“Bad Mexicans” tells the cross-border origin story of the Mexican Revolution
This weekend, Agave Festival Marfa returns for a sixth year, bringing renowned scholars and artists from throughout the borderlands to the Big Bend. This year’s line-up includes Dr. Kelly Lytle Hernández, a 2019 MacArthur Genius and professor of History, African American Studies, and Urban Planning at UCLA. She’ll be reading from her recent book, “Bad Mexicans: Race, Empire, and Revolution in the Borderlands,” which tells the story of the magonistas, a group of migrant rebels who helped to incite the Mexican Revolution from inside the U.S.
Marfa Public Radio recently spoke with Dr. Lytle Hernández about the importance of the Mexican Revolution to American history, the entwined histories of law enforcement and rebellion on the border, and what it means to document resistance. You can listen to the full conversation above.
Highlights from the conversation
On the history of race, repression, and rebellion in the borderlands
Dr. Kelly Lytle Hernández’s work as a historian interrogates the relationships between what she calls the “three R’s of American history”: race, repression, and rebellion. She said she was drawn to those themes growing up as a black girl on the border in San Diego.
“I watched neighbors and loved ones lose relatives to the regime through deportation. And I experienced the violence of the police state largely through local policing and the targeting of black youth around the War on Drugs,” she said.
Those experiences led her to focus much of her research on law enforcement: “I always wanted to try to figure out, what was the relationship between the men in blue and the men in green?”
Lytle Hernández’s 2010 book, “Migra!” traced the history of the U.S. Border Patrol, while an ongoing research project and a book called “City of Inmates” document the rise and impact of mass incarceration in Los Angeles. With “Bad Mexicans,” she turned her focus towards people resisting state repression.
On the migrant rebels who plotted the 1910 Mexican Revolution
“Bad Mexicans” tells the story of a group called the magonistas — led by Ricardo Flores Magón, a dissident journalist who challenged the regime of Mexican dictator Porfirio Díaz in the early 1900s. After his printing press was smashed and his writing suppressed in Mexico, Flores Magón and his fellow rebels fled to the U.S., where their underground planning laid the groundwork for the Mexican Revolution of 1910.
Though he’s a canonical figure in Mexico, Flores Magón is relatively unknown to most Americans — as are the rest of the magonistas. Lytle Hernández learned about them in grad school, and said former President Donald Trump’s 2016 reference to Mexicans as “bad hombres” prompted her to turn two decades of research on the revolutionaries into a book.
“I knew that I really needed to talk about the ways in which Mexican migrants and exiles had long confronted this kind of really violent, racist rhetoric,” she said. “And how in fact, a hundred years ago, it was a group of Mexican migrants — migrant workers, cotton pickers, miners and intellectuals — who all came together and who deposed an autocrat who at that time had disparaged them as ‘bad Mexicans,’ as ‘malos Mexicanos.’”
On the Mexican Revolution as a cross-border story
The magonistas’ work was key to sparking rebellion in Mexico — but Lytle Hernández argues that their story is also crucial to understanding U.S. history. Publishing their newspaper, Regeneración, from within the U.S., they challenged American imperialism, exclusionary labor practices, and racist violence against Mexicans and Mexican-Americans in the borderlands. And the revolution the magonistas helped to plan ultimately spurred a dramatic demographic shift, as around a million Mexican migrants, exiles, and refugees relocated to the U.S.
“That generation of immigrants really lays the foundation, the bedrock for the growth of the Mexican American community for decades to come,” Lytle Hernández said.
On the rise of U.S. policing alongside revolution
Though focused on the revolutionaries, “Bad Mexicans” also documents a parallel history: that of the U.S. and Mexican authorities who worked to foil their efforts. As the magonistas decried U.S. investments in Mexico from their hideouts in Texas, California, and Missouri, agencies from the Department of War to local sheriffs’ departments to the U.S. Postal Service teamed up with Mexican authorities to track down the rebels.
Even the fledgling FBI got in on the action. “As a counterinsurgency super-force of the 20th and 21st centuries, it cuts its teeth on trying to thwart the outbreak of the 1910 Mexican Revolution,” Lytle Hernández said. “Something as American, as apple pie, as the FBI, when you really go back and you uncover the records, you find Mexicans, Mexico and Mexican Americans, particularly rebel Mexicans, at the center of the story.”
On an intersectional history of the border
In her research for “Bad Mexicans,” Lytle Hernández said she kept a particular eye out for examples of interracial solidarity — like an African American man offering shelter to Ricardo Flores Magón in Los Angeles, or an unrealized magonista effort to reclaim and redistribute land to dispossessed black and Indigenous people in the U.S.
Lytle Hernández plans to delve deeper into those themes with her next book project, a history of the U.S.-Mexico border stretching back to the early 1800s. Her approach, she said, is “telling stories about black freedom-seeking and Indigenous land claims to really pivot how we understand the border as a place of freedom-seeking, but also a story of race and exclusion.”
Dr. Lytle Hernández will be reading from “Bad Mexicans” at 6 p.m. on Saturday, June 3, at the Crowley Theater in Marfa. You can find a full schedule for Agave Festival Marfa here.