Bad Mexicans: Race, Empire & Revolution in the Borderlands by Kelly Lytle Hernandez

Review by Brian Tanguay

On July 4, 1915, a band of armed and mounted Mexicans crossed the border and murdered three white men in southern Texas. For the next five months, Mexicans and Mexican Americans, joined under the banner of a “Liberating Army for Races & Peoples” that included African Americans and Japanese immigrants, sabotaged railroad tracks, torched bridges, and cut telegraph wires. The insurgents went on to raid five Texas towns and ranches, executing dozens of white men and causing white families to flee in terror. Though doomed to fail, the raiders had had enough of being squeezed by white American settlers who treated Mexico as a de facto American colony. As historian Kelly Lytle Hernández writes in her engrossing new book, Bad Mexicans: Race, Empire and Revolution in the Borderlands, this little known revolt, known as El Plan de San Diego, “was one of the largest — and deadliest — uprisings against white settler supremacy in U.S. history.”

Few Americans know about El Plan de San Diego because it doesn’t harmonize with the way American “Manifest Destiny” is generally portrayed in history textbooks. But beneath the generally accepted story lies another story, a fuller picture of events and the interplay of key actors. Often buried in archives, letters, newspaper accounts and government reports, it takes a determined historian to pull the strands together. But finding and cataloging information is only one aspect of the job, the other is telling a story. Kelly Lytle Hernández was a young graduate student when she learned about some of the actors and events she writes about in Bad Mexicans. In addition to holding the Thomas E. Lifka Endowed Chair in History at UCLA, Kelly Lytle Hernández is also the recipient of a MacArthur Genius Grant and author of two other acclaimed books, Migra! and City of Inmates. She makes a compelling case in Bad Mexicans that American history cannot be fully understood without considering Mexico and Mexicans. As one might expect from a historian with such a pedigree, Bad Mexicans is meticulously researched and sourced, but what makes the book remarkable is its narrative flow. Along with her tenacity and skill as a historian, Kelly Lytle Hernández is an accomplished storyteller. 

El Plan de San Diego sparked a brutal reprisal known as La Matanza — the massacre — in which an estimated 5,000 Mexicans and Mexican Americans were murdered by the U.S. Army, Texas Rangers, and armed vigilantes. Ignored in sanitized versions of U.S. relations with Mexico, La Matanza is characteristic of what Kelly Lytle Hernández calls “the chronic marginalization of the Mexican American experience.” The same indifference applies to the central figure of Bad Mexicans, an unrepentant anarchist and revolutionary named Ricardo Flores Magón who dedicated his life to toppling the dictatorial regime of Porfirio Díaz. Prior to reading Bad Mexicans I had never heard of Ricardo Flores Magón, his brother Enrique, Librado Rivera, Manuel Sarabia, Práxedis Guerrero or others who became known collectively as the magonistas and formed the backbone of a political party, the Partido Liberal Mexicano or PLM. 

After gaining power in a coup d’etat in 1876, Porfirio Díaz began doling out land and tax incentives to foreign investors, primarily a who’s who of American barons who wanted a piece of Mexico, from John D. Rockefeller and Edward L. Doheny to William Randolph Hearst and J.P. Morgan. By 1900, Americans owned or controlled 130 million acres of arable land, railroad lines, mines, oil wells, and farms. This bonanza was made possible because Porfirio Díaz wanted to industrialize the Mexican economy, but it came at the expense of small farmers, the indigenous, and workers. By 1910, Mexico accounted for nearly half of all money invested by Americans overseas. This massive influx of capital dispossessed millions of Mexicans and indigenous people, forcing them off the land, into towns and cities in search of decent wages, and ultimately across the border to the American West where migrants became an exploitable low-wage labor force. 

As Ricardo Flores Magón wrote late in his life during his imprisonment at Leavenworth Penitentiary, his pen was the only weapon he ever wielded. Ricardo and his colleagues founded a newspaper in 1900 called Regeneración that featured scathing indictments of Díaz’s corruption and tyranny, exposing the sweetheart deals that enriched foreign investors at the expense of Mexicans, and calling out the steady nullification of the constitution which Díaz used to consolidate his power and control. The paper reached a receptive audience, men whose land had been confiscated or sold from under them, laborers who wanted fair wages and working conditions, indigenous people like the Yaqui who were persecuted by the Díaz regime. Díaz retaliated against the magonistas by shutting their paper down, destroying the presses, and forcing Ricardo Flores Magón to flee as far as Saint Louis. Despite being on the run for most of his life, pursued by law enforcement on both sides of the border, arrested and jailed repeatedly, Ricardo Flores Magón never stopped writing or agitating. Kelly Lytle Hernández argues that without the intellectual groundwork laid by Ricardo Flores Magón and the magonistas, the Mexican revolution might not have happened.

The Díaz regime fell on May 9, 1911. Although the dictator had lost favor with many officials and moneyed interests on the American side of the border, the U.S. government wasn’t a passive observer; it undertook numerous actions to prevent the revolution from harming U.S. business interests and individuals, including the military occupation of Veracruz in 1914 and again in 1916. Meanwhile, as various factions in Mexico jockeyed for political power in the aftermath of the revolution, more than a million Mexicans crossed into the U.S., a mass migration that altered the demographic trajectory of this country. Despite being targets for economic exploitation and Juan Crow segregation, these labor migrants made the wheels of key industries in the American West turn which helped propel the U.S. to global power. 

Ricardo Flores Magón died on November 23, 1922 in Leavenworth Penitentiary. Until his final breath he remained a rebel, unbending and unwilling to compromise his revolutionary ideals. The railroad car that carried his body back to Mexico City for a state funeral was draped in red and black banners, and all along the route supporters lined the track to pay homage to the intellectual progenitor of the Mexican Revolution. Kelly Lytle Hernández brings Ricardo Flores Magón, his times and his cause to life; it’s a compelling story of a man who courageously faced long odds, persecution and imprisonment, but never ceased fighting tyranny or galvanizing others to do the same.