antonio and the Congress of Spanish-Speaking Peoples in Los Angeles, organized their communities to battle strike-breaking police and to resist and oppose the racist brutality that they experienced on a daily basis.

In numerous strikes, women were at the forefront of blocking and fighting scabs and squaring up against the police. They also protested and organized against la migra (immigration authorities), as people were routinely arrested and deported during the Great Depression, with agents directly targeting strikers, union organizers, and political radicals.

In some instances, state repression of male workers led to circumstances where women carried a strike or struggle forward. From 1908 to 1911, during the Mexican Revolution, women in the PLM were leading and coordinating a transnational movement from the Southwest to the interior of Mexico, as the male leadership faced constant police harassment and incarceration. In the 1950 Empire Zinc strike in New Mexico (memorialized in the film Salt of the Earth), the wives of striking miners took over after the corrupt local government declared the strike illegal and threatened the men with arrest if they maintained their picket lines.

In crucial junctures of US labor and radical history, Mexican working-class people have often been at the forefront — with women in the foreground.

Arvind Dilawar

What forces pushed Mexican workers to the forefront of both the labor and early civil rights movements? Why has their participation in these movements been under-acknowledged?

Justin Akers Chacón

It’s important to understand the close proximity to Mexico and the particular conditions of conquest, imperialism, and migration that led to the substantial growth of a Mexican working class within and across the United States by the 1920s. Mexicans became the largest section of the working class across major industries — agriculture, mining, railroad, and, in many cases, urban manufacturing. They were systematically oppressed across the economy to the point where the lowest wage in sectors was colloquially referred to as the “Mexican wage.” Under these conditions, Mexican were often the first to down tools or to join others who did so.

Their tendency toward explosive resistance and instincts toward organization and collective action was also a result of many workers’ participation in the Mexican Revolution. Many workers brought their experience in revolutionary armies and radical unions and revolution-era organizations with them into the farm, mining, and railroad camps. This experience, politicization, and accumulated knowledge was activated and deployed during periods of conflict and class struggle.

The proclivity of Mexican worker militancy and leadership in class struggle was recognized by farsighted socialists, anarchists, and communists. These radicals learned and understood Mexican workers as an essential component of any radical labor movement or revolutionary transformation. There were various efforts by these radicals to recognize, document, and steer their organizations or unions toward understanding, supporting, and acting in solidarity with Mexican workers.

Despite episodes of convergence between radical and revolutionary organizations with upsurges in Mexican labor struggle, these have been followed by massive state repression or ruptures and decline. This includes the growth of the IWW through its merging with the PLM in the Southwest between 1909 and 1916, which was crushed by a nationwide campaign of state terror and deportation; the building of Communist Party organizations in Mexican barrios across the Southwest in the 1930s, followed by federal and state anti-communist campaigns to repress and deport Mexican Communists and labor leaders; and the inclusion of tens of thousands of Mexican workers into the CIO by the late 1940s, followed by a full-scale mobilization by the state to destroy the predominantly black and Mexican CIO unions as part of the McCarthyite campaign to drive radicals out of the CIO and union movement altogether. In each of these episodes, Mexican and Central American labor leaders and Communists were deported en masse. McCarthyism represented a convergence of organized anti-communism and Jim Crow white supremacist reaction.

The history and knowledge of these episodes of mass Mexican labor upsurges and radicalism have been erased and buried.

Radical and Marxist Chicanas and Chicanos, politicized in the civil rights struggles of the 1960s and 1970s, began the process of reconstructing and reconnecting to this Mexican working-class history. The mass strikes, walkouts, and marches for immigrant rights and amnesty centered on May Day 2006 awoke a new generation to the power and transformational potential of the Mexican working class in the United States, as well as Central American and Caribbean workers.

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Justin Akers Chacón is an activist, labor unionist, and educator living in the San Diego-Tijuana border region. He is a professor of Chicana/o history at San Diego City College. His books include No One is Illegal (with Mike Davis) and Radicals in the Barrio.

Arvind Dilawar is a writer and editor whose work has appeared in Newsweek, the Guardian, Al Jazeera, and elsewhere.

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