Kelly Lytle Hernández’s ‘Bad Mexicans’ comes at a time when L.A.’s politics reckon with racism
Madeline Adamo | November 29, 2022
Editor’s note: This page was updated on Nov. 30 to correct the name of the center that organized the talk.
Written with the pacing and drama of a spy novel, historian Kelly Lytle Hernández’s latest book, “Bad Mexicans: Race, Empire, and Revolution in the Borderlands,” aims to illuminate the far-too-overlooked story of the magonistas, a group of dissidents who were organizing in Mexico at the turn of the 20th century to oust dictator Porfirio Díaz.
Led by radicalized journalist Ricardo Flores Magón, who communicated with his followers through Regeneración, the newspaper he founded in 1900, the magonistas fled Mexico after years of suppression and regrouped in the U.S. borderlands. Most of them set up in Los Angeles, where they relaunched their rebel newspaper and incited an army of migrant workers and cotton pickers — a cause of great concern for governments in the U.S. that had great investments in Díaz’s Mexico.
Díaz, who called the magonistas “bad” Mexicans (or malos Mexicanos), pursued their leader with the help of the U.S. government. Flores Magón evaded capture until 1907, after which he spent his final years in and out of prison. Though his story isn’t widely known, historians have long credited the magonistas’ efforts with eventually leading to Díaz’s ousting.
“‘Bad Mexicans’ tells the story of how (the magonistas) built their social movement here in the United States,” Lytle Hernández told the audience (some who joined virtually from regions around Mexico) at a recent event focused on her book. “And probably more important, it’s the story of that cross-border counterinsurgency campaign that tried to stop them, but they were successful, and they incited the outbreak of the 1910 Mexican Revolution.”
The UCLA Center for Mexican Studies invited Lytle Hernández, who is the the Thomas E. Lifka Professor of History at UCLA, to speak with Fernando Pérez-Montesinos, assistant professor of history, who dove into why the historian chose to write about Mexican “reveltosos.”
“I’m a border-lander,” said Lytle Hernández, who recalls being alarmed that she was only just learning about the magonistas and their rebel movement as a doctoral student at UCLA. She recognized the importance of their place in American history and was concerned that people currently living in the borderlands — generally people of color, laborers and organizers — didn’t know these stories.
The book’s origin story comes from Lytle Hernández’s previous book, “City of Inmates: Conquest, Rebellion, and the Rise of Human Caging in Los Angeles, 1771–1965,” which was a compelling account that places contemporary issues of mass incarceration and mass deportation within a much broader historical context.
Using archival evidence, Lytle Hernández established that Los Angeles — “a hub of incarceration” that imprisons more people than any other city in the country that imprisons the most people in the world — has been the site of various manifestations of human caging. In documenting how this reality is inextricably bound to conquest, settler colonialism, institutional racism and structural assaults on the working poor, irrespective of race or ethnicity, Lytle Hernández had all the research and material she needed to write “Bad Mexicans.”
While “Bad Mexicans” arose from a personal place for Lytle Hernández, she says the book also served as a response to politics at the time of the project’s genesis. More specifically, the 2016 presidential debate, when former president Donald Trump famously referred to Mexican immigrants as “bad hombres” while speaking about his plan for a southern border wall.
“When Trump made his disparaging remarks about Mexican migrants who are doing nothing but trying to secure a better life for themselves, he was stirring up that rhetorical pot of racial violence,” said Lytle Hernández, who is also the director of the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies.
The historian chose “Bad Mexicans” as the title of her book, playing off Trump’s remark in hope that the general public would understand that by using that kind of language, the former president was setting the stage for anti-Mexican and anti-Latino racial violence.
To connect the reader to a form of racial violence they might be familiar with, Lytle Hernández opens the book with the scene of the 1910 lynching of Antonio Rodríguez in Texas.
“They lit the pyre and watched him burn,” said Lytle Hernández, reciting the first sentence of her book to show how the scene is used as an “anchor” for American readers. She hopes readers use what they know about lynching to make the connections to Mexican themes and experiences and their important place in the “American story,” she said.
The story goes on to use a Hollywood-like approach to smuggle in Mexican history; including armed battles, deciphering of secret codes, betrayals and love affairs. In doing so, Lytle Hernández says that “Bad Mexicans” rebuilds the legacy of Mexican and Mexican American identity in the country’s canon of history.
“Where do Mexicans fit in the U.S. racial dynamics?” said Lytle Hernández. “That has been a contest around whiteness and non-whiteness in particular.”
At the heart of the book, Lytle Hernández invites further conversations on race formations in the U.S., which she says have been largely defined by struggles over land and politics.
“What is the relationship of Mexicanas to Black folks? To Indigenous folks? Where are they going to fall in this historical set of relationships and power?” she said.
Despite the book being published in May, the discussion was particularly relevant because of the recent outcry in Los Angeles over racist comments made by three Latino city council members.
“This crisis is an opportunity for people to get really clear about where they stand in relationship to capitalism and white supremacy, among other things,” said Lytle Hernández, tying the recent politics back to the topics her book engages with.
The second half of the discussion, which was followed by an audience Q&A, explored the history of relations between Blacks and Latinos, focusing on connections between the Black freedom struggle and the suppression of Mexican radicals like the magonistas.
“We share a history. We share a story and no one ever wants to tell us about it,” Lytle Hernández said. “That’s the power of our amnesia, of our forgetting, is that we struggled to build community today because we don’t know how we built it in the past.”