When two Mexican friends said I look like Ricardo Flores Magon, I figured I’d better find out something about him. My recollection was that he had been a leader of the Mexican Revolution, though he spent it in exile north of the border. And I had read that Jyri Jaakkola, the Finnish activist killed by paramilitaries in the April 27 humanitarian caravan to San Juan Copala, was inspired by Flores Magon’s anarchist writing. There’s a street named for Flores Magon here in Oaxaca, but there are streets for Morelos, Carranza, Hidalgo, and plenty of other historical figures whose biographies blur in my memory.
As luck would have it, we found a book, Ricardo Flores Magon, by Humberto Escobedo Cetina, in Proveedora Escolar, one of Oaxaca’s largest bookstores. It had the advantages of being only 70 pages long and written in Spanish simple enough for me to work my way through (with ample help from a dictionary). Here’s some of what I learned:
Ricardo Flores Magon was born in 1873 in an indigenous village in Oaxaca into a family of opponents of Porfirio Diaz, Mexico’s dictator. He went off to college in Mexico City, where he soon was leading student demonstrations against Diaz, for which he was jailed the first of many times.
As the century wound to a close, the focus of the a nti-Diaz movement, including Flores Magon, was on Diaz’ refusal to leave office and for his ties to the Catholic Church, which had rebuilt its wealth and power since the reforms of earlier in the century. The “anti-porfiristas” were also referred to as “anti-reelectionists” and identified themselves as “liberals.” But the liberal intellectuals were reading Marx, Bakunin, Kropotkin, and Proudhon. Over time Flores Magon shifted toward anarchism and expressed his ides through prolific writing in publications such as El Demócrata and Regeneración. With others on the left wing of the liberal movement, Flores Magon critiqued Diaz’ ties to foreign capitalists and spoke up for oppressed workers and campesinos.
He was not popular with the dictator, who shut down Flores Magon’s publications, and jailed him off an on. In 1904, Flores Magon fled across the border. Soon he was publishing and agitating from St. Louis, Missouri, expressing the anti-Diaz line of the Mexican Liberal Party. His writings took on an increasingly radical tone, but avoided calls for armed revolution, at least for awhile. In a letter to a Mexican ally in 1905, Flores Magon wrote, “Publicly we are not exciting the people to arms, because we see it would be dangerous to do so, not for ourselves, but for our co-religionists,” i.e. their comrades in Mexico. “We have to organize the revolution calmly.” But Diaz had friends in Washington, and soon Flores Magon and other Mexican rebels were being harassed by Pinkerton agents. Moreover, Diaz was working with the U.S. Embassy, the Departments of State, Treasury, War, Commerce, Labor, Justice and Immigration.
One could say the opening salvoes of the Mexican revolution were fired at the American-owned Cananea mine in Sonora, where Mexican workers went on strike in 1906 after American workers there received raises and they did not. The Liberal Party and the “Magonistas” sent support, including arms. The U.S. sent mercenaries, who fought side by side with Mexican troops to squash the Cananea workers and their Liberal comrades.
The next uprising was a national textile strike that spread from Veracruz in 1908. By 1910, there were sufficient forces mobilized against him that Diaz fled the country. But it was not Flores Magon and his radical comrades who took power; it was forces led by Francisco Madero. According to Escobeda, “Madero believed that Mexico’s problems were fundamentally political, not economic,” whereas Flores Magon wanted not only to end the dictatorship, but also to do away with private property and the government itself.
Madero’s defeat of Diaz is the occasion generally identified as the triumph of the Mexican Revolution, but one might also say it went on for additional years of factional wars and a succession of Presidents. Whatever dates one considers most significant, the Mexican Revolution led to the adoption of the 1917 constitution and the birth of the modern Mexican state. Flores Magon continued to agitate, initially against Madero, and continued to be harassed by the U.S. government, which jailed him again. He died in Leavenworth Prison in 1922.
With an election scheduled for July 4, the words of the Oaxacan native of an earlier century are worthy of note. Porfirio Diaz had already been in power for 16 years when the young Ricardo Flores Magon spoke at an anti-Diaz rally in May of 1892. “How does he get re-elected? You already know. By means of his political chiefs arranging the elections in each and every district of the country…. By threatening to fire workers from their jobs if they don’t vote for Diaz. By terrorizing the campesinos. They get them drunk with pulque or mescal, and they take them like cattle to the polling places. As if that weren’t enough, who sells our country to the French, the English, the North American industrialists so that in addition to being slaves of the church we are also slaves of foreign countries?”
One hundred years after the defeat of Diaz, the 70,000-member Oaxaca teachers union is still on strike and still camped out in the city center. The union says there will be an insurrection if the election is fraudulent. They were denounced by a spokesman for the Institutional Revolutionary Party (the PRI), who said Tuesday, “We are not in the time of the Mexican revolution.”
While Oaxaca’s governor, Ulisses Ruiz Ortiz, has been in power only six years, his party, the PRI has held the reigns for eighty. Like Diaz, he has a reputation for jailing and killing political opponents. And while the bars will be closed on Election Day, there are plenty of suspicions that the election of his successor will be other than fair. There are fears of vote-buying, coercion, and other forms of corruption. (I’ve seen several warnings about the threat of “mapacheria,” which is directly translated as “racoonery.” I figure it means “dirty tricks,” but I’ll have to ask.)
Resemblance to the time of Flores Magon is deeper than the prevalence of electoral dirty tricks. Oaxaca’s natural resources are being sold off to foreign mining firms over the opposition of local communities. Huge wind farms are being built by foreign companies to sell electricity to far-off corporate consumers with no benefit for local people. Federal troops have just invaded the Cananea mine to end a strike. And the government north of the border is providing training and arms to Mexico’s military.
As for me, I’m still watching closely, trying to read between the lines.