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How the Mexican revolution of 1910 helped shape U.S. border policy


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Not many Americans know much about the Mexican Revolution of 1910. The impact of that revolution on the U.S. is the subject of the new book "Bad Mexicans" by our guest, historian Kelly Lytle Hernandez. She spoke with our guest interviewer, Tonya Mosley, host of the podcast "Truth Be Told." Here's Tonya with more.

TONYA MOSLEY, BYLINE: You cannot understand U.S. history without Mexico and Mexicans, says Kelly Lytle Hernandez and her new book, "Bad Mexicans: Race, Empire, And Revolution In The Borderlands." The book tells the true story of rebels who, from inside of the United States, launched the Mexican Revolution of 1910. The rebels were known as Magonistas. They were journalists, migrant workers and miners who organized thousands of Mexican workers and American dissidents to overthrow a 30-year dictatorship.

Writer Kelly Lytle Hernandez is often called a rebel historian for her work, which takes a deeper look at historical moments from the vantage point of the marginalized. Her first book, "Migra! A History Of The U.S. Border Patrol," was about Mexican immigration to the United States. Hernandez was awarded the Clements Prize for it in 2010. Her second book, "City Of Inmates," is about the history of incarceration in Los Angeles and won the 2018 American Book Award. Lytle Hernandez currently directs the Million Dollar Hoods project, which uses Los Angeles police data to determine the cost of policing and incarceration. Lytle Hernandez is a professor of history, African American studies and urban planning at UCLA. In 2019, she also received a MacArthur fellowship.

Kelly Lytle Hernandez, welcome to FRESH AIR.

KELLY LYTLE HERNANDEZ: Thank you for having me on.

MOSLEY: Kelly, it was when former President Donald Trump used that phrase, bad hombres, that you said to yourself, I've got to write this book. I have to tell this story now. What was it that made you feel that urgency?

LYTLE HERNANDEZ: So when President Trump used that rhetoric of deriding, disparaging, characterizing Mexican immigrants as so-called bad hombres, one, I knew that he was denigrating the efforts of many people to improve the conditions of their life through migration. But he was also stirring a very dangerous pot of rhetoric that has been used against Mexican immigrants and Mexican Americans for more than a century. And at the heart of this story is this concept that a good Mexican is a Mexican who comes to the United States and is docile and is quiet and works and does not protest against iniquity. That's a so-called good Mexican in the early 20th century, at least here in the United States. And people who were being disparaged at that time as bad Mexicans in the United States were those who organized, those who protested against the conditions of what was then known as Juan Crow, a similar form of social marginalization as Jim Crow. And also in Mexico, this dictator was disparaging the Magonistas as so-called malos Mexicanos - or bad Mexicans - for challenging his regime.

So President Trump was tapping into all of this history and rhetoric when he was calling Mexican migrants bad hombres. And I wanted to make clear, make plain, make present what he was playing with with that rhetoric. And the problem here is that in the United States, very few people have much knowledge about Mexican American history. And so he was able to use that language disconnected, unmoored from an understanding of everything that it was tapping into.

MOSLEY: This story, this particular story of the Mexican Revolution, it's so well-known in Mexico that the government there declared this year, 2022, the year of Ricardo Flores Magon, who was a major player in the revolution and a major focal point in your book. And yet most of us here in the United States have never heard of Magon and know very little about the Mexican Revolution. Who was he?

LYTLE HERNANDEZ: So Ricardo Flores Magon was a journalist in Mexico City in the early 20th century, and he and his brother ran a newspaper called Regeneracion. And on the pages of Regeneracion, they criticized the dictator of Mexico, a man named Porfirio Diaz. And they criticized him on multiple points but in particular, that Porfirio Diaz had accumulated all power in his office and held the presidency for more than 20 years. He was a dictator. They called him authoritarian and despotic on the pages of Regeneracion. But they also challenged him on his economic policies because Porfirio Diaz had opened up the doors of Mexico to international investors, namely Europeans and Anglo Americans, allowing them to buy up large swaths of land and come to dominate key industries. Anglo Americans dominated railroads, mining and more. And they challenged Porfirio Diaz for, as I said, making Mexicans the, quote, "servants of foreigners." And for those critiques on the pages of Regeneracion, Porfirio Diaz had them arrested multiple times, sent to prison, smashed their printing presses and actually issued a gag order prohibiting any newspaper in Mexico from publishing their articles.

And so they were rebel journalists who, by 1904, were forced to flee Mexico and come to the United States, where they rebuilt their movement against Porfirio Diaz and helped incite the outbreak of the 1910 Mexican Revolution.

MOSLEY: In what ways did Diaz help foreigners, help the U.S. specifically, see Mexico in an enticing light to take on this land ownership in this way?

LYTLE HERNANDEZ: Well, once the United States completed the Transcontinental Railroad in 1876, there were many major U.S. investors who started to look about to say, what's next? And they looked south and they saw that a infamous military general had just taken the reins of power of the presidency in Mexico, this Porfirio Diaz. And Porfirio Diaz begins to invite them down to Mexico and offer up wide swaths of land to people to come down and to build those railroads and to modernize the Mexican economy. And he gave them all kinds of kickbacks and tax incentives to do all of this. And so many Anglo Americans, small investors and large investors, the Rockefellers, the Guggenheims, the Dohenys and others became major investors in Mexico. And they either made their millions there or they multiplied their millions there.

MOSLEY: These relationships that Diaz formed with U.S. industry and government came at the cost of his own people. Did you learn during writing this book what some of his motivations were?

LYTLE HERNANDEZ: So when foreign investors came into Mexico and bought up land or were given land, Porfirio Diaz would use his military or his rural police force known as the Rurales to remove families and communities from traditional lands that they had long held, and they became wage laborers in this new, modernizing economy. And so the goal for Porfirio Diaz was to create workers in a modern, global economy that as factories were developing in Mexico and Mexico was becoming a node in the global market, people who had once been self-sufficient, rural farmers would actually become wage laborers in that economy. So that was his goal. He actually really wanted to develop Mexico in the model of the United States.

But what happened was that millions of Mexicans - the vast majority of the population - became landless during this period. And they would form a large segment of the population that wanted to, by 1910, remove Porfirio Diaz from power and in particular, take back their access to land, take back control over their labor.

MOSLEY: Can you give us a scope and size of the magonistas? Who were they here inside of the United States? And what were some of the secrets to their powers, to their ability to take on the Mexican government?

LYTLE HERNANDEZ: This is a great question. I'm so glad you asked. So the magonistas certainly were a small group of journalists and intellectuals who fled Mexico to flee the suppression of Porfirio Diaz. But they also were a large social movement of cotton pickers, of miners, of migrant workers, of people who had been displaced from Diaz's Mexico and formed the first wave of labor migrants coming to the United States in search of work and survival. And really, against all odds, Porfirio Diaz sent agents and spies and infiltrators to try to stop them from organizing a social movement here in the United States.

He also worked very closely with the United States government - the U.S. Department of War, Department of Commerce and Labor, the U.S. Immigration Service, Department of Justice, the U.S. Marshals, the U.S. Postal Service, and more - to stitch together, really, a cross-border counterinsurgency campaign to suppress this social movement of miners and cotton pickers and intellectuals in the borderlands.

Despite all of this, they are able to relaunch their rebel newspaper, Regeneracion, which spreads the word and the idea of revolution. They establish a political party, el Partido Liberal Mexicano, or PLM. And they establish an army. It's an army of the dispossessed, of these migrant workers. And that army raids Mexico four times between 1906 and 1908 and really shakes the foundation of the Diaz regime and makes the world wonder if his days are numbered.

MOSLEY: When you say army, can you give us a visual of what you mean? I mean, I know you mention the number, but kind of give us a scope of that.

LYTLE HERNANDEZ: Sure. Well, there are about 20- or 30,000 people subscribing to Regeneracion, contributing to the movement financially. But there are also about 40 focos, or cells, across the borderlands, each one comprised of several dozen local residents. And many of those put together small armies. And they do this with very few resources. There are gun runners who are moving across the borderlands - picking up a gun in Del Rio, Texas, picking up some dynamite in southern Arizona, and moving it to these focos that are organizing armed raids.

So these are organizations of very poor migrant workers and residents of the borderlands who are pooling their resources to get guns and dynamite and bullets or what they would call dulces y escobas - guns and dynamite - to be able to pull together these small, short bursts of raids on Mexico to awaken the Mexican population to the possibility that Porfirio Diaz could be unseated.

MOSLEY: I'm curious, what were their lives like here in the United States?

LYTLE HERNANDEZ: So they begin to live as fugitives in the United States, on the run. Ricardo Flores Magon is constantly moving between Texas and Canada and California and elsewhere, all the while just staying maybe a day or two ahead of this cross-border counterinsurgency team that's hunting him down everywhere he goes. And one of the most important things that this counterinsurgency team does is that they're able to penetrate the United States postal system and monitor the rebels' mail. So wherever Ricardo Flores Magon is going and sending letters and correspondence to his comrades, the U.S. postal system is allowing agents to open up that mail, copy down the letters, and then send them back on their way so that they could chase that correspondence and hopefully find Ricardo Flores Magon.

In this method, they were able to find him in Los Angeles in August of 1907, living in a hideout at the edge of downtown on Pico Boulevard. And several private detectives and LAPD detectives crash the doors of this hideout. And there was a brawl for about an hour at this house at the edge of town. Finally, the detectives bested Ricardo Flores Magon and two of his friends, knocked him unconscious, and then dragged him through the streets of downtown LA to the city jail where he was held here - incarcerated in Los Angeles and Arizona for three years. Despite all this, the movement that grew around him continues, and it continues to incite the outbreak of the revolution in 1910.

GROSS: We're listening to the interview our guest interviewer Tonya Mosley recorded with Kelly Lytle Hernandez, author of the new book "Bad Mexicans: Race, Empire, And The Revolution In The Borderlands" (ph). We'll hear more of the interview after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to our interview with Kelly Lytle Hernandez, author of the new book "Bad Mexicans: Race, Empire, And Revolution In The Borderlands." She spoke with guest interviewer Tonya Mosley.

MOSLEY: One maybe surprising piece of information from this book is the origins of the FBI. It was during the search for Magon and the magonistas that the Bureau of Investigation was formed.

LYTLE HERNANDEZ: That's right. So the magonistas launched their most lethal set of raids on Diaz's Mexico in June of 1908. There are three raids from Texas. And those raids occur between about June 25th and June 30th of 1908. And really, this is what makes the world wonder if the Diaz regime is going down and with it, all of those U.S. investments in Mexico.

On July 1st of 1908, Teddy Roosevelt and the U.S. Department of Justice establish a brand-new federal police force called the Bureau of Investigation. Now, Roosevelt initially imagined this police force as being focused on enforcing federal land law out in the American West. But as soon as those magonistas raids occur, there's a pivot, and about a third of the first bureau agents are assigned to chasing down the magonistas and thwarting the outbreak of a revolution to come. So the FBI's - one of its very first big cases, the way that it cuts his teeth, it's in an effort to suppress the outbreak of the 1910 Mexican Revolution. But it failed. The magonistas were able to outsmart and outrun the bureau agents and, by 1910, really create the conditions for a mass revolt in Mexico.

MOSLEY: Kelly, how is Mexican American identity shaped during this time period?

LYTLE HERNANDEZ: Well, I think it's important to recognize that this period, the early 20th century, is the very beginning of mass labor migration from Mexico to the United States, that many of those migrants really held on to a hope of being able to return home to Mexico someday. And in part, this is why people join in on this revolution, to create the conditions for the possibility of returning home - in particular, access to land and survival. And I would argue that by remembering the story of the magonistas and of these early labor migrants who came to the United States and participated in, really, a radical revolution that it helps us to remember, recall, to understand the radical possibilities of Mexican American politics today. At a moment in which we're talking so much about the rise of conservatism and the so-called Hispanic Republican, there's also a legacy of progressivism, of radicalism among Mexican immigrant communities. And the magonistas are certainly at the center of all that.

MOSLEY: One really interesting throughline in your work is that you're going so far as to say that the United States created mass migration from Mexico to the United States.

LYTLE HERNANDEZ: So in the 19th century, the Mexican population was not a migrant population, certainly not internationally migrant. It is the arrival of U.S. investors, with the railroads in particular but also the mining operations and others that buy a plan and dispossess folks and create a landless, wandering population, that create the conditions for Mexican labor migration to begin. And it's not random. U.S. labor recruiters go down into Mexico and encourage Mexican immigrants to come north to work in the United States.

Now, we have to step back and understand this within the larger context. Mexican immigrants are being invited to become, really, the primary labor force across the American West, only after the practices and the campaigns of genocide targeting Indigenous populations across the American West, only because white settlers in the American West are absolutely opposed to any idea of free Black migration into the American West and only after the United States has begun to develop a set of immigration rules and laws that prohibit Chinese immigrants and others from entering the country. It's at that moment in the early 20th century that white settlers in the West say that we have no access to labor - in particular, marginalized, cheap labor. And so Mexico becomes understood as the only source of that labor to develop all of the emerging industries in the American West, whether it be the railroads or the farms or the ranches and mining.

And there is a real anxiety about making sure there is open access to Mexican immigrant laborers. So in the early 20th century, when Mexican immigrants would show up at the U.S.-Mexico border, U.S. immigration guards would hardly look their way, maybe give them a nod as they crossed the border. At that moment, immigration guards were largely looking for Chinese immigrants, and Mexicans were given largely a free pass to enter into the country. It is not until the establishment, really, of the U.S. Border Patrol in 1924 that you have a regular set of practices organized around at least regulating Mexican immigration to the United States.

MOSLEY: Right. You actually highlight a point in your book about Chinese immigrants - and just to really lay down this example - that many Chinese immigrants would pretend to be Mexican in order to enter the United States.

LYTLE HERNANDEZ: Right. My colleague Erika Lee has written about this, that Chinese immigrants who were seeking entrance to United States would first come through Mexico, learn a couple words in Spanish - namely, yo soy Mexicano; I am Mexican - and try to so-called dress as a Mexican and look as Mexican as possible to cross the border because Mexicans were given a free pass, whereas Chinese immigrants were categorically prohibited from entering the United States by the early 20th century.

GROSS: We're listening to the interview our guest interviewer Tonya Mosley recorded with Kelly Lytle Hernandez. Her new book is called "Bad Mexicans: Race, Empire, And Revolution In The Borderlands." We'll hear more of the interview after a break. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to the interview our guest interviewer, Tonya Mosley, recorded with Kelly Lytle Hernandez. She's a professor of history, African American studies and urban planning at UCLA and a MacArthur Fellow. Her new book, "Bad Mexicans: Race, Empire, And Revolution In The Borderlands," is about the rebels who helped ignite the 1910 Mexican Revolution and how the revolution changed Mexico and reshaped American immigration at the border.

MOSLEY: W.E.B. Du Bois was a scholar during this time and spoke about how Anglo-Americans, as he put it, had cast a global color line, encircling the lives of Mexicans on both sides of the border. And you write that Black Americans actually watched the Mexican Revolution closely. What details can you tell us about the relationship between Black Americans, Mexicans and Mexican Americans during that time?

LYTLE HERNANDEZ: Right. So one of Du Bois' many important interventions was to highlight that white supremacy is global. It's not just located in the United States. And so he was a thinker at the moment who may have thought about what was happening in Mexico as the global color line. And I write about the ways in which African Americans are watching what's happening in Mexico as being grounded in a longer history, that during the period of enslavement, we had several options to free ourselves. One of them that we've talked a lot about in U.S. history is by looking north - right? - to get north of the Mason-Dixon line. We had another option, too. After the 1820s, when Mexico abolished slavery, those of us who were living enslaved closer to Mexico, our closest path en route to freedom was to get to Mexico.

And so we've had a long relationship with Mexico and trying to build our freedom dreams with Mexicans. The Mexican Revolution is another part of that story. The Magonistas were clearly anti-capitalist and, in many ways, articulated an anti-racist position as well, advocating for Indigenous communities and others. And so African Americans are watching very closely what's happening in Mexico about what might be possible for Black life in Mexico if the revolution succeeds. Now, remember, this is a moment when the vise of Jim Crow is growing ever tighter around Black life in the early 20th century. And a scholar, Gerald Horne, has written quite a bit about this.

And so in the story of the Magonistas, you see moments here and there where African Americans play quiet but pivotal roles. When Ricardo Flores Magon needs a hideout in Los Angeles, he's able to rent that hideout from an African American real estate agent at the edge of town. So it's a Black real estate agent who offers him sanctuary here in Los Angeles. When the Magonistas occupy Baja California in the early months of the Mexican Revolution, African American soldiers go down to Baja California to participate in this occupation, with the freedom dream being that if the Magonistas win, we can leave the United States and go to Mexico and find our freedom.

MOSLEY: How does this story of the bad Mexicans help us understand who we are as Americans and maybe our relationship with Mexico more broadly in this moment?

LYTLE HERNANDEZ: Well, our relationship with Mexico was born and bred through imperialism, right? And that story has its legacy to this very moment. I think it's also important to understand that the relationship between the United States and Mexico has been so close that there are major moments that have been conceived as Mexican history that are, in fact, turning points also in the U.S. story. And that's probably most important when we talk about the 1910 Mexican Revolution. That revolution, one, created tumult north of the border in terms of people thinking, like, what's possible with a revolution like this? But also because nearly a million people died during the Mexican Revolution and another million migrated north to United States. And that, really, refugee population that arrived in the United States between 1910, really, 1917, 1920, is the foundation of the growth of the Mexican American population today. So many families across the United States today can trace their origins north of the border to the Mexican Revolution.

And so what I argue in this book is that the Mexican Revolution is a turning point in U.S. history because it lays the foundation for the major transformation of the so-called American population, the browning of America, over the course of the 20th century. And therefore, we need to start talking about it. We need to understand why it happened, how it happened and who did it. And to do that work, we got to talk about the Magonistas, who really brought some of the most pivotal ideas about power for the marginalized, land for the dispossessed. They brought these ideas to the fore and created a world of possibilities in that revolution.

MOSLEY: A significant amount of your work really requires you to be dogged. An example of this is that you sued the Los Angeles Police Department for violating California's open records law. And you wanted to know how much money Los Angeles was spending on incarcerating its residents. Why did you want to know that information? And what fueled your initial inquiry?

LYTLE HERNANDEZ: That's right. Well, I was part of a organizing community that was trying to stop the building of a $3 billion jail here in Los Angeles. And so one of the things that we knew as we were sitting around in organizing meetings is we knew who was being arrested. It was, you know, our sons, our daughters, our loved ones. And we knew on what charges. But whenever the organizers would go to the LAPD or the LA sheriff's department and request the data - right? - so we could tell the larger story about what was happening, organizers were being denied access to that data. And so we were able to put together a team that went after the LAPD data, arrest data and jail data in particular. And the ACLU supported us in that. And we were able to win a cache of unprecedented data around policing here in Los Angeles, including about 200 boxes of historical records that were en route to destruction but we saved from destruction that I like to call, like, the war on drugs in a box.

It's all records from the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s around policing here in Los Angeles, around practices of narcotics enforcement, around policing of immigrant communities, particularly the Asian task force here in LAPD. So right now, we're processing all of those records with our organizing communities and going to be making them public.

MOSLEY: This project that you're referring to is the Million Dollar Hoods project, correct?

LYTLE HERNANDEZ: That's right.

MOSLEY: This war on drugs in a box, it's a very powerful visual. And you say that it's going to - this information will become public soon. What do you hope comes of making this information public?

LYTLE HERNANDEZ: Well, there's two parts of this. One is the fact of making it public and making it available to a wide group of journalists and just people full of inquiry. There's also the process of making it public. And so we're working with community-based organizations and advocates here in Los Angeles because the war on the box is also a box of trauma. And we want to make sure that the process of making these records public does not retraumatize our communities who experience such high levels of state violence through policing and incarceration. So this will be a slow, ethical, methodical process of going through really every record in every box to make sure that we're taking care of the people and the stories at the center of it all. So it'll take a little bit. It won't happen immediately.

And as we hopefully hinge out of the age of mass incarceration, we are going to have to do an accounting of who did what to whom, at what cost, to really grapple with the consequences of decades of mass incarceration so that we can even begin to imagine and plot a new way forward that does not set us at the precipice of creating a new regime of iniquity.

Remember, we've been here before. We have ended slavery and we slid into Jim Crow. We ended Jim Crow, and we slid into the new Jim Crow. I do hope and I believe that we are at the end of mass incarceration, but I'm also fearful and full of trepidation that we may be slipping into something new that none of us can quite name yet unless we fully grapple and reckon with how we got here.

MOSLEY: You're fascinated by people who rebel against social structures, and you enjoy researching to find the traces of what they've left behind. When did you discover this fascination?

LYTLE HERNANDEZ: That's a great question. I think I've loved rebels since I was a child. I grew up in the borderlands, and I often tell the story of, you know, what it was like to be a Black girl growing up on the U.S.-Mexico border and watching the extraordinary levels of policing that were impacting my neighbors and my friends through immigration law enforcement, namely the U.S. Border Patrol. Then I became a teenager experiencing that high-level policing from our local police in terms of the war on drugs and Black youth. And that's what took me into stories of rebellion and rebels, that I knew what was happening to us and the people that I loved was not right. And so I wanted to listen to and learn from the people who were rebelling against those social systems.

MOSLEY: Kelly Lytle Hernandez, thank you so much for this conversation.

LYTLE HERNANDEZ: My pleasure. Thank you for having me on.

GROSS: Kelly Lytle Hernandez is the author of the new book "Bad Mexicans: Race, Empire, And Revolution In The Borderlands." She spoke with guest interviewer Tonya Mosley, host of the podcast "Truth Be Told." Our book critic Maureen Corrigan has a new novel to recommend about class, competition and the magic of art. She'll tell us all about it after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF NOAM WIESENBERG'S "DAVKA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tonya Mosley is the LA-based co-host of Here & Now, a midday radio show co-produced by NPR and WBUR. She's also the host of the podcast Truth Be Told.

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