By: Miguel Salvador. Translated by: Dannielle Kendall-Hall
The city of Veracruz was, for more than four centuries, a gateway between Mexico and the world. Through the gateway passed merchandise and riches, but also ideas. Jarocho (Veracruz City) absorption of foreign ideas has been a long process and would be an arduous one to describe in full.
At the dawn of the 20th century, Veracruz City already bore a strongly forged identity. Having survived numerous invasions and the Mexican Revolution, Jarochos emerged heroic and proud. During the early 20th Century, intellectual influences such as communism, socialism and anarchism descended upon the city. Veracruz not only absorbed the new ideas, but began to realize them. Much of the energy was centrifuged into the socio-anarchist tenant movement led by Heron Proal.
Why did the Veracruz Tenant Movement not flourish? What impeded the triumph of the proletariat and poorer still? Perhaps Jarocho strength, formed in the crucible of revolutionary struggles and foreign invasions, was fractured by a great distraction in the form of the 1925 carnival. Could it be that the social and proletariat movement was crushed beneath the heel of Imperial King Momo and his majestic Danzon?
Communism is based upon the ideal of no private property ownership and complete equality among individuals. Communist vocabulary was first used by Karl Marx in 1848 in the Communist Manifesto. Marxist socialism declares the communism´s ultimate objective to be society without stratification. Engels used Marx´s manifesto to illustrate differences between a worker´s (proletariat) socialist movement, and a bourgeois socialist movement. It was not until 1917 and the Russian Revolution that the term communism was habitually employed.
Following the Russian Revolution, the objectives of communism became: to promote political revolution by proletariats worldwide through organized communist parties, to overthrow capitalism, and to create soviet republics.
Socialism is a theory, doctrine and practice that proposes public possession and administration of all means of production. Socialism aims to care for the interests of society as a whole rather than the interests of select groups, members or classes.
Anarchism encourages the autonomy and equality of individuals; it also encourages their free association. A balance of rights and obligation should be sought by all associating individuals. Upon occasion of reaching agreement, those free agreements should be respected by all parties to them and by third parties. A notable anarchist was Ricardo Flores Magón. Superficially imposed relationships tend to be disapproved of by Anarchists.
Part 1 – Antecedents
Around the end of the 19th century, industrialized Europe had already developed a tradition of worker movements. Socialism and Anarchism took centre stage at the dawn of the 20th century.
Anselmo Lorenzo would be anarchism´s principle promoter in Spain. Equal to his French and Italians parallels, Lorenzo was a Marx enthusiast. Anarchist ideas found a propitious home in Spain where federalist tendencies rivalled separatist aspirations (particularly those of Catalonians), leaving tender territory for new theory to find fertile ground.
Barcelona became the Anarchist Movement´s base. From 1872 onward the Spanish Anarchist Movement was vigorous, inclusive of 236 unions and 20,000 members.
Proletariat social ideas arrived unsurprisingly in Veracruz with immigrating Europeans: Germans, French, and Italians, but principally with Spaniards who constituted the majority of the city’s foreign community.
Many leaders of the left maintained, that the Mexican Revolution of 1910 had been a largely bourgeois democratic revolution. For the state of Veracruz, just as for México, the 1920s were a time of continuity with and rupture from the old order of things. Revolution had begun in 1910, ended in 1917, and left the country practically in ruins, both economically and in terms of political stability.
In 1917 “Apostle of Democracy” Francisco Ignacio Madero González was assassinated, plunging the country deeper still into political turmoil. A balance between varying interests was found in Sonorense Álvaro Obregón.
In 1922, under pressure from the United States, México began to adhere more strictly to a path of capitalism, and to take up the brutal philosophies of market ethics.
PART 2: The Jarocho Context
Veracruz is now the longest standing Municipality on the American continent and was the second ever created. Founded by Hernan Cortes in 1519, Veracruz was the site upon which Cortes first received tributary gifts from Aztec King, Moctezuma. With its deep waters, soon the city was established as the principle port of the Americas; a gateway to the greater world.
The thriving settlement, from its inception, was a magnet for migrating populations. Veracruz became home to significant Cuban, Pilipino, Lebanese, Chinese and European and other populations; from this eclectic spice emerged the local, luminous and creative tradition of Carnival.
Veracruz has been called four times heroic and for this reason appears in all formal documents with an “H” before its name. In 1825 Jarocho’s kept the last remaining Spaniards bound up in the fortress of San Juan d´ Ulúa, cutting off the food and water supplies and the avenues of communication and forcing the imperialists to capitulate. In 1827 we come across “La Guerra de los Pasteles” perhaps one of the more ridiculous wars in history, waged over a cake shop accidentally damaged by Mexican Rebels. Napoleon invaded México via the port of Veracruz which it found valiantly defended, but still managed to occupy for 5 years.
In 1847, United States Naval forces attacked México via the port city. With heavy artillery they left much of the city in ruins. The US forces were repelled on March 12, 1847.
On the morning of April 21, 1914, Jarochos woke to find 18 US Navy vessels guarding the entry to their harbour, blocking any possible delivery of much needed artillery. The Veracruz military Commander, Gustavo Mass, received orders not only to offer no resistance to the Americans, but furthermore, to abandon the city leaving it empty of military personnel. There were then only Jarocho citizens facing 18 American war ships. The citizens raided what arms stores were left and faced off the American attack. Hundreds of Jarochos were injured or killed.
Ultimately Victoriano Huerta directed troops to dispel the invasion, upon which Veracruz was used as a base for Constitutional troops, becoming for the second time in its history, capital of the Mexican Republic. The last foreign invasion may be noted to have occurred practically on the eve of the anarchist-tenant movement.
It is inherently difficult to describe with any accuracy the concept of “desmadre” (disorder is the nearest definition). Since the word itself refers to all matter of disorder, how does one piece the many naturally scattered parts together?
Desmadre is at the very least, a term stretching back into the roots of Veracruz and Mexican living. Literally meaning to put one´s mother aside, the word loosely refers to disorder, or mayhem. A messy room can be a desmadre. A wild night out or a raucous series of events, can be similarly termed desmadres. A person behaving rowdily may be called desmadroso. These are words of common usage in Veracruz. And why is that? Because of the presence of desmadre.
There is something very Jarocho about living life for the moment, taking pleasure in the journey more so than in any destination and of loving fiestas; such is the more peaceful representation of desmadre. Perhaps this way of life arrives in people by having lived historically under threat from either pirates or imposing foreign powers.
In 1873 a new railroad was unveiled. With Veracruz at the intersection of three railway lines, the city became the most important railway terminal in the eastern part of the country. In such a time of peace and progress, it became apparent that the wall surrounding the historical centre and its bulwark posts, would need to come down. For centuries the walls had protected the city from pirates and invasions.
Modernization would not leave the bay open and vulnerable, and so, with the dissembling of the wall, great port works were undertaken to create a sheltered harbour with dikes and breakwaters. Docks, piers and a boulevard were built. Mountains were moved, literally, to complete the task. The new port installations were inaugurated by President Porfirio Diaz in 1902.
Stemming from the same modernization philosophy was the construction of the city´s first lighthouse, telegraph, postal and customs buildings. On a more miserable note, the Ignacio Allende penal compound was also built during the modernization period. Trams and electric lighting were all part of the time.
Labourers flocked to Veracruz to participate in the great works. So it was that between the years 1873 and 1900, Veracruz City had its first growth spurt. According to García Mundo the population of the city increased between 1900 and 1910 by more than 65%: from 29,164 in 1900 to 48,633 in 1910.
The occupation of Veracruz City by North American troops during 1914 brought with it a particular cultural consciousness with regard to living conditions. Following the departure of the Americans, Jarochos began to seek better living standards, especially better health care and habitations. New Popular Nationalism led also to greater unity of ideas.
PART 3 - The Veracruz City Tenant Movement
In the 1920s Veracruz was overflowing with people seeking housing, most of them working class or poorer. The government had the option to impose itself upon the issue, to extend public services, including basic living spaces, but they did not elect to do so. Consequently, rental prices were left to the mercy of the market and that of the landlords.
The Antagonists - Proprietors
Proprietors wasted no time in taking advantage of the thousands of people eager for homes. The city peripheries were expanded to include more makeshift houses. The houses tended to be made of materials such as pinotea (local pine) wood, ship wood and earthen tiles previously used as ballast in ships.
Thus began the multiplication of neighborhood patios: tiny rooms surrounding central courtyards, where families of several members could share bread and salt while struggling to survive the suffocating heat of the region. Conditions inside the houses were dismal and even the dismal conditions were poorly maintained. The business of renting was conducted in Veracruz during the 1920s under the formidable slogan “Less expenditure, greater gain”.
Between the years of 1910 and 1920 rental prices in Veracruz City increased by approximately 500%. The cost of a room became enormous and excessive, greater than elsewhere in the Republic. A room that had cost 10 pesos was now renting for between 30 and 35 pesos, too much to be carried by a 1-3 peso wage.
Among the enterprising and mean owners were José García Suero and the Cangas brothers. Other well established entrepreneurs were hotel and Café owner, José Meléndez, and, the Malpica family, proprietors of the daily newspaper El Dictamen. From their podium they would fight the “Shirtless Jarochos”, with many words, among them the label of “Old Dynamite” for Herón Proal.
The Protagonists - Tenants
In 1922, 90% of the heads of household in Veracruz did not own their own homes. The protagonists of this story are: members of the local anarchist movement and The Mexican Communist Party, who united to form the Revolutionary Tenants Union. The indisputable leaders of the movement were Heron Proal and Maria Luisa Marín.
Herón Proal: Champion of the Poor?
Herón Proal Islas was born in Tulancingo, Hidalgo on October 17, 1881. While working in México City, he was given subversive literature to read. In 1897 he enlisted in the national army, which in 1903 he abandoned after having obtained the rank of supervisor in First Division Artillery.
It has been said that perhaps it was in the Army that Proal learned his skill as a tailor. Afterward retiring as a soldier, he settled in Veracruz, and began a business of tailoring uniforms and cachucas for sailors.
In Veracruz, Proal became acquainted with an activist named Montoya. Montoya had been expelled from both Venezuela and Cuba, among other countries because of his radical ideas. For a time, Montoya lived in Proal´s house assisting with the publication of a workers periodical entitled El Obrero Comunista (The communist worker).
According to Garcia Mundo in El Movimiento Inquilinario de Veracruz, 1922, there were two extremes of opinion regarding Proal: those who loved him, and those who hated him for being “a leader who had previously failed at everything.” [translated]
José García Suero offered Proal half a million pesos to leave Veracruz, to which Proal responded: “Bring me the leases of the Neighbourhood Patios in favour of the tenants, and I will go immediately, without compensation.”
According to García Mundo, one thing is certain, that Proal in the face of struggling masses, with only one bright and healthy eye, asserted himself and dominated. Moreover, he expressed that rare quality of a speaker equipped to orate incendiary prose with strength and passion. Proal´s character and ability thrived among Jarocho character and the climate of euphoria.
Maria Luisa Marin and the Women´s Movement
Maria Luisa Marín arrived in Veracruz in the spring of 1922, and immediately formed a group called The Women´s Anarchist Federation [translated]. Through the Federation, Marín coordinated a united front that visited local markets and incited domestic servants to join the Tenant´s cause.
It is also said that Marín might have been the lover of Heron Proal. All that is known for certain is that Marín organized and executed many of the revolutionary activities instigated by the Revolutionary Union of which Proal was the director.
The Tenant Movement
In February 1922, a group of prostitutes threw their mattresses out into the street and refused to pay rent to their landlords, unleashing a social movement unprecedented in the history of the city, and of the country itself.
Initially, demands were simple - calling for a reform of rental laws - but with time became radicalized, influenced by communist and anarchist theories. Later demands called for abolition of private property, the emancipation of workers and the elimination of the state.
Timeline of the Movement´s Evolution
1906 1907: The Flores Magón brothers begin to wage their influence
Strikes at Cananea and Río Blanco.
1912: The creation of La Casa del Obrero Mundial (The House of the Workers of the World)
1915: First attempted Veracruz Socialist Party
1916: Preliminary Labour Congress
1919: The creation of the Veracruz City Workers Federation
Socialist Congress (August-September).
In early 1922, the Anarchist Congress invited progressive workers and communists to join the tenant´s cause. On February 3, a meeting of Municipal Authorities was held to pre-empt and control the Tenant Movement. The meeting failed in its objectives. From the throng that had gathered, Proal drew a crowd of supporters, and launched with them the beginnings of a union outside of official control. The Communist Party soon appointed Heron Proal as leader of the Tenant movement. On February 5 the Revolutionary Tenants Union was established, with General Oscar Robert as Secretary and Heron Proal as Secretary of the Interior.
On March 7, 1922, El Dictamen published an article entitled “First Case of Collective Resistance to Payment of Rent”[translated] wherein the Patio “San Salvador” was described to have communicated with authorities and proprietors that rent would not be paid until it had been reduced to 2% of the property value. The example was contagious; soon, the property administrators Carrera & Carrera were in receipt of various rent default notifications. On March 8 El Dictamen discussed the growing popularity of Proal. March 9 and 10 would see 12 patios on strike. Hectic Tenant Movement meetings were held in Parque Juarez.
By the end of March the number of patios on strike had reached a hundred and was expected to increase. On March 25 Governor Tejeda passed laws purported to protect tenants (ley Inquilinaria), but there was little meat to them. The laws had only been a palliative fancy urged into existence by the oligarchy wanting to protect its own proprietary interests.
April 1922 was a crucial month for the Movement, during which the warring parties marked their positions, sharpened their weapons and fortified their territories. Tenant Movement members supported one another by gathering upon occasions of eviction and creating barricades against and resistance to authorities; in this way, they prevented several evictions from ever taking place.
Under Proal´s direction and much to the government´s distress, the Movement soon drew regional and national attention, extending to the neighbouring cities of Xalapa, Orizaba and Cordoba and even to Puebla, Guadalajara and México City.
July 5 & 6, 1922
The bloody events of July 5 and 6, 1922, took place in the historic centre of Veracruz City, and were triggered by dissention within the Tenant´s Union. A prominent member of the Union, José de Olmos, a young Jarocho marble tradesman, had called for an audit of funds.
As it turned out Olmo´s suspicions were not unfounded: part of the Tenant Union funds were being diverted to an Organized Commission headed by Úrsulo Galván that protected Veracruz peasantry.
Heron Proal was bothered by Olmos´s attitude and summoned his followers against the dissident, causing a chase to occur that would almost get Olmo killed.
Conflict within the Union spread through the various factions, and began a camp fight that was not respectful to the honest and peaceful citizens of the city. Faced with the port´s possible descent into anarchy, the Mexican army decisively intervened.
On the morning of July 6, following a day and a night of tumult, the port city dawned damp with blood. Many men, women and children had been rendered victims of the contention between rival groups within the Tenant´s Union. One-hundred-and-fifty of the union´s members were killed; the exact number of injuries is unknown.
Proal, along with 90 other men and 50 women was arrested, but problems with Herón Proal were not to end that fateful day. From prison he founded the Veracruz Revolutionary Prisoners Union. Afterwards he was banished to Mexico City and repeatedly gaoled there.
The Tenant Movement continued for several years. María Luisa Marín and local communist Carlos Palacios kept the movement going.
In February 1924, anarchistic activities of the Union were on the point of causing a third U.S. invasion. It was prevented by the composure of General Camerino Arrieta who, with courage and in spite of belonging to the rebel side of De la huertista, kept at bay the hoards of Heron Proal, who were preparing to launch a rampant looting of the port in the absence of military authorities during the days of the Adolfo la Huerta rebellion (1923-1924).
Part 4 - Carnaval 1925: A Tool of Social Distraction
In years prior to 1925, Carnival was an event of the people. Traditions were taken from Spanish and Italian Carnivals, but the celebrations themselves were manifestly local creations. Floats were often horse-drawn and elaborately innovative, one in particular of a young girl as a bird, doe eyes peering out from a flower strewn wicker cage. Before 1867, Carnival had lasted 15 days, from that point onwards, it would last only three.
1867, though a while before 1925, may be taken as a representative year: People came out of their houses at around 7 or 8 o´clock in the evening to participate in the festivities. In a population of 12,536, 1,246 were registered as participants in the parade, which allows us to consider the creative possibilities of the population to form and elaborate their costumes and masks. That year and indeed until 1925, Veracruz Carnival was simultaneously called the “masked ball” of Veracruz, a ball that poured through the streets of the city. As the parade flowed through the city´s principle streets, Jarochos and guests would watch from balconies and from the city walls. For three days each parade was ensued by music, dance and other celebrations to be carried well into the morning of the following day.
In 1925, the city´s economic situation was not encouraging. The local governing oligarchy needed to act quickly to maintain its status. Attempts to place Adolfo de la Huerta in power had failed, military operations head Guadeloupe Sanchez had departed from politics, and Adalberto Tejeda was supporting the Calista Gang. Not one of those elements was favourable to the leading bourgeois. A peaceful exit was required for the Tenant and anarchy movements, an exit that would harmonize the population.
Despite local and national recession, the 1925 Veracruz Carnival took to the streets with greater grandeur than ever before. A queen was chosen, and was adorned with floats. There were: fighting with flowers, dances and a distinctive stamp printed upon the costumes. The city´s Mercantile Exchange, a symbol in the Port of Spanish Dominance was decided to be the new commencement point of the Carnival parade.
The opening speech of the Queen of Carnival (Lucha Raygada) began:
“People of Veracruz, with loud applause, you have paid tribute to the throne that at this moments you occupy, and from which for three days you will govern the destiny of this town, which filled with enthusiasm, has gathered here to proclaim its adhesion and obedience....”
Dances, Music, walks along the water and the sale of liquor produced a pacifying effect upon the population, without which the oligarchy would have lost control and the indirect message of dominance issued to the proletariat.
With active members of the Tenant and Anarchist Movements dispersed or imprisoned, the left and radical philosophical foundations of both and either were passed to a plane of unimportance. In their place, certain Labour Party members, peasants and workers participated in the parade carrying a banner that read: “Long live the Queen of Carnaval!” A banner which had cost 500 pesos.
The appearance of anarchism, socialism and communism; Revolutionary optimism; and Jarocho strength, vitality and desmadre, together gave rise to the Veracruz Revolutionary Tenant Movement. Antonio García de Leon wrote that subversive artworks, including dance and cinema, immediately preceded the Tenant Movement´s inception. So it was that liberal artistic expression framed the Tenant Movement´s beginning, and controlled imaginative Carnaval co-ordinated the Tenant Movement´s end.
Perhaps in society, there are times when government does not serve well enough its people and the intervention of anarchy (a state of disorder due to non-recognition of government) becomes necessary.
The Tenant Movement was victim to the varied interests of different political groups, fighting for power both at regional and national levels. An ideal conclusion proposed by Proal was the fusion of a “Communist Colony” with oligarchy members. Proal´s vision was not possible in the political environment of the time; it´s realization would have caused a confrontation between state and federal governments.
As the Mexican Revolution was a largely bourgeois democratic movement, its collective benefits were limited. The peasantry and proletariats did not see immediate results, in contrast to the working classes of the 1917 Bolchevique revolution. The Jarocho Anarchist movement and its philosophy were limited to the region and therefore to failure.
The Movement was dampened by the tragic events of July 1922, but nowhere near obliterated. The 1925 Carnaval tipped powers - through it the government managed to conquer the anarchists by using their own weapons. So it was that anarchy and desmadre fulfilled their own prophesy. Order within disorder fell to pieces. The Tenant and Anarchy Movements were exiled to an oubliette, an island out to sea, a place of forgetting.
One positive thing that can be said of the Tenant´s Movement is that it caused the government to resort to a policy to a large extent of punishment but also of reward. On the one hand, in 1924 the government directly repressed the movement´s leader Proal by incarcerating him, and on the other, initiated a housing policy that would construct the very first worker colonies.
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