John Kenneth Turner's description of the Rio Blanco textile factory
On the line of the Mexican Railway, which climbs, in one hundred odd miles of travel, from the port of Veracruz 10,000 feet to the rim of the valley of Mexico, are situated a number of mill towns. Nearing the summit, after that wonderful ascent from the tropics to the snows, the passenger looks back from his car window through dizzying reaches of empty air, sheer a full mile, as the crow might dare to fly a score of them, down to the uppermost of these mill towns, Santa Rosa, a gray checkerboard upon a map of green. Just below Santa Rosa, but out of sight behind the titanic shoulder of a mountain, nestles Rio Blanco, largest of the mill towns, scene of the bloodiest strike in the labor history of Mexico.
In altitude half way between the shark-infested waters of Veracruz harbor and the plateau of the Montezumas, Rio Blanco, which in Spanish means White River, is not only a paradise in climate and scenery, but it is also perfectly situated for water-power manufactories. A bountiful supply of water, provided by the copious rains and the snows of the heights, gathers in the Rio Blanco and with the speed of Niagara rushes down the mountain gorges and into the town.
It is said to be a favorite boast of Manager Hartington, the steel-eyed, middle-aged Englishman who oversees the work of the 6,000 men, women and children, that the mill at Rio Blanco is not only the largest and most modern cotton manufactory in the world, but that it pays the richest profits on the investment.
Certainly the factory is a big one. We saw it—De Lara and I—from A to Z, following the raw cotton from the cleaner through all its various processes and treatments until it finally came out neatly folded in fancy prints or specially colored weaves. We even descended five iron ladders down into the bowels of the earth, saw the great pin and caught a glimpse of the swirling black waters which turn every wheel in the mill. And we observed the workers, too, men, women and children. They were Mexicans with hardly an exception. The men, in the mass, are paid thirty-seven and one half cents a day in our money, the women from one dollar and a half to two dollars a week, the children, who range down to seven and eight, from ten to twenty-five cents a day. These figures were given us by an officer of the mill who showed us about, and they were confirmed in talks with the workers themselves.
Thirteen hours a day—from 6 until 8—are long for labor in the open air and sunshine, but thirteen hours in that roar of machinery, in that lint-laden air, in those poisonous dye rooms—how very long that must be! The terrible smell of the dye rooms nauseated me and I had to hurry on. The dye rooms are a suicide hole for the men who work there, for it is said that they survive, on an average, only a twelve-month. Yet the company finds that plenty of them are willing to commit the suicide for the additional inducement of seven and one-half cents a day over the regular wage.
The Rio Blanco mill was established sixteen years ago—sixteen years, but in their history the mill and the town have just two epochs—before the strike and after the strike. Wherever we went about Rio Blanco and Orizaba, the latter being the chief town in that political district, we heard echoes of the strike, although its bloody story had been written nearly two years before our visit.
In Mexico there are no labor laws in-operation to protect the workers—no provision for factory inspection, no practical statutes against infant labor, no processes through which workmen may recover damages for injuries sustained or death met in the mine or at the machine. Wage workers literally have no-rights that the employers are bound to respect. Policy only determine the degree of exploitation, and in Mexico that policy is such as might prevail in the driving of horses in a locality where horses are dirt cheap, where profits from their use are high, and where there exists no Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
Over against this absence of protection on the part of the governmental powers stands oppression on the part of the governmental powers, for the machinery of the Diaz state is wholly at the command of the employer to whip the worker into accepting his terms.
The six thousand laborers in the Rio Blanco mill were not content with thirteen hours daily in the company of that roaring machinery and in that choking atmosphere, especially since it brought to them only from twenty-five to thirty-seven and one-half cents. Nor were they content with paying out of such a sum the one American dollar a week that the company charged for the rental of the two-room, dirt floor hovels which they call their homes. Least of all were they content with the coin in which they were paid. This consisted of credit checks upon the company store, which finished the exploitation — took back for the company the final centavo that the company had paid out in wages. A few miles away, at Orizaba, the same goods could be purchased for from twenty-five to seventy-five per cent less, but the operatives were unable to buy their goods at these stores.
The operatives were not content. The might of the company towered like a mountain above them, and behind and above the company towered the government. Behind the company stood Diaz himself, for Diaz was not only the government, he was also a heavy stockholder in the company. Yet the operatives prepared to fight. Secretly they organized a union, "El Circulo de Obreros," which means "The Circle of Workers," holding their meetings not en masse, but in small groups in their homes, in order that the authorities might not learn of their purposes.
Immediately upon the company learning that the workers were discussing their troubles it took action against them. Through the police authorities it issued a general order forbidding any of the operatives from receiving any visitors whatsoever, even their own relatives being barred, the penalty for violation being the city jail. Persons who were suspected of having signed the roll of the union were put in prison at once, and a weekly newspaper which was known to be friendly to the workers was swooped down upon, suppressed and the printing plant confiscated.
At this juncture a strike was called in the cotton-mills in the city of Puebla, in an adjoining state. The mills of Puebla were owned by the same company as owned the Rio Blanco mills, and the operatives thereof were living under similar conditions to those at Rio Blanco. The Puebla workers went on strike and the company knowing that they had no resources behind them, decided, as one of its agents told me, "to let nature take its course;" that is, to starve out the workers, as they believed this process could be accomplished inside of a fortnight.
The strikers turned for aid to those of their fellow-craftsmen who were at work in other localities. The Rio Blanco workers themselves were already preparing to strike, but thereupon they decided to wait for a time longer, in order that they might collect from their meager earnings a fund to support their brothers in the city of Puebla. Thus were the ends of the company defeated for the moment, for by living on half rations both workers and strikers were able to eke out their existence. But no sooner had the company learned the source of strength of the Puebla strikers than the mills at Rio Blanco were shut down and the workers there locked out. Other mills in other localities were shut down and other means taken to prevent any help reaching the Puebla strikers.
Locked out, the Rio Blanco workers promptly assumed the offensive, declared they were on strike and formulated a series of demands calculated in some measure to alleviate the conditions of their lives.
But the demands were unheard, the machinery of the mill roared no more, the mill slept in the sun, the waters of the Rio Blanco dashed unharnessed through the town, the manager of the company laughed in the faces of the striking men and women.
The six thousand starved. For two months they starved. They scoured the surrounding hills for berries, and when the berries were gone they deceived their gnawing stomachs with indigestible roots and herbs gleaned from the mountain sides. In utter despair, they looked to the highest power they knew, Porfirio Diaz, and begged him to have mercy. They begged him to investigate their cause, and for their part they promised to abide by his decision.
President Diaz pretended to investigate. He rendered a decision, but his decision was that the mills should reopen and the workers go back to their thirteen hours of dust and machinery on the same terms as they had left them.
True to their promise, the strikers at Rio Blanco prepared to comply. But they were weak from starvation. In order to work they must have sustenance. Consequently on the day of their surrender they gathered in a body in front of the company store opposite the big mill and asked that each of their number be given a certain quantity of corn and beans so that they, might be able to live through the first week and until they should be paid their wages.
The storekeeper jeered at the request. "To these dogs we will not even give water!" is the answer he is credited with giving them.
It was then that a woman, Margarita Martinez, exhorted the people to take by force the provisions that had been denied them. This they did. They looted the store, then set fire to it, and finally to the mill across the way.
The people had not expected to riot, but the government had expected it. Unknown to the strikers, battalions of regular soldiers were waiting just outside the town, under command of Genera! Rosalio Martinez himself, sub-secretary of war. The strikers had no arms. They were not prepared for revolution. They had intended no mischief, and their outburst was a spontaneous and doubtless a natural one, and one which an officer of the company afterwards confided to me could easily have been taken care of by the local police force, which was strong.
Nevertheless, the soldiers appeared, leaping upon the scene as if out of the ground. Volley after volley was discharged into the crowd at close range. There was no resistance whatsoever. The people were shot down in the streets with no regard for age or sex, many women and children being among the slain. They were pursued to their homes, dragged from their hiding places and shot to death. Some fled to the hills, where they were hunted for days and shot on sight. A company of rural guards which refused to fire on the crowd when the soldiers first arrived were exterminated on the spot.
There are no official figures of the number killed in the Rio Blanco massacre, and if there were any, of course they would be false. Estimates run from two hundred to eight hundred. My information for the Rio Blanco strike was obtained from numerous widely different sources—from an officer of the company itself, from a friend of the governor who rode with the rurales as they chased the fleeing strikers through the hills, from a labor editor who escaped after being hotly pursued for days, from survivors of the strike, from others who had heard the story from eye witnesses.
"I don't know how many were killed," the man who rode with the rurales told me, "but on the first night after the soldiers came I saw two flat cars piled high with dead and mangled bodies, and there were a good many killed after the first night."
"Those flat cars," the same informant told me, "were hauled away by special train that night, hurried to Veracruz, where the bodies were dumped in the harbor as food for the sharks."
Strikers who were not punished by death were punished in other ways scarcely less terrible. It seems that for the first few hours death was dealt out indiscriminately, but after that some of those who were caught were not killed. Fugitives who were captured after the first two or three days were rounded up in a bull pen, and some five hundred of them were impressed into the army and sent to Quintana Roo, The vice-president and the secretary of the "Circulo de Obreros" were hanged, while the woman orator, Margarita Martinez, was among those sent to the prison of San Juan de Ulua.
Among the newspaper men who suffered as a result of the Rio Blanco strike are Jose Neira, Justino Fernandez, Juan Olivares and Paulino Martinez. Neira and Fernandez were imprisoned for long terms, the latter being tortured until he lost his reason. Olivares was pursued for many days, but escaped capture and found his way to the United States. None of the three had any connection with the riot. The fourth, Paulino Martinez, committed no crime more heinous than to comment mildly in his newspaper in favor of the strikers. He published his paper at Mexico City, a day's ride on the train to Rio Blanco. Personally he had been no nearer the scene of the trouble than that city, yet he was arrested, carried over the mountains to the mill town, imprisoned and held incommunicado for five months without even a charge being preferred against him.
The government made every effort to conceal the facts of the Rio Blanco massacre, but murder will out, and when the newspapers did not speak the news flew from mouth to mouth until the nation was shuddering at the story. It was a waste of blood, indeed, yet, even from the viewpoint of the workers, it was not wholly in vain.
For in the story the company store held a prominent place, and so great a protest was raised against it that President Diaz decided to make one concession to the decimated band of operatives and to abolish the company store at Rio Blanco.
Thus where before the strike there was but one store in Rio Blanco, today there are many; the workers buy where they choose. Thus it would seem that by their starvation and their blood the strikers had won a slight victory, but it is a question whether this is so, since in some ways the screws have been put down harder than ever before. Provision has been made against a repetition of the strike, provision that, for a country that claims to be a republic, is, to speak mildly, astounding.
The provision consists, first, of eight hundred Mexican troops—six hundred regular soldiers and two hundred rurales—who are encamped upon the company property; second, of a jefe politico clothed with the powers of a cannibal chief.
When we visited the barracks, De Lara and I, the little captain who showed us about informed us that the quarters were furnished, ground, house, light and water, by the company, and that in return the army was placed directly and unequivocally at the call of the company.
"As to the jefe politico, his name is Miguel Gomez, and he was promoted to Rio Blanco from Cordoba, where his readiness to kill is said to have provoked the admiration of the man who appointed him. President Diaz. Regarding the powers of Miguel Gomez, I can hardly do better than to quote the words of an officer of the company, with whom De Lara and I took dinner one day:
"Miguel Gomez has orders direct from President Diaz to censor the reading of the mill workers and to allow no radical newspapers or Liberal literature to get into their hands. More than that, he has orders to kill anyone whom he suspects of having evil intentions. Yes, I said kill. It is carte blanche with Gomez, and no questions asked. He asks no one's advice and no court sits on his action, either before or after. And he does kill. If he sees a man on the street and gets any whimsical suspicion of him, dislikes his dress or his face, it is enough. That man disappears. I remember a laborer in the dye-mixing room who spoke some words friendly to Liberalism; I remember a spool tender who mentioned the strike; there have been others—many others. They have disappeared suddenly, have been swallowed up and nothing heard of them but the whispers of their friends!"
Of course, it is impossible in the nature of things to verify this statement, but it is worth noting that it does not come from a revolutionist.