Before he became a dictator, Díaz lived in poverty with his mother and siblings in Oaxaca. He trained from a young age to become a priest, but at the age of 19, encouraged by Professor Marcos Pérez and Oaxaca Governor Benito Juárez, he joined the liberal faction to fight in Mexico’s domestic conflict. By the Battle of Puebla against the French on May 5, 1862, Díaz had advanced in rank to general. Although Díaz had helped get Juárez elected, he quickly opposed his rule and challenged him for the presidency, running under the banner “No Reelection.” After Juárez died a natural death, Díaz eventually took power.
“During his more than three-decade rule,” writes Hernández, “Díaz successfully brought what he called ‘order and progress’ to Mexico. But it came at a cost.” Díaz installed rurales, mounted officers who punished offenders under the ley fuga — Mexico’s version of lynch laws, according to historian Paul Vanderwood — and jefes políticos who oversaw taxes, elections, police, jails, and roads. And he opened more than 130 million acres of arable Mexican land to United States investors who “saw Mexico as a satellite, a source of raw materials for U.S. industries and trade.”
Díaz transformed a struggling country but, in turn, killed its people. After a 34-year term, during which he violated the principal ideas of the Mexican constitution, Díaz abdicated in May 1911. A group called magonistas, who earned their name from following Ricardo Flores Magón, demanded “¡Tierra y Libertad!” — their revolution’s slogan. Magón and his close friends became targets of a United States–Mexico counterinsurgency campaign.
Hernández brings Magón and the rest of the revolutionaries — the bad Mexicans who fought against the Díaz regime — to life through her rich, vivid language. We hear about Juana Belén Gutiérrez de Mendoza, Teresa Urrea, Jovita Idar, María Talavera Broussé, and Josefa Fierro, among many others — the women who funded, wrote about, and smuggled guns across borders for the revolution.
As Díaz fought to maintain control, tension escalated on both sides of the border. Mexicans struggled to spark the revolution, while US citizens hoped Díaz would carry on his rule:
Beginning in Mexico City, students and young people took aim at American-owned businesses, breaking windows and tearing down U.S. flags. For generations, since before the Mexican–American War (1846–48), dating back to the U.S. acquisition of Tejas (Texas), Mexicans had resisted Anglo-American incursions on their lands and lives. Rodríguez’s murder [by a white American man] was just the most recent assault. Enraged, Mexicans marched in the streets, accusing the Díaz regime of failing to protect Mexicans from Anglo-American aggression, at home and abroad.
While Bad Mexicans is both thrilling and informative, it can become a tedious read for those without background knowledge of Mexican history, which is long and messy. It forces the reader to vigilantly keep track of the characters. I found myself rereading pages only to realize the person I thought I was following wasn’t present at all. Hernández carries us most of the way through, but it might require a bit of stamina (especially around the 300-page mark) not to lose sight of where she’s taking us. By the end of the hike, the view is clear.
Díaz unintentionally started a large migration wave. As Mexican citizens were displaced to make room for US investors, they headed north in search of jobs, opportunities, and a better quality of life. Since there was no border enforcement, migrants could simply cross over and settle on US soil. At first, Mexican workers were welcomed: their labor was cheaper and could be easily exploited. But as agitation against the regime increased, so did the anxiety of borderland citizens. The Porfiriato and the search for magonistas also motivated the Immigration Act of 1891, as Díaz pressured the US government to root out the revolutionaries. Many Mexican citizens were stranded north of the border, where they molded a new Mexican American identity.
Reading Bad Mexicans isn’t simply a history lesson, but a revelation of where Mexicans come from and who we are and a remembrance of those who fought for us. “The men and women of the PLM [Partido Liberal Mexicano] were ordinary people: migrants, exiles, and citizens; farmworkers, sharecroppers, miners, and intellectuals. Most of all, they were rebels.” These rebels reconstructed US power, blurred the color lines between race and loyalty on both sides of the border, and ultimately “triggered a demographic revolution.” They altered the history of Mexico and the United States not only for themselves but also for all of us. Kelly Lytle Hernández calls us to remember.
Ximena Delgado is a writer living in Orange, California.