Gabriel Antonio Solis
Many years ago, I got my first lesson in big and small contradictions while pulling weeds on a community farm in South El Paso, Texas, barely a mile away from the towering fortifications cutting us off from Ciudad Juárez, Mexico. A good place to study contradictions, but a tough place to pull weeds. I’d been digging up chunks of invasive grass from the dried-up perimeter of a growing field for a few hours, as my mentor followed along, earnestly trying to explain the shape of historical change on the U.S.-Mexico border. He explained that history was like an elongated elliptical, and at its tips the circle curved at the moment of a “contradiction,” which, when properly understood by organizers, might be mobilized so as to transform everything around us. He warned that not all contradictions were alike: there were big and small contradictions; there were some that offered opportunities and some that were momentarily insurmountable; and there were contradictions you could force and contradictions that could easily devour you (“You know if you step on a train track and wait for the train with your hands held out in front of you, you can spark a contradiction, but you’re not gonna win!”). He explained that in order to understand the dialectic, you had to remember that you were “living and dying at the same time;” that understanding the unity of opposites was at the heart of good organizing and seeing the true shape of history. In sum, he tried to teach me, as he has tried to teach so many other people, how to think about contradictions, the never-ending transformation of material conditions, and the importance of learning from a place and the people around you, so as to finally be able to “practice collectively;” the one thing he swore that capitalism always tried to stop us from doing—especially on the border.
Years later, after reading a bit more about the history of socialism in China, I began to wonder about the extent to which my mentor’s lesson on contradiction came from Mao Zedong’s own theorizations in 1937. The question became more pressing, as I encountered more elders from my home town who scolded me for “not understanding the primary contradiction” of a certain struggle or problem. And yet whenever I pressed them on the origin of these ideas, their answers evaded easy categorizations. Had they read Mao? Absolutely. Were they Maoist? No; they were Chicano (a term of pride, militancy and anti-assimilationism adopted by Mexican-Americans in the 1960s), but they had some volumes of Mao if I wanted to read him. These answers seemed simultaneously to evade and indicate a longer history of intellectual engagement with ideas not always associated with the Chicana/o movement, but which was undoubtedly a common current in many left-wing circles. Indeed, the elders I had spoken to had been amongst tens of thousands of other Chicana/o organizers who collectively and programmatically studied the texts of Marx, Lenin, and Mao in the U.S. Southwest in the 1970s, but whose life trajectories and experiences took them to other identities and organizing practices. Nevertheless, their stories kept me wondering about a distinctly Chicana/o Maoism, as a sort of tendency that existed in organizing in the U.S. Southwest that balanced Maoist analysis with Chicana/o nationalism and a commitment to grassroots “mass work.”
My interest in how Maoism influenced Chicana/o radicals has since shifted however, to the question of how engagement with Maoism and Third World Marxism broadly informed revolutionary political thought on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico Border. Surveying the history of social movements along the U.S.-Mexico border in the 1970s, one finds few groups who were openly Maoist, but many who had earnestly studied Mao’s texts and incorporated the collective insights of that study into their organizing. I would argue that their collective study contributed to the mass translation of concepts and organizing approaches that we would commonly associate with Maoism (self-criticism; creation of base communities; serve the people; studying the mass line; studying contradictions; Third World internationalism; affirmation of the revolutionary role of the peasant or agricultural worker; etc.) into the everyday vernacular of left-wing political struggle in the borderlands. In short, in the 1970s, revolutionary border people, or fronterizxs,1 took what they needed from Maoism to contribute to their own emancipatory movements and despite the worsening of political conditions on the U.S.-Mexico border since the 1980s, that legacy has not entirely vanished. This essay offers a brief reflection on how that came to be, and why this theoretical and political legacy offers something of importance to scholars and present-day organizers alike.
Mao in the Colonias
I stress the word “organizer,” over activist or intellectual, because the Maoists in this essay are best described as organizers, and good organizers at that. While Maoism outside of China is sometimes associated with guerrilla warfare in the countryside or caricatures of naïve students waving little red books on campus, Maoism on the U.S.-Mexico border largely materialized into practical approaches to organizing and the creation of semi-autonomous spaces. This latter tendency and its emphasis on building “base areas” is perhaps best represented by the loosely Maoist mass organizations in Mexico’s northern border states in the 1970s. Unlike Maoism amongst Chicana/os, Mexico’s militant Maoism of the 1970s emerged out of a longer history of engagement between the People’s Republic of China and the organized left in Mexico. Cultural and political exchanges with the PRC began early, with the leftist labor leader Vicente Lombardo Toledano’s visit to the newly established country in 1949, and these exchanges continued into the 1950s with the help of the Sociedad Mexicana de Amistad con China Popular, which helped coordinate transpacific artistic exhibitions and distributed Spanish-language translations of Mao’s writings and Chinese cultural journals throughout Mexico. This atmosphere of exchange arguably produced the first factions of pro-China communists in Mexico, some of whom were expelled from the Mexican Communist Party in 1963 following the Sino-Soviet split.
Yet after 1968, a new generation of Mexican Maoists rose to prominence following the Mexican government’s massacre of student demonstrators at Tlatelolco in 1968. Although 1968 had not been the first time the Mexican government had cracked down on student movements, the intensity of the repression in that year prompted a fierce debate to determine whether or not the time had finally arrived for armed socialist revolution in Mexico. Maoists often distinguished themselves in these debates by arguing that revolutionaries needed to continue to build alongside the masses before considering an armed option. Many other groups—who hadn’t necessarily neglected their reading of Mao—rejected this proposition and entered into open confrontation with the state. These latter groups found inspiration in the rural guerrillas of the 1960s, such as the socialist uprising in Madera, Chihuahua of 1965, as well as Lucio Cabañas and Genaro Vázquez Rojas’ ongoing guerrilla activity in Guerrero. Most of the young people who chose armed insurrection in the late 1960s and early 1970s met terrible fates at the hands of the Mexican state. In what is now referred to as Mexico’s Dirty War, Mexico’s CIA-trained intelligence agency known as the Dirección Federal de Seguridad (DFS) eradicated armed groups, disappearing hundreds and torturing thousands, including the family members, lovers, and friends of guerrillas and activists.
From the 1970s through the 1980s, Mexican Maoists largely rejected the proposition of arming themselves and focused their energies on building bases areas in urban peripheries. Following Mao’s exhortations to go to the people to learn from them and to follow the “mass line” (línea de masas), many young Maoists had turned to work in tenant movements in the late 1960s. Over the next decade, groups working from this premise would establish relatively powerful organizations in the colonias, or unincorporated urban settlements, of major cities and rural areas throughout Mexico, but especially in northern states. The groups which predominated in the North included Política Popular-Línea Proletaria (a group led by the Althusserian-Maoist Adolfo Orive de Alba) which primarily operated in Coahuila and Durango; Línea de Masas and Frente Tierra y Libertad, affiliated with Orive’s rival Alberto Anaya, which organized colonias throughout the border city of Monterrey; and the Comité de Defensa Popular, which organized communities throughout Durango and Chihuahua.2 While these groups differed in their stylistic approach, as well as their openness in regards to their embrace of Maoist strategies, each focused-on building power at a local level and constructing communities that functioned as semi-autonomous territories providing basic services to residents. These similarities led, in 1990, to their joint merger into the Partido de Trabajo (PT); a nominally left-wing party, but one which has been accused of clientelism and electoral opportunism. The most notorious of these denunciations came from Zapatista spokesman Subcomandante Marcos (now SupGaleano) against Adolfo Orive de Alba and other turncoat Maoists for their part in supporting the Mexican government during its campaign of terror in indigenous communities in Chiapas in the 1990s.
Of these groups, I have always been the most interested in the Comité de Defensa Popular (CDP), largely because they were one of the most important mass organizations in Ciudad Juárez (the city which borders my hometown) from the 1970s to the 1990s. The group had been founded by former tenant organizers in Ciudad Chihuahua, Chihuahua in 1972, as a “Popular Tribunal” seeking justice for youth arrested while participating in guerrilla activity in the city. The group quickly evolved into a mass organization, loosely based on Maoist principles, and established radical colonias in cities throughout Chihuahua and Durango, claiming up to 300,000 members in the late 1970s.3 Its largest base in Ciudad Juárez, called Tierra y Libertad, had been established via land invasions coordinated by the CDP in the late 1970s, and eventually became a local hub for radical organizing. Itself a sort of experimental revolutionary zone, which provided free utilities, schools and clinics to its residents, Tierra y Libertad became known for its massive popular assemblies, concerts and disruptive demonstrations in downtown Ciudad Juárez. Many Chicana/o organizers active in the region in the 1970s and 1980s recall visits to Tierra y Libertad, and the CDP also regularly invited guests from U.S.-based Black liberation groups and the Puerto Rican independence movement. While the CDP was not expressly Maoist in its sloganeering, it emerged from a similar process of engagement with Marx, Lenin, and Mao, and was one of many groups to implement the lessons of that study into an everyday political practice. In this sense, it carried deep similarities with the trajectory of Maoism amongst Chicana/o organizers during the same period.
Against Narrow Nationalism: Chicana/os, Maoism, and Borderlands Internationalism
Maoism in the Chicana/o movement was arguably much more diffuse than in Mexico—a factor partially owing to the comparative weakness of the organized left in the U.S. and far less sustained cultural exchange with the People’s Republic of China than in Mexico— but Chicana/o engagement with Mao’s texts nevertheless became widespread by the early 1970s. According to Ernesto Chavez’ ¡Mi Raza Primero! Nationalism, Identity, and Insurgency in the Chicano Movement in Los Angeles, 1966-1978 (2002), one of the first splits within the newly established Brown Berets—a group committed to Chicana/o self-defense and at least in part inspired by the Black Panther Party (BPP)—was led by members who had been labeled as Maoists, and wished to pursue a more explicitly revolutionary and anti-capitalist political path. The Black Panthers seem to be an influence in this political discovery, and some Chicanos like Carlos Montes remembered that their first introduction to Mao’s texts came through contacts in the BPP. For the most part these Chicana/os were already looking for new political directions in Mexico’s revolutionary traditions, particularly in that of Zapatismo, but their contacts with Puerto Rican, Asian-American, Black and Indigenous radicals led them to discover new sources of political inspiration. Likewise, the ongoing war in Vietnam and the allure of the Cuban revolution led many to see socialism as a political program that was applicable to struggles for self-determination. Overall, Maoism presented an increasingly attractive option to Chicana/os with an internationalist and revolutionary political orientation—particularly those who believed that the struggle for Chicana/o self-determination had to be wedded to socialism, as well as linked to solidarity with the struggles of other oppressed nationalities and revolutionary movements around the world.
This internationalist and Maoist tendency within the Chicana/o left is best represented by the August 29th Movement (ATM), which was undoubtedly the largest Maoist organization with a majority Chicana/o membership. Established in 1974, the ATM considered itself a “multinational communist organization,” but it largely drew its cadres from Chicana/os who had been active in La Raza Unida Party, the Brown Berets, a militant collective in Albuquerque and the defense committee supporting Los Siete de la Raza in the Bay Area. The ATM nevertheless distinguished itself for its particular approach to balancing Marxist-Leninism with its emphasis on the Chicana/o national question; a distinction that separated it from other groups within the Chicana/o movement and the “new communist movement” of the 1970s. Compared to other militant Chicana/o groups, the ATM was opposed to tendencies demanding greater participation in electoral politics, especially within La Raza Unida Party; a struggle which intensified at the 1972 LRUP convention in El Paso, Texas. Likewise, the ATM stood against what it referred to as “narrow nationalism,” exemplified by groups which over-prioritized cultural nationalism or rejected collaboration with white workers, as well as Black, Asian American and Puerto Rican comrades. Yet despite the group’s “multi-national” character, the ATM was nevertheless committed to an affirmative position on the Chicana/o national question, defining Chicana/os as an oppressed nation in the U.S. for whom political secession was a valid option, and whose struggle was tied to that of other oppressed peoples. The ATM’s commitment to questions of Chicana/o self-determination often put the group at odds with other communist organizations. This included groups like the Socialist Worker Party (SWP), the Communist Party (CPUSA), the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP), as well as the Centro de Acción Social Autónomo (CASA), a Chicana/o Marxist-Leninist group which rejected categorizing Chicana/os as an oppressed nation, and argued that such frameworks created false divisions between Chicana/os and Mexican immigrants in the U.S.
Much like Maoist-inspired groups in Northern Mexico, the ATM also remained dedicated to working within Chicana/o communities throughout the U.S. Southwest. Their slogans around “mass work,” were an honest reflection of the groups’ commitment to supporting working-class struggles. Given the background of most members, it was often in a better position to do so than other Marxist-Leninist parties in the Southwest. In the 1970s, the ATM supported the 1974 Dasco strike in Oakland, CA; ongoing organizing at Farah clothing plants in El Paso, TX; the 1976 Western Yarn strike in Los Angeles, CA; and it remained consistently engaged in farmworker organizing—despite the virulent anti-communism of the United Farm Workers. Amongst these organizing efforts, the ATM’s work in El Paso led to some of their fiercest struggles against the RCP, who not only frequently attacked demands for Chicana/o self-determination, but also became one of the most despised “outsider groups” in the El Paso Chicana/o movement due to their dogmatism and alleged theft of documentary footage on the Farah strike. Of course, the ATM had its own issues with dogmatism, expressed in its shifting positions on developments in China and Southeast Asia, and its collisions with ideologically adjacent groups like CASA, a Chicana/o organization that did tremendous work in their own right for Mexican and Central American immigrants, and that could have been a powerful ally. Still the ATM remained committed to trying to ally itself with likeminded groups, leading to its 1978 merger with the Asian-American Marxist collective the I Wor Kuen and the Revolutionary Communist League-MLM (a group that had emerged from the Black Liberation movement) to create the League of Revolutionary Struggle, later dissolved in 1990.
Aside from the ATM, there were of course many other smaller groups of Chicana/os who attempted to implement the ideas of Mao Zedong into their everyday political work. The Partido Proletario Unido de América’s (United Proletariat Party of América, PPUA) chapter in San Antonio, Texas is perhaps one of the most intriguing examples, constituting a group of radical Chicana/os who directly supported and to some degree participated in Maoist insurgency in Oaxaca, Mexico in the 1970s. As Alan Eladio Gómez writes in The Revolutionary Imaginations of Greater Mexico: Chicana/o Radicalism, Solidarity Politics, and Latin American Social Movements (2016), in the 1970s, South Texan Chicanos like Ramón Raúl Chacón and the radical restaurateur Mario Cantú made contact with the Maoist revolutionary Florencio “el Güero” Medrano, creating a direct channel between San Antonio’s radical Chicana/o scene and Maoists in Mexico. That relationship led to an exemplary and unusually well-recorded instance of Chicana/o Maoist internationalism in the U.S. Southwest.
This history of Chicana/o internationalism is deeply entangled with the longer history of Mexican Maoism. The PPUA owed its roots to the political trajectory of Florencio Medrano and his efforts to translate Mao’s ideas into Mexico’s political context in the 1970s. In 1969, Florencio Medrano had been part of a small group of Mexicans who traveled to the People’s Republic of China to receive training in guerrilla warfare. When they returned, intelligence agents in the DFS arrested the group’s most prominent members, but Medrano managed to go into hiding and quietly worked to implement what he had learned in China back home in rural Mexico. After years of clandestine preparation, in March of 1973, alongside thousands of campesinos, his group led a land invasion in Temixco, Morelos, on the massive estate of the governor’s son Felipe Rivera Crespo and established the “Colonia Proletaria Rubén Jaramillo,” which Medrano hoped to use as a base for further land invasions. Like other Maoist groups in Mexico, the Colonia Proletaria Rubén Jaramillo was an experimental effort to create a territory based on communal ownership of land, providing free basic services to its members, and instituting a community ethos rooted in revolutionary internationalism The experiment did not last long. Just six months after the land invasion, the Mexican military invaded the community and effectively crushed the Maoist communal experiment, prompting Medrano and his comrades to flee the state and eventually establish the PPUA in Oaxaca as a vehicle for a new path of revolutionary guerrilla warfare.
Prior to the collapse of the Colonia Proletaria Rubén Jaramillo, Ramón Chacón and Mario Cantú visited Medrano’s communal experiment and built a lasting relationship with Medrano that bled into the founding of the PPUA in 1975. Over the next few years, Mario Cantú used his extended network in San Antonio to help finance the PPUA’s guerrilla activity and even published its newspaper from within Texas. That solidarity exacted a heavy cost. In 1974 and 1975, Mexican authorities arrested the Chicano organizers Rubén Solis García and Ramón Chacón, subjecting both to torture and interrogation for allegedly helping to arm the PPUA. Mario Cantú—who became increasingly open about his collaboration with the PPUA and even participated in a Texas Monthly feature on the Oaxacan rebels—also fell into trouble with the law and had to self-exile in Europe in 1978. While he was away, the hired assassins of a landowner in Oaxaca assassinated Medrano in 1979 and effectively ended the PPUA’s attempt at a Maoist revolution in Mexico. Cantú eventually returned to San Antonio, but left behind his revolutionary career, focusing instead on his restaurants and a new life dedicated to Christian mysticism.
The San Antonio-PPUA connection offers an incredible story of Chicana/o internationalism, and it is likely not an exceptional case. As Alan Eladio Gómez remarks in his study of the PPUA, the group’s Central Committee often made references to other “Primos del Norte,” suggesting more clandestine networks amongst Chicana/os in the U.S. Indeed, many other Chicana/o groups—smaller and even more clandestine perhaps—embarked on a study of Maoism in the 1970s, and many more participated in solidarity efforts with revolutionary movements in Mexico and Central America in the 1980s and 1990s. The details of these histories remain to be found and told, and some participants may never even be willing to recount the full details of their political lives from the 1970s through the 1990s, for reasons of safety or due to personal wishes to distance themselves from their political past. While I fully respect the decision of former revolutionaries to leave their pasts behind them, all of this inevitably contributes to a disparity between our understanding of Mexican and Chicana/o Maoism, and Chicana/o Marxist-Leninism in general. Thanks to the scholarship of historians like Jorge Iván Puma Crespo, Ricardo Yanuel-Fuentes, Matthew Rothwell, Uriel Velázquez, as well as Luis Hernández Navarro’s profiles of Mexican communist figures in newspapers like La Jornada, it has become much easier to trace a genealogy of Mexican Maoism, whereas the extent and breadth of Chicana/o engagement with Maoism requires much more study.
The history of Chicana/o and Mexican engagement with Maoism should not be treated merely as an object of academic curiosity. Studying this history has deep political implications. Aside from the endurance and vernacularization of Maoist concepts and strategies in the border states (i.e., big vs. small contradictions; mass work; serve the people; self-criticism, etc.), Maoism in the Americas often has represented a revolutionary tendency that prioritized internationalism, anti-imperialism, socialism and multi-national coalition building. While these concepts are important everywhere, they are especially so to peoples whose lives were shaped by the historical existence of a U.S.-Mexico border. Maoism ultimately provided a framework for border people who wanted a future beyond the border itself: identifying the border as a farcical international division created by 19th Century U.S. annexation, a corridor of colonial extraction, a symbol of U.S. imperialism, a buffet of cheap labor for multinational corporations and an epicenter of ongoing racial terror. Those insights are as important today as they were in the 1970s, and organizers on the border have much to learn from the struggles, collective study and errors of movement elders who used that framework to spark a revolution in one of the most reactionary and exploitative places in the world: the U.S.-Mexico border.
Gabriel Antonio Solis is a PhD Candidate in History at Columbia University who studies capitalism, labor and the history of export-assembly plants in the U.S.-Mexico border and Taiwan. Originally from El Paso, Texas, he also writes about border culture and politics in non-academic outlets.