“The Díaz Administration Is a Den of Thieves.” Political Activism in Turn-of-the-Century Mexico
Kelly Lytle Hernández on the Road to Revolution
In 1901, the 25th year of Mexican dictator Porfirio Diaz’s rule, hundreds of Mexicans gathered for a conference at the posh Teatro de la Paz in the historic silver-mining town of San Luis Potosí. Most among the men and women attending who gathered in San Luis Potosí had tasted Díaz’s ire.
Like Camilo Arriaga, nephew to the venerated author of the 1857 constitution and a member of Diaz’s government, they challenged Díaz’s reconciliation with the Catholic Church. Like Juana Belén Gutiérrez de Mendoza, one of the few women in attendance, who had openly criticized local mine companies and even launched a feminist-anarchist magazine, they questioned labor practices and ended up arrested, imprisoned, or fired from jobs. Like Lázaro Gutiérrez de Lara, a former circuit judge in northern Mexico-turned-defense attorney challenging land claims made against Mexicans by investors, they were trying to stop the dispossessions that made Mexico the “treasure house of the world.” They did all this at a time when it was a crime to publicly criticize the Díaz regime. Despite the risks, they gathered in San Luis Potosí to discuss reform.
President Díaz almost certainly knew about the convention. Through his extensive network of appointees and friends, news flowed like rivers into his office at the National Palace. Arriaga had advertised the conference in Renacimiento, and the local jefe político would have kept the dictator well informed. Just before the conference was set to begin, the 15th Battalion arrived in San Luis Potosí and began marching on the dirt streets surrounding the theater. The fifty-six conference delegates, and hundreds of other attendees, crossed the line, filing into the theater until the floor level and balconies were “filled to overflowing.”
Inside, Arriaga took a seat at a table on the stage and gaveled the conference into session. Then he stood and delivered a speech about the separation of church and state, a staple issue among the Liberals and a principle that even Porfirio Díaz had once championed. It was a safe way to begin the meeting. Over the next few days, poets and musicians performed. Antonio Díaz Soto y Gama, a young lawyer who, two years prior, had gone to prison for leading a protest and chanting “Death to Porfirio Díaz!,” read from his dissertation, which detailed the vagaries of the jefatura. Juan Sarabia gave a passionate keynote address. Then Ricardo Flores Magón, a young journalist from Mexico City, took the stage.
Flores Magón was relatively new to politics, but he had gained quick entry into Mexico’s dissident circles through his older brother, Jesús.
Jesús had been politically active since 1890, when Porfirio Díaz convinced Congress to alter the constitution in order to allow his perpetual rule. By 1892, he was at the center of a student movement in Mexico City. On May 17, 1892, he helped to coordinate a student march. As the students chanted “No reelection!,” police swept through the streets arresting participants, including Jesús and his eighteen-year-old brother, Ricardo, who had tagged along.
The brothers were quickly released from jail, but Ricardo Flores Magón would always remember the arrest as the beginning of his career as a dissident. “The barrels of a couple of cocked revolvers touched my chest, ready to go off at my slightest move, thus cutting off my first attempt at public speaking,” he would later write.
However, as Mexican historian José C. Valadés explains, he was not yet the man he would become. He was still “modest in life, modest in mind, [and] he was also modest in his actions,” and he had yet to commit himself to politics. His rap sheet was nothing like those of others at the conference. What he did have was a personal grudge against Porfirio Díaz.
Jesús and Ricardo Flores Magón harbored deep animus toward the dictator. Their parents, Teodoro Flores and Margarita Magón, had met while fighting by Díaz’s side in the Battle of Puebla on Cinco de Mayo, back in 1867. They never married, but they lived together as husband and wife and had three sons: Jesús (b. 1871), Ricardo (b. 1874), and Enrique (b. 1877). When Díaz seized the presidency, Teodoro Flores signed a loyalty oath and joined Díaz’s troops on their victory march into Mexico City. When Díaz was sworn in as president, Margarita Magón and their sons joined him in Mexico City, expecting the new president to reward their years of loyalty. He did not.
Flores struggled to find work, leaving the family dependent upon his military pension. Then, one day, a bureaucrat cut him from the pension rolls, noting that he lacked proof of service in the military. Those papers had been lost during the French occupation of Mexico, when a Conservative neighbor set fire to Flores’s home while he was away fighting in the Liberal army. As well as his military commission, Flores lost his first wife, his father, and his mother-in-law in the inferno.
Having fought by Porfirio Díaz’s side during the Battle of Puebla, Flores reached out to the president when his pension checks were stopped. Díaz certainly could confirm his status as a veteran. But Díaz ignored the request, sending only a signed portrait of himself in return. The Flores Magón family spiraled deeper into poverty, bunking in two rooms of an old monastery owned by a friend on the southeast side of Mexico City. The neighborhood was unpaved, unlit, and undrained. Sewage gurgled in every dent left by horses and carts.
When Teodoro Flores died on April 22, 1893, the family hit bottom. Within days, they were evicted from their apartment. Margarita Magón searched for days for lodgings she could afford, trudging through the muddy streets. Finally, she found a place in the Arcos de Belem neighborhood, not far from the Belem Prison. One American journalist called the area “a microbic spot [which] should be avoided.”
Jesús helped his mother pay for the apartment until he was arrested a few weeks later. After completing law school, he had become a full-time lawyer and a part-time activist. With friends, he launched a journal, El Demócrata, which published articles about election law and the judiciary. Díaz largely tolerated this kind of grumbling. But in the spring of 1893, El Demócrata ran a series of articles about a recent uprising in northern Mexico, which the regime wanted to keep quiet.
Located just east of Hiakim, the small town of Tomóchic was home to several Yaqui and Mayo families seeking refuge from the rurales and the government’s raids. There, they became faithful followers of a teenage curandera (healer) named Teresa Urrea. Teresita, as they called her, could cure cancer, blindness, stroke, paralysis, and more, inspiring thousands to flock to her home on her father’s ranch in northern Sonora, Rancho Cabora. She became known as “the Saint of Cabora,” healing an estimated 50,000 people, treating hundreds of thousands more.
Teresita also spoke publicly on the issues harming the health of her followers, especially the land grabs that dislocated communities, spurred homelessness, exacerbated hunger, and fostered disease among the landless families arriving at her doorstep. Legend holds that Díaz considered Teresa Urrea to be the “most dangerous girl in Mexico.”
In 1892, when the parish priest in Tomóchic threatened to excommunicate Teresita’s followers, the residents of Tomóchic ran him out of town and vowed their loyalty to her. Civil authorities tried to intervene on the church’s behalf, but the residents of Tomóchic declared their town to be a sovereign community, independent of both the Catholic Church and the Díaz regime. Díaz dispatched a battalion of soldiers to Tomóchic and ordered that its residents be “quickly and severely punish[ed].” The soldiers set fire to the town, incinerating every building and an estimated three hundred residents.
According to the general who led the siege, the “enemy [had been] eliminated to the last man.” “They got what they asked for,” said Díaz, offering counsel to a remorseful army general involved in the campaign. “No other result was possible without sacrificing your dignity and the authority which is the basis of social order.” The survivors from Tomóchic—including forty women and seventy-one children who surrendered before the inferno—fled into Hiakim and Mayo territory, to towns across northern Mexico, and across the US–Mexico border. Teresita fled, too.
In exile in the United States, she continued to provide healings and inspire small uprisings against the regime. Díaz’s astute minister of finance, José Yves Limantour, later sold the rich timberlands surrounding Tomóchic to the Wisconsin-based Cargill Lumber Company.
When Jesús Flores Magón published the story of Tomóchic in El Demócrata, he was promptly arrested for criticizing military officials in the exercise of their duties as government authorities, a violation of the 1882 libel law. A judge sentenced him to nine months in jail.
“You need to be brave now,” Jesús wrote to his mother from jail. “You must understand that it is necessary to take risks to secure our sustenance, even if it means that there will be no food for now.” He encouraged his youngest brother, Enrique, just sixteen years old, to stay in school and continue his studies toward a prudent career: bookkeeping. And he found Ricardo, who had been working as a domestic servant while attending law school, a better job: as a printer’s assistant.
This is where Ricardo got his first peek at journalism. But Jesús continued to worry about Ricardo, whose grades were slipping—an unexpected turn for the young man whom fellow students described as “the most determined and daring of the [Flores Magón] brothers.”
By the end of 1894, Ricardo was falling into a phase Jesús described as “un período muy borrascoso” (a very stormy period). He dropped out of law school and, for six years, he opened and closed a series of failed businesses, traveling across the sierras of Oaxaca and into the Valle Nacional and the Yucatán, selling ice to railroad companies and hauling bananas up north. Most of all, he spent his nights and days drinking, gambling, and carousing in brothels.
It is said that during these years he learned about the underside of Díaz’s economic development. He befriended women who sold sex to survive. He met men and boys who got by on itinerant labor. He witnessed people being swept up in the anti-vagrancy dragnets set by the rurales and city police, then shipped down to labor camps in the Yucatán and across the Valle Nacional, where employers shackled convict laborers at night, fed them by trough in the morning, and worked them to death during the day. Those who managed to escape were tracked down by the rurales and returned to their employers for punishment. And, it is said, during his “stormy” years, Ricardo contracted a sexually transmitted infection that left him sterile.
By 1899, the storm abated. Ricardo quit drinking and returned to his mother’s apartment in Mexico City where he declared to Jesús, “Paper is an idol to me, and I think that it will soon be my great weapon.” The law school dropout who spent his early twenties carousing around Mexico was remaking himself as an intellectual. He dressed in black and sat in cafés debating politics, listening to music, and reciting his favorite poems. He picked up scraps of other languages, including English, French, Italian, Portuguese, Latin, and Nahuatl.
According to the historical anthropologist Claudio Lomnitz, Ricardo Flores Magón was a “bohemian” enraptured by “an urban life [combining] reading, writing, politics, and a somewhat dandified aesthetic.” Unlike Camilo Arriaga, he never traveled to Europe, but he encountered and read the Continent’s most fiery writers in Mexico City’s vibrant intellectual scene. Works by anarchist intellectuals, such as the Russian anarcho-communist Peter Kropotkin, were among his favorites.
Kropotkin directly challenged the theory of social Darwinism that was popular at the turn of the century. Whereas social Darwinists believed that the concept of the “survival of the fittest” applied to humankind, Kropotkin argued that mutual aid and equity, not competition and hierarchy, were the basis of thriving societies. “Sociability is the greatest advantage in the struggle for life. Those species which willingly or unwillingly abandon it are doomed to decay,” wrote Kropotkin. The state, he argued, suppressed mutual aid and cooperation. As he put it, “the State and its sister the Church arrogate to themselves alone the right to serve as the link between men.”
Instead of a state and church serving as the basic building block of society, Kropotkin advocated for communes regulated only by customs and voluntary agreements. There would be no police, no jails, and no punishment to enforce contracts in the anarchist society, only the common interest of free individuals joined together for a common purpose. To build this anarchist world, Kropotkin believed popular violence would be necessary. In particular, Kropotkin insisted that the dispossessed would have to seize and then abolish private property to free the means of production, including land, factories, seeds, and tools, so that individuals could have equal, unfettered access to the sustenance of life.
In time, Ricardo Flores Magón would declare himself an anarchist and become one of the world’s most intrepid advocates for the total abolition of private property, the church, and the state. He would go on to demand nothing less than the “annihilation of all political, economic, social, religious and moral institutions that comprise the ambient within which free initiative and the free association of human beings are smothered.” But, in 1900, he was just beginning to find his way as a political thinker. Seeing the change in his brother, Jesús invited Ricardo to join him and a friend in launching a new weekly newspaper.
In August 1900, Antonio Horcasitas and the Flores Magón brothers published the first issue of their new venture. They called the newspaper Regeneración, a title that imparted the editors’ opposition to the Díaz regime by implicitly calling for a “regeneration” of the nation’s commitment to the principles of the 1857 constitution: principles such as clean elections, a free press, and term limits. The editors published the journal from Jesús’s law office, which was located in the Zócalo, Mexico City’s central plaza, catty-corner to Díaz’s office in the National Palace. They worked law cases by day and wrote articles by night.
At first, they were careful not to provoke Díaz. They emblazoned on the masthead that Regeneración was a “periódico jurídico independiente” (independent legal journal) with a limited editorial mission: “[to] seek remedies and, when necessary, to point out and denounce all of the misdeeds of public officers who do not follow the precepts of law, so that the public shame brings upon them the justice that they deserve.” In other words, the journal would denounce corruption in the Mexican legal system without ever punching up at Díaz.
For the next four months, the editors published articles on the misconduct of police, lawyers, and judges. Then, on November 30, 1900, on the eve of Díaz’s sixth consecutive swearing-in ceremony, something changed. They published an article attacking monarchical rule in Germany—a thinly disguised assault on the Díaz regime. The editors never spoke about the change, but Horcasitas soon resigned, and the Flores Magón brothers ushered in the first major transformation in Regeneración’s editorial mission.
On December 31, 1900, they rebranded Regeneración with an explicitly political mission, changing the paper’s masthead to “periódico independiente de combate” (independent journal of combat). “Our struggle has been rude,” wrote the brothers. “It has all the characteristics of a pygmy fight against titans. In this we have found ourselves at every step with the livid phantasm of political indifference, we have fought alone, without any arms but our democratic ideals, and without any shield but our deepest convictions.”
The switch won them loyal subscribers who promoted the newspaper and its ideas. Subscriptions rolled in from across Mexico and from Mexicans in the United States who wanted to “spread democratic principles among the popular masses.” Despite the risks, the Flores Magón brothers pressed on. Jesús was a well-connected and seasoned political agitator. Ricardo was young and confident, with a head full of sophisticated new ideas.
Together, they rushed into 1901, promoting Regeneración as their vehicle for demanding fundamental political change in Mexico. “We will fight without rest,” they declared, “until the achievement of our ideals, always thinking that those same ideals were those of our fathers of ’57 sustained vigorously in the rostrum, in the book, in the press and in the battlefields.”
Camilo Arriaga took notice of the brothers’ bravado and mailed them an invitation to the Liberal conference he was planning in San Luis Potosí. Ricardo made an impression from the moment he arrived. Attending a meeting at Arriaga’s home, he stood in the library and pointed at a copy of the 1857 constitution—which had been drafted by Arriaga’s uncle—declaring it to be a “dead letter.” He eulogized the constitution, adding, “We’ll have to take up arms to oppose Porfirio Díaz because the old man won’t give up power voluntarily, and even if he wanted to, the clique that surrounds him wouldn’t let him.”
The bearish young man was thumping his chest for Arriaga, who was the standard-bearer of Liberal dissent. Arriaga admired his swagger but thought his extremism the mark of an unruly mind. As Arriaga later explained, many years after the two men had bitterly parted ways, “I never ceased admiring and liking Ricardo. But what a barbarian!”
When Ricardo Flores Magón took the stage at the Teatro de la Paz, he likely wore bohemian garb: a baggy black suit with a crisp white dress shirt and a wide black tie. A mop of curly black hair flopped atop his chubby brown face, defined only by his dark, swollen, darting eyes. Confident, he projected his voice at the end of his speech, speaking aloud an idea that shot up to the rafters and shocked the nation’s reformers. “The Díaz administration is a den of thieves!” he bellowed. Stunned, the attendees hissed.
The nation’s clearest voices for reform—Juana Belén Gutiérrez de Mendoza, Juan Sarabia, Lázaro Gutiérrez de Lara, Camilo Arriaga, and others—had all questioned this or that aspect of the Díaz regime: the mine owners, the crooked judges, the jefatura. But no one had disparaged the president’s rule outright, and no one had questioned the legitimacy of his reign. To do so was a crime. The hissing grew louder, rushing from the rafters down to the stage as if to stuff the words back into Flores Magón’s mouth. But it was done. Before anyone could fully imagine what those words would ultimately reap, he repeated the charge: “The Díaz administration is a den of thieves!” They knew what he meant.
Porfirio Díaz was a thief: a thief of land, a thief of wages, a thief of life, a thief of democracy. Flores Magón met their caution by bellowing for a third time, “The Díaz administration is a den of thieves!” A few “ayes” peeked above the fog of caution, then the theater broke into stomping and applause. Sitting on stage, watching the commotion, Camilo Arriaga looked out at the audience and wondered, “Where is this man taking us?” But he already knew. Ricardo Flores Magón had torn the veil of legitimacy covering Díaz’s long, harsh rule, and there would be no looking away, no turning back. Mexico was on the road to revolution.
Adapted from from Bad Mexicans: Race, Empire, & Revolution in the Borderlands. Used with the permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved. Copyright © 2022 by Kelly Lytle Hernández.