August 13, 2023
From The Red Phoenix

By Ian Ocx, Red Phoenix correspondent, Texas.

Book cover of "Radicals in the Barrio."

Radicals in the Barrio, originally published in June 2018, and written by Justin Akers Chacón, a labor rights activists and professor of Chicano History at San Diego City College, is a well researched and beautifully written history of labor radicalism within the Mexican-American community that spans from the mid-19th century to the mid-20th century in its coverage. One of the best features of the work is its heavy reliance on direct primary sources and quotes from newspapers and labor activists from the periods discussed, which helps paint a vivid picture of the situations as they took place and the history as it evolved.

Radicals in the Barrio is broken down into four main sections. The first section deals with the early days of the labor rights movement in Mexico, the desire for the Mexican state to gain the support of US imperialism, the early days of worker organizing within the Partido Liberal Mexicano (PLM), and the PLM’s emergence as an organizing force within the Mexican-American communities in the US. Much of this section is dedicated to covering the emergence and development of Magonista ideology, a form of anarcho-syndicalism that developed out of Mexican and Mexican-American revolutionary political experience and was a prominent ideological faction within the PLM, both north and south of the US-Mexican border. This section also covers early Mexican and Mexican-American labor struggles like the formation of the Japanese-Mexican Labor Association in California, which was the state’s first multiethnic labor union.  

The second and third sections of Radicals in the Barrio deals primarily with the struggles of organization and unionization of the Mexican-American working class, especially the anti-racist and immigrant struggles that had to be waged within the unionization movement. Professor Chacón invests lots of time into these sections to demonstrate the uphill battles Mexican-American workers faced in unionization as larger national labor unions, like the American Federation of Labor, were at times heavily racist and reactionary when it came to organizing immigrant and Mexican-American labor. Professor Chacón also does an incredible job throughout these two sections in discussing the vast multitude of strikes and revolts organized and led by Mexican-American workers in collusion with members of both the IWW and the Socialist Party of America. It is also worth noting that Radicals in the Barrio takes the time to discuss anti-racist movements that had to take place within the Socialist Party itself during the early 20th century since much of its national leadership was opposed to organizing non-white workers, fearing that a multiracial and multiethnic party might ostracize them from the perceived nominally “white” working class within the US. 

The fourth and final section of Radicals in the Barrio deals with the labor struggles of Mexican-American workers after the formation of the Communist Party of the United States (CPUSA) through the Cold War period. It is here where Chacón sadly begins to take an anti-communist turn in his writing. The work does continue to discuss the strong and open connections that the Mexican-American working class had to the CPUSA, especially throughout the 1930s and 1940s, including the leadership role that the CPUSA played in organizing multiracial and multiethnic unions, women’s unions, massive strikes and victories won by the Mexican-American workers under the leadership of the CPUSA and its mass organizations, and the severe state repression faced by Mexican-American communists. However, it is throughout this section that Professor Chacón does not miss a chance to heavily criticize the Communist International and CPUSA political line on the anti-fascist movement, going so far as to use quotes from American communist and anti-revisionist William Z. Foster as proof that the CPUSA had lost its revolutionary potential in the struggle against fascism, and the author engages in anti-communist propaganda in regards to the leadership period of Joseph Stalin and its supposed “undemocratic” nature, and attacks the CPUSA’s labeling of the Socialist Party and Trotskyite elements as reformist and social-fascist in nature.

Overall, while the final section of Radicals in the Barrio begins to take on an anti-communist nature in its analysis, the history and information contained within its pages is indispensable to revolutionaries wanting to learn about the struggles and conditions faced by Mexican-American workers within the US over the last 150 years. As a final note, Chacón does use language throughout the work that is ambiguous to its actual meaning. Many of these terms verge on accepting a Sakaist and anti-Marxist nature, but I do not personally believe that to be the purposeful intent of the author. However, the history, direct source material, and wonderful historiography of the first several sections makes Radicals in the Barrio worth the read. 

Categories: Literature, Media & Culture