How the Rio Blanco Strike Ignited the Mexican Revolution

Mexico's booming 19th-century textile industry, built on foreign investments and brutal exploitation, ignited in 1907 with the Rio Blanco strike. Workers, yearning for justice and fair wages, faced Porfirio Díaz's regime head-on.

How the Rio Blanco Strike Ignited the Mexican Revolution
Textile workers in Río Blanco, Veracruz, stand united in defiance on January 7, 1907, marking the beginning of a pivotal chapter in the Mexican Revolution. Image and text: AGN, CIG, Fototeca, Enrique Díaz Collection, box 01-3.

By the end of the 19th century, the textile industry in Mexico had undergone remarkable economic and technological growth in the region of Veracruz and Puebla. This was the result of the neocolonial Porfirian policies that favored capitalist development, particularly foreign interests, and capital. Such companies benefited from the exploitation of the Mexican people's labor force and the alienation of the nation's wealth in various areas: land concentration, mining, railroads, and, of course, the textile industry.

This allowed the consolidation of two textile industry emporiums formed with French capital: Compañía Industrial de Orizaba, Sociedad Anónima (CIDOSA) and Compañía Industrial Veracruzana, Sociedad Anónima (CIVSA). In 1889, CIDOSA expanded into the area of Río Blanco, Veracruz, where it took advantage of the socio-economic conditions of the indigenous population of Tenango to purchase some desert land near the riverbed, thus appropriating the community's water to carry out the bleaching process of its fabrics. The new Río Blanco textile factory was inaugurated by the President of the Republic himself, Porfirio Díaz.

The Rio Blanco factory became the largest textile factory in the country, which contributed to the positioning of CIDOSA as one of the most capitalized companies in the country. This company was only surpassed by other capital invested in railroads and mining, which had also been favored by the Porfirian regime. Nevertheless, the wealth generated by this industry was concentrated in the hands of a few foreign businessmen.

Working conditions at the Río Blanco factory were quasi-slavery-like. Initially, the long workdays included 14 hours of work in exchange for a salary that was not enough to buy the necessary supplies. Like so many other workers in the country, this situation forced the factory workers to shop at the tienda de raya (“corner store”) where they incurred a debt that increased day by day. These working conditions were even worse for children and women.

Faced with the great adversity in which the proletariat lived around Rio Blanco, a workers' organization began to form within the factory, which was headed by the worker Manuel Avila, the Juarista professor Jose Rumbia, and the worker Jose Neyra, also a sympathizer of the Mexican Liberal Party (PLM). The incipient organization that was formed gave way to the formation of the Great Circle of Free Workers of Rio Blanco, whose declared objective was to combat the abuses of capitalism and the dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz, as well as to maintain close communication with the Revolutionary Board of the PLM in St. Louis, Missouri, United States of America (USA).

In 1906, the economic situation of the textile industry was affected by the fluctuation of market prices, causing losses to the bourgeoisie that owned the Rio Blanco factory. The owners of the company decided to pass the bill to the workers through the imposition of economic burdens and measures aimed at hindering their political organization. In November of that same year, a new regulation was established which stipulated a “cut in workers' salaries for civic or religious holidays; the obligation to pay for instruments that were damaged for any cause; to comply with the 14-hour workday; the prohibition to meet, and the censorship of any publication that was not authorized by the factory”, among them the Regeneración newspaper.

This situation was not tolerated by the workers of Río Blanco, who at first requested the arbitration of Porfirio Díaz, while the bosses responded with an employer's strike to subdue the workers through hunger and lack of economic resources. The response of the authorities came at the beginning of January 1907 with the award issued by the President of the Republic, who protected the interests of the foreign businessmen before the just and reasonable demands of the Mexican people.

Río Blanco's textile workers, draped in discontent, took a stand against injustice.
Río Blanco's textile workers, draped in discontent, took a stand against injustice, setting the stage for a revolution that would reshape the nation's destiny. Credit: Sedena

At the break of dawn on January 7, the whistle was blown again at the Rio Blanco factory. However, that morning thousands of workers, who for several years had endured a state of terror exploitation, decided to go on strike. Some workers threw stones at the factory, while others went out to free their imprisoned colleagues, as well as to loot and set fire to some stores, which not only kept the workers of Rio Blanco, but also those of Santa Rosa and Nogales, in precarious conditions. The participation of the women workers of Río Blanco was notable, as they formed a fence at the factory entrance to reprimand all the scabs.

The response of the authorities consisted of the use of violence, charging local police and federal forces on an unarmed crowd. The result was the death of more than 200 workers, the arrest of 400 people, and thousands of dismissed workers, who had to flee and hide in the mountains of the towns linked to the factory. The workers who were identified as ringleaders were executed and exhibited as an example in one of the stores that had been looted because of hunger.

A few days after the events of Rio Blanco, the textile factories of Veracruz returned to normal operations. Many workers were forced to return due to the lack of money and food for their homes. The situation was celebrated by the businessmen of the Orizaba Industrial Company with a dinner in honor of General Rosalino Martinez, who had led the federal forces against the workers.

Despite the high cost paid by the workers of Río Blanco, their actions contributed to crumbling the old structure of the regime and their yearnings found a place in the Constitution of 1917. In this document, the triumphant faction of the civil war was forced to include the workers' demands, among which was the prohibition of exploitative practices such as those experienced in the Río Blanco factory.