In Chicago, Mexican workers formed the ranks of a proletariat that drew from these historical experiences and contemporary events in Mexico, moving into left politics and communist-led U.S. labor unions during the years of the Great Depression.
John H. Flores, The Mexican Revolution in Chicago: Immigration Politics from the Early Twentieth Century to the Cold War (Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2018), 252 pages, $28, paperback.
In August 1927, Juanita Guevara pulled out a .32 caliber pistol from her purse, shooting and killing a Chicago police officer. She was defending herself from the oncoming cop, who was enraged after witnessing her slap a white man across the face. The man had deliberately ridden his bicycle into her 10-year-old son on the sidewalk and Juanita would not stand for it. Both the cop and the cyclist were Polish and expressed resentment toward the growing Mexican population in “their” Back of the Yards neighborhood in Chicago. Guevara served only four months in prison and was released thanks to a large public campaign organized in the Mexican barrios that convinced a jury that she was justified in her actions.
In The Mexican Revolution in Chicago: Immigration Politics from the Early Twentieth Century to the Cold War, John H. Flores uses the story of Juanita Guevara to illustrate the growth of the Mexican population in 1920s Chicago and how migrant communities situated and organized themselves politically in an often-hostile social environment. Drawing from political experiences in Mexico, Flores identifies and explores the evolution of a Mexican population whose identities and loyalties were shaped and divided by the Mexican revolutionary and counterrevolutionary processes in la patria (the homeland). As he puts it, “each revolutionary faction (the liberals, radicals, and traditionalists) organized societies and coalitions; held meetings, events, and fund-raisers; delivered statements to the Mexican public through the Spanish-language press; and stressed the dignity of their constituencies” (4).
Flores periodizes the history and dichotomizes the political actors, beginning with the revolutionary generation: liberal nationalists versus traditionalists and cristeros (Catholic rebels in the Cristero War) between 1910 and 1930. This generation is followed by an epoch of radical socialists and proletarians who contested the political terrain of the Mexican barrios against anti-Communist Catholics who found ideological convergence with a repressive U.S. state from the 1930s to the 1950s.
The Revolutionary Generation: Liberal Nationalists Organize Their Communities
Like Los Angeles, early twentieth-century Chicago’s Mexican population was predominantly middle and working class, without the presence of an established elite (rico) population like those of New Mexico and South Texas. The first Mexicans who came to the city included exiles and migrants from the middle classes who carried with them liberal and nationalist ideals. While some of these aligned with the more radical aspirations of the revolutionaries associated with Ricardo Flores Magón and the Mexican Liberal Party who were actively operating throughout the Southwest, they were largely small shopkeepers and professionals who saw themselves as the arbiters of the well-being of the larger Mexican population.
The liberals believed that an organized political identity and community activism raised the social consciousness of the Mexican population. Drawing from the popular intellectual tenets of the Mexican Revolution, they aimed to instill these values among their people. These stood in opposition to the imperialist nature of the United States, which they characterized as a function of the state and ruling class—not of the common people. They took positions against all forms of U.S. interventionism in the Americas and formed alliances with others in the nationalist milieu, such as Puerto Ricans, Cubans, and Nicaraguans. Mexican liberals joined with Nicaraguans who actively opposed the U.S. occupation of their country by U.S. military forces from 1912 to 1933. They cheered on Augusto Sandino and the armed resistance campaign of his followers that set back the efforts of U.S. marines, with mexicanos comparing the Nicaraguan fighters to Pancho Villa and villista resistance, and the marines to John J. Pershing’s Punitive Expedition into Mexico in 1916.1
They also opposed the racial oppression and violence against Mexicans, which was commonplace in 1920s Chicago, when the eugenics movement was at its height and informed policies of racial segregation across cities and towns throughout the Midwest. Mexican liberals condemned police brutality, protested the segregation of public spaces, and organized the monitoring of court proceedings to document and object to any discriminatory practices against Mexican defendants. They advocated for some degree of equality for women (while not challenging patriarchy directly) and supported the campaign to restrict the activities of the Catholic Church in Mexico. Liberals also defended incoming migrants from Mexico, forming organizations like the Immigrants Protective League, which counseled newcomers on legal rights, supported resources for English-language acquisition, and provided other services to assist with integration.
Constructing a Mexican Identity
In the period before the Mexican Revolution, liberals in Chicago promoted nationalist conceptions of identity and education, while also embracing the idea of U.S. citizenship for Mexicans. Originally, liberals organized through settlement houses in the city, one of the products of the white middle-class reform campaigns of the 1900–1910 Progressive movement. They raised money from wealthy philanthropists to build adult schools in immigrant communities to foster so-called Americanization. This referred to the project of imposing white Anglo-Saxon cultural norms and capitalist values on immigrant communities to accelerate assimilation and social conformity.
Liberal nationalists who arrived in Chicago during the revolutionary period rejected Anglo assimilation for Mexicans, which put them in direct conflict with the Anglo administrators of the settlement houses and the project of Americanization. They eventually pooled their resources to form their own patriotic societies to commemorate important Mexican holidays, launch community betterment projects, and build cultural schools for their children. To name one example, they started the Centro Mexicano, a type of cultural center that included a school for Mexican children to be instilled with cultural and national pride and learn English alongside Spanish. Three of these centers operated in the different Mexican barrios in the 1920s as an alternative to the settlement houses and the assimilationist curricula of public schools.
Through these centers, the liberals espoused a mexicanidad that was secular, nationalist, and promoted a mestizo identity that accounted for indigenous ancestry and roots. Children were taught to embrace their mestizaje, retain their Spanish while learning English, and see themselves as mexicanos de afuera (Mexicans from abroad) instead of Americans. Furthermore, the liberals rejected the idea that Mexicans had to become U.S. citizens to attain equality, in fact they discouraged it.
They promoted political and historical literacy and drew from Mexico’s rich literary traditions by establishing bookstores, libraries, and their own press in every Mexican neighborhood. As Flores describes, “nearly every Mexican-owned pool hall and grocery store sold Spanish-language newspapers, books, and magazines” (75). Through their ingress into the spheres of social and political life of Chicago’s Mexican community, liberals found themselves in conflict with Mexican conservatives.
Counterrevolution in Chicago: Traditionalists and Cristeros
Liberals vied for influence over their brethren’s education, understanding of identity, and even nominal women’s rights. This brought them into direct conflict with another political current operating in the same social terrain: the conservative counterrevolution. Traditional Mexican conservatives, especially those integrated into the daily life of the Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago, militated against the efforts of the liberals.
The conservatives were significantly bolstered in their efforts by an influx of militant partisans and reactionary clergy who fled to or exiled themselves in the United States, many of whom resettled in Chicago during the Cristero War (1926–29), which was a revolt of sections of the Catholic Church against the postrevolutionary state then led by Plutarco Elias Calles. Church clergy and peasant adherents, especially based in the Bajío region of Mexico (Aguascalientes, Jalisco, Guanajuato, and Querétaro), rose up in arms against the secularization of the postrevolutionary state and the government’s imposition of constitutional restrictions on church activity in politics.
The bulwark of traditionalists in Chicago opposed in principle the work of the liberals, whose approach encouraged critical thinking that questioned the legitimacy of Christianity itself. Furthermore, the liberals represented the embodiment of the defeat of the conservatives’ postcolonial way of life, which had structured their social identity and political consciousness through the Catholic Church. In fact, they organized their oppositional activities and received support and resources from the church, which now included exiled Mexican clergy warmly embraced and integrated into the local diocese. Within the barrios, they formed their own clubs and associations designed to counter liberalism in all aspects.
Through their influence in the public schools as well as within Catholic schools, they pushed for curricula that promoted Spanish historiography. This associated the whiteness of Spanish European heritage, the Catholic religion, and the continuity of Spanish colonial institutions and cultural practice as the saving graces of Mexican identity. This erased all elements of indigenous cultural and national heritage, painting Spaniards as Christ-like saviors of the supposedly savage Mexicans. This converged with the dominant white nationalist ideology firmly ensconced in ruling circles of the day.
Conservatives supported the active role of the Catholic Church in all aspects of social and political life, including a rejection of women’s equality and affirmation of their role as subordinate to the man of the household. While women could receive basic education, their continued sexual and political repression was seen as crucial for the reproduction of a Catholic social community, especially in a changing world.
The essence of Mexican citizenship was thus linked more closely to the church than to the nation. In this sense, they encouraged Mexicans to become U.S. citizens and fully assimilate since they could freely be Catholics without the restrictions experienced in Mexico. Unlike the liberals, who saw education as a way to instill Mexican identity and political values—and therefore social consciousness—the traditionalists treated education as a model for individual self-improvement, both spiritually through the church and materially through economic gain. This aligned them more closely with the Progressive goals of education as a means for immigrants to assimilate more seamlessly into an Anglocentric capitalist system.
The presence of cristeros imbued the traditionalists with a level of militancy and resolve previously absent. They created their own clubs linked to region, religion, and shared military experiences. Opposition to the liberals even went so far as organizing physical attacks against them and their meetings. Using churches as a base, conservatives also organized among new migrants. Their prominence grew into the 1930s for two main reasons. The first is that the liberals, who were often small business owners, were decimated by the economic depression, losing their businesses and eventually becoming fragmented as a class. The second reason is that anti-liberalism began to dovetail with the emerging apparatus of anticommunism in the U.S. state, as the new migrant wave from Mexico espoused more open sympathy with the tenets of radicalism and socialism.
Proletarian Chicago: Frente Popular Antiimperialista
The first significant waves of working-class Mexican migration poured into the Southwest and fanned out across the Midwest in the 1920s. Midwestern growers and industrialists deployed agents deep into Mexico to recruit thousands of workers to labor in the fields and industrial and manufacturing plants. Migrants then followed the agricultural harvests through the grain belt states or into urban industrial centers like Chicago, Detroit, Gary, and Cleveland. As many as eighteen thousand migrants found their way to Chicago each year during this period, with portions of these waves permanently settling. By 1930, twenty thousand Mexican workers lived in the city and comprised 40 percent of the railway maintenance workforce, 12 percent of metalworkers, 5 percent of meatpackers, and 15 percent of all cement, rug, manufacturing, and fruit-packing workers.
The Mexican working class has a long history of self-organization. Since the mid–nineteenth century, they formed mutualistas (mutual aid societies) to collectivize their social needs. The societies increasingly took on the form of proto-labor unions during the periods of intense class struggle that characterized the latter years of the José de la Cruz Porfirio Díaz Mori dictatorship. When they crossed the border as labor migrants, Mexican workers brought their historical memory and these organizational forms along with them, reconstructing mutualistas across the Southwest and into the Midwest. In Chicago, Mexican workers formed the ranks of a proletariat that drew from these historical experiences and contemporary events in Mexico, moving into left politics and communist-led U.S. labor unions during the years of the Great Depression.
Migrant workers coming to Chicago in the 1930s were influenced and shaped by the rise in class struggle in Mexico, especially during the sexenio of radical reformist Lázaro Cárdenas (1934–40).2 Flores documents case studies of some of these workers who participated in strikes, industrial union organizing, and political mobilizations led by either the Mexican Communist Party or the Confederation of Mexican Workers (CTM), a national union movement they helped spearhead. They later heeded the call by a new generation of working-class Mexican leaders in the barrio, turning to socialist politics and class-based organization as a way out of capitalist crisis.
During the Popular Front period, Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union called on Communists around the world to organize opposition to the growing fascist threat to Russia by abandoning class-war rhetoric and joining with so-called progressive bourgeoisies in the capitalist countries in a common fight against Adolf Hitler. Communist Parties around the world obliged. In the United States, the Communist Party aligned itself with Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the Democratic Party, while the Mexican Communist Party supported Lázaro Cárdenas and the National Revolutionary Party (later named the Institutional Revolutionary Party). Through popular front organizations, they abandoned class struggle politics in favor of a rhetorically nationalist and antifascist politics that provided critical support for these administrations against their domestic rivals. This was especially the case in the arena of labor organizing. Roosevelt and Cárdenas gave indirect sanction to the Communists to organize workers into new industrial unions that would essentially become loyal to these mainstream parties instead of the radicals.
Despite the Faustian character of the bargain, Mexican socialists in Chicago were emboldened to recruit Mexican workers into the Chicago (and other Midwest chapters) of the Popular Anti-imperialist Front (FPA), extensions of the popular front campaign established in the urban and industrial centers across Mexico. Frentistas (members of the Front) organized three chapters in the city. Working-class migrants joined the FPA, which co-organized Mexicans alongside other groups of workers in union organizing drives, unemployment marches, protests for civil rights, and other actions. Accordingly, they were also beaten, brutalized, and persecuted by the state. Several mexicanos were among those shot and beaten at the infamous Little Steel Strike at Republic Steel mill in the south side of Chicago in 1937, at which the Memorial Day Massacre occurred. The massacre involved police shooting and killing ten unarmed demonstrators and beating another twenty-eight, resulting in serious head injuries and leaving nine people permanently disabled.
Like the liberals of the previous generation, the frentistas tried to raise class consciousness through political gatherings where they gave speeches, discussed politics, and analyzed global events from a socialist perspective. They expounded on the events of the Cuban sugar workers’ general strike against U.S. sugar mill owners in 1933, the Spanish Revolution and Civil War, the strike movements in Mexico, the nationalization of U.S. oil companies in 1938, and other similar developments. They also established radical libraries and bookstores in the city, and distributed radical Mexican literature and periodicals.
Like the liberals, the frentistas also viewed the education of the next generation as critical to their project of radical social transformation. They viewed education as a vehicle for radical socioeconomic change, not spiritual or upward mobility or individual aggrandizement. They called on Cárdenas and the CTM to establish formal relations with their like-minded paisanos in el norte and fund an educational program akin to the new socialist curriculum being adapted in public schools and the workers’ universities being created and launched by CTM leader Vicente Lombardo Toledano.
They also sought to incorporate and defend migrants, and developed a critique of imperialism that blamed capitalist plunder for the displacement of their compatriots. They reasoned that if imperialism allowed capital to move freely and openly throughout Latin America, people displaced by imperialism should therefore also have the right to migrate and be treated in an equally hospitable way in the United States. Frentistas worked directly with the U.S. Communist Party, jointly touring speakers across Mexican barrios and using frentistas to organize Mexicans into the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). This included significant organizing campaigns in the Packinghouse Workers Organizing Committee and Steel Workers Organizing Committee drives that brought thousands into the industrial union movement.
State Repression of Revolutionary México de Afuera
For their radicalism, frentistas were banned from the settlement houses and moved their work wholly into the CIO unions. They were also targeted by the conservative traditionalists, with the most far-right and reactionary elements aligning with the openly fascist Sinarquista movement in Mexico, which sought to align Mexico with the Axis powers as the world moved toward the Second World War. Nevertheless, the biggest threat to the popular front movement was the U.S. state, which set out to crush all vestiges of the Communist Party, radical labor unionism, and the nascent multiracial civil rights movement emerging from this milieu.
In the last section of the book, Flores details how the U.S. ruling class built up an array of forces in the state and federal legislatures, law enforcement, the media, and other areas to deploy the law and mobilize public opinion against the growing threat of a radical-led, organized, multiracial working-class movement.
Democrats and Republicans alike passed and supported legislation that criminalized the Communist Party, as well as membership in any of its aligned groups. This raft of repressive policies also singled out immigrants and long-term resident noncitizens for special targeting for their left-wing political activity.
A whole generation of Mexican radicals, comprised of key organizers of the Mexican working class into CIO unions from Chicago to San Diego, were detained and deported. By the early 1950s, the federal government expanded its mission of repression to the Mexican working-class population as a whole, especially in those cities, towns, and regions with the highest rates of CIO-affiliated union density. This carried into the CIO itself, where an emboldened right-wing minority used this assault as leverage to oust the Communist leadership and expel the eleven multiracial unions created under their watch—all with bipartisan support. In Chicago, deportations depleted the Mexican population from 20,000 in 1930 to 7,200 by 1940. What the conservative traditionalists could not do—rid themselves of their liberal and radical adversaries—the state accomplished with the full force of law.
Flores’s book is essential reading for understanding how Mexican revolutionary politics influenced migrant workers who moved to the United States in the 1920s and ’30s. He carefully documents the regional characteristics, transnational odysseys, political ideologies, and lived experiences in the United States of the different waves of Mexican migrants and how they reconstituted their communities and political affiliations in Chicago in an effort to establish influence within the Mexican barrios. His use of individual case studies brings this into clearer focus, as we retrace individual journeys through collective history. While Flores presents his information in an objective manner, sympathy for his subjects comes out in the narrative.
Along with several other recent texts that document the important social and political characteristics of Mexican working-class migrants in the 1930s and ’40s, The Mexican Revolution in Chicago is an integral part of a new canon of important historical literature on Mexican immigrant workers in U.S. history. This is especially relevant as immigrant workers once again make up a significant share of the U.S. working class and show a strong prounion proclivity while the union movement is attacked and in long-term decline. This book is particularly relevant for immigrant workers and young people today, who are poised to learn a great deal by understanding the lessons of struggle and resistance of those who came before as they go through similar experiences of racial and class oppression.
↩ Francisco “Pancho” Villa was a Mexican general and one of the most prominent figures of the Mexican Revolution. The Punitive Expedition, also known as the Pancho Villa Expedition or the Mexican Expedition, was an unsuccessful military operation conducted by the U.S. Army against villista forces during the Mexican Revolution.
↩ Sexenio refers to the six-year term limit on the Mexican presidency.