Ricardo Flores Magón might not be a household name in much of the U.S., but nearly a century after the Mexican activist died in a Kansas penitentiary, his legacy lives on. That's the argument that Kelly Lytle Hernández makes in her new book, "Bad Mexicans" — and it's a convincing one.
Lytle Hernández's book covers the decade leading up the Mexican Revolution of 1910, focusing on Flores Magón and his supporters — "magonistas" — whose tireless agitating for liberal ideals "changed the course of history both north and south of the border."
At the time, there was no shortage of Mexicans who opposed the regime of Porfirio Díaz, the country's long-serving, despotic president who "draped his rule in a veil of democracy." Flores Magón, a law-school dropout and businessman, became something of a first among equals; with two other activists, he founded the newspaper Regeneración, which was strongly critical of Díaz.
Díaz, who admitted that his methods were "harsh to the point of cruelty," didn't take well to the criticism, and Flores Magón and his associates were jailed; after getting out, they decamped to the U.S. — first Texas, then Missouri — in hopes they'd be able to publish their newspaper with impunity.
Unfortunately, the American government was just as hostile to them as their home country. The U.S. had extensive financial interests in Mexico, and rich Americans owned a great deal of land in the nation — land that had been stolen from poor "miners, farmworkers and cotton pickers." When Díaz asked the American attorney general and President Theodore Roosevelt to help him "crush" the political party the activists had founded, they were all too happy to help, spying on the reformers, and eventually sending them to prison.
The magonistas' activism helped bring about the Mexican Revolution in 1910, which forced Díaz from power. There would be no happy ending for Flores Magón, however; he was charged with violating the Espionage Act in 1918, convicted, and ended up dying in Leavenworth Penitentiary in 1922.
Lytle Hernández is a natural storyteller, and her writing shines throughout "Bad Mexicans." And while it reads like a novel — she proves to be masterful at building narrative suspense — it's also meticulously researched, and the author provides ample context to help readers understand the history of Mexico and its relationship with the U.S.
That context is important, bolstering her argument that the Mexican Revolution that Flores Magón helped inspire "remade the United States." The yearslong war that erupted in Mexico led to mass immigrations of the country's people to the U.S., "which radically reoriented U.S. culture, politics, and society," Lytle Hernández writes.
"Bad Mexicans" is an exemplary work of history, shining a light on a group of people whose courage and determination transformed a continent. It's a fascinating book by an author of immense intelligence and remarkable talent.
Michael Schaub is a writer in Texas.
Bad Mexicans: Race, Empire, & Revolution in the Borderlands
By: Kelly Lytle Hernández.
Publisher: W.W. Norton & Company, 368 pages, $30.