By Christina Heatherton, author of Arise! Global Radicalism in the Era of the Mexican Revolution
My new book, Arise! Global Radicalism in the Era of the Mexican Revolution, was born of family lore. Many of my Okinawan relatives, including one great-uncle, came to the United States via Revolutionary Mexico. Morisei Yamashiro became a farmworker and labor organizer in the fields of Southern California’s Imperial Valley. There, Okinawan, Japanese, Chinese, Black, Filipino, South Asian, Indigenous, poor white, and Mexican workers labored together. According to his son, Morisei could speak several languages including English, Spanish, Japanese, and Okinawan dialects, making him a well-placed organizer in the California fields. Before the internment of Japanese and Okinawan Americans, there were early FBI raids on the communities. Labor organizers were among the first to be targeted. When federal agents showed up at Morisei’s door in 1942, he allegedly fought back. According to his son, Yamashiro, “had been down in Mexico fighting with Pancho Villa, so he knew how to take care of business!”
This story was provocative for several reasons. I knew of the world of the Revolutionary Atlantic and the radical currents which produced what Julius C. Scott calls the “common wind” of abolition. I first wondered if there might be a story to tell about the Revolutionary Pacific and the influence of the Mexican Revolution upon it. The story further challenged my understanding of Asian American radical history. Instead of resistance to nativism and exclusionary laws, I wondered how to make sense of a possible solidarity between Okinawans and Japanese migrants with Indigenous peasants during the Mexican Revolution and its influence upon radicalism in the United States. Finally, the story invited me to think anew about internationalism, which I understand as a recognition of the ways that people have been unevenly waylaid by the global capitalist system and developed forms of revolutionary solidarity to confront it.
To consider these provocations, I examined the reflections of another Okinawan migrant, Paul Shinsei Kōchi, who had traveled a similar path along with my relatives. One section of Arise! examines Kōchi’s memoir Imin no Aiwa (An Immigrant’s Sorrowful Tale), which describes how he found internationalism in Revolutionary Mexico. It details his escape from Okinawa and from the surveillance and repression of imperialist Japan; his solidarity with Indigenous Kanaka Maoli in Hawai‘i, with Tongva people in California, and with Yaqui in northern Mexico as well as with Indian, Chinese, and other Asian immigrants and with Mexican peasants in the revolution; and his subsequent position of internationalism.
“Paul Kōchi’s story demonstrates how the uprooted, dispossessed, and despised of the world came to know each other in shadows, in the tangled spaces of expulsion, extraction, transportation, debt, exploitation, and destruction: the garroting circuits of modern capital. Whether crammed in tight ship quarters; knocking together over the rails; sweating and swaying in the relentless tempo of industrial agriculture; inhaling the dank air of mine shafts; hearing each other breathing, coughing, fighting, singing, snoring, and sighing through thin walls; or corralled like livestock in jails and prisons, the contradictions of modern capital were shared in its intimate spaces. Within such sites, people discovered that the circuits of revolution, like the countervailing circuits of capital, were realizable in motion, often through unplanned assemblages. Roaring at their backs were the revolutionary currents of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, currents that howled from the metropolitan hearts of empire and wailed across the peripheries of the global world system. Standing before them, in the middle of its own revolution, was Mexico. From the vantage point of these struggles, the new century did not simply portend the inevitability of urban revolts and insurgencies at the point of production, but an epoch of peasant wars, rural uprisings, anti-colonial movements, and, of course, the Mexican Revolution. Mexico, as both a real country and an imagined space of revolution, would become a crucible of internationalism for the world’s “rebels” like Paul Kōchi.” (51–52)
Arise! is organized around what I call convergence spaces of radical traditions. These are contradictory socio-spatial sites where radical traditions are compressed together and where people within them collectively produced new articulations of struggle. From farm worker strikes at the U.S.-Mexico border; art collectives in Chicago, Harlem, and Mexico City; and a prison “university” in Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary, the book observes how the Mexican Revolution staged a significant set of convergences within which internationalism was “made.” By beginning with these convergences rather than the more well-known revolutionary heroes, I maintain that we can discover an overlooked form of internationalism from below.
Arise! is as much about radical convergences as it is about the unbidden inheritance of radical lineages at present. It takes its title from the first word of “The Internationale” (1888), the definitive anthem to internationalism. In this way, the book self-consciously joins a tradition of authors who have plumbed the song’s lyrics to grapple with the legacy of internationalism in their own times. Famously, Frantz Fanon took the second line of the song, “Arise ye wretched of the earth,” to title his indictment of colonialism in and beyond French Algeria, Wretched of the Earth. After she left the Communist Party, Dorothy Healey wanted to title her memoir Tradition’s Chains Have Bound Us, a reconfiguration of the lyrics “No more tradition’s chains shall bind us.” Healey argued that unless a radical tradition was “able to constantly keep alive that challenging, questioning and probing of the real scene around it,” it would only ever be a mere shadow of itself, a snare of revolutionary nostalgia where hope is trapped and strangled, rather than a living, breathing tradition that might allow us to survive (Healey and Isserman 1993, 13–14). This is perhaps the central lesson of my book, to think of internationalism not simply as scripture imposed from above, but as the messy work of collectively making and remaking the world in which we live.