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Remembering the Magonista Rebellion battles of 1911

“People don’t realize, this is where Tijuana was born”

1911, rebel army marching to the Battle of Tia Juana, June 22, 1911.
1911, rebel army marching to the Battle of Tia Juana, June 22, 1911.

“The Red Flag Now Flies Gallantly Over Tijuana!” reads the headline in Hellraisers Journal, Saturday, May 27. Of course, that’s Saturday, May 27 of 1911. Things were happening, right outside where I’m at in TJ, at the bottom of Avenida Revolucion, where I’m sitting, at Hotel Nelson’s bar (Appropriate: it is the oldest bar in Tijuana). I guess I’m looking for history. And right here, where TJ began, there’s a ton, from the sublime to the ridiculous. Like, it seems Marilyn Monroe stayed here. And here’s a signed, time-stained, black-and-white photograph of The Beatles in TJ, with Paul caught ducking behind Ringo Star.

Celebrated yet ignored, famous pic of The Beatles with Paul hiding, plus signatures.

But what I’m looking for is a pic showing bona fide rebels gathering to launch an actual revolution. Back in 1911, they wanted to create a separate republic of Baja California. And I finally do get to see the picture: armed men lining up on Avenida Revolucion to march south and challenge Mexican dictator Porfirio Diaz’s government forces. The recruits were photographed — God bless those early photographers! — outside Sr. Savin’s Bazaar Mexicano curio shop. The flag declaring Tierra y Libertad (“Land and Freedom”) flies over the store.

What’s known as the Magonista Rebellion, named after Ricardo Flores Magon, was planned up in LA by the Organizing Board of the Mexican Liberal Party. The problem was that no-one, not the many Americans who joined up, nor the Mexicans, nor the supporting Native Americans, could agree on what they were actually fighting for: to abolish property and create an anarchist workers’ commune? Or to create a basic bourgeois democracy? Or just to get Porfiro Diaz out of his dictator’s seat? The whole movement apparently foundered thanks to the collision of these different views, and to the backgrounds of the Mexican, Native American and North American rebels. Only the idea of giving Baja back to its original inhabitants was agreed upon.

The remarkable thing amid all this ferment is the numbers. The tiny town of Tijuana had maybe 100 inhabitants in 1911. The organizers collected perhaps 220 men to actually step up and go fight in the rebellion.

The actual campaign? It was a mess, but the Magonistas fought real, lethal battles with Mexican government forces between January and June 1911 in what were called the First and Second Battles of Tijuana. And at the start, the rebs prevailed. “[This] was by far the biggest battle that has been fought since the Mexican Liberal Party placed their army in Lower California,” wrote the pro-rebel, pro-Libertarian Hellraisers Journal. “Many brave acts were recorded. At 8:30 am on Tuesday May 9th, the Liberal Army was in full possession of Tijuana, Mexico. Thus ended a memorable struggle, between slaves of the capitalist class on one side, and Liberty-Loving Workers, who are fighting for freedom, on the other side. At last the victory of social revolutionists in lower California is assured.”

Ruben the donkey at the bottom of Revolucion. Is this where the rebels gathered to go to war in 1911?

Well, not quite. By the end of June, all of Baja was back in Mexican federal hands. But the two Battles of Tijuana did fuel the fires of what was to become the full-fledged, decade-long Mexican Revolution. Stirring stuff, and it happened right here, probably where I’m looking across at Ruben the striped donkey, outside the bar. “People don’t realize, this is where Tijuana was born,” says my bar buddy Pedro. “You want forgotten history? It’s all here.”

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1911, rebel army marching to the Battle of Tia Juana, June 22, 1911.
1911, rebel army marching to the Battle of Tia Juana, June 22, 1911.

“The Red Flag Now Flies Gallantly Over Tijuana!” reads the headline in Hellraisers Journal, Saturday, May 27. Of course, that’s Saturday, May 27 of 1911. Things were happening, right outside where I’m at in TJ, at the bottom of Avenida Revolucion, where I’m sitting, at Hotel Nelson’s bar (Appropriate: it is the oldest bar in Tijuana). I guess I’m looking for history. And right here, where TJ began, there’s a ton, from the sublime to the ridiculous. Like, it seems Marilyn Monroe stayed here. And here’s a signed, time-stained, black-and-white photograph of The Beatles in TJ, with Paul caught ducking behind Ringo Star.

Celebrated yet ignored, famous pic of The Beatles with Paul hiding, plus signatures.

But what I’m looking for is a pic showing bona fide rebels gathering to launch an actual revolution. Back in 1911, they wanted to create a separate republic of Baja California. And I finally do get to see the picture: armed men lining up on Avenida Revolucion to march south and challenge Mexican dictator Porfirio Diaz’s government forces. The recruits were photographed — God bless those early photographers! — outside Sr. Savin’s Bazaar Mexicano curio shop. The flag declaring Tierra y Libertad (“Land and Freedom”) flies over the store.

What’s known as the Magonista Rebellion, named after Ricardo Flores Magon, was planned up in LA by the Organizing Board of the Mexican Liberal Party. The problem was that no-one, not the many Americans who joined up, nor the Mexicans, nor the supporting Native Americans, could agree on what they were actually fighting for: to abolish property and create an anarchist workers’ commune? Or to create a basic bourgeois democracy? Or just to get Porfiro Diaz out of his dictator’s seat? The whole movement apparently foundered thanks to the collision of these different views, and to the backgrounds of the Mexican, Native American and North American rebels. Only the idea of giving Baja back to its original inhabitants was agreed upon.

The remarkable thing amid all this ferment is the numbers. The tiny town of Tijuana had maybe 100 inhabitants in 1911. The organizers collected perhaps 220 men to actually step up and go fight in the rebellion.

The actual campaign? It was a mess, but the Magonistas fought real, lethal battles with Mexican government forces between January and June 1911 in what were called the First and Second Battles of Tijuana. And at the start, the rebs prevailed. “[This] was by far the biggest battle that has been fought since the Mexican Liberal Party placed their army in Lower California,” wrote the pro-rebel, pro-Libertarian Hellraisers Journal. “Many brave acts were recorded. At 8:30 am on Tuesday May 9th, the Liberal Army was in full possession of Tijuana, Mexico. Thus ended a memorable struggle, between slaves of the capitalist class on one side, and Liberty-Loving Workers, who are fighting for freedom, on the other side. At last the victory of social revolutionists in lower California is assured.”

Ruben the donkey at the bottom of Revolucion. Is this where the rebels gathered to go to war in 1911?

Well, not quite. By the end of June, all of Baja was back in Mexican federal hands. But the two Battles of Tijuana did fuel the fires of what was to become the full-fledged, decade-long Mexican Revolution. Stirring stuff, and it happened right here, probably where I’m looking across at Ruben the striped donkey, outside the bar. “People don’t realize, this is where Tijuana was born,” says my bar buddy Pedro. “You want forgotten history? It’s all here.”

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