RADICALS IN THE BARRIO: MAGONISTAS, SOCIALISTS, WOBBLIES, AND COMMUNISTS IN THE MEXICAN AMERICAN WORKING CLASS
By Justin Akers Chacón
Haymarket Books. 719 pages. £23.99/$27.95. ISBN 978-1-60846-775-4
Reviewed by Jim Burns
There is truth in the suggestion that, despite the obvious importance of Mexican workers in any account of American working-class history, there have been few generally-available books about them. From that point of view Justin Akers Chacón’s Radicals in the Barrio may prove to be the essential publication that provides a broad picture of how Mexican American workers have organised in the factories and fields where they were employed, and how a variety of radicals helped them.
Because of the fact that Mexico, prior to 1848, controlled what
later became American states such as New Mexico, Arizona, and
California, there was always going to be a large Mexican physical
and cultural presence in those states. The Mexican-American War of
1846-48 had ended in defeat for
The actual border was still not clearly defined, even in the late-nineteenth century. People came and went as they pleased, and American companies found it advantageous to employ Mexicans, whether those resident locally, or those who crossed the border looking for work. The reasons are obvious. Much of work was seasonal and workers could be hired and fired at will and according to circumstances. And Mexicans could be paid less than white workers, and had to accept worse working conditions. They were looked on as not needing decent accommodation, sanitation, and other facilities. These were factors that caused much resentment and anger. Troublemakers could easily be singled out and there was always a ready supply of people waiting to be hired at whatever rates an employer chose to offer.
Mexican miners did fight back in the early-1900s, organising strikes alongside Italian miners, another maligned group, and displaying a militancy which meant that they were prepared to arm themselves for defence against local police forces and company guards. It was invariably evident that judges and other representatives of law enforcement were likely to ally themselves with the employers, and attempt to break strikes. State governors also favoured employers, and would send in National Guard units if it looked like strikers were winning. The excuse was that they were there to preserve the peace, but their actions usually indicated that they were actually present to prevent the workers from gaining ground. At a push even Federal troops could be sent to troubled areas.
When Ricardo Flores Magón arrived on the scene as a refugee from a
Magón was targeted by the American authorities, usually by citing
the Neutrality Act which made it an offence to participate in
political activity advocating the overthrow of a foreign government,
The United States Government, while not intervening directly against
the Magonistas, had sent troops to the border region to stop them
receiving supplies and reinforcements from Mexican American
sympathisers. There were major American businesses interests and
investments in Mexico, and the United States government was
obviously more concerned about preserving good relations with the
authorities there than in turning a blind eye to the activities of
the revolutionaries. Magón and many of his supporters were
imprisoned in the
The Western Federation of Miners (WFM) had been seeking to organise
The IWW, with its talk of “class struggle”, its acceptance of all
nationalities and races, and its broad philosophy of
“anarcho-syndicalism”, attracted members from the Mexican community.
Its policy of direct action in pursuit of wage claims and other
matters appealed to workers who came from a tradition of militant
action, and who favoured the revolutionaries in
As mentioned earlier, some Wobblies, as members of the IWW were
known, had participated in the failed invasion of
Another strike in which Mexican workers were involved took place in
Matters came to a head in April, 1914, when the company militia fired on tents occupied by the strikers and their families, and then set them alight. Two women and eleven children died from suffocation in pits that had been dug below the tents so that they could hide from gunfire. In a revenge attack a group comprising “Italian, Slavic, and Mexican miners” killed ten of the militia. The miners also “laid waste to two company towns and destroyed six of the most notorious mines”. By the end of “the ten-day war, a total of thirty-three mine guards and twenty-four-miners had been killed”.
The IWW began to decline in importance following the mass arrests
and trial of over one hundred of its leading lights in 1918. There
were divisions within the organisation in the early-1920s, and many
Wobblies joined the newly-formed American Communist Party. By the
late-1920s it was beginning to have an influence among some groups
of workers. Party policy always followed a line laid down by
The CAWIU did achieve some successes during its period of existence,
and Chacón says that: “In 1933 alone, there were 37 significant
The Communist Party continued to be active in the Mexican American community, and in the 1940s they were prominent in the Sleepy Lagoon Defence Committee. This arose out of the trial of a number of Mexican youths who had been charged with the murder of another youth in a gang fight. There was little direct evidence to show that the teenagers in question had been involved in the killing, and it would seem that prejudice against them because of their life-styles played a part in their arrest and trial.
Known as “pachucos”, the youths attracted attention because of their
“zoot suits,” a style copied from African Americans, and their use
of slang. They were condemned by conservative elements in the press
and among the local authorities, and were harassed by the
The post-war period brought investigations into the activities of
In 1950, Mine Mill Local 890 began industrial action against the Empire Zinc Company in a strike that lasted from October, 1950, until January, 1952. Like so many of the strikes that Chacón discusses, it was marked by the prejudice that existed against the strikers from local authorities, the media, and law enforcement officials. In addition, the national political climate, with communists being hounded out of jobs and sometimes into prison, came into play. And, sad to say, other unions, anxious to show that they weren’t communists, and to take advantage of the situation, tried to entice workers away from Mine Mill. The United Steelworkers of America (USWA) appear to have been the leading guilty party in this respect.
What was notable about this strike was the role that women played in manning the picket lines, when the men were prohibited by injunction from doing so, and in helping to sustain enthusiasm in obviously difficult times. They defied local law officials, and the state governor had to send in the National Guard: “Strikers and their wives spent the equivalent of 1,100 workdays in jail, but nevertheless maintained the picket lines throughout”. An agreement with management was finally reached which the strikers claimed as a victory.
Chacón doesn’t mention it, but
Salt of the Earth, a 1953
film largely made by blacklisted writers and others from
I’ve moved around Radicals in the Barrio, selecting only certain parts of it to comment on, because it’s so well-researched, and thorough in its coverage of the subject concerned, that it would be impossible to deal with every aspect of the Mexican American experience in a review. Reading it was very much an education, not only in terms of the union struggles covered, but also in relation to the story of Mexican involvement in American labour history.
One point that Chacón raises, and which I haven’t touched on, is
that many Mexican Americans could look back and see how they were
deprived of their land following the United States seizure of Texas,
Arizona, New Mexico, and California. In