To Die on Your Feet: The life, Times, and Writings of Praxedis Guerrero.
By Ward S. Albro. Fort Worth: Texas Christian University Press, 1996. xiii + 198 pages. Illustrations. Bibliography. References. Index. $25.00 cloth. Buy this book.
Reviewed by Paul B. Hart, Department of History, San Diego State University.
Ward S. Albro’s, To Die on Your Feet, tells the story of the turbulent years before the Mexican revolution through the experiences and life of writer and revolutionary, Praxedis Guerrero. Involving binational intrigue, conspiracy, and the widening struggle against the repression exercised by Mexico’s authoritarian regime, Albro’s book captures a feeling for the times in which Guerrero lived to become more than the tale of one man’s political evolution and intellectual development.
Guerrero was an important figure in a broad anarchist-influenced Mexican resistance movement which was active on both sides of the United States-Mexican border. Through their incendiary writings and efforts at organizing small scale revolts, Guerrero, Ricardo Flores Magón, his brother Enrique, and other radical members of the Partido Liberal Mexicano hoped to provoke a popular revolution that would drive long-time dictator Porfirio Díaz from power. The Flores Magón brothers are well known to all students of the Mexican revolution, but Guerrero is a less known quantity and by introducing his character and work Albro makes a valuable contribution.
In the first decade of the twentieth century Mexico pursued “modernization” by attracting foreign capital through generous tax and land concessions, and the country’s leaders relinquished traditional sub-soil rights to promote development of mineral resources with foreign assistance. Along with adopting economic models which drew them closer to the United States, wealthy Mexicans became more Europeanized in clothing, education and cultural influences. The erosion of traditional Mexican ways carried over to society in general where the denigration of the indigenous population and much of the mestizo population justified economic policies exploiting those groups and inadvertently sowing the seeds for the Revolution. By 1910 fewer than ten percent of Mexico’s indigenous communities had enough land to support themselves and rural workers received less in real wages than they had one hundred years earlier. The conditions in which many Mexicans lived, along with an exclusionary political regime and the repression used to perpetuate it, aroused the social conscience of many people across Mexico, including Praxedis Guerrero. Having thus set the stage and provided a brief history of the social climate in which Guerrero formed his ideas, Albro spurs interest in various themes but leaves the curious reader wanting to know more about the conditions of Mexican migrant labor in the Southwest, for example.
Born the son of a hacendado in the state of Guanajuato, Guerrero assumed the position of second lieutenant of a citizen’s militia called The Second Military Reserve in Nuevo León, and as part of that force was called on to put down a political demonstration in an action that led to bloodshed. This was the young Guerrero’s first taste of practical politics in late Porfirian Mexico and he resigned his post in protest. Disillusioned, he left Mexico and headed to San Francisco where he worked as a stevedore and began to write a small periodical which advocated workers’ causes and radical ideas. Guerrero’s political ideas developed rapidly as he travelled back and forth across the border states of Texas, Arizona, New Mexico and California for six years, making his living doing hard labor in coal and copper mines. The boy born into privilege renounced his inheritance and became increasingly radical based on his experiences as a laborer and the influences of the books he read and the people he met.
Following Guerrero’s movement across the borderlands, Albro introduces both “Friends and Foes” including various Magonistas and Americans like John Kenneth Turner, as well as Mexican officials seeking the aid of the U.S. government as it used its neutrality laws to protect the Díaz regime by arresting and imprisoning Mexicans agitating for the overthrow of the Mexican government from American soil. Guerrero became associated with the PLM, which called for revolution and planned for a post-Díaz Mexico. Under the influence of Ricardo Flores Magón and Guerrero, the group published the newspapers Regeneración and Revolución which were concerned with events in Mexico. But Guerrero also addressed the fact that most Mexicans migrated to the United States to improve their economic situation but found new hardships including the exclusion of Mexican children from white schools and “no Mexican’s allowed” signs on some stores and public places in Texas. Guerrero’s thought was influenced by his readings of Proudhoun, Bakunin, and especially Pyotr Kropotkin, and his political and social writings came to emphasize the ideology of mutual aid, equality, and respect. Albro traces Guerrero’s evolution as a thinker with well selected quotations which also offer insight into the revoltoso movement Guerrero wrote:
I am not a mere political enemy of General Díaz. I am an anarchist; I don’t fight because I hate government, but for the love of a free humanity . . . if I were to kill the man, tyranny would still be left standing . . . and it is the latter I combat . . . Tyranny is the logical result of a social disease, whose present remedy is the Revolution.
Guerrero hoped to help bring about that revolution and to fight with something more than his pen. Taking an active role, he died leading a rebel assault in Chihuahua hoping to make his ideals of “Justice” in Mexico a reality. Guerrero’s generation is dead, but Albro’s book and the included “Selected writings of Praxedis G. Guerrero” help keep some of their enduring ideals alive.
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