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Review: Kelly Lytle Hernandez Shows There is No US History Without Mexican History

Bad Mexicans: Race, Empire, and Revolution in the Borderlands
Kelly Lytle Hernández
W.W. Norton & Company, $30.00 (cloth)

In 1904 Ricardo Flores Magón, Mexican radical and Partido de Liberal Mexicano (PLM) founder, fled north of the Mexican border to escape persecution in his home country and grow the movement that would spur the Mexican Revolution. He would spend most of his life thereafter as a borderlands fugitive, despite a brief stint in Canada after an arrest in 1905. He evaded another arrest the following year in El Paso, where he had traveled to join the PLM before eventually leaving for Los Angeles. Even after Flores Magón escaped to California, El Paso continued to house other magonistas, followers of Flores Magón and the PLM, and to serve as a hub of some of the organization’s most important publications and battle plans.

Regeneración, the PLM newspaper, was one of four anti-Díaz Spanish-language newspapers circulating in El Paso in 1906. At that time there were so many impoverished Mexican workers living in the city that PLM member Rómulo Carmona calculated that one could recruit 5,000 or more people in one or two days for the magonistas’ cause. The veracity of Rómulo Carmona’s claim that thousands of people in El Paso (or any other city north of the border) were available for PLM recruitment is unclear. Historian Kelly Lytle Hernández, for one, contends that the magonistas numbered no more than a few thousand people. Although they “primed Mexico for revolt,” they found few local followers when they began to wage actual military attacks in 1911.

Still, Antonio Lomelí, the Mexican Consul in El Paso, agreed with Carmona, writing to Díaz loyalist Enrique Creel in January 1911, “we don’t have a single sincere friend here.” Lomelí penned that warning just months before the pivotal Battle of Juárez. El Pasoans watched the battle as if it were a sporting event, picnicking on the banks of the Río Grande and spectating from the roofs of hotels, businesses, and the city’s train station. As David Dorado Romo’s Ringside Seat to a Revolution (2005) captures, stores sold field glasses and commemorative spoons, and hotels offered taxi rides across the border for those who wanted a closer look. El Paso merchants fueled the battle by selling ammunition, uniforms, and shoes to Pancho Villa, a general in the Revolutionary Movement. In fact, Villa was such a valuable customer that when a train carrying payroll for his soldiers was detained, department store owner Alfred Schwartz loaned him $50,000 to keep them paid.

The Mexican population in El Paso grew exponentially between 1910 and 1916, from approximately 9,000 to nearly 33,000, as Mexican refugees, impacted by the Revolution, fled north. The refugees included not only the poor but also, by one city newspaper’s estimation, “tens of thousands of Mexicans of the best classes,” leading El Paso to displace “San Antonio, New Orleans, St. Louis, New York, and Los Angeles [as the] formerly dominant capitals in the mind of the average welltodo [sic] Mexican.” By World War II, U.S.-born people of Mexican heritage, the children and grandchildren of post-Revolution migrants, outnumbered the foreign-born in El Paso for the first time. The city, like the rest of the borderlands, was changed by the anarchists and socialists who made the Revolution possible, even as many of the effects—including an expanded Anglo elite class and the increased suppression of Mexican Americans—directly conflicted with the magonistas’ goals.

This is the argument that Lytle Hernández makes in her new history of the magonistasBad Mexicans (2022). The core of her argument is that the Mexican Revolution literally “changed who we are as a people,” as the migration it engendered laid the foundation of today’s Mexican American population. The magonistas rebelled against the Díaz administration’s policies, which catered to American industrialists who exploited and even terrorized Mexican workers on both sides of the border. The PLM spearheaded these protests, outraged at the fact that wealthy Mexicans and Americans profited while peasants starved and Díaz rigged elections to stay in power. With over forty PLM focos, or local cells, in Mexico and the United States, primarily concentrated in Texas and Arizona, the organization became a transnational project. In both cause and effect, Lytle Hernández argues, the story of the magonistas is as much a part of U.S. history as Mexican history.

Read entire article at Boston Review