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Son of Anarchy
How Ricardo Flores Magón helped ignite The Mexican Revolution from a nascent Silver Lake
Los Angeles is not always kind to those of us who love her. Let a few months go by without driving a familiar boulevard and you will likely find that something new has gone up and something old has disappeared. Can you even remember what was there before? The city flickers and dims and reappears in some new form, shiny for a minute and in six months already stained with smog, yearning for the next round of vanishings. Take the extinct neighborhood of Edendale, which survives in the names of one post office (in Echo Park, by the Autozone), a public library branch a few blocks south, and one now-venerable Silver Lake restaurant (opened in 2002). A century ago Edendale was thriving. In 1909, it became home to the city’s first motion picture studio, the Selig Polyscope Company, and three years later to something called the Universal Film Company, owned by one Carl Laemmle, as well as to Mack Sennett’s Keystone Studio, long since converted into storage units on what is now Glendale Boulevard. Edendale’s place in the official history—which is almost always the history of money and hence locally of movies, real estate, and oil—is thus secure.
Uncomfortable histories are more easily discarded. Ricardo Flores Magón lived just up the hill on the other side of the perennially traffic-clogged terminus of the 2 freeway, which was of course not there—or even imaginable—in 1915, when he had settled on five-and-a-half acres of farmland with his brother Enrique, a few like-minded comrades, and their families. Flores Magón was an anarchist and a revolutionist, an enemy of private property and all of money’s privilege. His politics were unapologetically utopian. “Anarchism,” he wrote in one of many letters from prison, “strives for the establishment of a social order based on brotherhood and love, as against the actual form of society, founded on violence, hatred and rivalry of one class against the other….” Streets bear his name in Mexico City and Tijuana, but L.A. didn’t want him. Though he lived here for 12 years, he spent fewer than half of them in the city. The rest he passed in prison.
Flores Magón came to California in 1906, having fled his native Mexico—where the courts had forbidden the printing of his work—and then Texas and Missouri, where as a fugitive he had resumed publication of Regeneración, the broadsheet he dedicated to “the wage slaves, the disinherited, the pariahs of every homeland.” Besides its propaganda value, the paper served as an organizing and fund-raising tool for the Mexican Liberal Party, or PLM by its Spanish initials, which he led from exile.
In the weeks before and after Flores Magón’s arrival in Los Angeles, four years before the Mexican revolution formally began, PLM uprisings broke out across northern and eastern Mexico. All were crushed. On this side of the border, U.S. authorities began rounding up PLM leaders who had sought refuge in St. Louis and El Paso. Flores Magón spent months on the run, hungry and afraid that he would be deported to Mexico and executed there. Private detectives in the employ of the Mexican government caught up with him in L.A. and beat him unconscious before handing him over to the Los Angeles Police Department. Charged with violating U.S. neutrality laws, he became a cause célèbre for the Angeleno left. Job Harriman, who four years later nearly became the city’s first socialist mayor, represented Flores Magón in court. (The Los Angeles Times was less enamored with the PLM defendants: “[T]he wily leaders,” the paper reported in November 1907, “expected to inflame their ignorant followers to acts of rapine and violence such as characterized the French Revolution.”) His fame likely gave him little comfort. “I’m tired,” he wrote in a 1908 letter from the downtown jail. He was feverish and had lost 40 pounds. “The jail is made of iron. It never receives a ray of sun; the wind blows day and night…I would not survive another winter in this jail….”
He did survive. In 1910, after spending three years in an Arizona federal prison, Flores Magón resumed publishing Regeneración out of an office on East 4th Street, on what is now skid row. “Better death than this obscene peace,” he wrote in the first issue printed here. “Mexicans, to war!” As if on cue, Mexico threw itself into the revolutionary civil war that would last the decade. Magonista troops, as the PLM forces were also called, were soon in combat across the country. In January 1911, a PLM unit took Mexicali. Tecate fell to the Magonistas in March; Tijuana, in May—Baja California was effectively under anarchist control. The victory was short-lived. By the end of June the Magonistas had surrendered, and Flores Magón had been arrested again.
After serving two years in a federal penitentiary in Washington state, he moved to Edendale. For $25 a month he and Enrique rented a plot of land just north of the Silver Lake Reservoir, on what was then called Ivanhoe Avenue. The fighting raged on in Mexico, but the PLM had been devastated by war, arrests, and lack of funds. The brothers and their allies lived communally, farming and raising chickens. It was likely the most tranquil period of Flores Magón’s adult life. He gave speeches in Santa Paula and El Monte. He wrote short stories and plays, one of which was produced in a theater downtown. He and Enrique printed Regeneración in the barn. The respite didn’t last. They were arrested in February 1916, accused of sending “indecent materials” through the mail.
Flores Magón made bail—Emma Goldman, “the high priestess of anarchy,” per the Times, helped raise the cash—and returned to L.A., his conviction on appeal. In March 1918, the world at war, he published his final manifesto. “The death of the old society is near,” he wrote. “It’s being whispered in the bars, it’s being whispered in the theaters, it’s being whispered in the streetcars and in every home, and especially in our homes, the homes of those at the bottom.” For those words he was charged with sedition under the terms of the 1917 Espionage Act, the Patriot Act of its day, and sentenced to 20 years. Late in 1922, nearly blind and with his health failing, Ricardo Flores Magón died in prison in Leavenworth, Kansas. He was 49. The authorities attributed his death to a heart attack. Prisoners maintained that he was strangled by a guard.