GIRLS AGAINST THE STATE: “Anarchist Perspectives” in the Texas Borderlands

On July 13, 1913, a fifteen-year-old girl named Sarah Rendon stood in front of a crowd of Mexican farmworkers and recited a self-authored poem:

As the humble daughter of the honorable proletariat I challenge the present system. […]
Though I am both young and a woman, it does not matter.
I must declare my grand rebellion to the world.
I do not want to be a slave.
My yearning desire is to achieve a better and new society.
I am not afraid of the inquisitory mob.
For I would be happy to die for the good of my comrades. […]
Woman of the future, with your head held high, the sun will shine upon your day.
Let us forever demand Land and Liberty, even if tyranny tries to impose itself on us.[efn_note]“Grupos,” Regeneración 153 (Aug. 9, 1913): 3.[/efn_note]

Rendon’s performance was followed by more poetry recitals, all undertaken by young women and girls, including Eustolia Vidaurri (nineteen years of age), Elodia Martinez (fourteen), A. Rodriguez (age unknown), Alejandra Frausto (fourteen), and Alidia Martinez (twenty-three). The young poets were proud members of the all-girls anarchist club Prismas Anarquistas (“Anarchist Perspectives”) based in Burkett, Texas. Similar groups had been organized under the banner of the Mexican Liberal Party (PLM), but Prismas was the only one solely composed of young women and children.

Map from 1907 of Coleman County Texas showing locations of Burkett and Coleman, Texas. Image from Map Collection of the Texas General Land Office.[efn_note]A. von Hauke, Post Route Map of the State of Texas showing post offices with the intermediate distances on mail routes in operation on the 1st of March, 1907, U.S. Post Office Department, 1907, Map #2090, Map Collection, Archives and Records Program, Texas General Land Office, Austin, TX. [/efn_note]

I first learned about the existence of Prismas Anarquistas while researching the rise of grassroots anarchism in the US–Mexico borderlands. In my attempt to study the transnational sources of radical farmworker movements in the United States, I began to analyze the PLM’s anarchist magazine, Regeneración. Scholars have used this magazine to write about the lives and ideologies of male party leaders, but surprisingly few works have shed light on the wider social movement the magazine reflected, particularly the lives of female members. This was surprising to me considering that most editions of Regeneración featured a “Grupo” section where local clubs could publish their preambles, discuss the activities they were carrying out in their locales, and write letters to the party’s leaders and one another. The Grupo correspondence illuminates how Mexican immigrants organized against imperialism and racism outside of state-based mechanisms and also how they imagined an anticapitalist society that went beyond ethnoracial nationalism. Their story reminds us that there is a lot of future in the past.

Hoping to find out more about the girls, I began constructing a database that would piece together whatever I could learn about their lives and map the wider network of clubs in which they participated.The resulting database, which I named the PLM Grupo Digital Archive, is composed of two main parts. The first part contains subcategories of grupo names, locations, membership lists, donations, and activities. It also includes economic, political, and demographic information on each club region. I gathered this data from the weekly issues of Regeneración published between 1910 and 1914. This process allowed me to map the locations of 166 PLM groups spread between California and Missouri.The second part of the database, which I developed by crossreferencing members’ names with the US census of 1910, develops a detailed demographic profile of the individual club members, including their age, marital status, country of origin, occupation, literacy level, and school and arrest records. By constructing this database, I was able to identify two other groups in Coleman County that had written letters to Regeneración. By comparing the membership lists of all three groups, I identified various surnames present in all of the sources. I tracked down these surnames in genealogical archives, and that yielded enough information to begin creating a demographic profile on the Burkett anarchists.

The first PLM club to appear in Burkett must have been launched around 1911, since it appears in the historical record in May of that year. The group, Justicia y Amor, was initially organized by a cotton farmer named Francisco Martinez and composed solely of campesinos working in the cotton fields of Texas. According to their club preamble, the farmworkers who joined the group decided to collect membership fees on a voluntary basis in order to ensure that no one would be financially restricted from joining their movement. The members also chose to do without official positions, believing that the club would function better without an executive leadership imposed from above.[efn_note]“En Pro de Regeneración,” Regeneración 186(May 6, 1911): 3.[/efn_note] In 1913, the group wrote a second preamble in which its members professed their continued loyalty to the PLM’s now openly anarchist cause.[efn_note]“Grupos,” Regeneración 141 (May 17, 1913): 3. [/efn_note]

Map of PLM Grupo Locations. Image from Google Maps.

In July of the same year, the daughters of Justicia y Amor decided to create their own auxiliary group, giving birth to Prismas Anarquistas. It is currently unclear why the women chose to meet by themselves. Justicia y Amorwas composed of over seventy members, so it is possible the girls wished to create a more intimate space where they could discuss the PLM’s ideas. It is important to note, however, that the idea of forming a separate youth organization was solely a female invention. The girls’ brothers remained in Justicia y Amor and never created a space for themselves outside of it. For example, all of Francisco Martinez’s daughters were active members of Prismas,while their brothers, Candelario and Eliseo, continued to remain in Justicia y Amor.

So who were the girls? After constructing the Grupo Digital Archive, I was able to construct a more personal profile of the girls. Their clubwas composed of some twenty-three women ranging from six to twenty-six years of age.[efn_note]It is possible that the membership was larger than twenty-seven. There were other daughters in the family whose names do not appear in the letters. 1910 US census, Coleman County, Texas, Justice Precinct 8,, accessed May 28, 2019,[/efn_note%5D Seventeen were identified as farmworkers in the 1910 census. Considering that at least five of the remaining six would have reached working age by 1913, one can safely assume that all the signatories were laborers by the time the group was founded.[efn_note]It appears that children in this agricultural community began working at six. 1910 US census, Coleman County, Texas. [/efn_note] A little more than half of the girls had been born in Texas while the others had migrated to the United States with their parents between 1900 and 1905.

Between 1911 and 1914, the Prismas members were deeply engaged in a thriving borderlands anarchist subculture. Like all the club members in Coleman County, the girls had access to the communal library that the PLM members had established in Francisco Martinez’s home. In 1910 at least eleven of the Prismas were literate, a number that must have grown over time. In accordance with the PLM tradition, the girls likely read the paper out loud to their illiterate comrades and helped them learn how to read.[efn_note]Claudio Lomnitz, Return of the Comrade Ricardo Flores Magon, (Brooklyn: Zone, 2014), 240–41. [/efn_note]The girls were also avid financial contributors to Regeneración, at one point raising $197.50 to support the paper.[efn_note]“Donativos,” Regeneración (Oct. 10, 1913): 3. This would amount to about $5,000 today. [/efn_note]

The Grupo Digital Archive can certainly be a valuable tool for those of us who study the history of the Mexican Liberal Party, but it can also impact how we think about the US–Mexico border during this period. The girls, like many of their PLM compatriots, had become radicalized by their crossborder experiences. For them, the border was a site of multistate violence. It is important to note that the border of the early 1900s differed drastically from its contemporary counterpart. It was not until after the suppression of the PLM in 1920 that the United States would begin to systematically consolidate its national boundaries. We see this happening with the Immigration Act of 1924, which created the Border Patrol and established racialized migrant quotas. In the decades that followed, the United States would continue to militarize its borders.        

And yet, PLM-istas had their own uniquely contentious relationship with the border. As Mexicans, they had to contend with the fact that the United States had acquired half of Mexico’s land mass only a generation earlier. In fact, Crespin Frausto, the oldest PLM member in Burkett, would have been ten years old when the US–Mexican War ended. The PLM club members’ anarchist identity also meant that if they ever traveled back to Mexico they could theoretically be excluded from reentering the United States under the Immigration Act of 1903. After the assassination of President William McKinley by a self-proclaimed anarchist in 1901, Congress passed an immigration law that expressly forbade anarchists from entering the country.

The PLM and its leaders had been systematically targeted by the American immigration system since their arrival in 1905. US private spy agencies, police departments, and prosecuting attorneys colluded with Mexican embassies to surveil and remove PLM members from the country. At one point, immigration officers even kidnapped a party leader in order to illegally deport him. Then there was the case of Margarita Ortega and her daughter Rosaura Gortrari, who spent the last years of their lives organizing anarchist groups along both sides of the border. Deported by the United States in 1911, then threatened with imprisonment in Mexico, they clandestinely crossed the Yuma desert in order to escape persecution. Rosaura eventually died from the harsh elemental exposure to which she was subjected. In 1913 her mother returned to Mexico, where she was captured by military forces and summarily executed in Mexicali.[efn_note]Ricardo Flores Magon, “Margarita Ortega,” Regeneración 192 (June 13, 1914): 6. [/efn_note]

Photograph of Rosaura Gortari which circulated alongside the obituary of her mother, Margarita Ortega. Image from “Margarita Ortega” in Regeneración. [efn_note]Ricardo Flores Magon, “Margarita Ortega,” Regeneración no. 192 (June 13, 1914), 6[/efn_note]

Taking into account the sentiments displayed in their poetry and speeches, it seems likely that the Prismasgirls were impacted by these stories of state violence. As avid readers and patrons of Regeneración, the Coleman County anarchists would have followed the travails of “Margarita y Rosaura” as they unfolded in the magazine. One can imagine the girls took a particular interest in Rosaura Gortrari, a teenager like them. And it is likely the girls experienced tremendous sadness and anger when they read Margarita Ortega’s open letter to Madero in which she damned him for causing the death of her daughter.[efn_note]Margarita Ortega, “Ante La Tumba De Madero,” Regeneración 139 (May 3, 1913): 3.[/efn_note] These feelings could only have intensified after the Prismas Anarquistas read the moving eulogy the PLM’s leader dedicated to Ortega after she was assassinated in the desert.[efn_note]Magon, “Margarita Ortega.”[/efn_note] While the girls never explicitly mentioned the martyrs in their letters, their works demonstrate that they were similarly devoted to dismantling capitalism and willing to sacrifice for the cause.

In order to understand the radical implications of Sara Rendon’s poem, it is important to contextualize the specter of violence that followed Mexicans in the borderlands. In 1913 the pages of Regeneración were riddled with accounts of racial injustice, discrimination, and state sanctioned violence. One can arbitrarily pull a volume of the paper from the archive and find tales of labor exploitation, segregation, swindling, and lynching. These occurrences happened so frequently that the PLM began printing a feature in their newspaper titled “In Defense of Mexicans,” which warned its readers about capitalist swindlers and extrajudicial murders. In various instances, these retellings were often followed by an explicit call for Mexicans to take up arms. After a white bartender killed a Mexican worker in Fort Worth, Texas, in early 1913, the paper’s editors ridiculed Mexican residents for responding to the murder by writing complaints to the Mexican consul. “The [Mexican] and [US] government[s], like all governments, do not care about the workers. … Let us defend our own rights. Dynamite, gunpowder, and rifles are available throughout Texas,” they wrote. “Take them and rise up against capitalist bandits and exploiters.”[efn_note]“En Defensa de Los Mexicanos,” Regeneración 125 (Jan. 25, 1913): 3. [/efn_note]

Armed resistance and defense was not an abstract notion for the Prismas girls. They read stories and calls to arms in Regeneración week after week. They likely heard accounts of cross-border organizing and armed resistance from displaced people fleeing the Mexican Revolution. They also heard firsthand stories from the community’s founder, Francisco Martinez, who had joined a rebel Coahuila army in 1912. Considering that PLM organizers often found themselves targeted by two states, Mexico and the United States, it is not surprising that Rendon and the other girls anticipated that they would one day have to defend their “comrades.” While the border of the 1910s was certainly not the highly militarized zone it is today, it was still a site of multistate violence for Mexican radicals. The experiences of the club members as immigrants or children of immigrants informed how they conceptualized state power. It was clear to them that national borders were mutually created and enforced by both Mexico and the United States. As a result, this group of girls was committed to dismantling the very institutional structures that discriminated against their race, gender, nationality, and political identity.

As images of children are manipulated to galvanize the American public to inflict state violence on migrant families, it is important to remember that children have always defied the state. They have always imagined a future outside of it. And they will continue to survive it.

The story of the Prismas Anarquistas cannot supply a complete history of anarchism in the borderlands or even of anarchist club life within the small town of Burkett. Further research is needed to determine why the families who founded Justicia y Amor moved to Texas and what happened to them after the PLM’s suppression in 1919. Still, the lives of the Prismas girls and the words they left behind offer a window into the perspectives of women and children who dared to confront the militarism and repression that has accompanied borderland state making in Mexico and the United States—perspectives that help us to question how the state is imagined and contested. As images of children are manipulated to galvanize the American public to inflict state violence on migrant families, it is important to remember that children have always defied the state. They have always imagined a future outside of it. And they will continue to survive it.

Nahomi Esquivel is a PhD student at the University of Chicago. Her research interrogates the systemic productions and economic functions of (il)legal immigrant categories.

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