MacArthur Fellow Kelly Lytle Hernández, a UCLA professor of history, African-American Studies, and urban planning, details the determined efforts of the Magonistas, a few thousand men and women, who paved the way for the 1910 Mexican revolution, in Bad Mexicans: Race, Empire, and Revolution in the Borderlands (Norton, May). PW spoke with Lytle Hernández about the book, the absence of adequate historical education on U.S.-Mexican relations in America, and more.

Could you briefly summarize the book?

This is the story of a group of Mexican dissidents who came to the United States in the early 20th century to incite a revolution against a dictator back in Mexico, Porfirio Díaz. And within a couple weeks of the dissidents arriving in Laredo, Tex., they knew that they were being followed by the dictator's spies. This tells how the dissidents outran and outsmarted the dictator's agents, who were working in cooperation with the United States government to try to suppress their uprising. The United States government wanted to suppress the uprising because some of the most powerful United States citizens were highly invested in Díaz's Mexico. Everyone, from everyday investors up to the Rockefellers, were extracting enormous profits out of Díaz's Mexico. So, when these dissidents tried to remove Díaz from office, and challenge the economic arrangements of the Mexican state, the U.S. government joined the effort of shutting down the revolution. It's about the dissidents, and about the cross-border counterinsurgency campaign against them.

Should I be embarrassed that this was almost entirely new to me?

You shouldn't be embarrassed, but you should be dismayed that we don't really have a lot of access to the story here in the United States. And it's important to note that in Mexico, this is a very well-known story. But we've really excised it from U.S. history, and a big part of this book is how much we lose when we don't make Mexican-American history a centerpiece of the American story.

How can more knowledge about U.S.-Mexican relations from a century ago help current understandings?

There's some consistency in the history that we always need to acknowledge in that the United States is often looking for regimes that are friendly and stable, as opposed to democratic and transparent. We can make some strong arguments that that's a consistent thread in U.S. relationships with Latin America and Mexico. In terms of why this story is critically important, it's important for what is emerging as one of our largest populations here in the United States to see themselves as protagonists in the American story. And we have failed to do that, and that has not been the failure of historians of the Mexican-American experience. That's been the failure of publishers, and others, who have not brought these stories into the mainstream, and made them accessible. There is a mandate, coming in part from scholars like myself, that we've got to diversify the American story, and make sure that the people that we've kept in the shadows, who have actually been drivers in our history, are getting their full due in the understanding of who we are as a people and how we got here. And this is a small part of helping to get that done.

Your publisher has described you as a "rebel historian." How do feel about that?

I think that's a label that was given to me after the MacArthur Fellowship was announced. Look, it makes sense. I do a lot of rebel work about mass incarceration, particularly working with advocates and the abolitionist movement in particular. The goal of my work is to shake up current regimes, to pursue racial justice in particular. And I was honored by that phrase. Certainly, I hope to live up to it.

Are rebel historians a new phenomenon?

We stand on the shoulders of W.E.B. Dubois and many others, who were working at a time when people said enslavement and slavery were good for Black folks, and that Black folks had nothing to do with overturning the regime. W.E.B. Dubois comes in, and Black Reconstruction completely destroys that mythology. So if we take Dubois as a founding father—and there have been many, many mothers and fathers since—it's a genealogy of rebel historians who were constantly confronting a canon that is designed to marginalize us and demean us. We fight back with our research, with our concepts, with our words. And so if that's what a rebel historian is, that certainly is the work that I look to do: find humanizing stories for us, empowering stories for us, true stories for us, all of which are archivally-grounded.

Was this harder than your prior books to write?

That's a complicated question. My last book was hard to write, in the sense I was bringing so many different histories together, from Indigenous history to African American history to Asian American history, even the story of the Wobblies, and of poor white folks. That was about bringing together all those different threads and weaving them into a coherent whole. This book was difficult at the archival level, in the sense that it's about subterfuge, and about counter-insurgency, and so much is written in secret code and so much is written with pseudonyms. You want to try to make sure that you're getting the story completely accurate.

Is there a connection between Donald Trump's incendiary, racist rhetoric about Mexicans and your book?

I am not the first person to tell the story. I am the first person, maybe, to put it in the U.S. context in the way that I've done. For me, it was when Donald Trump used the phrase "bad hombres," that I knew that this story needed to be told for a broader audience, because he was stirring up a really dangerous history. Imperialists and white supremacists have used this kind of language to stir up anti-Mexican, anti-Latino, and anti-immigrant sentiment. What the story's about is acknowledging those histories, about recognizing the centrality of Mexico, Mexicans and Mexican-Americans in American history. And that when you start to hear that racist rhetoric, dig a little deeper to ask what's it all about?