Saturday, September 16, 2017

Ricardo Flores Magón, PLM, and the Labor Struggles of California Farmworkers

“Cipriano Ricardo Flores Magón (known as Ricardo Flores Magón; September 16, 1874 – November 21, 1922) was a noted Mexican anarchist and social reform activist. His brothers Enrique and Jesús were also active in politics. Followers of the Magón brothers were known as Magonistas. He has been considered an important participant in the social movement that sparked the Mexican Revolution.”

“Periodically throughout their history, California farmworkers have fought vigorously, sometimes in small, local battles unknown to anyone but the immediate participants, and at other times in large campaigns—directed by radical or even openly revolutionary leaders—that have lasted for several seasons. The nature of these fights is rooted in the special character of agricultural production and in the real opportunities that farmworkers have encountered in the fields for nearly a hundred years.” Frank Bardacke, Trampling Out the Vintage: Cesar Chavez and the Two Souls of the United Farm Workers (Verso, 2011)

The “special character of agricultural production” Bardacke refers to above includes the “short-lived harvest” period, as it is only during this precious time of year that a commodity is produced (although various kinds of work on the land are performed throughout the year), thus leaving the commercial farmer vulnerable to interruptions or delays. Another conspicuous vulnerability arises from the dependence on migratory workers, the demand for labor varying greatly throughout the year. Hence, Bardacke informs us,

“Time is often on the workers’ side, and they have not hesitated to seize it. Brief harvest walkouts, sit-downs, slow-downs, and stay-at-homes are part of farmworker tradition, weapons used much more regularly by agricultural workers than by industrial workers.”

Before the Depression-era upheaval that led to various forms of worker militancy, both spontaneous and organized, there were several years of “militant farmworker action [and] significant wage gains” that presaged patterns of future farmworker struggles. Unfortunately, these early battles did not result in a lasting union for those who labored on the land. Again, Bardacke:

“Between 1914 and 1917, in a period of overall labor scarcity, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), at times in tandem with the Partido Liberal Mexicano (PLM) [organized by Ricardo Flores Magón and later led by both Ricardo and his youngest brother, Enrique], led a series of walkouts in the California fields, orchard, and vineyards that pushed up wages, forced labor-camp managers to provide better food, and prompted the state of California to build an extensive series of new labor camps, which improved the lives of many migrants. A harvest-time strike in the hops in 1914 doubled piece-rate wages, and by 1917, the average wage of California farmworkers had risen to nearly 90 percent of the average wage of California’s city workers.”

Ricardo Flores Magón had been a leader of university student protests in Mexico City in the 1890s and as early as 1904, the “Magonistas” (largely anarchist in political ideology) who found sanctuary in the U.S., “began to send emissaries—revolutionary culture brokers—into the mining camps of the Mexican north and into the agrarian villages as far south as Veracruz and Oaxaca.” And for this and other reasons, Flores Magón “is celebrated in Mexican secondary school textbooks as a ‘precursor’ of the [Mexican] Revolution.”

In California, Flores Magón “and a small band of comrades” whose “interest was not primarily California farmworkers,” continued to publish their weekly newspaper, Regeneración (in turn smuggled back into Mexico), and “for which [Ricardo] wrote political and social commentary.” As Bardacke reminds us, Flores Magón and the PLM were nevertheless indirectly active in the agricultural fields of California, as Ricardo and Enrique, together with a “substantial number of displaced Mexican revolutionaries,”

“… set up a series of PLM clubs in the Southwest and California. Those clubs attracted Mexican migrant workers, some of whom began to call themselves Magonistas. The clubs were linked through Regeneración and several other local, less regular PLM newspapers. Club leaders read the newspaper out loud to assembled groups of workers, who then discussed the situation in Mexico and their own troubles in the United States.

The hub of PLM power was Los Angeles, which was still an agricultural town in 1907 when the Flores Magón brothers settled there, and already was the center of the Mexican community in the United States. The PLM’s LA clubhouse became a center of multilingual, multiethnic activity where socialists and Wobblies famous and obscure mixed with Magonistas. Regeneración, its back page printed in English, built up an LA circulation of 10,000, making it both the first bilingual paper in California and the largest Spanish-language newspaper in town. The PLM club, which was also considered a Spanish-speaking IWW local, had 400 active members, most of who were farmworkers.” 

Magonistas were soon found throughout Spanish-speaking IWW locals in Southern and Central California. Whatever their cultural and language differences, Wobblies and Magonistas were united in their political ideology and political praxis:

“In San Diego in 1910, a joint IWW-PLM local organized a strike at the local gas and electric company that won equal pay for equal work. That same year a fight for free speech that ultimately did much to popularize the IWW among California farmworkers, began in Fresno in the midst of a battle to organize Mexican workers who were being contracted to build a dam on the outskirts of town. In hop fields, vineyards, sugar refineries, and citrus orchards, many farmworker walkouts were joint Wobbly-Magonista efforts.”

Our short story ends on a tragic note, for “[i]n 1918, Ricardo Flores Magón, along with other PLM and IWW leaders, was convicted of violating the Espionage Act … for ‘obstructing the war effort.’” Ricardo died on November 21, 1922 at Leavenworth Penitentiary in Kansas. Alas, and for motley reasons, one of the foremost being the appeal of communism and the rise of Communist parties following the Russian Revolution, the IWW and PLM did not formally survive World War I. All the same, 

“… Magonismo never totally disappeared from the California fields. Remaining underground in unfavorable times such as 1939, Magonismo has reappeared whenever farmworkers have had an opportunity to fight. It is there when they slow down on the job, sabotage the crops, or strike at the beginning of a harvest. Magonistas played a part in Imperial Valley melon and lettuce strikes in the late 1920s. They worked together with other militants when California farmworkers shook the state in the early 1930s. A generation later a few Magonistas would play a small role as the movement that produced the UFW was getting under way. And in 1979, the ghost of Ricardo Flores Magón would make a cameo appearance at one of the most dramatic moments in UFW history.”

Further Reading:

  • Albro, Ward S. Always a Rebel: Ricardo Flores Magón and the Mexican Revolution. Fort Worth, TX: Texas Christian University Press, 1992.
  • Chacón, Justin Akers. Radicals in the Barrio: Magonistas, Socialists, Wobblies, and Communists in the Mexican-American Working Class. Chicago, IL: Haymarket Books, Forthcoming.
  • Daniel, Cletus E. Bitter Harvest: A History of California Farmworkers, 1870-1941. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1981.
  • Dyson, Lowell K. Red Harvest: The Communist Party and American Farmers. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1982.
  • Hart, John M. Anarchism and the Mexican Working Class, 1860-1931. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1978.
  • Lomnitz, Claudio. The Return of Comrade Ricardo Flores Magón. New York: Zone Books, 2014.
  • MacLachlan, Colin M. Anarchism and the Mexican Revolution: The Political Trials of Ricardo Flores Magón in the United States. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1991.

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