The Flores Magón Brothers and American Imperialism

The Mexican Revolution of 1910 has its roots in both long-term structural issues in Mexican government and society regarding land distribution and political participation, as well as foreign influence from Mexico’s neighbor to the North, the United States of America. While perhaps not the primary motivator of the revolution, American economic imperialism certainly played an important role in exacerbating discontent amongst the Mexican people. [1] During the late 19th century, American businessmen turned their interests to Northern Mexico as an avenue for new investments and potential profits. The Mexican government, under the rule of dictator Porfirio Diáz, welcomed this new source of investment and capital despite its introduction of a system of race-based exploitation that subsequently shaped the treatment of Mexican laborers, both in the United States and Mexico itself. Members of Mexico’s working-class and its liberal intelligentsia expressed their distaste for American economic exploitation and their government’s enabling of this practice. The decade prior to the revolution saw this distaste grow until violence broke out in 1910. [2] Of the revolutionaries who laid the groundwork during this decade of rising tensions, Ricardo Flores Magón and his brothers, Enrique and Jesús, stand out as some of the most influential agitators against the Diáz regime and American imperialism. Their rhetoric and opposition give incredible insight into the nature of the United States’ relationship with Mexico and showcase the borderlands between the two nations as an avenue for the transference of capital, people, and ideals.

American economic involvement in Mexico began in the late 19th century when “…economic opportunists believed they needed to reach beyond of the nation and into Latin America and the Pacific World.” [3] Opportunities for investment in the United States had begun to dry up, and so access to foreign markets and goods became a centerpiece of American economic growth. Mexico, thanks to its proximity and large population, attracted American capital which led to an exploitative arrangement that saw Mexican labor and resources fuel urban growth and prosperity in the American West. The American city of Los Angeles became the center of a growing web of investments and ownership that oversaw the transference of wealth from Mexico to an American business elite. To protect their investments, American capitalists turned to their government to ensure stability and an environment conductive to American exploitation of Mexican labor and resources. This relationship between the United States and Mexico, built on imperialistic exploitation, “…fueled the first social revolution of the twentieth century” in which Mexican revolutionaries rejected “…absorption into a world of corporate capitalism dominated by an American investor class.” [4] Mexican social activists Ricardo, Enrique, and Jesús Flores Magón were amongst those most vocal in their opposition to Porfirio Diáz and American imperialism. As both an anarchist and a social reformer, Ricardo Flores Magón published his anti-imperialist rhetoric in his newspaper, Regeneración, until it was censored after a few short months of operation in 1901. [5] Magón spent the next two years in and out of prison for his political beliefs before fleeing to the United States with his brothers to continue agitating against the Diáz regime by way of his publications. Unfortunately for them, the United States government held every intention of maintaining its dominion over the Mexican economy and so harassed and imprisoned the Flores Magón brothers at every opportunity they could. By 1910, Magón had spent three years imprisoned in the United States. [6]

Those who supported Ricardo Flores Magón and his brothers were known as the Magonistas and were present in both Mexico and the United States. They faced similar treatment by the Diáz regime and the United States government as both sought to use imprisonment as a tool to break the movement and put an early end to any revolutionary activity. [7] The Magonistas and the Flores Magón brothers represented a threat to both the American and Mexican financial elite because of their demands for land redistribution. For the Magonistas, seizing lands and investments from their wealthy oppressors to redistribute to the working-class formed the base of their movement and political desires. [8] After decades of economic exploitation, members of the Mexican working-class had grown increasingly aggravated and more inclined towards resolving their grievances through violence. The Magonistas were not the only group of revolutionaries in Mexico, rather, they were one of many different factions that arose in opposition to Porfirio Diáz and his regime. Their opposition to American economic influence is what makes them and the Flores Magón brothers stand out from their fellow revolutionaries and reinforces the notion of the revolution as a working-class affair.

In the lead-up to the revolution, strikes grew more common as the Mexican working-class demonstrated against both their government and its American financial backers. In 1906, Mexican laborers at the Cananea copper mines in Sonora went on strike to protest the payment of higher wages to their American counterparts. A system derived from the race-based hierarchy of the United States, Mexican workers often found themselves paid worse and given more dangerous assignments than the Americans they worked alongside. [9] The situation only escalated when the governor of Sonora invited American law enforcement to help put down the strike, calling into question how deep the United States’ influence over Mexico ran. [10] At the same time, Mexican revolutionaries in the borderlands of Mexico and the United States continued to arm themselves and prepare for the coming revolution. The United States government, at the behest of Diáz and for the sake of securing their citizens’ investments, maintained a policy of arresting and imprisoning these revolutionaries for violating the U.S Neutrality Act. [11] But despite the involvement of the United States, revolutionary fervor continued to grow until an armed uprising occurred in 1910 led by prominent businessman and revolutionary Francisco Madero. Porfirio Diáz left for exile within a year and the next decade saw the revolutionaries’ collapse into bitter infighting. [12]

Ricardo Flores Magón and his brothers stayed in the United States and continued their message of anti-imperialist social reform. Magón’s “…vision for a decolonized, anti-capitalist, and democratic Mexico conflicted with the more liberal agenda of the revolution’s military and political leaders” and once the revolution began to consume itself, he and his brothers founded a communal farm from which they continued their publications and fiery rhetoric. [13] Ricardo Flores Magón was arrested for his final time in 1918 for violating the U.S Sedition Act during the Great War and sentenced to Leavenworth Penitentiary where he would pass from longstanding health issues in 1922. [14] While imprisoned, Magón continued to write and publish his works alongside many other inmates imprisoned for similar crimes of sedition and anti-war activism. [15] Magón and his fellow inmates transformed Leavenworth Penitentiary into a “university of radicalism” where radical ideas of race, class, and societal organization bled together to form new ideological conceptions. Magón’s ideas lived on after his death, influencing likeminded thinkers in both Mexico and the United States.

The Mexican Revolution failed to fully drive out American investment, nor did it successfully overthrow the Mexican political elite who enabled foreign influence at the expense of an exploited working-class, but it did create a new political regime that was willing to reform parts of Mexican society and appease the former revolutionaries. While Ricardo Flores Magón and his brothers may not have seen their vision of a truly anti-capitalist and democratic Mexico established, their commitment to their ideals would live on and inspire many more radical left-wing thinkers across North America. Their struggle is one worthy of attention for how it reveals the nature of the United States’ dominion in the Americas and the effect such influence had on the peoples who suffered through it. The Flores Magón brothers and their followers represent a working-class response not only to capitalist exploitation, but American imperialism as well. Their rhetoric embodies notions of international solidarity in the face of domination from wealthy and powerful elite, be they Mexican or American. Prior to and during the Mexican Revolution, the borderlands of Mexico and the United States saw the development of both a system of race-based exploitation and a working-class anti-imperialist movement to upend it.