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Red Flags in the Desert Heat

The Baja California Revolution of 1911
-- D.L.Nevin

Part 1 Part 2


I stepped out of my borrowed car, April 26, 1998, into the hot mid-day California sun onto the cracked sidewalk of an urban wilderness, a vacant forgotten area of East Los Angeles near a section of that city currently called "Little Tokyo." In 1911 this neighborhood was mostly Mexican, a "dingy industrial area inhabited by semi-employed laborers and discontented drifters."

Today it is still a dingy industrial area with little activity. The building at 519 1/2 East Fourth Street is the drop-off site for trash awaiting recycling. The building housing the Baja California junta and the insurgent newspaper, Regeneracion (Regeneration), has long since been demolished.

Had history taken other turns, the building may have been preserved or at least its presence remembered with a memorial plaque in the vicinity.

Today, there is no trace of the offices near 4th and Towne Streets where the course of the Mexican uprising of 1911 was directed. Instead, homeless men wait outside a shelter/soup kitchen down the street, shaded by the lengthening shadows of the modern skyscrapers a few blocks away. Garbage blows carelessly along the gutter, resting nowhere.

Our story begins with the person of Ricardo Flores Magon. Born in 1873 in the picturesque mountainous state of Oaxaca to an Indian mother and a Mestizo father, Ricardo was a young student political activist and firebrand in Mexico City during the 1880's, when access to national power by the newly emergent middle class was a central and politically taboo issue.

By 1904, Flores Magon had spent three years in Mexico City jails before finally choosing to cross the border into the U.S. With a small band of comrades, including his brother Enrique, he began publishing the bilingual, anarchist newspaper, Regeneracion. For political beliefs espoused in the paper, the Magon brothers were hounded by authorities wherever they went.

Ricardo Flores Magon was a complex character, a withdrawn philosophical listener who later developed a persecution complex. In 1911 he wrote,"We know that we are destined to absorb a dagger in our flesh or to die of consumption in some prison. We accept our destiny with pleasure satisfied with having accomplished something on behalf of the slaves."

At the height of its circulation, the uncompromising, inflammatory Regeneracion reached 30,000 subscribers annually, most of whom resided in Mexico. It regularly ran in a format of ten pages, nine in Spanish with the back page being in English. It contained news, commentary, and cartoons. The paper was read all over Mexico, from the Zapatista camps (peasants who rallied around the agrarian leader Emiliano Zapata) in Morelos to the striking workers' picket lines in Chihuahua.

Flores Magon was a follower of the famous Russian anarchist-communist Peter Kropotkin, with whom he corresponded. Kropotkin's major tome elaborating his social evolutionary theory of mutual aid, The Conquest for Bread, was translated into Spanish and thousands of copies were distributed by Magon. The Magonista slogan, "Tierra y Libertad", was taken from the Russian Narodnikis, the peasant insurrectionists of the 1860s, and the slogan was made famous later as the rallying cry of the Zapatistas in their campaigns in southern Mexico.

Magon was the major intellect behind the Los Angeles-based Regeneracion and the revitalized Partido Liberal Mexicano (PLM, the Mexican Liberal Party). In 1908 this party formed the junta (revolutionary council) that would organize, plan, and urge revolt in all of Mexico beginning in Baja California.

This uprising resulted in the short-lived revolutionary communes in the border towns of Mexicali and Tijuana, helping to set in motion the Mexican Revolution. This is our story-the tale of two cities-their capture, their defeat.

History Smiles Favorably Upon the Victors.

All too often, social or political movements that ultimately fail are swept into the dustbin of history and soon forgotten by the public. School textbooks in turn marginalize these movements as if they weren't worth taking the time to study.

Yet movements that fail are just as fascinating as those that triumph. There are times when men give the "ultimate sacrifice" only to watch from beyond the grave as their leaders sell out their ideals for personal profit. Splits may develop in which best friends become virulent enemies over ideological questions of allegiance or betrayal, ideals vs. practicality. Powerful media moguls may purposefully distort the truth to discredit a movement and then sit back and laugh while the once-cherished ideals are dragged through the mud and the leaders rot away like living corpses, caged like animals in remote prison cells. A grassroots revolutionary uprising may attract immigrant anarchist idealists, dispossessed indigenous people, professional soldiers of fortune, hobo tramp adventurers, illiterate land-hungry peasants, and publicity-seeking prankster clowns, and end up in complete and total chaos.

This and many more sordid tales of bravery, stupidity, idealism and ineptitude happened during the "Desert Revolution of 1911" in Baja, California.

Karl Marx once said that history repeats itself twice; first as tragedy, secondly as farce. The campaign of the PLM forces in Baja, California in 1911 as directed by the Liberal junta in exile in Los Angeles was accused of being an attempt to repeat the filibustering efforts of the 1850s. This was not true, yet the myth stubbornly lives on up to the present time. This campaign was a perfect example of how to invite disaster and insure defeat.

Mexicali: First Blood

The PLM junta chose Jose Maria Leyva, a gunsmith who had been in the 1906 miners' strike at Cananea, to be commander of its 17-man "army." Second in command was Simon Berthold, a socialist of Mexican and German parents.

Baja California was chosen as the logical place to begin, since: 1) the population was sparse; 2) it was close to the usually porous U.S. border; 3) there were few Federal Troops in the vicinity; 4) it was far from Mexico City; and 5) the people were in a rebellious mood because they had suffered many hardships.

The largest of these hardships was landlessness caused by the actions of foreign absentee landlords. Despite their absence, these powerful U.S. interests in the Mexicali Valley could wield much power when needed, to defend their holdings. Foremost amongst these holdings were the irrigation works which supplied water from the lower Colorado river to the newly settled Imperial-Holt Valley across the border in California.

The other obstacle was the historical memory of Mexican citizens who remembered the disgraceful filibustering attempts of William Walker in the 1850s. ("Filibustering" is a derogatory term referring to to the actions of soldiers who would take control of foreign territory in order to set up a puppet government, with the goal of annexing territories to the United States for economic motives.) During that shameful episode Walker and others attempted to gain control of the Baja peninsula with the intention of annexing the new territory to the United States at huge personal profit.

If successful, the PLM attack on the outpost of Mexicali would mean access to customs revenues and serve as a focal point for recruitment.

The rebel force was composed of Mexican PLM supporters, with one North American "Wobbly" - an Industrial Workers of the World member, John W. Bond. (Later the militant anarcho-syndicalist IWW would provide a whole host of fighters from the ranks of Union locals in San Diego, El Paso, and Los Angeles.) They were a revolutionary union movement which believed in "one big union" comprised of and controlled by the multi-racial rank and file. Slandered and demonized as subversives by the capitalist press, IWW Wobblies were derided with the monikers:"I Won't Work" and "I Want Whiskey."

In reality many of the Wobblies were unemployed or underemployed seasonal workers, most of whom looked like hobos and bums in the eyes of the public because they would "ride the rails" to find work and were ready to fight for their ideals of worker solidarity anywhere. (This would cause problems later in the uprising, however, as the PLM forces were joined by the soldier of fortune faction that the uprising later attracted. This combination resurrected the old charge of filibustering, which was used as a mighty propaganda tool by the various forces attempting to slander and turn public opinion against the rebels.)

The battle for Mexicali unfolded at dawn on January 29, 1911; the repercussions echoed loudly across Mexico and the American Southwest.
The small rebel band marched across the border in the dark of night to retrieve hidden guns - 60 rifles, a few revolvers and 9000 rounds of ammunition.

A first group attacked the sleeping and unsuspecting custom house officials; a second group headed for the house of the chief of police, while a third group headed to the town jail.

Amazingly, only one shot was fired during the entire operation. Jose Villanova, the unfortunate jailer, was shot through the door of the jail when he refused to hand over the keys. After the PLM guerrillas heard him cock his revolver, they fired. The prisoners were freed and nine chose to join the rebel army. Palomirez, in command of the second group, arrested the unsuspecting chief of police.

The first group, lead by General Berthold, captured the sleeping Jefe Politico, wealthy Gustavo Terrazas at his house. Terrazas ordered the small Federal force stationed in Mexicali to surrender. He was chained to a stake in the courtyard and the barracks were easily occupied. Later that day, Terrazas was freed after he paid a war tax of $500.

The two customs house officers were arrested and later freed after one paid $385, promising to not exercise their official functions anymore. Of the ten rurales (National Police) in town, three surrendered and seven were allowed to run across the border in their underwear.

Mexicali was thus captured with little resistance and only one casualty. The saloons were closed, captured rifles stacked in the town square, and volunteers called for. Soon the PLM army was 40 soldiers strong, then swelled to 125. Reporters were invited in and word of the capture was sent to Magon and the junta in Los Angeles. As directed, the rebel army gave out receipts for money received, to be paid upon successful triumph of the Revolution.

According to John Turner, an author and eyewitness, a "purposeful order" prevailed. Chickens abounded in Mexicali backyards, but the revolutionaries still ate beans.

On the tip of a bayonet a note was handed over the International Border to U.S. officials reminding the police on the American side to honor the neutrality laws, or suffer the consequences. A postscript read, "You must bear in mind that we are not a mob. We are fighting for principles." The red flag of the insurgents was proudly flying over Mexicali. Within earshot of the U.S. troops stationed menacingly at the border, Gen. Berthold cried out, "We shall fire if they dare cross the border. We shall die like martyrs, spilling our blood in the cause of liberty."
Support for the PLM Liberals came pouring in from the American Left. At a benefit fundraiser, prominent writer Jack London delivered a statement of support which read, "We Socialists, Anarchists, hobos, chicken thieves, outlaws and undesirable citizens of the U.S. are with you heart and soul. You will notice that we are not respectable. Neither are you. No revolutionary can possibly be respectable in these days of the reign of property."

The fortunes of the Liberal Party were to last only five months, but they set off one of the many brush fires which united into the roaring blaze called the Mexican Revolution, which lasted ten years and brought irreversible changes and massive loss of life to Mexico. It brought a new constitution, new land for peasants, new songs, and new ways of negotiating power relations.

This ends Part I of Red Flags in the Desert Heat. Stay tuned

Part 1 Part 2


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