Kelly Lytle Hernández is one of the nation’s leading experts on race, immigration and mass incarceration. She is a professor of history, African American studies, and urban planning at UCLA, and the author of the books “Migra! A History of the U.S. Border Patrol” (2010) and “City of Inmates: Conquest, Rebellion, and the Rise of Human Caging in Los Angeles, 1771-1965” (2017). In her new book, “Bad Mexicans: Race, Empire, and Revolution in the Borderlands,” Hernández vividly charts the history of the revolutionary Ricardo Flores Magón and the magonistas, whose cross-border rebellion laid the groundwork for the Mexican Revolution that overthrew the dictator Porfirio Díaz, who himself had been a revolutionary. Hernández deftly lays out small and large events, meetings and even conversations and relationships that happened leading up to the Mexican Revolution, and makes the point that this history is American as much as Mexican, that imperialism and the rise of policing in the U.S. was deeply entwined with not only the Mexican Revolution but the uprising against the global color line, which continues today. While Magón and the magonistas never seized power, their ideals and imperfect humanity are not only riveting but crucial to understanding the past, present and future of American, Mexican and global politics.
The Seattle Times spoke with Hernández over Zoom about the origins of this book, the idea of the Rebel Archive, how the rise of the FBI paralleled the magonista movement, and ideas of power and identity.
Can you talk about who Ricardo Flores Magón was and who the magonistas are, and what originally drew you to writing about them?
I first learned about Ricardo Flores Magón and the magonistas about 20 years ago when I was in graduate school and I was taking a class on Mexican history. There was just a couple of paragraphs in a book about them. And that’s all it took, I knew that this was an epic story that I wanted to know everything about. I’m from San Diego; I grew up in the borderlands, and the idea that these incredible people had taken on the U.S. and Mexican governments and started a revolution from my homeland and I didn’t know anything about it was shocking and disappointing to me. So the story stuck with me. I went on to write other books about race and immigration and mass incarceration in particular, but the story had a hold on me and I knew that I had to find a way to write the tale and, more importantly, to share it more broadly. Because people in the academy have certainly written about the magonistas in multiple languages, lots of different foci, but it really hasn’t been told in the United States to a broad audience. And that’s the point of this book, is trying to bring the story to a broad audience in the U.S. and explain why these folks were so important to both U.S. and Mexican history and how they changed the world in which we live.
How did you work to center Indigenous voices and women in this book and your work in general? How do you manage the limits of archival material, much of which by its nature is made by and about people with power and/or access?
I have a long history of working with these kinds of archives. In my last book I developed this concept called the Rebel Archive. It’s the work of people who rebel against social structures — the marginalized — and finding the traces of what they’ve left behind, whether it be various kinds of ephemera and written documents, and art, and song and oral history. But it’s also seeking out records that are concealed in a variety of locations and being really dogged and really creative and refusing to give up. So using that methodology of the Rebel Archive, certainly I was able to apply it to this in the sense that you have all these dissidents who are writing so much. So their ideas are very, very clear. Not everyone is writing, though — some people are acting and you have to read the action. And that’s what you see a lot of women and Indigenous folks as you’re reading the action. You’re also reading the action of African Americans who we often see popping up in the story in unexpected places. We don’t have a written record of what African Americans were thinking or how they were participating with the magonistas but they certainly show up in key moments to make it clear that there was some sort of relationship that was being built, some kind of open door between the people who were struggling against Jim Crow in the United States and those who were struggling against the global color line. The Rebel Archive just means being super creative, super dogged and always keeping your eyes open to where marginalized people have deposited their mark on the world. Sometimes it’s in the written record, sometimes it’s in art, sometimes it’s in a photograph … And just being very attentive and careful with that.
You write about the parallel rise of federal policing during this time of Mexican, Mexican American and cross border uprising, revolt, unrest. Can you talk about how the insurgencies you write about were entwined with, for example, the birth of the FBI?
I’m a historian in policing and immigration, among other things. But one of the things that’s so important about this history is that the origins of the FBI is aligned with this revolution in Mexico. And what I mean by that is that Teddy Roosevelt established the FBI for his own purposes, largely for conservation purposes to prosecute land cases in the American West. But a couple of days before the FBI was established, these Mexican rebels launched their most lethal assaults on Mexico. So very quickly, they turn the Bureau of Investigation into a counterinsurgency force tracking down the magonistas. The counterinsurgency super force that would go on to strike against all kinds of rebels in the United States, particularly race rebels heading into the Black freedom movement of the 1960s and into this moment, it took some of its first breaths and tried to suppress the outbreak of the Mexican Revolution. So for those of us who think about race and policing in the United States, we rarely are able to track back the early Latinx history of that story. And this is certainly a part of it; the origins of the FBI and the U.S. efforts to suppress the outbreak of the Mexican Revolution which goes on, as many scholars have said, to be the world’s first social revolution of the 20th century.
Can you talk about the importance of the land itself in the political and revolutionary period that you’re writing about?
I approach U.S. history with the understanding that the United States is a settler state, a white settler state in particular. What that means is that the United States was forced to a particular form of colonization that was predicated upon eliminating Indigenous populations from the land, either as sovereign populations or as human populations, and then placing white settlers upon that land to reproduce their own communities. When you think about U.S. history being predicated upon the elimination of the Native, as Patrick Wolfe has put it, that means that land and land occupation and land politics are central to everything. That territorial process is like a march across the North American continent in the 19th century. And once we in the United States complete the Transcontinental Railroad in 1876, then you have people who look up and go, “OK. We’ve put this all together, now what?” They start looking across the Pacific and they also start looking into Mexico. It’s the transformation of the settler-colonial expansion into an imperial one that is experimented with in Mexico. So I talk about the work of John Mason Hart and others calling us to the laboratory of U.S. imperialism. And I call that U.S. settler imperialism. So the land politics were at the center of everything; how do U.S. investors get access to land? And they were experimenting in Díaz’s Mexico with a new form of not taking political control, but simply economic domination. And that leads to the displacement of millions of Mexicans, rural Mexicans in particular. And this is really important about this book; the book is about tyrants and rebels and spy crafts and secret codes and fugitives and love affairs and all that. But it also teaches us about these early histories of U.S. empire of where mass Mexican migration comes from and why it began, to give us some context to the massive 20th century transformation of the U.S. population that this isn’t about individuals making a set of decisions across time, it’s about history and systems and structures that predate most individuals’ births. So the United States created mass migration from Mexico.
Can you talk about the ways in which you think about Mexican, American and Mexican American identity, and how and why it was shaped during this time period that you explore in the book?
Historically speaking, it’s a complicated identity. Many of the migrants arriving in the United States from Mexico in the early 20th century would have retained a Mexican identity, they would not have naturalized as U.S. citizens, would have hoped to return home either seasonally, returned home or been thinking about when they return home. That’s certainly a major component of the population. There’s also, and you see this in the book with Jovita Idar and the various Mexican American journalists, people who were laying claim to a Mexican American identity as citizens of the United States. So that duality is certainly at play throughout this history, but it’s very young. This book really taps into the very first years of mass migration from Mexico to the United States. This is its infancy of trying to figure out what’s the relationship between ongoing continual mass migration and the construction of a broader Mexican American identity as citizens of the United States. I should point out that I’m actually not Mexican American, many people think I am because of my last name — I get that from my husband. I’m African American but I grew up in the borderlands, and this is a story and a history that I’ve lived with in the community my entire life. So I’m speaking entirely as a scholar and as a historian, I want to be very clear about that.
It seems that throughout history, people with progressive revolutionary ideals end up becoming oppressive and corrupt when they are in power. How do you think about and grapple with this in this book and your work in general? What other forces do you think play into this repeating narrative?
I mean, power corrupts. I think you’re getting at probably the heart of the question and the urgency that Ricardo Flores Magón held for anarchism. There’s no way to guarantee that power won’t be abused unless it is broadly distributed amongst individuals and flexible communities. So in some ways, maybe that’s the question that Ricardo Flores Magón wanted you to ask. He was a very passionate, brilliant man. He was also vitriolic and could be cruel. And so his rise and fall as an intellectual wasn’t so much over these issues of political power, but about personality and kindness. And who knows what he could have achieved if he had had a little bit more kindness and forgiveness and openness? Not necessarily flexibility in politics, but whenever people didn’t agree with him as he moved deeper and deeper into anarchism, he would lash out. And therefore his organizing community got smaller and smaller and smaller over time.
How does the history in this book continue to play out in Mexican and U.S. politics and lived realities today? How do you think this history will shape our future?
One of the reasons why I wrote this book is that I knew we had an epic, dramatic tale in which I could smuggle key dimensions of Mexican American history into the core of the general audience’s nonfiction mainstream U.S. history bookshelf. One of the things that motivated me in writing this book was wanting to bring this story to more people, but also open up the doors of U.S. history to more diverse experiences. We need to do that in a variety of ways; in this case that it’s of critical importance that we understand the origins and the rise and the dynamics of Mexican American history. Every population matters and so I don’t want to make an argument about size, but this is a very large population and we have to understand that they are not immigrants to the American story, they’re not outsiders to the American story, they are authors of it. These are Latinx authors of modern American history and they change the conditions of all of our lives. They are major historical protagonists. The magonistas made history, and they are steeped in both Mexican and American histories and stories and futures. One of the things that’s so amazing to me is that the magonista story, at least the legend, is so well known in Mexico. The Mexican government declared 2022 the year of Ricardo Flores Magón. But most of what they did was done here in the United States, and the United States government played a major role in trying to suppress the uprising. But they’re not in the textbooks, they’re not even around the textbooks, which is also about the lack of Mexican American history in all those places. And so we’re trying to kick down the door with this dramatic tale.
For more information, online records of all of Ricardo Flores Magón’s writings can be found at archivomagon.net.
The opinions expressed in reader comments are those of the author only and do not reflect the opinions of The Seattle Times.