A Newly Discovered Article by Tina Modotti, Published for the First Time in English

Revolutionary photographer Tina Modotti’s article on the murder of her Cuban communist lover Julio Antonio Mella lay forgotten in the Moscow archives for decades. On the 80th anniversary of her death, we publish it in English for the first time.

Tina Modotti (front right) stars as Maria de la Guarda in the film The Tiger’s Coat, 1920. (Galerie Bilderwelt / Getty Images)

Tina Modotti lived a remarkable revolutionary life. Born in Italy in 1896 before moving to San Francisco at age sixteen, she soon became a star of stage and screen — and then made her name behind the camera, as a photographer. But in the years when her homeland was taken over by Fascist dictatorship, Modotti was also radicalized politically. During her 1920s spell in Mexico, her varied artistic ventures became intertwined with her comradeship with such figures as Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. Over the 1930s, her activism as a Communist would see her repeatedly shunted between countries as an exile — and eventually head to the Civil War in Spain.

“Woman from Tehuantepec” (Tina Modotti / Wikimedia Commons)

An especially important focus of Modotti’s political activity until her death in 1942 was International Red Aid, a Comintern-attached organization that defended and offered relief to the victims of political repression. From 1927, she was also an active member of the Mexican Communist Party, a commitment that made its mark on her photographic work in this period. Modotti texts such as On Photography sternly insisted she sought not to be an “artist” but to capture social realities. Works such as “Worker’s Hands” and “Woman from Tehuantepec” documented the dignity, and the hardships, of the Mexican working people.

One of Modotti’s key comrades was Julio Antonio Mella, whom she met at a 1928 march in honor of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, and whom she also had a romantic relationship with. Mella was a key figure in the Latin American left and is today celebrated by the Cuban Communist Party as one of its historic founders. Yet Mella’s life was tragically cut short, as he was murdered in Mexico City on January 10, 1929, when he was just twenty-five years old. The most likely culprit was Gerardo Machado’s dictatorship in Havana, of which Mella was a prominent opponent. The Mexican press instead sought to implicate Modotti herself, in a smear campaign heavily drawing on crude aspersions about her sexual morality. Members of Machado’s regime later boasted of hiring the killers.

The article we present here was originally written at the start of 1932, on the third anniversary of the assassination. By this point Modotti was in Moscow, following her expulsion from Mexico. It was likely drafted for the organ of the International Red Aid, but was apparently never published and for decades remained forgotten. The text was discovered in the Moscow archives after the fall of the USSR by researcher Christiane Barckhausen-Canale, a Modotti specialist who has written extensively on the revolutionary photographer’s life and works. Thanks to her, it was released online in Italian and Spanish by the Cuban embassy in Rome in 2020. On the eightieth anniversary of Modotti’s death, we present it in English for the first time.

New Light Shed on the Assassination of Julio Antonio Mella, on the Eve of the Third Anniversary of his Murder

The assassination of Julio Antonio Mella in the streets of the Mexican capital on January 10, 1929, was one of the most sensational political crimes committed anywhere in the world in recent years. Undoubtedly, everyone still remembers the details.

Mella was one of the most outstanding leaders of the revolutionary movement in Latin America. Cuban by birth, he began his activity in the revolutionary movement by organizing students into leftist organizations. Thanks to him, a Popular University for the workers was created in Cuba. Soon after, he understood that his best service to the revolutionary cause would be to dedicate all his knowledge, all his abilities, to the political and economic struggles of the proletariat. He was one of the founders of the Cuban Communist Party and one of the most prestigious leaders of the Latin American anti-imperialist movement.

In December 1925, with Machado, the current bloody dictator and Wall Street agent, already in power, Mella was imprisoned and began a hunger strike that lasted twenty-one days. From the point of view of agitation and as a form of protest, this hunger strike was one of the most effective ever carried out in any country. As the days passed and Mella’s physical condition worsened, putting his very life on the line, tremendous tension reigned not only among the Cuban population but in the entire American continent and in other countries as well. The pressure of the masses was so great that President Machado was forced to give in and release Mella.

A 1928 photograph of Julio Antonio Modotti. (Tina Modotti / Wikimedia Commons)

But very soon, when Mella had recovered, the persecution against him began. Machado was seeking revenge for his defeat. There were several attempts on Mella’s life, and he was forced to leave Cuba. He went to Mexico where he immediately began to participate in that country’s revolutionary movement. He dedicated all his time to the cause of the revolutionary workers, organized the Cuban political émigrés living in Mexico, founded a newspaper for the Cuban workers that reached Cuba clandestinely, carried out the struggle against US imperialism in Latin America, directed the work of other groups of Cuban political émigrés living in other countries, was active in the Red Union of Mexico and was an active collaborator of the Mexican section of the International Red Aid.

On January 10, 1929, after he left the Red Aid headquarters in Mexico City, at nine o’clock at night, two blocks from his home, he was shot and died two hours later. Before dying, he named President Machado as responsible for this assassination and pronounced the name of the person he suspected of being the executor of the crime.

The Mexican section of the Red Aid immediately began investigations and was able to find concrete evidence: in fact, President Machado had sent two professional gunmen from Havana to Mexico City to commit the crime, and one of the main Mexican police officers who had traveled two weeks earlier to Havana would be an important accomplice in this assassination. There had even been an agreement between the Cuban ambassador and the Mexican government.

The Mexican Red Aid, the Mexican Communist Party, labor unions, leftist student organizations, workers’ organizations, and even famous lawyers and politicians demanded that justice be done. For several weeks, the Mexican government received protests from all over the world and hypocritically declared, through the mouth of the police, that Mexico would not rest until the matter had been cleared up. The most important demands were the following: the arrest and punishment of several Cubans living in Mexico, inculpated by Mella before his death; the resignation of [police commissioner] Valente Quintana from his post; and the breaking of diplomatic relations with Machado’s government.

But what did happen? The only Cuban arrested by the police, the technical organizer of the crime, was released, after a few weeks, for “lack of evidence”; Valente Quintana was not fired but was appointed chief of the central police of Mexico (no doubt to reward him for his participation in the crime); and all the protest demonstrations of the Mexican masses were sabotaged and attacked by the police.

As far as the bourgeois press and the Mexican government were concerned, little by little the case disappeared from the foreground, and only the Red Aid and the other revolutionary organizations insisted on their tireless denunciations, directed against Machado and the accomplices of the Mexican government. Every year, January 10 is, all over the American continent, “Mella’s Day,” and also this year preparations have already been made for the third anniversary of his assassination, and recently some sensational public statements about the assassination appeared.

A woman, the wife of a Cuban who belonged to criminal circles, wanted to take revenge on her husband who had threatened to murder her. On November 3, she called the police and recounted in great detail how Mella had been murdered. She accused her husband of having been the murderer. Everything she told confirmed the accusations presented at the time of the crime by the Red Aid. Her accusations were investigated one after the other and were confirmed: a year later, her husband had received from Havana a sum of money that he had taken from a certain bank in Mexico (the price paid to him for the crime). It was also demonstrated that after the crime the murderer had found refuge in the house of another Cuban — one José Magriñát, accused by Mella shortly before his death. Now the murderer is in jail, and several witnesses appeared who confirm the accusations pronounced by the murderer’s wife.

The Mexican section of the International Red Aid asked the Mexican authorities to include three of its representatives in the investigations, but the fascist government flatly rejected this request.

This is another proof of the complicity of the Mexican government in the assassination planned by the Cuban dictator, Machado. Instead of punishing José Magriñát, the technical organizer of the crime, the Mexican government let him go free and protected him, having him escorted to the nearest port where he took a ship bound for Cuba. Undoubtedly, the material executor of the crime will receive the same protection. In a few weeks, the corrupt bourgeois press will again talk about the case, but all kind of help will be given the assassin so that he can escape the vengeance of the Mexican proletariat. This proletariat will never forget that Mella died for the international revolutionary cause.

This year, the third anniversary of his death will have a new meaning; it will offer all the sections of the International Red Aid the possibility of demonstrating once again — and with new proofs — the hypocrisy of bourgeois “justice.”