In front of a row of mannequins, newly elected Los Angeles City Council members Eunisses Hernandez and Hugo Soto-Martinez pondered the city’s radical past, present and future.
They viewed photocopies of the secret codes of the Magonistas – activists whose writings and organization helped spark the Mexican Revolution and forever changed the course of Mexican and American history, especially in Southern California.
Hunted by authorities from the two countries, the Magonistas landed in LA in the 1900s. They lived and worked and gathered all over town, from skid row to Silver Lake to here in the Fashion District, where Soto-Martinez and Hernandez met me on a chilly Friday morning.
With us was UCLA history professor Kelly Lytle Hernandez. Her recent book “Bad Mexicans” tells the Magonista saga in cinematic detail. She explained that in 1907 the location where we stood was a hideout for Ricardo Flores Magón, the brilliant but problematic leader who lent his name to the Magonistas.
Lytle Hernandez, a MacArthur “genius” grant winner, was about to take us on a two-mile walk through Magonista LA, ending at City Hall. I had asked her for a tour in the summer, but we couldn’t coordinate our schedules.
In the aftermath of the elections of Hernandez and Soto-Martinez, unashamed progressives beating the establishment with promises to take people’s power to city hall, I suggested we try again. This time, we would go with the incoming councilors so that Lytle Hernandez could share Magonista’s story as both inspiration and cautionary tale.
“You see the resurgence of Latinx organizing now, and that’s where Hugo and Eunisses come from,” she told me shortly before the council members arrived. “They help change the city.”
The prof had an hour and a half for us – the typical duration of a college for an undergraduate student – before she boarded the plane.
“Thank you for the work you have done and will do!” she told Hernandez and Soto-Martinez before handing them copies of her book. She asked if they had ever heard of the Magonistas. Vaguely they replied.
“Only one US immigration story is allowed, and that is about assimilation,” said Lytle Hernandez. “But Mexican Americans also offer a story of defiance. The Magonistas are part of that story.’
Magón and his brothers were journalists who fled their country after articles and columns they wrote against Porfirio Díaz, a former general who served as president of Mexico for 31 years, landed them in prison.
Diaz convinced US officials that the Magonistas were also a threat north of the border, so Magón lived like a revolutionary nomad until he finally ended up in Los Angeles. He promptly began publishing his newspaper, Regeneración, and went after the Diaz regime harder than ever, selling copies in the American Southwest and Mexico.
The US government doubled its surveillance. The code that Lytle Hernandez shared with the council members was used by the Magonistas to write coded letters, and the FBI was able to crack it. When two Latino police officers tracked down Magón, right where we stood, to arrest him and two other comrades for violating U.S. neutrality laws, they expected an easy arrest, Lytle Hernandez said.
“It was a complete brawl!” she exclaimed. Magón’s neighbors rushed to pull him away from the officers, who, kicking and screaming, eventually dragged him into a car and straight to the city jail.
“That’s the first official building in town,” Hernandez replied.
Lytle Hernandez stopped and smiled. “You read the book!” she said, referring to her 2017 history of LA’s prison system, “City of Inmates.”
“I see this as a movie in my head,” Soto-Martinez added. He wore a jacket with the logo of Unite Here Local 11, the union where he has been an organizer for more than ten years. Hernandez, a longtime community activist, carried an Oaxacan-style knitted bag. Everyone wore running shoes.
We continued north on Main Street before turning into Spring Street. Hernandez and Soto-Martinez walked on opposite sides of Lytle Hernandez, who wove the Magonistas’ disparate threads to emphasize their intersectional strength. She mentioned the women who did a lot of thankless work and the black people who helped them along the way—contributions that never made it to the archives, but which Lytle Hernandez dug up anyway. Magon’s hideout? He found it through a black broker.
“You don’t show up to fight for anyone,” Lytle Hernandez said, “unless you have community relations. And you can still see that in the city today.”
The names of old LA popped up everywhere we looked at centuries-old buildings that are now lofts, apartments, or empty. The Santa Fe Railroad. The Pacific Electric Company. Lankershem. Van Nuys.
As Lytle Hernandez explained how she and other American businessmen got fabulously rich off their Mexican properties, at the expense of the Mexicans, Hernandez sarcastically snapped, “That’s gentrification at its best” — a line that could easily have worked if she had pointed out about all the hipster shops we passed, where workers’ shops once stood.
Lytle Hernandez pulled clippings about the Magonistas from this newspaper. Our then owner, Harrison Gray Otis, owned millions of dollars worth of real estate in Mexico and used The Times to demonize Magón and his minions at every opportunity.
“This is the thing,” Lytle Hernandez explained. “This one [Magonista] history has been all above the newspapers. But then it was suppressed.”
“Are there plaques?” asked Soto-Martinez.
“No,” Lytle Hernandez replied.
“They don’t want us to know it’s been done before,” Hernandez added. Lytle Hernandez nodded, and Soto-Martinez told his new colleague to watch official commemorations.
We stopped at the Alexandria Hotel, once the playground for LA’s elites.
After news of Magón’s arrest, “all the big dogs start throwing parties,” Lytle Hernandez said. The most extravagant took place here, organized by oil magnate Edward Doheny. Then she saw a banner reading “Return to Elegance” outside the closed doors of the Alexandria.
“More like ‘Return to Empire,'” she burst out.
Magón continued to organize from the city jail, attracting people of all political persuasions who wanted to see Diaz defeated, “like the people who united against [former Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex] Villanueva,” Lytle Hernandez said.
But Magón’s uncompromising anarchist politics and massive ego began to alienate followers. So was his portrayal of two women as lesbians in his paper, along with broadsides against Chinese migration to Mexico.
“We see the same person using language to take down a dictator — he used the same language to take down anyone who disagreed with him,” said Lytle Hernandez.
“It’s like two sides of the same coin,” Soto-Martinez noted.
We made our last stop at the intersection of Spring Street and Temple Street.
On the one hand, it was LA City Hall, where Soto-Martinez and Hernandez will be sworn in on Tuesday. On the other side was the Spring Street Courthouse, located on the same block as an earlier federal courthouse where Magón and others were sentenced in 1909.
Supporters mocked the accuser, with little girls dressed in white throwing red carnations on the ground for the Magonistas to walk on, Lytle Hernandez said.
Magón served three years before being released. He died at Leavenworth Penitentiary in 1922 at the age of 48 while serving a separate 20-year sentence for sedition.
By then Diaz was long dead and a new government regarded the Magonistas as the intellectual godfathers of the Mexican Revolution.
Lytle Hernandez concluded by highlighting how their history, well documented as it happened, was erased from American history books, even though Los Angeles played such a pivotal role in the movement. But those ghosts never completely disappeared.
“You know something is missing [as activists], but you don’t know what it is,’ she said. “So what happens when you put that history back in? It is this incredible history that we are so separated from. But we can see each other in our movements. We cannot allow them to tear us apart.”
“We have to learn the good, but also the bad,” Soto-Martinez added. “Lead with solidarity and think about the community we need to build.”
“We’re not reinventing the wheel,” Hernandez replied. “We’re just putting more air into a wheel that’s going on.”
Lytle Hernandez hugged Hernandez and Soto-Martinez. Their eyes were wide, their smiles shining.
“Go get it!” the professor said to them. “Rock the city.”