In his 2005 book Ringside Seat to a Revolution, the historian David Dorado Romo chronicles the often garish manner in which the Mexican Revolution—one of the first mass uprisings of the twentieth century—was consumed and commodified by American spectators. His account centers on his hometown of El Paso, which, when large-scale hostilities broke out in 1911, became awash with journalists, photographers, and filmmakers as well as thrill seekers and tourists who posed for photographs with Mexican insurgents across the river, sitting atop their horses with borrowed rifles and bandoliers. During the Battle of Ciudad Juárez, real estate owners in downtown El Paso charged up to a dollar for a place on one of the various rooftops that overlooked the fighting, and when the dust finally settled, sightseeing cars advertised trips across the river to view the ruined city.
In his prologue, Romo describes the long cross-border wanderings he once made in search of the ghost of revolutionary leader Pancho Villa, visiting the hotels where he stayed in exile, the homes where he visited his multiple wives, and the confectionery shops where he sat eating ice cream and peanut brittle—locations long since torn down or replaced by Burger Kings and dollar stores, none with so much as a tiny placard to honor their historical significance. The stories of this binational community, Romo realized, constitute a long-marginalized history. Why has the border always been presented as an obscurity, he asks, despite being the site of century-defining uprisings and social movements? “Maybe,” Romo suggests, “because the history of the border has never been considered a truly American history.”
When I was growing up in Arizona’s public school system, my encounters with “border history”—which is to say, the history of the region in which I lived—were almost nonexistent. Instead, my classmates and I learned in detail about events that unfolded in places most of us had never been, studying European wars and transatlantic trade, the outbreak of revolution and civil war along our country’s East Coast. Stories closer to home all seemed to hinge upon timeworn mythologies of pioneers and settlers who “tamed the West,” winning terrain from “hostile natives” and bestowing it with familiar names. In high school, there were short units on the Mexican–American War and Texan independence, with the Mexican Revolution even more briefly sketched—a mere page or two in our hulking textbooks.
The most recent book from the MacArthur award–winning historian Kelly Lytle Hernández, Bad Mexicans: Race, Empire, and Revolution in the Borderlands, takes a very different approach, casting the border as ground zero for continental change. Hernández does this by following the exploits of a little-known revolutionary, Ricardo Flores Magón, and his motley crew of magonistas—dogged journalists, downtrodden workers, and all manner of political dissidents drawn together by international networks of solidarity. What is profound about Hernández’s portrayal is the way it reverberates outward from Mexico, through the borderlands, and deep into the interior of the United States and even Canada, casually brushing aside the notion that this era of upheaval was in any way confined by our frontier and framing it instead as part of a truly American story. “The 1910 Mexican Revolution,” Hernández writes, “is a seminal event in US history: it changed who we are as a people.”
The borderlands are familiar terrain for Hernández. Her first book, Migra!: A History of the US Border Patrol (2010), traced the growth of the agency from a tiny outfit of “Chinese inspectors” and rough-and-ready cowboy lawmen to an enormous agriculture-allied police force that managed the flow of Mexican farm labor while serving as a “sanctuary of violence” that helped instill racialized notions of Mexican “illegality” in the United States. Her next book, City of Inmates: Conquest, Rebellion, and the Rise of Human Caging in Los Angeles (2017), followed the rise of incarceration and forced labor in the American West, describing how the internment of immigrants and radicals led the City of Angels to become “the carceral capital of the world.”
Much of Hernández’s work also extends beyond the realm of conventional academic research, which has earned her a reputation as a “rebel historian,” a label she has embraced. City of Inmates, for example, includes a chapter that collects testimonies from community members, activists, and formerly incarcerated persons, and she is the cofounder of the Million Dollar Hoods project, which uses arrest and jail data as well as oral history to document the unequal social, geographic, and fiscal impact of mass incarceration in Los Angeles. Alongside Monica Muñoz Martinez, whose multidisciplinary approach to history has raised awareness of the mass lynching of ethnic Mexicans in the early twentieth century, Hernández is part of a new generation of tenacious historians who are exploring how injustice is lived, remembered, and forgotten in the borderlands and beyond.
Bad Mexicans is undoubtedly Hernández’s biggest and most ambitious book to date. It is also, in the best possible sense, a decidedly more “popular” than “scholarly” history, brimming with vivid characters, narrative detail, and modern-day resonance. In an interview with Publishers Weekly, Hernández discussed her decision to write about the subject as accessibly as possible: “For me, it was when Donald Trump used the phrase ‘bad hombres,’ that I knew that this story needed to be told for a broader audience, because he was stirring up a really dangerous history.” Authorities on both sides of the border have long referred to nonconforming Mexicans as malos or “bad,” with revolutionary-era magonistas foremost among them. “It’s important for what is emerging as one of our largest populations here in the United States,” Hernández said, “to see themselves as protagonists in the American story.”
Ricardo Flores Magón was “brilliant and ill-tempered,” Hernández writes, and “looked more like a girthy professor than a gutsy revolutionary.” From the beginning, dissent seemed part of the Flores Magón family DNA: in 1892, when Ricardo was just seventeen, he was arrested at a student march alongside his older brother Jesús, “a full-time lawyer and a part-time activist.” Not long after, Jesús launched a legal journal that documented indigenous uprisings in Mexico’s north, which eventually landed him in jail for criticizing military officials. For a time, Ricardo followed in his brother’s footsteps, studying law and working as a printer’s assistant before dropping out to travel through southern Mexico, where he witnessed firsthand the subjugation of the rural working class. Upon his return to Mexico City, Ricardo was invited by Jesús, newly released from jail, to help launch a weekly newspaper “to point out and denounce all of the misdeeds of public officers who do not follow the precepts of law.” Stirred by his travels and his reading of anarcho-communist intellectuals like Peter Kropotkin, Ricardo accepted the invitation. Soon their youngest brother, Enrique, would join them as the newspaper’s editor.
The Flores Magón brothers called their paper Regeneración, and their principal target was Mexico’s long-serving autocratic president, Porfirio Díaz, whose rule began in 1876. Díaz was widely credited with having modernized Mexico by overseeing robust economic growth, a dramatic expansion in infrastructure, and a population boom. But for the working class these economic advancements—most of which were financed by US and European interests—had merely served to replace the colonial feudalism of the encomienda system (in which indigenous people were enslaved by Spanish settlers) with the debt peonage of industrial capitalism. Díaz’s vision of “order and progress” was also paired with intensely centralized political power and a robust police state that monitored dissent in the streets, in the fields, and in the press.
Opposition to the Díaz regime had long been a dangerous proposition. The president’s national police forces, the widely feared rurales, were deployed far and wide to crack down on unrest, ensuring that Mexico remained a “safe” and attractive place for foreign investors. For many years, resistance remained diffuse and isolated, but industry and infrastructure soon created greater mobility for the working class. “Dispossessed in Mexico,” Hernández writes, “millions of Mexicans first migrated within Mexico, to towns and cities, factories, haciendas, and mines in search of work. Then they began crossing the border, following the railway lines funded by investors to extract and export Mexico’s natural resources.” In short order, Mexicans became the primary low-wage workforce in the American West, and as the flow of people, money, and goods and services swelled between north and south, so did the exchange of revolutionary ideas.
Regeneración, launched in 1900, soon evolved into a mouthpiece for the discontent of millions. The Flores Magón brothers situated their paper at the vanguard of Mexican radicalism, boldly challenging not just Porfirio Díaz himself, but the entire Porfirian order, which had for decades seemed unassailable. One issue in particular served as a turning point: published on March 7, 1901, twenty-five years into Díaz’s rule, it named the president eleven times on its front page, disparaging him in terms rarely used in the mainstream press—as a “despot” and an “autocrat” who had constructed a monarchy masquerading as a democratic republic. Hernández vividly imagines how copies of this incendiary issue would have journeyed across Mexico and into the United States:
Inked on the pages of Regeneración, this inflammatory assault on the regime radiated outward from the Zócalo, passing from hand to hand on tramcars and buses and on the shoulders of paperboys hustling for the day’s meal. By noon, people throughout Mexico City would have read the breach. By day’s end, the editors’ criminalized words would have reached Puebla and the towns surrounding Mexico City. The next morning, the paper would be delivered to readers as far away as San Luis Potosí, Oaxaca, and then across the border to towns like Laredo and El Paso, Texas, where displaced Mexicans clustered in search of work. Everywhere they went, from the mines in Arizona to lumber mills in Colorado to citrus farms in California, workers carried Regeneración. As one observer would later report, copies of Regeneración were passed “from one town to another until they fell to pieces from use.” Few Mexicans—no more than 28 percent by 1910—were literate, but the strong oral tradition of sharing news by campfire and on soapboxes, in cantinas, and in song helped spread Regeneración’s message.
In the ensuing years, Porfirio Díaz’s forces raided the offices of Regeneración time and again, seizing and destroying multiple printing presses and unleashing a string of arrests targeting anyone involved in the paper’s publication. By 1905 the Flores Magón brothers and a handful of their most influential allies had fled to the United States, where they continued publishing Regeneración and began organizing a new political party, the Partido Liberal Mexicano (PLM), to challenge Díaz. The party’s organizing committee, called La Junta, also took steps to establish a network of locally organized brigades known as focos to prepare for a series of planned raids in northern Mexico.
In one of Hernández’s most memorable chapters, she describes La Junta’s involvement in the landmark 1906 strike at the US-owned mining encampment in Cananea, Sonora. In the lead-up to the action, PLM members enlisted strikers alongside representatives from the US-based Western Federation of Miners, highlighting a growing potency in cross-border organizing. The revolt was violent and short-lived, coming to an end in less than a day, when Díaz’s rurales arrived alongside a brigade of Arizona Rangers who had ridden south from the border to protect American business interests. News of the American incursion traveled quickly: the next day, headlines in Mexico City decried a Díaz-sponsored “Invasion of Mexican Territory by North American Troops,” delivering an unexpected blow to the president’s perceived infallibility.
“The strike at Cananea,” Hernández writes, “shredded Mexican citizens’ belief in the regime’s ability to protect them” and provided the perfect opportunity to launch a new PLM manifesto. A month later the PLM distributed 750,000 copies of its new fifty-two-point platform on both sides of the border, emphasizing presidential term limits, voting rights, labor reform, an end to debt servitude, limits to foreign ownership, and above all the redistribution of land. Ricardo Flores Magón lamented the extent to which the compromised platform strayed from the principles of anarchism, but its tenets went on to exert a profound influence on Mexico’s nascent revolutionary movement, reaching future leaders like Emiliano Zapata, who, inspired by Regeneración, adopted “Land and Liberty” as his battle cry.
With the exiled magonistas growing more and more influential, Díaz implored the United States to help bring them down. The American government, it turned out, was eager to oblige—the strike in Cananea had threatened corporate stability at home and abroad, and all across the Southwest local authorities and big businesses had begun to note the presence of revolutionary propaganda and rising tensions across mining camps and farmlands. At the same time, the Flores Magón brothers and their associates were rubbing elbows with some of the most consequential figures on the American left, cultivating support from influential labor organizers like Mother Jones and Eugene Debs, the anarchist activist Emma Goldman, and the socialist journalist John Kenneth Turner.
After receiving Porfirio Díaz’s request, President Theodore Roosevelt himself placed multiple agencies on high alert, ordering them to “go to the utmost limit in proceeding against these so-called revolutionists.” Hernández writes:
The US Departments of State, War, Justice, and Commerce and Labor committed dozens of agents, officers, soldiers, and officials, and enormous resources, to undermining the magonista revolt in the United States. The US Marshals, the Bureau of Investigation (later the FBI), the US Immigration Service, and the Arizona Rangers participated, too, as did police and sheriff departments across the country. The US Postal Service played a particularly important role, providing Mexican authorities and agents with access to magonista mail, which allowed the counterinsurgency units to hunt down revolutionaries on both sides of the border. The Mexican government also hired a bevy of US-based informants and spies, and likely paid off at least one US attorney with a diamond ring. In sum, US agents were responsible for monitoring, tracking, arresting, imprisoning, detaining, deporting, and even kidnapping scores of Mexican revolutionaries in the United States.
Thus, even as radicalism and solidarity were flourishing across borders, new cross-border enforcement regimes were being tested and assembled to meet them.
Much of the pleasure of reading Bad Mexicans comes from the way its historical and academic rigor is infused with propulsive storytelling. Nowhere is this on display more than in the book’s middle section, chronicling the continent-spanning cat-and-mouse chase that took the Flores Magón brothers and their associates from Mexico City to Laredo, St. Louis to Toronto, Montreal to Los Angeles, and many more places in between. At times their escapades almost seem ripped from a spy thriller—they send letters written in code and cipher, they cross-dress and don other elaborate disguises, they smuggle messages and military orders out of jail in dirty laundry. But even in her book’s most rollicking moments, Hernández never resorts to trope or cliché, and she never lets us forget the real-life stakes of her borderland caper. For a region saddled with so many grimly narrated histories, Bad Mexicans is great fun, full of the joyful resilience and tenacity that make the borderlands and its people so distinct.
Hernández also takes the time to render the full ensemble of the magonista world. On one side are those who wished to quash them: private detectives and secret service agents by turns savvy and bumbling; rule-bending postmasters, prosecutors, and diplomats; and a slew of politicians, military leaders, and law enforcement agents obsessively chasing every bread crumb left by the radicals. On the other are rebels of every conceivable kind: the quiet schoolteacher who co-published Regeneración, the reformed militiaman who renounced his family’s wealth to become a migrant worker and union organizer, and the fifteen-year-old poet who drowned suspiciously in the Rio Grande after being trailed by informants. Then there are the Sarabias—Manuel, who was kidnapped and surreptitiously extradited to Mexico after helping organize the strike at Cananea; his brother Tomás, who became the PLM’s mail and communications guru; and their cousin Juan, a telegraph worker and circus-loving poet who turned into a barnstorming orator. We are also introduced to numerous indomitable women, including Juana Belén Gutiérrez de Mendoza, the editor of an anarcho-feminist magazine who was routinely jailed for sedition and rebellion, and María Brousse, the dynamite-smuggling “gladiator” who became Ricardo Flores Magón’s lifelong love.
As Bad Mexicans nears its conclusion, the formal outbreak of the Mexican Revolution is sketched only briefly. By 1910 nearly all the magonistas had been sidelined in one way or another—killed or jailed in the US or Mexico, forced overseas in exile, or effectively banished from the movement because of infighting. The remaining magonistas were narrowly committed to anarchism, which distanced them from the more organized, less ideological leaders who ushered the revolution into its bloody phase, their names becoming well known to history: Madero, Orozco, Zapata, Villa, Carranza. As mass revolution swept Mexico and Díaz was finally ousted in May 1911, the magonistas became, for the most part, spectators to the upheaval they had primed the country for, watching the bloodiest war in the history of the Americas unfold from afar.
Hernández is careful to remind us that the PLM’s leadership was almost entirely made up of journalists with no political or military expertise. In attempting to build their army, they leaned on words to do their work, and since they were always on the run, they lacked an epicenter from which to organize or launch campaigns. Ricardo Flores Magón insistently viewed this as a strength, arguing that dispersal made their movement more difficult to subdue, convinced that a few smartly timed raids would spark the Mexican public to rise up in arms and spontaneously carry out the revolution. But while the magonistas were extraordinarily adept at the intellectual and linguistic task of building a social capacity for revolution, they remained entirely unequipped for, and largely uninterested in, the concrete work of military confrontation necessary to depose political leaders and dismantle corrupt institutions. “In the end,” Hernández writes, Flores Magón “was an agitator, not a revolutionary.”
Left behind by the revolution, Flores Magón stayed in the United States, lashing out at perceived personal and ideological betrayals. He gradually fell out of grace with his fellow leftists in the US—even Mother Jones dismissed him and the remaining magonistas as “unreasonable fanatics” after they rejected calls to return to Mexico to help shape the new government’s agenda. Sequestered in a ramshackle commune in East Los Angeles, Flores Magón tended to chickens and published intermittent issues of Regeneración to a tiny list of subscribers, which, in 1918, landed him back in prison for calling “for the overthrow of the federal government,” a violation of the newly passed Espionage Act. Chronically ill and nearly blind, he foresaw his impending death in a letter to a friend. “One fine day,” he wrote, “my weapon—my pen—the only weapon I have ever wielded; the weapon that landed me here; the weapon that accompanied me through the infernos of a thirty years’ struggle for what is beautiful, will be then as useless as a broken sword.” Flores Magón died, as he predicted, at Leavenworth Penitentiary in November 1922.
What remains astonishing about the magonista saga is not just how they primed a country for revolution, but the extreme lengths the Mexican and US governments went to in order to sideline a ragtag group of rebels with little economic or military means. This is where Bad Mexicans grimly connects with Hernández’s previous work on border enforcement and mass incarceration—in pursuing the magonistas, both governments began to perceive new threats at the border, posed not by the formal armies of neighboring nations but by unwieldy constellations of poor people, workers, and migrants. This is the era in which modern notions of border policing were gradually defined, with the US pioneering mass deportation and immigrant incarceration, as well as extralegal abduction and surveillance, and white supremacist legislation and jurisprudence that redefined the race, citizenship, and criminality of Mexican immigrants. By the time the Mexican Revolution drew to a close at the beginning of the 1920s, the stage had been set for the creation of the US Border Patrol, the formalization of border inspections, and the enduring militarization of the borderlands.
Works of history are often read with an implicit sense of resignation, as if we are encountering destiny laid out upon the page. In many tellings, the apparent dystopia of the borderlands, with its onslaught of “crises” perpetuated by draconian policy and violent enforcement, seems almost preordained. In his 2011 book An Infinity of Nations, the Anishinaabe historian Michael Witgen challenges the assumption of inevitability that so often underlies American history. “Until the middle of the nineteenth century,” he writes, “autonomous Native peoples occupied the vast majority of North America.” The fate of the United States as a nation, he argues, the possession of its terrain, its entire ethnic and political makeup—none of it was ever as certain as we imagine. Writing about early encounters between natives and white explorers on what would become the US–Canada frontier, Witgen describes “a dynamic and evolving world with a very long history—a history that has been rendered largely invisible because of the mythology of discovery and conquest.” The same is true, of course, on our southern border, where frontier narratives have long sought to project a sense of inexorable dominance over a place defined by fluidity and flux.
The million refugees who fled the violence of Mexico’s revolution, Hernández reminds us, transformed the demographic trajectory of the American West, setting Latinos on course to become the largest minority in the US. My grandfather, born in Mexico at the dawn of the revolution, was one of those who fled. In our family, as in so many others, stories from the other side of the border were seemingly assimilated away, and I grew up with little understanding of how the revolution touched me or my ancestors, and even less of how it pervaded the history of the places I lived and moved through. As David Dorado Romo observed in his El Paso wanderings, there are few markers of our revolutionary past in the borderlands. A spirit of resistance and solidarity, however, is alive and well, and as the legacies of the magonistas and others are exhumed and reclaimed, one can only hope that the history of our region—and its truly American nature—will finally receive the recognition it has long been denied.