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L.A. Back Story of A Mexican Revolutionary

On Friday evening, Sept. 28, Ruben Martinez and Raquel Gutierrez will present "The Ballad Of Ricardo Flores Magon" at the Ford Amphitheater. Magon's story in Los Angeles goes back to the turn of the last century.

Magon was a hero of the Mexican Revolution who lived in Los Angeles. This excerpt is from "Bread and Hyacinths: The Rise and Fall of Utopian Los Angeles" by Lionel Rolfe, Nigey Lennon and Paul Greenstein.  It is about Job Harriman, the lawyer who almost became Los Angeles' mayor in 1910, and represented the alleged bombers of the Los Angeles Times that same year. He also was Magon's lawyer.


IN THE LIVES of both Gen. Otis and Job Harriman, everything seemed to be converging in 1910. But it was bound to be an unequal contest. Harriman's vision called for social change to come more as a process of gentle revolution, or evolution.

Harriman also spoke with bitterness about a certain kind of comrade with whom he had never been able to win-- "the more revolutionary than thou" purists who abounded in the socialist movement then, as surely as they always have. 

At first, Otis and the city fathers were content with suppressing free speech by insisting on a city permit for any group desiring to assemble publicly. When, for example, Socialists couldn't get permits for a rally in Sixth Street Park (now known as Pershing Square), whereas Christian evangelical groups could, Harriman was the Socialists' first choice to handle the case.

By 1908, Harriman's legal services for the socialist community had earned him considerable respect, even if many still regarded the notion of socialist-labor fusion as class collaboration--which is to say, socialist treason. By the end of that year Harriman was becoming widely known as the free-speech Socialist lawyer in Los Angeles. Socialism was increasingly in the air, and the more public its presence became, the more it had to be defended from the powers that wanted to suppress it.

One particular case helped Harriman achieve his credibility with the more militant socialist colleagues. He dispelled many of the lingering doubts of the left by taking on the case of the Mexican revolutionary Ricardo Flores Magon, who in 1907 was living in Los Angeles in exile from the corrupt and brutal American-supported Porfirio Diaz dictatorship.  Otis supported the regime of President Diaz. Not so incidentally, Otis and Harry Chandler's business interests included 850,000 acres in Mexico.

The Los Angeles police helped harass enemies of the Diaz regime living in Los Angeles; an enemy of Diaz was an enemy of Otis. Before the Mexican revolution, Los Angeles had been a haven for prominent Mexican revolutionaries. Magon had come to Los Angeles in July, 1907, and continued publishing the newspaper Regeneracion, which Diaz had suppressed in Mexico. Magon had many. followers, and the Mexican Consulate worked hand-in-hand with local authorities wherever he tried to settle to keep him from publishing the newspaper. In no town, however, did he have the troubles that he had in Los Angeles. Several other wealthy Los Angeles citizens also had investments in Mexico and political connections to Diaz. They included T.E. Gibbon, publisher of the Herald, who owned stock in Otis's Mexican ranch company (indeed, Otis also was his secret partner as publisher of the Herald); William Randolph Hearst, who had large landholdings in Mexico; and, mostimportant of all, Edward M. Doheny, who owned the Mexican Petroleum Company. 

Hearst's case was particularly illustrative of the times. In 1905, labor approached Hearst, who had presidential ambitions and was thus going through a radical phase of courting the working class. Representatives of organized labor asked Hearst to start a paper against Otis, so Hearst began publishing the Examiner that year, and initially, at least, the new paper featured union news on its front page. But by 1907, the same unionists who had fought hard to get Hearst to publish a paper against General Otis had become disillusioned with Hearst and his newspaper. In 1907, the Los Angeles Citizen was founded, and at the same time a seven-story Labor Temple was erected on Maple Street, where there developed a briefly lively and vibrant scene of proletarian culture and politics. Hearst's newspaper remained blue collar in readership but grew more and more reactionary politically.

After Magon's arrival in Los Angeles, three Mexican-American detectives with the Los Angeles police, Felipe Talamantes and Tom and Louis Rico, kept Magon and other Partido Liberal Mexicano members under surveillance; they were acting in direct concert with the Mexican embassy, which was also paying them a salary on the side. (Not necessarily incidentally, one of these three men, detective Thomas Rico, was later to become famous for finding dynamite planted by labor on strike sites, particularly in the McNamara case. Rico's specialty was planting "evidence" at strike sites, or so every good union man in Los Angeles believed.) 

On August 23, less than a month after Magon's arrival in Los Angeles, he was "arrested" when the three detectives, at the instigation of the Mexican consulate, swooped down on the small house where he was staying. Magon and his small group of revolutionary cohorts resisted because they feared they were being kidnaped for deportation back to Mexico. The Mexican embassy said that Magon was wanted for murder and treason. He was also charged with inciting a strike even though he had been in Canada at the time. If taken to Mexico, Magon would have been sent before a firing squad. The Los Angeles police declared that charges would be filed against Magon to keep him in jail until the federal government could decide what was to be done in his case.

Harriman argued that the charges were "trumped up," and few rational people disagreed. Magon's defenders, and they were legion, were sure that the whole thing was a plot to kidnap him and send him back to Diaz in Mexico. The resulting hue and cry attracted the attention of the Socialists.

Job Harriman was now hired as Magon's lawyer since the Mexican revolution was a popular cause with many Socialists. The Magon case probably brought Harriman under the keen political eye of Otis. Magon quickly became a hero to the local Mexican population, and that infuriated Otis and the Times, and the city's other newspapers. The Times, as usual, led the pack. They reported that the Mexican revolutionaries spoke to crowds of Mexicans "not of the better kind," referringto them as "greasers" and thundering that the only Americans who supported Magon were "wild-eyed anarchists with smoking bombs in hand."    Harriman, in return, painted Magon and his revolutionary companions as innocent patriots who had been thrown into jail on a variety of bogus charges as part of a plot by Diaz and his American mercenaries.

To Harriman, Detective Talamantes and the two Rico brothers should be the ones in jail. According to the Times's account of the meeting, someone shouted that Talamantes was in the audience. "Scores of cholos jumped to their feet and started for the spot where the officer was supposed to be sitting. If he had been there nothing could have prevented a vicious assault and possible bloodshed," the Times reported. Under later cross examination, Talamantes and the Ricos were revealed to be cops on the take, evidence being uncovered that they could be bought for relatively small favors.

For ticket info for "The Ballad of Ricardo Flores Magon" click here.

"Bread and Hyacinths: The Rise and Fall of Utopian Los Angeles" is by Lionel Rolfe, Nigey Lennon and Paul Greenstein.The book is available on Amazon's Kindle Store and other fine purveyors of digital books.

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