Policies surrounding immigration, specifically Mexican immigration, have always been at the forefront of political discourse. However, with the new administration came something entirely new – lack of discourse or rather blatantly xenophobic and often completely toxic rhetoric disguised as fact. Fortunately, aside from traveling, historical education and research are the best weapons against “fake news.”
In an effort to know more about the history of the Mexican-American working class and how communities of color worked together offset racist immigration and labor practices, we spoke to activist and author Justin Akers about his newest book, Radicals in the Barrio Magonistas, Socialists, Wobblies, and Communists in the Mexican-American Working Class. The book, which is set to be released on May 29th, is an in-depth look at political radicalism within the Mexican and Chicano working class in the United States and in following Q&A, Akers brings it home and tells us exactly why this history is relevant now.
“So this book was an attempt to put the attack on immigrants in a historical and political context, and to make a direct series of arguments against the deceptive and explicitly racist attacks on immigrant people…”
If you had to sum up three (3) things you’d want people reading “Radicals in the Barrio” to walk away with, what would they be?
Radicals in the Barrio is an attempt to bring into focus the rich and deeply interwoven history of Mexican working-class people in the hardscrabble labor and civil rights struggles of the early 20th century. The invisibility of Mexicans in the canon of early labor and civil rights history continues to the present, where we see the suppression of the voices, narratives, and experiences of Mexican and Mexican-descendant people in the discourse of immigration politics. The book is an attempt to bring some of this history into the foreground.
After reading the book, for instance, the reader should walk away understanding that although the Mexican people are indigenous to the U.S. landscape, they have been socially engineered as a perpetual “non-citizen” or “semi-citizen” at best. Through law when possible—and violence when not—they have been maintained as a substratum of highly exploitable workers whose poorly-remunerated labor has underwritten the industrialization of the southwest, and continues to prove highly profitable throughout the economy today.
The Mexican working class has been far from submissive under conditions of Jim Crow racism or state persecution through concocted immigration laws. Through their collective organizations, from self-help societies (mutualistas) to industrial unions, Mexicans have been at the forefront of the great labor wars since the beginning of the 20th century, often punching well above their weight.
They were present in the great California Wheatland strike of 1913, after which the first comprehensive state policies regulating farm working conditions were established. Mexican women in the cannery industry, alongside African-American and Eastern European women, won the first industrywide union contracts with equal pay clauses for women of color in the 1930s. Mexicans were also at the heart of a successful mining strike in New Mexico in 1951, from which the first union contract was won that dismantled the racist, substandard “Mexican wage” creating uniform pay scales for all workers. These are a few of the many examples of how Mexican workers contributed to the foundational victories of the US working class, in which workers’ rights were inextricably linked to civil rights.
Another aspect of the book has to do with the role that radical political ideologies had in Mexican working class politics in the United States. The first attempts at self-organization occurred with the transnational migration of radical exiles entering the southwest before and during the outbreak of the Mexican Revolution in 1910. The organizational element of this migration, known colloquially as the magonistas, were named after one of the chief intellectual architects of the revolutionary uprising, Ricardo Flores Magón.
Once in the United States, the magonistas turned their attention to the Mexican barrios. Here they developed a transnational outlook that criticized the discrimination and exploitation of Mexicans north of the border, and the effects of economic displacement and money-fueled corruption of Mexican politics by US corporations to the south. They used their revolutionary training, experience, and press to organize Mexicans into unions, to spearhead campaigns against racial discrimination, and to infuse local barrio politics with internationalist and anti-capitalist leanings. The Socialists in the 1910s and 20s and the Communists in the 1930s and 40s, built on these traditions to extend their influence within the Mexican working class. These efforts produced a core of mass leaders, which in turn led to the first mass union organizing drives and coordinated civil rights campaigns in the barrios across the southwest, from San Antonio to Los Angeles.
As a result of the popular risings of the Mexican working class, white supremacists in the government aligned with the political associations of big business worked to aggressively repress this great surge of labor and civil rights activity by mid-century. Racism and anti-immigrant sentiment were mobilized as central tenets of anti-Communist and Cold War policy, in this case using the precarious “immigrant” status of Mexican labor and civil rights leaders, unionists, and political radicals to attack and decimate their ranks through targeted arrest, detention, and deportation. A nation-wide apparatus of immigration repression was established and greatly expanded thereafter, in order to permanently police the Mexican working class population in the United States and forcibly maintain their condition as second-class laborers.
Your previous work includes “No One is Illegal: Fighting Racism” and “State Violence on the U.S.-Mexico Border” (with Mike Davis), all of which address Mexico-U.S. immigration. How is Radicals in the Barrio similar to your previous work and how does it differ?
No One is Illegal was a response to the cyclical ratcheting up of anti-immigrant sentiment, which prior to the 2016 election campaign of Donald Trump, occurred in most acute form in 2005. It was that year that Republicans in Congress attempted to criminalize undocumented workers through the “Sensenbrenner-King Bill,” which would have made it a felony to be in the country without legal authorization. This effort inspired and mobilized racist and anti-immigrant sentiment and activism around the country, especially in the border region with the appearance of groups like the “Minutemen.” Amidst the spiraling war in Iraq and the popular manifestations against the Bush Administration, Republicans took aim at immigrants. This has only intensified since the economic crisis of 2007-2011, and under each administration since.
I say cyclical, because we can see a correlation in U.S. history between periods of political and economic crisis and the emergence of racism and anti-immigrant politicking from within the two main political parties. Racism and xenophobia are deeply entrenched components of the US political Right, and immigration restriction and increased enforcement are established planks and broadly supported within both the Democratic and Republican parties. For instance, the militarized border enforcement policy that Trump wants to expand began under Democrat Bill Clinton in 1994. Furthermore, the number of deportations under the presidency of Barack Obama surpassed those carried out during the Bush years. In this way, Trump’s more vulgar and extreme depredations against immigrants are an intensification of what came before, not an aberration.
So this book was an attempt to put the attack on immigrants in a historical and political context, and to make a direct series of arguments against the deceptive and explicitly racist attacks on immigrant people; since in practice “immigration enforcement” has meant the repression of brown and black people.
While Radicals in the Barrio documents the rise of the immigrant enforcement apparatus as a form of labor repression and control, it also documents the role of Mexicans as agents of US history-making. More specifically, how Mexicans have played a leading role in defining those aspects of “freedom” and “democracy” that are upheld as virtues of the U.S. nation-state, despite being denied the fruits of their own labor.
As a writer and educator in the San Diego-Tijuana border region, aside from writing, how else do you use your platform and privilege to address this administration’s immigration policies?
Long before becoming a writer and educator—and ever since—I have been an activist involved in community organizing and social justice campaigns. For me personally, it is hard to understand the role that historiography, research investigation, and academic writing can play in fomenting social and economic justice, without being simultaneously engaged with, or drawing from, emancipatory struggle.
I grew up in a working-class and Mexican-American household with ancestors who migrated from Mexico and lived in racially segregated communities until the generation of my parents. From the vantage point of my family, the great epoch of union ascendancy and the subsequent civil rights movements have provided the junctures in which substantive improvement in the quality of our lives can be measured. This personal experience and set of observations set me on a path towards wanting to understand, explain, and document the Mexican condition in the United States. This includes both experiencing—and resisting—injustice and inequality.
In one chapter of the book, you cover The Japanese Mexican Labor Association and the Oxnard Strike of 1903. Ultimately, I think that this part of history is a fantastic example of multi-racial, non-white, populations organizing to further an agenda that benefits both races. Why did you feel the need to include this history in “Radicals in the Barrio?” In your opinion, in which ways could this type of organizing be used today and which populations would benefit?
The story of the Japanese-Mexican Labor Association was included to illustrate how workers were intentionally sub-divided by race and language by white employers in an effort to complicate and thwart attempts at unionization and collective action. This was and continues to be a method to weaken and sub-divide any given workforce, turn them against each other, and even foster resentment and prejudice between sub-groups to preserve white supremacy at the top.
In this case, it was a strategy used by a sugar tycoon named Henry Oxnard to establish a vast sugar beet empire in Southern California, one dependent on maintaining a pliant and disorganized agricultural workforce comprised by design of different ethnic and national groups. Through the organization of a racial hierarchy within production, Oxnard encouraged skilled and better paid white workers to see Mexican, Japanese, and Chinese workers as a “foreign” threat to their jobs. Furthermore, a labor contracting system was established to encourage competition and the undercutting of wages between these groups, who were further segregated by race in the town adjacent to the fields. This practice facilitated mutual resentment as they competed for limited positions in the lowest rungs of the economy. This elaborate form of control kept the region union-free, and wages at its lowest threshold until 1903.
The formation of the JMLA is an amazing demonstration of how Mexican, Japanese, and Chinese workers came up with resourceful ways to overcome linguistic barriers—and opposition from the whole political establishment from the police to the city’s mayor—to form a multiethnic union and conduct a highly organized and unified strike capable of defeating one of the most of powerful corporations in the United States at the time.
When workers have succeeded in building interethnic, interracial, and international solidarity amidst the backdrop of class conflict against disproportionate opposition from social, political, and economic forces; they have achieved most substantial victories in the annals of US working class history. Solidarity is as relevant today—in the period of “globalization” and at the highest point of international displacement and mass migration in world history—as it was in 1903.
When the Trump administration attacks immigrants and calls for the walling off of the nation, it is more about the suppression of immigrant labor already in this country, than it is about stopping immigration. Whether or not unions and civil rights organizations can create a successful counter-narrative and strategy for building unity and solidarity, like the JMLA did 115 years ago, will determine whether or not labor and civil rights expand in this period or are thrust violently backwards.
In terms of future works and activism, what projects are you working on next?
My current project is to develop a transnational and multi-faceted history of the US-Mexico border region. From the period of Spanish colonization to the present phase of US militarization, this area has been a contested zone, in which conflict and violence has determined the form and function of the border boundary. My intention is to develop an in-depth account of the factors that have shaped this complex region, taking into account multiple historical experiences and perspectives, including those of Indigenous populations, African-Americans, Mexicans, and Anglo-Americans. Furthermore, I aim to expand an understanding of the border as a staging area of U.S. foreign policy, in which each phase of its historical development has coincided with the growth of the United States as an international actor projecting its power through different ideological frameworks.