A tour of LA’s radical past with new council members
- US News
- December 10, 2022
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In front of a line of mannequins, newly elected Los Angeles councilors Eunisses Hernandez and Hugo Soto-Martinez reflected on the city’s radical past, present and future.
They looked at photocopies of the secret codes of the Magonistas – activists whose writings and organization helped start the Mexican Revolution and forever changed the course of Mexican and US history, particularly in Southern California.
Pursued by authorities in both countries, the Magonistas landed in LA in the 1900s. They lived and worked and congregated 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 Kelly Lytle Hernandez, professor of history at UCLA. Her latest book, Bad Mexicans, tells the Magonista saga in cinematic detail. She explained that the place we were standing was a 1907 hideout for Ricardo Flores Magón, the brilliant but troubled leader who gave the Magonistas his name.
Lytle Hernandez, a winner of MacArthur’s “Brilliant” grant, was about to take us on a two-mile walk through Magonista LA that ended at City Hall. I had asked them to do a summer tour, but we couldn’t align our calendars.
After the elections of Hernandez and Soto-Martinez, intrepid progressives who slammed incumbents with promises of bringing popular power to City Hall, I suggested we try again. This time we would go with the new council members so Lytle Hernandez could share the story of Magonista for inspiration and a cautionary tale.
“You’re watching the resurgence of the Latinx organization, and that’s where Hugo and Eunisses come from,” she told me just before the council members arrived. “They help change the city.”
The professor had an hour and a half with us – the typical length of a bachelor’s lecture – before boarding 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 American immigration story is allowed, and it’s about assimilation,” Lytle Hernandez said. “But Mexican Americans also offer a history of resistance. 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 Mexico’s president for 31 years, landed them in prison.
Diaz convinced US officials that the Magonistas also posed a threat north of the border, so Magón lived as a revolutionary nomad until he finally landed in Los Angeles. He immediately began publishing his newspaper, Regeneración, and cracked down on the Diaz regime harder than ever, selling copies throughout the American Southwest and Mexico.
The US government increased its surveillance. The code Lytle Hernandez shared with the council members was used by the Magonistas to write encrypted letters, and the Feds were able to crack it. When two Latino police officers tracked Magón to the exact spot we were standing to arrest him and two other comrades for violating US neutrality laws, they expected an easy arrest, Lytle Hernandez said.
“It was a complete brawl!” she exclaimed. Magón’s neighbors rushed to drag him away from officers, who eventually, kicking and yelling, dragged him into a car and straight to the city jail.
“It’s the first official building in town,” Hernandez replied.
Lytle Hernandez stopped and smiled. “You read the book!” she said, referencing her 2017 story of the LA prison system: “City of Inmates.”
“I see this like a movie in my head,” added Soto-Martinez. He wore a jacket with the logo of Unite Here Local 11, the union he has organized for more than a decade. Hernandez, a longtime community activist, carried an Oaxacan-style knit tote. Everyone wore running shoes.
UCLA professor Kelly Lytle Hernandez, center, walks down Spring Street in downtown Los Angeles and gives a tour to newly elected council members Eunisses Hernandez and Hugo Soto-Martinez.
(Mel Melcon/Los Angeles Times)
We made our way north on Main Street before turning onto Spring Street. Hernandez and Soto-Martinez walked either side of Lytle Hernandez, who weaved in the Magonistas’ different threads to emphasize their intersectional strength. She mentioned the women who did a lot of thankless work and the black people who helped them on their way – contributions that never made it into the archives but which Lytle Hernandez dug up anyway. Magón’s hideout? He found it through a black real estate agent.
“You don’t show up to fight for someone,” Lytle Hernandez said, “unless you have community ties. 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 vacant. The Santa Fe Railroad. The Pacific Electric Company. Lankershim. Van Nuys.
When Lytle Hernandez explained how her Mexican possessions made her and other American businessmen incredibly wealthy at the expense of Mexicans, Hernandez snapped sarcastically, “This is gentrification at its best” — a statement that could easily have worked if she said something about everything would have the hipster shops we passed where workers’ businesses once stood.
Lytle Hernandez took clippings about the Magonistas from this newspaper. Our then-owner, Harrison Gray Otis, owned multi-million dollar properties in Mexico and used The Times to vilify Magón and his followers at every opportunity.
“That’s the thing,” Lytle Hernandez explained. “This [Magonista] Story was all over the papers. But then it was suppressed.”
“Are there plaques?” asked Soto-Martinez.
“Noooo,” Lytle Hernandez replied.
“They don’t want us to know that this has been done before,” Hernandez added. Lytle Hernandez nodded, then Soto-Martinez told his new colleague that they should take care of official memorial services.
We stopped at the Alexandria Hotel, once the playground of LA’s elite.
After news of Magón’s arrest, “all the big dogs start throwing parties,” Lytle Hernandez said. The most extravagant took place here, hosted by oil magnate Edward Doheny. She then noticed a banner reading “Return to Elegance” in front of the closed doors of the Alexandria.
“More like ‘Return to Empire,'” she ground 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 were rallying against it [former Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex] Villanueva,” said Lytle Hernandez.
But Magón’s hard-line anarchist politics and huge ego began to alienate followers. So did his outing of two women as lesbians in his newspaper, along with broadsides against Chinese migration to Mexico.
“We see the same person using language to bring down a dictator — he used the same language to bring down anyone who didn’t agree with him,” said Lytle Hernandez.
“It’s like two sides of the same coin,” noted Soto-Martinez.
The tour ends at the Temple and Spring intersection in front of the Spring Street Courthouse.
(Mel Melcon/Los Angeles Times)
Our last stop was at the intersection of Spring Street and Temple Street.
On one side was LA City Hall, where Soto-Martinez and Hernandez will be sworn in Tuesday. On the other side was the Spring Street Courthouse, which occupied the same block as an earlier federal courthouse where Magón and others were tried in 1909.
Supporters taunted prosecutors, 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 in Leavenworth Jail in 1922 at the age of 48 while serving a separate 20-year sentence for sedition.
By this time Diaz was long dead, and a new government viewed the Magonistas as the intellectual godfathers of the Mexican Revolution.
Lytle Hernandez concluded by emphasizing how her story was erased from the US history books despite Los Angeles playing such a pivotal role in the movement. But these 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 story back in? It’s this incredible story that we’ve become so separated from. But we can see each other in our movements. We can’t let them tear us apart.”
“We have to learn the good, but also the bad,” added Soto-Martinez. “Lead in solidarity and think of the community we need to build.”
“We’re not reinventing the wheel,” Hernandez replied. “We’re just putting more air into a wheel that has evolved.”
Lytle Hernandez hugged Hernandez and Soto-Martinez. Her eyes were wide, her smile bright.
“Get it!” the professor told them. “Rock the city.”