Skip to main content

The Forgotten History of Mexican American Militancy

Too often, the militant, radical history of Mexican American workers is omitted or forgotten. But from resisting racist exclusion to building CIO unions in the 1930s, Mexican American workers have been central to left-wing politics in the U.S.

Workers Alliance leader Emma Tenayuca speaks to a crowd outside San Antonio City Hall, March 8, 1937.,UTSA Special Collections

On January 29, 1911, a coalition of Mexican revolutionaries and members of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), a US-based anti-capitalist labor union, crossed the border between California and the Mexican state of Baja California to launch what would come to be known as the Baja Insurrection. Many of the Mexicans belonged to the Partido Liberal Mexicano (PLM), which had announced its intentions of toppling Mexican dictator Porfirio Díaz, transferring the ownership of factories to their workers, and returning lands to Indigenous communities. Driven from Mexico to the United States by Díaz, the PLM had found solidarity with the IWW, which similarly advocated for workers’ control of production.

Growing from a small band of less than two dozen revolutionaries to hundreds of PLM members, their supporters (including Indigenous tribespeople), and IWW members, the insurrectionists seized the towns of Mexicali, Algodones, Tecate, and Tijuana, opening an early northwestern front in the Mexican Revolution. The insurrectionaries were supported by arms and funds from US radicals, including the Socialist Party — which, combined with the prospect of thousands of US-based Mexicans joining the revolution, pushed president William Taft to act.

Twenty thousand US troops sealed the border, while the US Navy secured access to ports in Baja California for Díaz’s forces. The insurrectionists held out for six months, but, without any means of reinforcing or resupplying themselves, ultimately quit the campaign. Some of them subsequently flocked to the banner of Francisco Madero, a centrist, US-backed opponent of Díaz, but those who had crossed the border were summarily arrested by US authorities for violating neutrality laws.

While short-lived, the Baja Insurrection illustrates many of the characteristics that define the historic role of Mexicans in the US left: radical, transnational, and often targeted for steep government repression. Jacobin contributor Arvind Dilawar recently spoke with Justin Akers Chacón about his book on the history of transnational Mexican working-class struggle, Radicals in the Barrio, about how participants in the Mexican Revolution brought their experiences to the early US labor and civil rights movements, and the vital position that women occupied in Mexican radicalism. Their conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.


How would you define the barrio? What role did the United States play in creating the barrio both stateside and in Mexico?


Barrios, within the context of early twentieth-century US history, refer to the formation of Mexican working-class communities that developed along migration corridors and in proximity to capitalist industries, particularly agriculture, mining complexes, railroad hubs, fisheries, and factories.

Along the California coast, for instance, you have barrios dotting the roadmap of the multibillion dollar harvest corridor that stretches from the Imperial Valley [in southeastern California] to the San Joaquin Valley [part of the Central Valley]. Others took shape or expanded in proximity to fisheries and canneries (San Diego), near garment factories (Los Angeles, Dallas) and railroad hubs (South Texas, Chicago), and near the Cotton Belt in Texas (San Antonio). Historic Mexican barrios have stretched from Arizona mining towns to the Yakima Valley in Washington State, east across Colorado’s hard and soft rock mining regions, near the sugar beet farm complexes spanning the Great Plains states, and into the environs of Chicago’s transcontinental railyards and beyond.

If you like this article, please sign up for Snapshot, Portside's daily summary.

(One summary e-mail a day, you can change anytime, and Portside is always free.)

Ricardo Flores Magón (L) and Enrique Flores Magón (R), Mexican journalists and anarchists, in the Los Angeles County jail, 1917.

Some of the oldest barrios in the contemporary Southwest actually predate US conquest and colonization. For instance, San Diego was established as a Spanish Catholic missionary project through the forceful colonization and attempted conversion of the original Indigenous Kumeyaay people beginning in 1769, and Los Angeles was founded as a land-grant concession to Mexican migrants (mostly Indigenous and African-descendent people from Mexico City) by the Spanish Colonial government in 1781.

It’s impossible to understand barrio formation without understanding the long and sordid history of US colonialism and imperialism in what is today the southwestern United States, especially in the second half of the nineteenth century. The US invasion of Indigenous and Mexican lands began with the uprising of slaveholders in Coahuila y Tejas in 1835 and was followed in 1846 by full-scale military invasion. This opened up a period of more than half a century of conquest and settler-colonialism across the West and Southwest.

Conquest then continued in the form of economic imperialism, through which US capitalists exported vast stocks of capital and consolidated control over much of the Mexican economy. This induced widespread social and economic displacement within Mexico, as the exploitation and sale of Mexico’s vast natural resources were repatriated as profits for US investors. This transformation of Mexico into a resource colony of the United States pushed over a million displaced Mexican people to migrate north over the first three decades of the twentieth century alone. US economic domination and political and military meddling was entrenched by the turn of the century, and the US state played kingmaker in Mexican politics, backed by US Marines. These factors contributed to the outbreak of the Mexican Revolution in 1910.

After the US invaded Mexico in 1846 and annexed its northern half in 1848 — today’s Southwest — the federal and state governments treated the conquered inhabitants the same way as it did other Indigenous peoples in the path of settler-colonialism: through violent dispossession from the land, disenfranchisement from the political system, and racialized proletarianization and segregation.

Barrio, which means “neighborhood” in Spanish, now meant something different: poverty and underdevelopment. Indigenous people were forced onto reservations and Mexicans could only live within racially restricted neighborhoods that were systematically impoverished and marginalized, excluded from civil and political participation, and brutally over-policed to keep people subjugated.