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On the Waterfront in Revolutionary Mexico

Revolution in the Street: Women, Workers, and Urban Protest in Veracruz, 1870-1927 (Rowman & Littlefield, 2001)


Veracruz is, in many ways, Mexico’s New Orleans: a muggy, laid-back, Gulf Coast port city. Like the Big Easy, Veracruz is a regional urban center that has seen better economic times, yet it upholds a national reputation as a cultural melting pot, a place where the good times roll, and never more so than during Carnaval. Though Veracruz’s political and economic significance have waned over the last 50 years, no city other than the nation’s capital has played a more significant role in Mexico’s historic development.

The historical import of Veracruz derives from the peoples, the goods, and the influences that entered and exited Mexico through its waterfront. The most influential arrival was Hernán Cortés, the Spanish conquistador who founded and named the city of the “True Cross” in 1519. Cortés soon abandoned the city and set out over the mountains to conquer the Aztecs. By the 1700s, New Spain, as Mexico was then known, had become the wealthiest and most populous European colony in the Americas. Veracruz was its principal port, and thus a thriving one. Royal bureaucrats, wealthy merchants, Spanish immigrants, and African slaves entered the New World through the fortified seaport. Pirates and smugglers arrived, too, drawn by fleets of silver and gold found for Iberia.

The colonial system under which Veracruz prospered ended in the early 1800s. The early decades of the independent Mexican Republic were a time of foreign meddling, political intrigue, and economic decay. But intruders and immigrants continued to shape the history and culture of Veracruz. The locals’ patriotic resistance against invaders from Spain, France, and the United States (twice!) earned their hometown renown as the city “Four Times Heroic,” a symbol of Mexico’s will to defend its national sovereignty. Foreign immigration would resume during the later 1800s with the return of political peace and economic growth. The onset of a 30-year dictatorship—that of General Porfirio Díaz—made Mexico into a favored nation among European and American investors eager to exploit its natural and human resources. The Díaz regime ushered in Mexico’s first experience with free trade. Mineral and agricultural exports soared. As a result, the languishing port of Veracruz bustled once again. Government-sponsored renovations—a deeper harbor, new warehouses, modern docks—permitted the handling of record cargos. By 1900, immigrants from Spain, Cuba, and the West Indies were settling in a city where an economic boom masked a mounting social and political crisis, one that would prompt a “revolution in the street.”

It is at this critical junction in the history of both Veracruz and Mexico where Andrew Grant Wood’s award-winning study Revolution in the Street: Women, Workers, and Urban Protest in Veracruz, 1870-1927 (Rowman & Littlefield, 2001) begins. Wood’s story opens with the late 19th-century modernization of Veracruz and the housing crisis that ensued as the population exploded. Between 1900 and 1910, the city grew from 30,000 to nearly 50,000 inhabitants. Veracruz became a city of contrasts. Nothing better exemplified the gulf between the newly-rich mercantile elite and the working masses than the crowded, disease-ridden tenement districts along the waterfront. Such working-class living standards (and working conditions on the docks) illuminated the contradictory nature of life under the dictatorship. Local officials recognized the crisis in public heath and urban services. In 1910, however, the outbreak of revolution interrupted their first attempts at urban renewal. The dictatorship fell quickly. The nation was then engulfed by a seven-year civil war that would end the export boom but nevertheless usher in an era of grassroots activism and political reform that would reshape modern Mexico.

Much has been written about revolutionary Mexico—the peasants’ struggles for land, the birth of a militant union movement, and the creation of a ruling party, Institutional Revolutionary Party (P.R.I.), whose institutionalized rule ended only last summer. Wood focuses on another product of the revolution: the tenant protest movements that engulfed urban Mexico in the 1920s. The most famous and successful was that of “Red Veracruz,” a region renowned for political radicalism in the early days of the revolution. Combining a rent strike with various forms of direct action and public rallies, the tenants of Veracruz would pressure the local government to enact the first housing reform legislation in Mexican history.

Wood locates the causes of protest on several fronts: the nature of urban growth and development, the crisis provoked by revolutionary insurgency, and the rampant inflation of housing costs during the 1910s. He then shows how latent grievances evolved into political action in the early 1920s. Why then? For one thing, the overthrow of the dictatorship opened the way for new political actors, from union workers to hard-pressed renters to seasoned anarchists, who mobilized in the aftermath of the civil war. For another, the revolution brought forth a new political discourse of social justice, working-class rights, and nationalism from which tenant activists drew inspiration and shaped their demands.

Wood highlights that which made the movement a success: the mass mobilization of workers and women by local housing activists. The author calculates that some 40,000 locals, 75 percent of the city’s population, became directly involved in the rent strike. The actors ranged from the well-organized and famously militant dockworkers to prostitutes who plied their trade in the waterfront districts. These were the sort of people who resided in the port city’s ubiquitous patios. The very structure of these low-lying tenements, named for their interior courtyards, encouraged social cohesion, for all residents cooked, bathed, and passed leisure hours in the enclosed courtyards rather than the congested, unventilated rooms that often housed entire families. The capacity to constantly mobilize protest depended on the vast social networks that emerged in these crowded tenements and neighborhoods. Wood puts special emphasis on the role of local female militants who “bullied rent collectors, badgered police, blocked evictions, plastered syndicate propaganda throughout the city, and hounded merchants for lower prices.”

As with other social movements in revolutionary Mexico—notably those for labor and land reform—the urban protestors faced several obstacles. One was that which faces renters’ movements in every place and time: well-organized, politically connected landlords. Another was a divided movement leadership, a division promoted by a government seeking to marginalize the political radicals who acted beyond its control. The key tenant protest leader was the charismatic Hernán Proal, a longtime labor activist around whom a seeming cult of personality developed. Proal embraced the style of anarchist thought imported to Latin America by Spanish émigrés—a philosophy that promoted direct action rather than political reform as a vehicle of change. But as Wood makes clear, “Proal tended to view the state in somewhat contradictory terms—as an instrument for social progress as well as an agent of worker repression.” It proved to be both.

Notably, while tenant movements emerged in other Mexican cities, only in Veracruz did the protests result in the passage of significant reform legislation. Wood narrates a story that exemplifies the new style of politics and social reform ushered in by the revolution. While local officials ultimately repressed the anarchist leaders of the movement, a process that involved federal military intervention, mass arrests and several deaths, they also cultivated a more moderate, parallel tenants’ union. They then won the support of the port city’s militant renters by delivering the goods: a 1923 law that reduced rents to approximately pre-revolutionary levels, the donation of public lands for working-class housing projects, and an agency to monitor landlord-tenant relations in the future. In contrast, residents in other urban centers in Mexico waited until the 1940s (at best) to benefit from similar legislation. However, as Wood demonstrates in a comparative analysis, Mexico would be among the few regions in the world (New York being another) where the very idea of state intervention in the housing market took hold at such an early date.

Revolution in the Street offers valuable insight to those seeking to better understand Mexico and its recent history. The story illuminates how Mexico’s ruling P.R.I. party came into being and stayed in power for so long. Its system of pan y palo (“bread and stick”) delivered the goods to the working class while effectively eliminating or co-opting the political opposition. After several generations of scholarship focused on how this played out in Mexico City, we are now coming to understand the Mexican Revolution from a more regional perspective. Wood is to be commended for writing a major study of a city in the “provinces,” focusing on local politics in a state that would send many native sons to key posts in the federal government. His attention to the dynamics of class and gender are welcome, too. He highlights the fact that women played a decisive role in the political life of Mexico well before they won the right to vote (in 1955). He also reveals that the issues motivating working-class activism were not restricted in the workplace.

Finally, Revolution in the Street makes an important contribution to the growing field of urban history. One would perhaps expect a good deal of urban studies on a nation that hosts the world’s largest megacity. But, as recently as the 1930s, Mexico remained an agrarian society where the majority of inhabitants lived subsistence lives in the countryside. Then what happened in Veracruz would be repeated after the Second World War, initially in places like Guadalajara, Monterrey, and Mexico City, where by the 1970s a series of so-called “new social movements” centered in urban shantytowns emerged around many of the very issues that Wood explores. Once again, intense grassroots activism begot organizational muscle. Land invasions and other forms of direct action drew attention to the issue. Once more, the government responded with new working-class housing programs that would alleviate but never fully resolve the housing crisis of urban Mexico. Today, the party that based its longevity on that very kind of patronage no longer rules. Meanwhile, government policy has launched Mexico on a renewed period of exported growth. This time, a manufacturing-based export boom is transforming urban centers on Mexico’s northern border to the fastest growing cities in North America. The housing crisis thus continues.



Michael Snodgrass


The Brooklyn Rail


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