The ampersand between the terms “exile” and “utopia” transforms a feeling of loss of home into a hope for a better world. That is the general trajectory of my illustrated book, Exile & Utopia, which traces a group of Mexican revolutionary journalists in the early twentieth century (1904-1906) as they flee repression and surveillance through Mexico, the US, and Canada, and attempt to organize an (ultimately failed) revolution. In the lead-up to the centennial of the Mexican Revolution of 1910, I re-traced this transnational precursor movement, and with my book I challenge the circumscriptive character of national histories, as well as the very notion of ‘revolution’. Over the past two years (2008-2010), I travelled across North America, photographed the erased historic sites where the exiles lived, hid, and worked, assembled a narrative based on primary source documents including intercepted correspondence and detective notes, rendered abstract ‘diagrammatic drawings’ that chart the growth and/or constriction of their solidarity networks, and produced a book composed of these three ‘traces’ (photographs, text, and drawings). The lines of flight I trace in Exile & Utopia resonate with my own experience coming of age shuttling between southern Mexico and the American Midwest, and provide a prehistory to emergent transnational solidarity networks in our own era.





Art, History, Geography, Politics, Mexico, US, Transnationalism, Networks, Abstraction, Photography, Dossier, Trace, Collage, Surveillance, Subterfuge, Revolution, Resistance, Solidarity, Zapatismo, Ricardo Flores Magón, Exile, Utopia





>> EXILE & UTOPIA (links to "View Book")

An Uncanny Opening

Two Transnational Webs

Connecting the Webs

Subterfuge and Surveillance

Exile and Utopia


Works Cited





The support I received for my work on this project inside and outside academia consistently reminded me of the unique blessings I enjoy.


Exile & Utopia is the thesis work for my 2010 Masters of Fine Arts degree from the School of Art & Design at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. I received generous funding for transnational travel and creative research from A&D’s International Experience Grant, the Rackham Graduate Student Research Grant, and the Smucker-Wagstaff Creative Work Research Grant. The latter two also made this online version of my thesis possible.

I am indebted to my advisors in the School of Art & Design and in the broader University of Michigan. Brad Smith could not have balanced open-ended encouragement and academic structure any better. Phoebe Gloeckner, whom I came to know on a hilltop on the border between El Paso and Ciudad Juarez, encouraged me to ignore the normal expectations of art school studio practice and produce a book instead. Kate Jenckes was pivotal in the development of my ideas and was especially helpful with what turned out to be the hardest thing for me to do--construct a vocabulary that describes my work. Gareth Williams inspired me with his work looking at the Mexican Revolution in novel ways, and he fostered my own eccentric perspectives on the subject. I also wish to extend my gratitude to my past (and currently informal) advisor Tirtza Even. Outside Michigan, Peter Rachleff and Ruthann Godollei at Macalester College have become life mentors to me.


Old friends and new ones I met along the way encouraged me on my transnational journeys across North America. They provided lodging, local context, and moral support for my project. I offer thanks to Jumana Al-Hashal, Freda Fair, Matthew Hart, Daniela Ramírez Camacho, and Mark Bohnert.


The world owes the historian Jacinto Barrera Bassols a standing ovation for collecting, transcribing, and digitizing the complete works of Ricardo Flores Magón, and I owe him special thanks for affirming my work and for answering questions relating to the most obscure aspects of magonismo.


Finally, I am eternally indebted to my parents, Tomás Johnson and Teresa Ortiz, who taught me that another world is possible, and to my partner, Miki Palchick, who keeps my hope alive.




Over the past two years, I re-traced the footsteps of the Mexican revolutionary intellectual and journalist Ricardo Flores Magón from his flight into exile in 1904 until his death in the US Penitentiary at Leavenworth, Kansas, in 1922. Along the way, I consulted intercepted correspondence, surveillance notes, and other primary source documents in Mexican and American archives. The documents revealed addresses where Magón and his allies lived, hid, and worked. During my journeys, I photographed these erased historic sites that are now mundane urban spaces like parking lots or highway ramps. Back in my studio, I composed abstractions that trace the revolutionary journey, the solidarity networks that spread across North America, and the repressive apparatuses that constricted the movement.

The result of my creative research and studio practice is Exile & Utopia. It interweaves a careful selection of these three ‘traces:’ a narrative based on primary source documents, corresponding photographs of historic sites, and collaged ‘diagrammatic drawings.’ The book chronicles only the first two years of the historic journey--to my mind the transformation of exile into utopia--as the group flees northward through Laredo, San Antonio, Saint Louis, Toronto and Montreal, and then darts south in an attempt to mount a political revolution in Mexico from El Paso, Texas.



EXILE & UTOPIA (links to "View Book")




“The past is beautiful / like the darkness between the fireflies.”

      -Mason Jennings [1]


“All histories are peopled with shadows. In Zapatista history, more than a few of them have delineated our light. We are full of hushed footsteps that have nevertheless made our [revolutionary] cry possible. Many men and women keep still so that the movement can walk. Many blurry faces allow other faces to be made clear. Someone said that Zapatismo was successful because it knew how to weave nets. Yes, but behind ours there are many weavers of skillful hands, of great ingenuity, of prudent steps. And while an incandescent and brief light rises above each knot on the rebellious web of the forgotten of the world, its weavers continue to weave new traces and embraces in the shadows...”
     -Subcomandante Marcos [2]

Exile & Utopia is set in the past but alive in the present. My interest in this project emerged from a feeling of displacement as I came of age shuttling between the American Midwest and the southern Mexican state of Chiapas. High school history books in both Mexico and the US used the past to naturalize the present-day political geography of the world. Driving with my father back and forth between Minnesota and Chiapas, I felt that history was at odds with my own experience. A walk across the international bridge became a recurring but consistently uncanny event. I would stop midway on the bridge and stand sideways, and then imagined that the international boundary divided my body in two. I wondered if that line meant everything in the world or nothing at all. That prodding sense of displacement is the driving force behind my work on Exile & Utopia, and my oblique entryway into its history of revolution.

In the lead-up to the centennial of the Mexican Revolution of 1910, I retraced the footsteps of a group of revolutionary journalists headed by Ricardo Flores Magón during their first two years of exile from Mexico (1904-1906). Escaping persecution and surveillance, they moved northward through Texas and Missouri, and then fled to Toronto and Montreal, before darting south as they attempted to launch a revolution in Mexico from El Paso, Texas. This early, and failed, revolutionary journey is played down in Mexican history as the ‘precursor movement’ that led up to the 1910 revolution. In the US, it is erased from our national memory even as it traversed American territory and deeply impacted national communities. In my retelling of this journey, national narratives become increasingly muddled, and what starts off as a patriotic movement for liberal reform within Mexico begins to expose the need for political transformation on a global scale. Trivialized in Mexican history and banished from American memory, the odyssey retold in Exile & Utopia provides a prehistory to emergent transnational solidarity networks in our postmodern era.


This after-word attempts to draw the reader into the buried historical context of Exile & Utopia, tracing the end of its story line to resistance in our own times. In broad strokes, it draws up the historical context of the book, tracing a complex web of solidarity movements across time and space. A recent subversion in Chiapas provides a window into the emergence of a global solidarity network in the Internet age. This network structure in the present era then allows me to telescope into the epochal setting of Exile & Utopia, where something like a shadow of the World Wide Web begins to emerge--an international network of oppositional newspapers that grew with technological developments like the expansion of the railroad and innovations in the print industry. Loose threads left dangling at the end of Exile & Utopia are then retraced through the twentieth century back to the present. Finally, this context allows for a historically contingent description of my work in the present, as well as a conceptualization of its three ‘traces’ of the past: historical site photographs, a narrative composed of documents, and collaged ‘diagrammatic drawings.’


Exile & Utopia is an intervention on the preconceptions of a general audience. It questions political geography and national histories, and urges the imagination of social transformation outside those paradigms. The book also addresses a much narrower audience of dissidents living outside of Mexico who have been inspired by the Zapatista movement in Chiapas, and who have attempted to imagine and then construct alternative ways of relating to each and one another. In different ways, readers of both audiences are likely to experience a sense of displacement as seemingly unrelated elements are connected in this after-word. This is the uncanny sensation of border crossing--what is familiar feels suddenly foreign; what is foreign appears strangely familiar.


An Uncanny Opening

On April 10, 1998, Tzeltal Indians of Taniperla, Chiapas, inaugurated the “Municipio Autónomo en Rebeldía Ricardo Flores Magón”, or Autonomous Municipality in Rebellion Ricardo Flores Magón, named after the early twentieth century Mexican revolutionary intellectual and journalist. [3] The celebration, which coincided with the anniversary of the assassination of Magón’s contemporary and compatriot, the guerrilla leader Emiliano Zapata, [4] signaled the community’s open affiliation with the (neo-) Zapatista movement in Chiapas. As in the many other indigenous communities that declared their affiliation with the Zapatistas, the pronouncement implied firstly, autonomy or self-governance and a rejection of state officials; secondly, the creation of an alternative political geography with different place names and more fluid boundaries; and, finally, the delegitimization of state violence, including the rejection of all military, paramilitary, and police forces, and an affiliation with the Zapatista rebel army (EZLN). The date of the inauguration and the title of their autonomous municipality signaled not so much the death of Zapata, or even a return to the ideas of Magón, but the rebirth of neo-Zapatismo and neo-Magonismo looking forward to a new century.

Residents unveiled a beautiful mural at the celebrations, painted on the facade of the local community center. The Taniperla mural, or ‘Vida y Sueños de la Cañada de Perla’ mural (Life and Dreams of the Perla Valley), was painted by a diverse group of locals with the help of international and national observers. The center of the mural, effectively the door into the municipal house, exhibits two peace doves holding a flag with the words MEXICO, PEACE, and CHIAPAS, over black, white, and red bands respectively, an eccentric blend of the Mexican, peace, anarchist, and Zapatista flags. A painted indigenous woman and a man on either side of the door walk toward the entrance. The figures of Ricardo Flores Magón and Emiliano Zapata float in clouds above the woman and man. In true guerilla fashion, Zapata is represented riding a horse and carrying a rifle. A flowing red bandana around his neck bears his mantra ‘la tierra es de quien la trabaja,’ loosely translated as ‘the land belongs to those who work it.’ Ricardo Flores Magón carries a satchel used by peasants to sow beans or corn. The satchel bears the titles of two of his newspapers, ‘El Hijo del Ahuizote’ and ‘Regeneración,’ and instead of seeds, Magón sows words and ideas. The mural’s rich iconography illustrates an awareness of previous struggles, the present-day resistance of the Zapatista governance, and the community’s desires and hopes for the future.


Although the primary purpose of the new municipality was the promotion of democracy, equality, and justice, the inauguration also implied a rejection of the Mexican state. The affront was not lost on authorities. Before dawn on the morning following the celebrations, April 11, the Mexican army invaded the town, sent most of the population fleeing into the mountains, arrested 21 locals and visitors, and riddled the mural with bullets. International observers were deported and barred from Mexico for life while Mexican citizens were held in jail up to a year. The Federal Army occupied the town and demolished the mural. [5]


The two-day life history of the mural resembles the two-year history of Exile & Utopia: (1) An exodus from political geography stakes out a utopian or non-place realm for the horizontal democratic organization of an indeterminate body politic; (2) the indeterminate body becomes relatively determinate by coalescing around a visible revolutionary organ such as a newspaper or a mural; (3) the organ amplifies the revolutionary movement, but it also provides a determinate target for state repression.


It is clear in the first instance that the history of resistance, which can be narrated through relatively determinate political subjects or nodes--a mural, a newspaper, an organization, or a nameable movement--is irrevocably also the history of repression. This presents an obvious problem to those of us interested in the potentially liberatory pedagogy of revolutionary history. But in a second instance, we can also see that any relatively determinate node is linked through indeterminate but real connections across time and space to other nodes. (What happens to the indeterminate body that flees into the mountains? And where did it come from in the first place?) The silver lining of the problematic interdependence of resistance and repression in history is that the nodes are not resistance themselves, but rather heuristic devices that make resistance visible. It should be emphasized therefore that the history of resistance is not the same as the ontology of resistance. Instead, resistance is a network of indeterminate connections made visible by relatively determinate nodes; it is an abstract-real, not its concrete manifestations. As Marcos indicates, the nodes shine as “incandescent and brief light[s],” but the network of resistance continues “to weave new traces and embraces in the shadows.”


To clarify, abstraction is generally conceptualized as being diametrically opposed to ‘real’ or ‘concrete’ processes, and while I agree that the abstract is distinct from the concrete, it is nevertheless real (albeit dark in this case). The network of resistance is abstract because its constitutive aspect is the form that is traced in the process of resistance, real because the form is traced in the process of resistance, and abstract-real because both aspects are mutually constitutive.


The abstract-real of resistance has five characteristics. For one, it is dark, or rather “the darkness between the fireflies.” It is the darkness between the concrete manifestations, or nodes, of resistance. Secondly, it is not knowable in an empirical sense, but it can be felt. The abstract-real of resistance is the dark matter of history: we infer its existence because we feel its effects. Extrapolating further from Mason Jennings’ wonderful lyrics, we might add that the abstract real of resistance is composed of the past, and is also quite beautiful. And as Marcos suggests, it is strategic, meaning that its darkness allows it to throw itself into the future. Marcos sees that the history of resistance is “populated with shadows” not simply because history tends to marginalize its true agents, but because agency in history [6] requires a strategic use of silence, all the while weaving “new traces and embraces in the shadows.” Finally, its structure is that of a web (in the image of the World Wide Web). It is the emergence of an abstract-real of resistance that I trace and re-activate in Exile & Utopia.


While it is prudent of contemporary ‘weavers’ to be guarded from prying eyes, their obscurity tends to erase deep historical connections between resistance movements through history. The unfortunate effect of the obscured history of solidarity is that the work of resistance is made more difficult in the long term. It convinces even its participants that we are and have always been naturally separated by national, racial, gendered, and cultural boundaries, leading to deterministic divisions between ‘us’ and ‘Others.’ Every time we create solidarity networks, we assume we’re doing it for the first time! And in the meantime, we take national and normative histories at face value. The abstract real of resistance, or its dark linkages and connections across time and space, must be made partially visible. The present project is to draw many new constellations in the night sky, to trace a new cosmology of resistance.


Exile & Utopia first underscores and then undermines the problematic link between resistance and repression in historical production. This link is severed with a voice that speaks through silence, a sort of uncanny resonance between the past and our own era. What follows is my act of tracing the new cosmology that emerges from Taniperla, which first resonates and then reconnects with the spectral cosmology of the book.



Two Transnational Webs

It is unclear what happened to the indeterminate body that fled into the mountains surrounding Taniperla, but a visible web of international solidarity emerged from the riddled mural. The Taniperla incident became a sort of cause célèbre among autonomist groups around the world. Acting in solidarity, the groups painted Taniperla mural reproductions in their own community centers in Europe, North America, and Latin America. By connecting these reproductions, we can trace the image of an emergent web of solidarity in the Internet age.


Almost immediately after the destruction of the Taniperla mural, students at the Universidad Nacional de Bahía Blanca in Argentina painted a reproduction on their campus (this mural was subsequently destroyed two years later). Another reproduction appeared in Brazil. In Europe, Zapatista solidarity groups painted murals in Belgium, France, Italy, Spain, and Germany. University students in Mexico City painted a Taniperla mural, and one more found itself on the Mexican side of the US-Mexico border wall in Nogales. Finally, in 2005, displaced Taniperla residents painted a reproduction in the nearby town of La Culebra, Chiapas. In the US, a group of artists painted a Taniperla reproduction on the Kerouac Alley side of the City Lights bookstore in San Francisco, California. [7] While the images of the reproduction murals mimicked that of the original, a new image emerged from this process of solidarity: the network form. This network form is the image of solidarity.


Explanations for this new horizontal, transnational, and web-like social formation of resistance abound. Explanations include: digital innovations in communications technologies, especially the Internet, demographic shifts like the increase of Third World immigrants in the First World, a global political transformation toward neoliberal policies, and a corresponding waning of the nation-state as the primary structure of political organization. While these transformations are real and their implications for rethinking our methods of resistance are profound, the explanations tend to be overly teleological. They ascribe too much fluidity to postmodernity and too much stasis to modernity; perceive too little nationalism now and too much then. They fail to account for the heterogeneity of movement and containment within both modernity and postmodernity. Exile & Utopia looks back at the early twentieth century and finds something like the shadow of the World Wide Web.


As in our own era, the early twentieth century saw the rise of an increased connectivity between resistance movements worldwide. Technological innovations during the second half of the nineteenth century, including the telegram and advancements in letterpress printing like stereotyping and the platen press, increased the flow and spread of information. Railroad expansion allowed for the greater reach of postal services to previously isolated audiences. Radical newspaper editors connected workers and shared information on national and international levels. As in our own era, the network form was the image of solidarity: a veritable World Wide Web of the early twentieth century information revolution spread through nets of newspapers and subnets of readers.


Industrialization was especially hasty in copper mining regions like northern Mexico and the American Southwest. The invention of the light bulb created a boom in demand for copper wire, and American companies quickly acquired land and introduced new rail lines into the region. [8] Accelerated modernization had the double effect of triggering labor disputes and facilitating the political organization of the laboring classes. Mexicans on both sides of the border complained that they received less pay than their American counterparts for the same type of work. Dissident newspapers published in the US and smuggled into Mexico provided a platform for widespread organizing and for solidarity with other exploited groups across North America. The emergence of the most pivotal newspaper within this context, Regeneración, [9] constitutes the plot line of Exile & Utopia.


Accelerated industrialization, communication technologies, and copper mining are important backdrops to the Mexican Revolution of 1910. It should be stressed, however, that to speak of a ‘Mexican’ Revolution is already misleading. Revolutionary and counter-revolutionary forces acted on an international level, and civil unrest in Mexico was contemporaneous with a global phenomenon that included such high-profile mobilizations as the 1905 Russian Revolution, the 1911 Xinhai Revolution in China, and the 1917 Russian Revolution. Forces invested in the status quo spoke of acts of banditry or criminality, while organizers called for ‘social’ or ‘economic’ revolutions. It was only retroactively that nations folded these mass mobilizations into their respective historical narratives, erasing the international character of the era. For example, Mexican scholars usually date the beginning of the revolutionary movement in Mexico to the 1906 Cananea copper mining strike in northern Sonora, but this strike was itself a successor to the 1903 strike in the copper mines of Clifton, Arizona. [10]


In the realm of art, avant-garde aesthetic innovations loosely corresponded to the spread and development of radical politics. Two periods can be discerned from the maelstrom of the era: a breakthrough period around 1904-1908, and a mature period around 1910-1915. The first period corresponds to the development of cubism by Picasso and Braque, and in particular to Picasso’s revolutionary painting of ‘Les Demoiselles d’Avignon’ in 1907. Cubism and its aesthetic successors were characterized by an abstraction of perceived forms, a hovering and rearrangement of planes, and by the introduction of collage. In the ‘mature’ period, Kandinsky introduced ‘pure’ abstraction, or an abstraction severed from representation, beginning with his retroactively titled ‘First Abstract Watercolor,’ painted in 1910. [11]


Kandinsky is a particularly relevant precedent to both the aesthetic and conceptual dimensions of my own work. His book, ‘Point and Line to Plane,’ [12] explains the role of each of these elements in abstraction. The book begins with what he sees as the basic contradiction of the point: it is silent, and it therefore speaks. It is “incorporeal,” he says, and “equals zero”, but it somehow becomes material through its own negation. [13] Furthermore, Kandinsky argues, while a point in representational art remains “veiled” by the image, abstraction unveils the point and allows it to speak through its silence. [14] I might add at this point that the visual analogy of a silence that speaks is a darkness that shines. By at least one definition, then, abstraction is the unveiling of a silence that speaks or of a darkness that shines. This definition of abstraction characterizes the pedagogical orientation of my own book and of my artistic process in general.


As an artist, activist, and scholar invested in connecting contemporary social movements across North America and beyond, I am interested in the exilic journey retold in Exile & Utopia because it deconstructs nationalist historical narratives and unveils a silenced history that speaks to and connects with transnational solidarity in our own era. This history is one of open connectivity, of a web of resistance that can always expand. As such, Exile & Utopia should be read broadly as the prehistory of emergent transnational political bodies in the twenty-first century, and more narrowly as a shadow of today’s web of Zapatista solidarity. What follows is an attempt to briefly trace this prehistory to our emergent networks, to tie the loose threads left dangling at the end of Exile & Utopia to the uncanny opening at Taniperla.



Connecting the Webs

The overlapping webs of the Taniperla mural reproductions and of Regeneración resonate most clearly in the downtown area of San Francisco, California. I visited the Taniperla mural reproduction at the City Lights Bookstore last summer on my travels retracing the footsteps of Ricardo Flores Magón. The City Lights Bookstore stands on Grant Avenue, eight blocks uphill from the intersection with Francisco Street, the site where Magón hid in 1907 after the failure of his revolutionary attempts in late 1906. [15] The proximity of these two sites points to a deep, but largely erased, historical connection of transnational solidarity networks.

The historic site, 207 Francisco Street, represents the fragmentation of both the original exiled group composition and their first revolutionary program. Hiding at this site, Magón lamented the ‘ruins’ of his movement, and as such, it is the burial grounds of the story retold in Exile & Utopia. The Spanish anarchist Florencio Bazora, whom Magón had met in St. Louis, hid him at this location after his revolutionary failure in El Paso. The disorganization of the city in the aftermath of the 1906 earthquake offered them a temporary cover from spies, and struck a chord with Magón’s own ‘ruins’. Writing from Leavenworth near the end of his life, Magón recounted this time in a letter to a friend:

“I lived there in 1907, when a great part of the city was in ruins, and my revolutionary plans in Mexico were also in ruins. I hid my sorrow among the ruins, when over my head hung a prize of 10,000 dollars that had been offered for my arrest; the secret service of both countries pursued me from one place to another, from city to city. It was a matter of life or death for me, because my arrest would imply my immediate passage into Mexico and my assassination there without even the pretense of a trail... Sometimes I wouldn’t eat for three or four days...” [16]


At 207 Francisco Street, Magón mourns amidst the ruins of the revolutionary movement retold in Exile & Utopia, but the site is also a ‘regeneration’ of sorts: it marks the beginning of the next chapter in the early twentieth century revolutionary movement. The Mexican Liberal Party (PLM in Spanish), which Magón founded in exile, and his newspaper Regeneración, had already agitated workers, liberals, and peasants, and organized them into focos or revolutionary cells. The idea of a revolution in Mexico, which seemed like a fool’s errand before 1906, began to enter public consciousness after the PLM’s 1906 failure, and by 1910, it had become widespread and uncontainable. The PLM Manifesto of 1906, written in St. Louis under Magón’s presidency, agitated workers and peasants, and provided a concrete list of demands for reform. Some of these demands were finally met in 1917, with the writing of a new Mexican Constitution. [17] From the ruins of 207 Francisco emerged a new revolutionary spirit that would fundamentally transform Mexico for the rest of the century.


But as much as Magón’s work in exile transformed Mexico, exile also transformed him. At the same time that he was organizing and agitating workers in Mexico through Regeneración, Magón came into contact with American and European socialists and anarchists like Mary “Mother” Jones and Emma Goldman. The PLM was also involved with radical American unions like the Western Federation of Miners (WFM) and the International Workers of the World (IWW). [18] These international connections had a deep impact on the political orientation of Magón and of the PLM. Although the purpose of exile was to effect change in Mexico, the country appeared less self-contained from the outside. Chicanos, Mexican immigrants, and seasonal laborers in the borderlands suffered the same exploitative conditions as citizens in Mexico, and the PLM began working to address many of their concerns as well. Working with European and American socialists and anarchists in St. Louis and later in Los Angeles, PLM organizers also acted in solidarity with other poor people’s movements, and cut across racial boundaries. Magonistas, or PLM adherents, would eventually come to see the struggle for equality in Mexico as part and parcel of a global movement of liberation.


Just as the base of supporters appeared less circumscribed than they did before 1904, so did the Mexican Liberal Party’s enemies. Exile afforded the group the unique perspective that apparatuses of repression were not properly ‘Mexican’. The impetus for exile had been an escape from Mexican persecution, and while exile afforded the group slightly greater liberties, they soon experienced the coalescence of a public-private and tri-national surveillance network that, while persecuting them in the name of democracy and national sovereignty, readily joined forces to capsize a democratic and nationalist movement. The Mexican President Porfirio Díaz found allies in both the private and public sectors of the United States and Canada, and successfully employed these connections to pursue, prosecute, and punish the Mexican exiles. [19]


This is a good moment to pause my historical narrative and clarify the ambiguous terms exile and utopia. Exile generally describes an escape from repression by authorities in one’s home country and a political refuge offered by another state. This definition became a moot point when repression of the exiles was synchronized on an international level. In practice, the experience of exile became a form of generalized subterfuge: continuous motion, hiding, and resistance. In theory, the group would rethink exile as a rejection of international boundaries in the practice of revolution. Thus, what began as political exile from Mexico in 1904 eventually became an exile from all political structures--exile as subterfuge from political geography. The word utopia describes both the desire as well as the methodology of this exilic dissidence. Utopia, from the Greek ‘ou-topos’ or ‘not-place,’ [20] generally signifies an inherent outside and a better world, but the etymological origin of the term can imply an anywhere outside of the taxonomy of the state, a non-place. Stitched together, the two senses result in a rejection of political geography that opens up the possibility of a better world--utopia as the topography of possibility. This is what I take to mean in a contemporary context when dissidents affirm that ‘another world is possible.’ The title of my book, Exile & Utopia, refers to the unique perspective afforded by exile that allows dissidents to see beyond intra-national paradigms of oppression, and work towards emancipation anywhere and everywhere. For the exiles of the PLM, the original utopian desires of democracy and social justice would crystallize as the denial of geopolitical placehood and the open-ended affirmation of a better world--exile-and-utopia as the emancipation of the here-and-now.


Back to history: Although the PLM leadership maintained a significant degree of support in Mexico, less radical movements took the center stage of Mexican opposition by 1910. Magonistas were marginalized, co-opted, or eliminated by center-left forces during the early years of the revolution. This became evident in the one military campaign on which Magón had any significant influence. Believing himself incapable of leading a military campaign after the failures of 1906, he encouraged other, more battlefield-weathered, PLM members to occupy Baja California in 1911. [21] The magonista rebels included Mexicans and Chicanos, white Americans and immigrants, American Blacks, and Native Americans. Apparently, the group also included some college graduates from Yale, Harvard, and Princeton. [22] Despite, or perhaps because of the group’s utopian assemblage, a power vacuum and group tensions soon led to the defeat of the rebels. Even worse, the military campaign became a media fiasco on both sides of the border. And unlike Magón’s earlier failures, this one was not remembered honorably. To this day, mainstream Mexican historians remember the magonista occupation of Baja California as a filibuster campaign akin to the Alamo, only different, they add euphorically, because the PLM forces failed. [23]


After a brief period of celebration following the overthrow of Porfirio Díaz in 1911, Mexicans became disillusioned with the new government’s reluctance to institute real change. New revolutionary movements demanded communal ownership of land by indigenous peasants as well as workers’ rights in the industrial sector. The guerrilla leader Emiliano Zapata and his Zapatistas articulated the clearest vision of horizontal democracy within Mexico. While Zapata’s vision coincided on a number of fronts with Magonismo, geographic distance, demographic differences, and repression prevented the two branches of the Mexican Revolution from converging. Despite these factors, as well as the obscure historical record, tenuous links can be traced between the two groups. Zapata was apparently familiar with Regeneración before the revolution, as was his intellectual advisor, Otilio Montaño. [24] In 1914, Zapata invited Magón to publish Regeneración in Mexico, but Magón declined. [25] Finally, it should be inferred that many Regeneración subscribers in southern Mexico crossed over into Zapatista ranks when the PLM’s influence south of the border declined after 1910. Throughout the second decade of the twentieth century, Zapata and Magón remained two separate but resonating leaders, Zapatismo airing the voice of the Mexican peasantry, and Magonismo representing the transnational character of the revolution.


Despite Magón’s influence in Mexico, he would never set foot back in Mexico. After 1907, he spent the rest of his life in and out of American prisons. His initial prison sentences related to foreign policy violations, especially the violation of US neutrality laws. The longer he stayed in the US, however, the more he came to be seen as a domestic threat rather than an international complication. [26] In 1918, he was sentenced to 22 years behind bars (which he correctly predicted would be a life sentence), with charges that had more to do with the domestic war hysteria during WWI than with Mexico. He was charged with conspiring to violate the Espionage Act of 1917, the Trading with the Enemy Act, and the amended Federal Penal code of 1910. In his case, the three charges amounted to sending anti-war literature through the mail. Magón ended up spending his last days at the US Penitentiary in Leavenworth, Kansas. [27]


While the new political establishment in Mexico owed much of its existence to his early work, it preferred an imprisoned Magón to an active one. The new leadership consistently invoked him as a patriot and a revolutionary, but they did little to encourage his release from Leavenworth. Instead, they carefully folded him into the revolutionary doctrine as the ‘precursor’ of the Mexican Revolution, and as a martyr to their own causes. [28] In the same letter from Leavenworth where he describes his days hiding in San Francisco, he continued:

“How fast does time go by, and how does the luck of men change, except my own! My comrades from that era are now generals, governors, secretaries of state, and some of them even presidents of Mexico. They are rich, famous, and powerful, while I am poor, obscure, sick, almost blind, [and] with a number for a name...” [29]

The entry of the US into WWI had precipitated a widespread domestic crackdown on labor organizers and radical immigrants, and the US Penitentiary at Leavenworth became its ground zero. Magón boarded with other immigrant dissidents and with the leadership of the IWW. Ralph Chaplin, author of the labor song “Solidarity Forever,” roomed in the cell next to Magón’s. Increasingly detached from Mexican politics, Magón spent his last years well connected to the American radical left. [30]

On the night of November 21, 1922, Chaplin awoke to the sound of prison guards and was informed of Magón’s death. The Mexican Federation of Railway Unions collected funds among its members, and transported Magón’s body to Mexico City. The train moved slowly, stopping at each town along the way for mass processions by workers and peasants. In Mexico City, an ex-PLM member stood up in the Chamber of Deputies and called Magón “the precursor of the revolution, the true author of it, the intellectual author of the Mexican Revolution.” [31] Magón would be eventually interred at the ‘Rotunda de Hombres Ilustres,’ a selective cemetery for Mexico’s national heroes.


The thorny scene at Magón’s funeral on January 17, 1923 in Mexico City epitomizes the careful compromise of power struck in the aftermath of the revolution. After having attended the funeral, the American Consul-General in Mexico City wrote an anxious letter to the United States Department of State. He noted that Magón “was given what amounted to a public funeral yesterday,” attended by a diverse group ranging from “well dressed public officials to the rabble.” The Consul-General was troubled by the lack of Mexican flags and the predominance of red and black decor, including a floral arrangement with “deep red ribbons bearing in large print the name of the donor, [then-President] General Alvaro Obregón.” Most disturbingly for what came close to a state funeral was the central banner, which “carried the inscription, in white on a red background, ‘He died for Anarchy.’” [32]


This is the unsteady foundation of the modern Mexican nation-state. The 1917 Constitution granted an 8-hour workday and the right to strike to unions, nationalized banks and natural resources, and handed out land to peasants for collective ownership (called ejidos). Although the government did not always uphold these principles in practice, the de jure status of the 1917 constitutional reforms provided a degree of political legitimacy to poor people’s movements. In the early 1990s, the Mexican government decided to eliminate the ejido system, open nationalized industry to foreign investment, and undercut workers’ rights in order to sign the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Just before midnight on New Year’s Eve, 1993, when the changes in the Mexican Constitution were scheduled to come into effect, a rebel army calling itself the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN in Spanish) emerged from the shadows, took over cattle ranches, towns, and cities in Chiapas, and declared war on neoliberalism. [33]


There has always been a subterranean web of resistance that surfaces here and there, inside and outside of Mexico. There has always been an international public-private network of control that drives the web of resistance underground. Exile & Utopia traces these dark linkages that speak the silence of history and re-activates the web of resistance.


Subterfuge and Surveillance

Exile & Utopia is an abstract-real machine. The book’s pages proceed horizontally between two antipodal strides. Below, the voices of subterfuge propagate and grow, surface in spasmodic bursts here and there, and thicken a submerged web of connections. Above, the voices of surveillance trail closely behind, aggregate bursts, and consolidate a top-down, taxonomic, and bureaucratic gaze across the landscape. The narrative materializes between subterfuge, which articulates and precedes surveillance in real time, and surveillance, which records and precedes subterfuge in historical time--subterfuge always looks ahead while surveillance always looks back. The historical terrain-in-production emerges as they walk on each other’s feet. In Exile & Utopia, a silent third voice emerges as history is re-appropriated, rearranged, and spliced with photographs and illustrations. As subterfuge articulates and surveillance records, my own silent voice retraces, intervenes upon, and puts the historical terrain-in-production back into motion.


Subterfuge, from the Latin ‘subter’ (beneath, secretly) and ‘fugere’ (flee), [34] describes the subterranean lines of flight of Exile & Utopia, its dark passages. These lines emerge within drawings, between photographs or documents, and across all three ‘traces.’ Imaginary lines connect brief glimmers of resistance within the narrative and to conditions outside of it--to the historical setting of the narrative, to the background of the reader, and to our contemporary context. The network traced by these dark lines of flight is the abstract-real of resistance, the dark matter of the historical terrain-in-production. In pragmatic terms, the abstract-real of resistance is also the body politic of resistance. In Exile & Utopia, I reactivate history by retracing brief glimmers of resistance, splicing the historical record with illustrations and photographs, and tracing a spectral cosmology that is set in the past but alive in the present.


Surveillance, from the French ‘sur’ (over) and ‘veiller’ (to watch), [35] describes the top-down and panoptic gaze that attempts to reorganize the brief glimmers of resistance in Exile & Utopia under a repressive apparatus. The reorganization of glimmers of resistance into factual events is the narrative’s history of repression, to which the history of resistance is irrevocably linked. In Exile & Utopia, I attempt to delink resistance from repression by speaking the silence of history--by shining its darkness--and by putting it back into motion.


The typesetter Aaron Lopez Manzano and the detective Ansel T. Johnson epitomize the voices of subterfuge and surveillance, respectively. Manzano, sends, receives, archives and/or destroys letters and other documents. He also arranges type in order to print, reproduce, and distribute the literary works of others. When he speaks to the public, he shields or downplays the PLM’s clandestine activities. When he fails to cover his tracks, he leaves traces that are archived by spies who intend to capsize the revolutionary movement (this paper trail had the secondary effect of leaving a record of clandestine activity for historical reconstruction). The surveillance apparatus, personified by the character of Johnson, collects and organizes the revolutionary traces. Johnson follows the Mexican exiles and prepares a dossier for prosecution by selectively transcribing, translating, reproducing, and distributing found documents, and by adding new layers of commentary. Although both characters are based on historic figures, their role in the narrative allegorizes my own process over the past two years. Their names allude to my own silent presence in the text: Manzano shares my first name, and Johnson my last. The figure of Johnson complicates my work of knowledge (re-)production as I combed through archives and retraced the historic journey. Manzano describes by work arranging documents and photographs in the book, as well as my work of propaganda in printing, binding, digitizing, and distributing the book. Finally, the important historical figure of Ricardo Flores Magón appears in the book not as a central figure, but as an in-between force. Magón is the antipodal force that polarizes and at the same time joins the strides of Manzano and Johnson.


Two terms best describe the creative process and output of my project: trace and collage. Both terms imply the simultaneity of a before and an after, a layering of the past that is also a projection into the future. The terms describe a selective intervention on found materials, either by duplicating lines or by cutting and pasting planes. Understood broadly, both inhabit the liminal space between fiction (artistic creation) and non-fiction (historic narration).


Specifically, collage describes the textual narrative of Exile & Utopia better than the literary terms fiction and non-fiction. Like the work of Johnson and Manzano, collage describes my own process of selecting, transcribing, translating, editing, and re-arranging found documents, shortening some and lengthening others, combining several into one or splitting one into many, and even forging one or two. The textual narrative is a complicated act of ventriloquism, where multiple voices speak through each other across time. Collage also describes the general character of the book. In Exile & Utopia, I splice the textual narrative of the book with photographs and illustrations, allowing these silences to speak through the cracks of history.


As historical records, the documents I employed speak twice, first as articulations (subterfuge) and secondly as a recorded archive (surveillance). As in the story of Taniperla, the history of this revolutionary movement is also a history of repression: clandestine documents that escape the apparatus of surveillance were burnt or otherwise destroyed; revolutionary plans that are not recorded may succeed but do not become events in history. In retracing the exilic journey, I attempt to free this history from its dichotomy by allowing the documents to speak a third time with the added voice of my own collage. The third voice of Exile & Utopia is like the voice of Kandinsky’s abstract points: it is a silence that speaks. It cannot evidence successful subterfuge, but it pries open the cracks of history, connects brief glimmers of dissident light, and conjures up a spectral web of resistance.


My photographic assemblage is an act of historical tracing and reactivation. Primary source documents--intercepted letters, detective notes, and archived newspapers--revealed a wealth of addresses where the exiled group lived, published, and hid. I re-traced the exilic journey that cut across the American landscape and photographed these historic sites. The sites in Laredo, San Antonio, Saint Louis, and El Paso are often parking lots or highway ramps, forgotten markers in everyday settings. Uncontainable by both Mexican and American histories, they are physically and historically erased from the landscape. In this sense, they are void images that present the reader with what is erased from national histories. They document a silent history, but their silence also speaks. They speak of a revolutionary movement that emerged from mundane places that, significantly, continue to be mundane. In this second sense, they are voids that present everyday spaces as sites of full potential--they are photographs of utopia as the topography of possibility. This is why the mundane and erased character of the historic sites is preferable to their memorialization because memorials tend to relegate resistance to the past while an everyday environment contains an ever-present potentiality. As such, the silence of my photographs transforms everyday spaces into sites of the potential emancipation of the here-and-now.


Taken together, the photograph collection is the abstract line of the revolutionary journey. Although the photographs are planes, each photographed address is a node connected across the North American landscape. (Kandinsky asks: “[W]here would the boundary between point and plane be?” This is relative, he implies). [36] Each address or node is like a ‘vertebra’ along the exilic journey, and the line created by connecting these addresses is the ‘spine’ of the revolutionary body politic. Within the context of Exile & Utopia, the body politic that emerges from this spine subverts the normal political geography of the world.


I should pause to contrast the spine of Exile & Utopia with a spine of normative historical production. In political geography, arbitrary spaces are subsumed under the full geographic taxonomy of the modern nation-state: 107 N Channing Ave, St. Louis, Missouri, USA--street number, street, city, state, country. And along with a normative geography, a normative history: St. Louis as the ‘gateway’ to the West, St. Louis as the departure point of the 1804-1806 Lewis and Clark westward journey. The geographic line of Lewis and Clark is like the DNA of an American historical apparatus (a normative abstract-real machine) that foreshadows and legitimizes ongoing political expansion. But what happens when I reveal that 107 N Channing is a node along a 1904-1906 exilic journey, and the location where the blueprint of the Mexican Constitution is first drafted? What happens when St. Louis becomes the intersection of Mexican, American, and Russian revolutionary journeys? The Gateway Arch is struck off-kilter. The westward spine of Manifest Destiny is first spun northward and then intersects with other revolutionary lines, forming a nodal nucleus in the early twentieth century world revolution. These lines--the Lewis and Clark line, the line of Exile & Utopia, as well as its intersecting lines--should be understood as the abstract-real of a convergent geography-history, the way in which space-time is traced and reactivated in order to mold a body politic from the continuous here-and-now. My retracing of the transnational and revolutionary magonista ‘spine’ in a contemporary context reactivates geography-history, awakens the dormant revolutionary body politic, and puts it back into motion.


The complex networks of my illustrations complement the linear spine of my photographic assemblage. In my drawings, I trace lines spanning out from the vertebrae. These new lines are extremities as well as the feelers of the revolutionary body politic. As such, they act and also feed information back into the central nervous system of the spine. In this sense, the ‘diagrammatic drawings’ grow out of the central spine of the photographs, and slowly transform the abstract-real of resistance (a skeleton) into a full revolutionary body politic.


Many new lines span out from the spine through correspondence with insurgents in Mexico and the American Southwest, while others multiply with subscriptions to Regeneración, and still more lines cross language barriers during interviews with American newspapers and in connections with American radicals. Tracing these connections creates open and closed shapes and lines of varying intensities and flows, ‘diagrams’ of the revolutionary movement. Some connections are temporary and their corresponding lines are tenuous and loose. I represent tenuous connections with dotted lines. Other connections are much stronger (for example, letters sent back and forth between two addresses, individuals, or cells) and these connections form continuous lines, double lines, and even striation. If the nodes move and the connections remain strong, sinuous striations are formed. When authorities close in on nodes, my lines become circumscriptive. Closed shapes emerge in this process of surveillance, as one node leads to another, until a central node is completely cut off from the rest. Finally, collaged elements ground the abstractions in concrete geographic spaces and relate the drawings to the textual narrative. This is my general process of tracing the abstract real of resistance. The result is a darkness unveiled, a new cosmology of resistance.


Layering photographs, illustrations, and text composes the general abstraction of the book. Splicing the three ‘traces’ allows for each to speak through the cracks of the others. For example, the text allows me to intervene on the normative collage of urban development and selective historical remembrance in the photographs. Imaginary lines connect from, say, the address on the photograph of 1802 Lincoln St, Laredo, to the same address in the first document of the book, thereby transforming an American site into a site of utopia as the topography of possibility. Lines are cut or transformed when, in the place of an expected address, the reader finds the photograph of a parking lot or a highway ramp, and again the erasure transforms the site into ou-topos. Simultaneously, the re-tracing journey I document with photographs allows me to retrieve the documents from a relegated past, and put history back into motion in the present. Finally, my ‘diagrammatic drawings’ create networks by fragmenting and multiplying the linear structure of the text and the photographic assemblage. In short, photographs of mundane urban sites trace and reactivate a historic revolutionary journey, abstract illustrations become the diagrams of a revolutionary body politic, and historic documents are appropriated and reactivated in the present.


In speaking silence, in shining darkness, Exile & Utopia intervenes on geography-history, and opens up the condition of possibility for the emancipation of the here-and-now. With drawings, photographs, and text, I connect and splice revolutionary nodes through dark passages, link and then delink subterfuge and surveillance, and trace a body politic of resistance. This process allows me to raise a revolutionary body from its grave, and put it back into motion in our interconnected era.


Exile and Utopia

I began this after-word with a brief insight into my own sense of displacement growing up between southern Mexico and the American Midwest. I also foreshadowed a potential connection between the regions with two resonating quotes--a verse by Mason Jennings, a singer-songwriter who began his artistic career in Minneapolis, and a quote by Subcomandante Marcos, a revolutionary leader who began his political vocation in Chiapas. The line I trace in Exile & Utopia resonates with and foreshadows these contemporary connections.

For a general audience, the book intervenes on normative geographic-historical narratives, and prompts the imagination of alternative ways of political organization. I also respond and produce knowledge for a more narrow audience: dissidents living in the US who have been inspired by the construction of autonomy in Chiapas. For both groups, Exile & Utopia provides a prehistory to emerging solidarity networks in our own era, and puts a forgotten--and now urgently necessary--revolutionary body back into motion.

In Exile & Utopia, I resurrect a movement that crossed geographic and historical borders, and intersected with other revolutionary struggles. The silence that speaks in my book draws up an abstract-real of resistance that links revolution in the early twentieth century to transnational solidarity in our own era. My work on this project is driven by what I see as the relation between exile and utopia--that crossing borders encourages us to imagine and then construct a better world. This is the process through which the self becomes estranged from the modern nation-state and the body politic of resistance becomes one’s own.


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[1] Jennings, 1997.
[2] Marcos, 2001. Translation by author.
[3] De Vos, 2002, 390.
[4] Irurzun, 2004.
[5] De Vos, 2002, 379-390; and Irurzun, 2004, 1-4.
[6] I am using “resistance” and “agency in history” interchangeably here. I agree with Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri when they say that “[e]ven though common use of the term [resistance] might suggest the opposite--that resistance is a response or reaction [to power]--resistance is primary with respect to power.” Hardt and Negri, 2005, 64.
[7] Irurzun, 2004, 1-5.
[8] See the St. Louis Post-Dispatch 11/18/1906, 12/02/1906, and 12/09/1906.
[9] Albro, 1992, 49-52; and Cockroft, 1968, 126-128.
[10] Cockroft, 1968, 126-128 and 131-132; and MacLachland, 1991, 5.
[11] Kuspit, 2006.
[12] Kandinsky, 1979.
[13] Ibid, 25.
[14] Ibid, 53.
[15] Flores Magón and González Ramírez, 1964, 83.
[16] Flores Magón and Barrera Bassols, 2000, 56. Translation by author.
[17] Albro, 1992, 44-56.
[18] Cockroft, 1968, 126-127; and MacLachlan, 1991, 5-6 and 22-23.
[19] Albro, 1992, 44-47.
[20] Online Etymology Dictionary, search: “utopia”.
[21] Albro, 1992, 117-134
[22] Salazar Rovirosa, 1980, 292-300.
[23] For example, Salazar Rovirosa, 1980.
[24] Boyd, 1979, 28 and 31.
[25] Gilly, 1997, 36.
[26] MacLachlan, 1991, 76 and 97.
[27] MacLachlan, 1991, 79-80.
[28] Albro, 1992, 147-149.
[29] Flores Magón and Barrera Bassols, 2000, 56-57.
[30] Albro, 149; and MacLachlan, 1991, 101.
[31] Albro, 1992, 149-150.
[32] Ibid, xi.
[33] Carrigan, 2001, 417-420.
[34] Online Etymology Dictionary, search: “subterfuge”.
[35] Online Etymology Dictionary, search: “surveillance”, <www.etymonline.com/>.
[36] Kandinsky, 1979, 29.


Works Cited
Albro, Ward S. Always a Rebel: Ricardo Flores Magón and the Mexican Revolution. Fort Worth: Texas Christian University Press, 1992.
Boyd, Lola Elizabeth. Emiliano Zapata en las letras y el folklore mexicano. Madrid: Talleres Gráficos Purrúa, 1979.
Carrigan, Ana. “Chiapas, the First Postmodern Revolution.” Our Word is Our Weapon: Selected Writings of Subcomandante Insurgente Marcos. New York: Seven Stories Press, 2001.
Cockroft, James D. Intellectual Precursors of the Mexican Revolution, 1900-1913. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1968.
“Copper is King.” St. Louis Post-Dispatch 12/02/1906.
De Vos, Jan. Una tierra para sembrar sueños: Historia reciente de la selva lacandona, 1950-2000. Mexico City: CIESAS, 2002.
Flores Magón, Ricardo, and Jacinto Barrera B. Correspondencia 2 (1919-1922). Mexico City: CONACULTA, 2000.
Flores Magón, Ricardo, and Manuel González Ramírez. Epistolario y textos. Mexico City: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1964.
Gilly, Adolfo. “La Guerra De Clases En La Revolución Mexicana (Revolución Permanente y Auto-Organización De Las Masas).” Interpretaciones de la revolución mexicana. Mexico City: Nueva imagen, 1997.
Hardt, Michael, and Antonio Negri. Mulititude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire. New York: The Penguin Press, 2004.
Harper, Douglas. “Online Etymology Dictionary.” 2010. <http://www.etymonline.com/>.
Irurzun, Patxi. “El Mural Mágico.” Chiapas: Comisión Confederal de Solidaridad - CGT. 04/01/2004 2004. <http://www.cgtchiapas.org/IMG/pdf/especial-b.pdf>.
Jennings, Mason. Mason Jennings. Hoboken: Bar/None Records, 1997.
Kandinsky, Wassily. Point and Line to Plane. Trans. Howard Dearstyne and Hilla Rebay. New York: Dover Publications, 1979.
Kuspit, Donald. “Spiritualism and Nihilism: The Second Decade.” Artnet Magazine (2006): 04/10/2010. <http://www.artnet.com/magazineus/features/kuspit/kuspit3-8-06.asp>.
MacLachlan, Colin M. Anarchism and the Mexican Revolution: The Political Trials of Ricardo Flores Magón in the United States. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991.
Marcos, Subcomandante. “Los Diablos del Nuevo Siglo: los niños zapatistas en el año 2001, séptimo de la guerra contra el olvido.” Perfil. 02/22/2001 2001. <http://www.jornada.unam.mx/2001/02/22/per-ezln.html>.
“Mine Craze Beats South Sea Bubble.” St. Louis Post-Dispatch 12/09/1906.
Salazar Rovirosa, Alfonso. Historia Del Estado De Baja California de 1500 a 1980. Mexico City: Ediciones Económicas, 1980.
“St. Louis Now the Country’s Undisputed Railroad Center.” St. Louis Post-Dispatch 11/18/1906.


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Copyright 2010, Aaron Johnson-Ortiz