The Mexican Immigrant Generation
The story of the Mexican poor at the turn of the last century is one of great complexity and turmoil. We continue to experience echoes of this past and how it affects our American story as much as it’s the history of our southern neighbor. It is in our best interest to view this history by observing the journeys of the poor voiceless immigrants, since it is in their hands that this struggle has plainly grown, worked and sorted. These days a leisured consumer culture obviates any pressing need to regard the voiceless. Such indifference allows us to celebrate affluence at the total expense of those who are in need. Let us also be careful to not take the typical route to demonize the rich (to be sure, the wealthy are not the only ones who are guilty of hating the less fortunate), instead let our thoughts of the Mexican immigrant poor be a subtle critique on the attitude of indifference itself.
The historian Manuel G. Gonzales tells us, in his book Mexicanos, the period leading up to, during, and after the Mexican American War, was one of political disarray in Mexico. He notes that “…the presidency [of Mexico] changed hands seventy-five times from 1821 to 1876…” (115). This chaotic time leads to the extreme leadership of Profirio Diaz (1830-1915), who is known as a president of Mexico, who then became a dictator. His off-and-on thirty-something year rule is commonly referred to as: “El Profiriato.” During El Profiriato Diaz had many incongruities that mainly favored the entrepreneurial sectors of Mexican society. Yes, this helped the Mexican peso, but the also pushed the Mexican workers downward. If you didn’t happen to own a grand Hacienda, and you had the misfortune to live in poverty, then you were treated like a second-class citizen, and in some cases, you were treated like a slave. This transition from an agrarian way of life to one of manufacturing, mining, foreign investment etc. left the Mexican peasants and the ever-downcast Indians to continue to immigrate northward, to an American way of life, but not always a better way of life.
The numbers of north-bound immigrants during El Profiriato didn’t really match the staggering numbers of refugees, workers, and countless others who wanted to get away from the tumult of the Mexican Revolution that began in 1910. The antiestablishment idealism of Ricardo Flores Magón (1874 – 1922) led the battle cry against Diaz and the corrupt El Profiriato. The importance of Magón’s message was radical and it was a cry for the peasants, the over-worked, the poor and the so-called peons. Magón was a journalist, and head of the leading revolutionary paper: Regeneración, famous for its anarchist fervor. He hated Diaz and his cronies, “…the Old Buzzard [Diaz] watches from his perch high on the rocks, fixing his eye on the giant that advances without even understanding the reason for the insurrection, because tyrants simply do not understand the right to rebel” (159). Magón’s life may not be a success story, but it is a story whereby he fought for those couldn’t see a way out.
Magón’s message was clear; he disliked Diaz, as much as he disliked government in general. He believed in dissent, the right to rebel, the necessity of discord. With a definite unconscious ring of Hegelian (dialectical) philosophy Magón writes: “All is transformed be discord: it dissolves and creates, destroys and creates” (272). For Magón, if the peasant didn’t rise up to save himself and to (crucially) bring with him his fellow man, it was his own fault. None of this anarchistic thinking helped Magón personally—although he was favored by the revolutionaries, he was essentially exiled by El Profiriato to a very un-anarchistic America. His anarchy aimed not to replace government, but to do away with it in favor of a decentralized communal leadership. This radical position makes sense if you grew up poor in nineteenth-century Mexico, a country that shuffled through political challenges with dizzying rapidity. His affinity with Marxism is hard to trace, yet there are strong similarities in both. Magón’s anarchist ‘bible’ was The Conquest of Breadby the anarchist Peter Kropotkin, first published in 1892. Magón wasn’t a success story and he died in an American prison. He was a martyr for working-class people and for his radical thought.
If we are to focus again of the Mexican peasant, we can’t say with any assurance exactly how willing s/he wanted to stay in Mexico amidst the chaos of revolution. People will get tired of stepping over dead bodies, and the best of the bad choices had to be to head up north. As we know, great swaths the American Southwest once belonged to Mexico. This was part of what eased the transition from one country to the next. Add to that, the fact that America was quickly becoming ‘the land of opportunity’ (more so if you were white, but the resilient Mexicans didn’t let this stop them). That the Mexican immigrants had to settle for agrarian work comes as no surprise, Diaz worked hard to pull away from an agrarian Mexico. For a good segment of the Mexican poor of that time an agrarian life was all they knew.
How infrequently do we recognize the insufferable conditions these people had to face in those days? Because of the trenchant American racism and the need for cheap labor, the Mexicans lived in squalor in small shacks by the fields they worked. José Aguayo, in his essay Los Betabeleros, recounts the stats: “Between 1900 and 1930, more than a million Mexicans came to the United States to work…Forty-five thousand came to Colorado in search of rumored high wages in the tending of sugar beets” (108). A lot of effort was spent to recruit Mexicans to this kind of hard field work here in Colorado, and the workers were frequently exploited and humiliated in the process. In the fine book on the Spanish-speaking peoples of the Southwest North from Mexico, Cary McWilliams also talks about the not so sweet conditions of the downtrodden sugar beet workers. When the workers had to be transported, the driver would throw a tarp over the heads of the workers packed onto bed of the truck: “outwardly the truck looks as thought it were loaded with a cargo of potatoes” (168). Evidently the people had to be treated like mere cargo, since the employers were working under the fear of the ‘Emigrant Agent Law’ of that time. The not-so-Great Western Sugar Company’s history rests on the sweaty backs of all those un-named workers it abused for the sake of profit and progress. Karl Marx aptly writes in the Communist Manifesto: “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles” (57). Yet, the ability to question, critique and rise above such problems, is up to the workers themselves. After all, they are the ones who have to sell their labor to the bosses. It is in the realization that this labor creates the value that the peasant can then decide to transgress the dominant ideology that binds him in the alienating practice of exploitation, greed and willful subordination.
When workers do find it within themselves to organize, the effort doesn’t always turn in their favor. A case in point were the strikes against CF&I (Colorado Fuel and Iron Co.), in the early part of the twentieth-century. That the Colorado coal strike began in a snowstorm is prescient in its apparent bad luck. M. Edmund Vallejo details the strike in his essay Recollections of the Colorado Coal Strike 1913-1914. “On September 23, 1913, eight thousand miners and their families in the Colorado coal fields left their company owned homes in the mining camps during a blinding snowstorm and moved into tents…” (90).The workers didn’t get what they wanted, in fact the violence culminated in the Ludlow Massacre of April 20th, 1914, resulting in several deaths, including women and children. The strikers were of many nationalities and there were a significant amount of Mexican immigrants that worked in the mines and fought the losing labor battles. It’s made clear by such turmoil that the narrative doesn’t always end happily. Marx and Engels’ urging to create the “dictatorship of the proletariat” as cited by V.I. Lenin, looks good in theory, but who is usually to be counted among the dead?—the proletariat.
At the very least, we can empathize with the labor struggles throughout the twentieth century and into the new millennium. Recent reactionary trends continue to ostracize the Mexican immigrant. It goes without saying that the controversy has its (now covert) racist elements. Jim Gilchrist, founder of the Minuteman Project, a vigilante volunteer group who ‘police’ the Mexican/American border, writes an elaborate mission statement on the Minuteman website that talks a lot about assimilation, or better said the Mexican immigrant’s refusal to assimilate into the American way of life. Assimilation is basically where the immigrant is tacitly required to become wholly a part of the dominate culture. A more humanistic stance would speak of acculturation, whereby the immigrant works to become part of the dominant culture, while respectfully retaining his/her own cultural heritage. Gilchrist is too flat to envision such nuance. His job is to instill fear and paranoia: “The huge amount of money, maybe even hundreds of billions of dollars, saved annually, by eliminating the extraordinary costs of sustaining an impoverished illegal alien population, could be diverted to programs for the betterment and enhancement of the nation’s infrastructure and its society…” Just think of all the money we can save if everybody thought exactly like this. Gilchrist’s idealism doesn’t propose reform the current immigration laws. He simply reacts and wants to fight in the name of the status quo. If we keep everything the same, the world will be a better place, multiculturalism is simply an aberration. The overheated immigration debate morphs people down to one category: illegal. The anarchist Magón comes in handy again to challenge the lazy notion that things are better left as they are: “While the poor acquiesce to being poor, while the oppressed acquiesce to being slaves their will be no liberty, there will be no progress […] Blessed be discord!” (272).
We can’t be afraid of the negative to stir up the order of the same. The indifference of our leisured way of life doesn’t always grasp this, the more we look away, the more people’s lives are lost. If we can’t see them, they don’t exist. Mexican immigration isn’t new. Their plight is an American story too. Our commonly accepted history denies this, probably because it doesn’t fit into the typical Anglo narrative. It is in this denial of the Mexican contribution to the American story that the truth is lost and real people are overlooked. Indifference breeds ignorance whether we face it or not. When we close our eyes, we close our minds.
Aguayo, José. Los Betabeleros (The Beetworkers).De Baca, pp. 105-119.
De Baca, Vincent C. ed. La Gente.Denver, CO: The Colorado Historical Society. 1998. Print.
Gilchrist, Jim. Essay. The Minuteman Project. Georgetown University School of Law (?). 2008. Web.
Gonzales, Manuel G. Mexicanos. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press. Print.
Lenin, V.I. The Dictatorship of the Proletariat. Marxist Internet Archive. n.d. May 6, 2012. Web.
Magón, Ricardo Flores. Dreams of Freedom, A Ricardo Magón Reader. Eds. Chaz Bufe and Mitchell Cowen Verter. Oakland, CA: AK Press. 2005. Print.
Marx, Karl and Friedrich Engels. The Communist Manifesto. Ed. Joseph Katz. Trans Samuel More. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster. 1964. Print.
McWilliams, Cary. North from Mexico. New York, NY: Praeger. 1990. Print.
Vallejo, M. Edmund. Recollections of the Colorado Coal Strike 1913-1914. De Baca pp. 85-104.