Catarino Garza's Revolution on the Texas-Mexico Border / Edition 1

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Catarino Garza’s Revolution on the Texas-Mexico Border rescues an understudied episode from the footnotes of history. On September 15, 1891, Garza, a Mexican journalist and political activist, led a band of Mexican rebels out of South Texas and across the Rio Grande, declaring a revolution against Mexico’s dictator, Porfirio Díaz. Made up of a broad cross-border alliance of ranchers, merchants, peasants, and disgruntled military men, Garza’s revolution was the largest and longest lasting threat to the Díaz regime up to that point. After two years of sporadic fighting, the combined efforts of the U.S. and Mexican armies, Texas Rangers, and local police finally succeeded in crushing the rebellion. Garza went into exile and was killed in Panama in 1895.

Elliott Young provides the first full-length analysis of the revolt and its significance, arguing that Garza’s rebellion is an important and telling chapter in the formation of the border between Mexico and the United States and in the histories of both countries. Throughout the nineteenth century, the borderlands were a relatively coherent region. Young analyzes archival materials, newspapers, travel accounts, and autobiographies from both countries to show that Garza’s revolution was more than just an effort to overthrow Díaz. It was part of the long struggle of borderlands people to maintain their autonomy in the face of two powerful and encroaching nation-states and of Mexicans in particular to protect themselves from being economically and socially displaced by Anglo Americans. By critically examining the different perspectives of military officers, journalists, diplomats, and the Garzistas themselves, Young exposes how nationalism and its preeminent symbol, the border, were manufactured and resisted along the Rio Grande.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“Launched from South Texas in 1891, a rebellion against Mexican dictator Porfirio Díaz spread quickly to both sides of the permeable U.S.-Mexico border. In this smart transnational study, Elliott Young locates the wellsprings of this nearly forgotten episode in the life of its remarkable leader, journalist Catarino Garza, and in the social, racial, and political inequities that characterized borderlands society.”—David J. Weber, Director of the Clements Center for Southwest Studies at Southern Methodist University

“This is an original, provocative, and far-reaching book that breaks with the existing conceptualization of fields of study and national historiographical traditions. It not only makes a case for the importance of the Garza revolt itself but also uses the rebellion to reflect upon broad themes, including those of U.S.-Mexican relations; comparative colonialisms; the formation of borders; Latin American liberalism; and race, gender, and class. ”—William French, author of A Peaceful and Working People: Manners, Morals, and Class Formation in Northern Mexico

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780822333203
  • Publisher: Duke University Press Books
  • Publication date: 7/28/2004
  • Series: American Encounters/Global Interactions Series
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 407
  • Product dimensions: 6.84 (w) x 8.58 (h) x 1.01 (d)

Meet the Author

Elliott Young is Associate Professor of History at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon.

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Catarino Garza's Revolution on the Texas-Mexico Border

By Elliott Young

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2004 Elliott Young
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780822333081

Chapter One


Mi pluma no sabe pintar, pero si reproducir, fotografiar y estampar verdades. (My pen knows not how to paint, rather it reproduces, photographs and prints truths.)-Catarino Garza, "La logica de los hechos"

Catarino Garza did not become a revolutionary by picking up a gun, but rather by writing himself into the role. Along with his explicitly political activities and writings (manifestos, newspaper articles, etc.) he wove his life story into a narrative that proclaimed himself as a revolutionary protagonist. While only brief traces of Garza's speeches and journalism have survived, a full-length unpublished autobiography, which he was working on when his revolt broke out, has been preserved at the Benson Latin American Collection at the University of Texas, Austin. In this chapter I highlight Garza's autobiography as a site of struggle. Nonnarrative activities, including barroom brawls, fence cutting, train derailing, lynching, and armed revolts, were also decisive and powerful expressions of political power. My argument here is that the stories that borderpeople told about themselves and about Anglo Americans, Europeans, and "others" were central to their own political struggles.

Edward Said makes a similar observation about the importance of the novel to imperialism and anticolonial struggles. "Stories," Said contends, "are at the heart of what explorers and novelists say about strange regions of the world; they also become the method colonized people use to assert their own identity and the existence of their own history. The main battle of imperialism is over land, of course; but when it came to who owned the land, who had the right to settle and work on it, who kept it going, who won it back, and who now plans its future-these issues were reflected, contested and even for a time decided in narrative." Before rushing on to look at the physical battles over land, however, let us pause to analyze the narrative struggle.

There is a complex relationship between narrative (novels, travel accounts, autobiography, journalism) and political action (armed revolts, strikes, public protest), which is similar to that between culture and economic structures. Mechanical causal explanations that view narrative as a mere reflection of politics, or vice versa, obscure more than they reveal. Academic disciplinary boundaries that separate and analyze word and deed in isolation from one another contribute to the inability to see the subtle and multifaceted connections between the two. Although disciplinary borders have become more porous of late, literary and art critics still tend to read and comment on texts and art objects in isolation from their political and historical contexts, while historians and sociologists cite novels and other artistic expressions merely as reflections of a preexisting sociopolitical reality. My aim here is to bridge the artificial divide between literary and historical analysis, and between art and politics, by showing the web of relationships that tie Garza's literary work to his political action and vice versa.

There is a moment in the long road to revolution when the oppressed finally raise picket signs, hurl rocks, or fire guns. This is the moment of open rebellion, and it does not happen often. When Garza declared his revolution on the banks of the Rio Grande in September 1891, it was just such a gesture of liberation. It would be mistaken, however, to seek the meaning of Garza's revolution, or any revolution for that matter, by only analyzing the actual event-that is, the armed actions, the manifestos, and the constitutions that may follow. The outbreak of violence in any revolt is like the tip of an iceberg. Most of an iceberg lies beneath the water, and thus one must dive beneath the surface in order to get a sense of its size and shape. Similarly, to see the foundations of a rebellion one must dive beneath the surface of society. I am not proposing a materialist analysis where one focuses on the foundation, usually conceived of as an economic structure, and then assumes that the cultural superstructure merely reflects the material base. Rather, I am suggesting that this is a false dichotomy and that the art of remembering and analyzing the past is a necessary foundation for revolution or for any other extraordinary activity.

The histories that all individuals make for themselves, often not in written form, serve as a guide to present action by making a coherent narrative out of past experiences and knowledge. Garza's analysis of border society and his organic links to its communities enabled him to forge a coalition of anti-Porfirian Mexicans in South Texas and to begin to imagine himself as a political leader. As a founder of several mutualistas (mutual aid societies), and as a public orator and a journalist, Garza helped to construct the vibrant late-nineteenth-century working-class culture that historian Emilio Zamora has described so vividly. At the same time, Garza was as much a product of this broader cultural context as he was its initiator. Masonic lodges, mutualistas, and small Spanish-language newspapers created a social network that formed the basis for political organization. Even though many mutualistas explicitly prohibited political discussions in their meetings, Garza communicated his anti-Diaz message and his defense of Mexicans in the United States, as well as organized his armed rebellion through these networks. The multiclass nature of these Texas Mexican organizations, including workers, merchants, lower-middle-class professionals, and other prominent members of the community, mirrored the coalition that Garza would ultimately cobble together for his revolt.

One of the key characteristics of both the mutualistas and Garza's writing is the emphasis on the need to inculcate a developmentalist ethic stressing middle-class values of thrift, sobriety, hygiene, hard work, and patriarchal roles. As William French shows in his analysis of northern Mexico, the emerging Porfirian middle class employed this developmentalist ideology to discipline workers and to distinguish themselves, the gente culta, from the growing floating population of rural and urban laborers. At the same time, artisans and employees organized in mutualistas claimed their status as gente culta as well; they were proud to be workers but they went to great lengths to distinguish themselves from the floating population of unskilled laborers. This ideology also attempted to reinforce patriarchal gender relationships that were being challenged as more and more women worked in urban and industrial settings. In particular, the Porfirian educational project hoped to produce good daughters, wives, and mothers, but it also emphasized practical vocational training in what were considered "feminine" pursuits: typing, sewing, dressmaking, and household duties. Garza carried this developmentalist ethic with him to South Texas, where it violently clashed with a masculinist and racially discriminatory Anglo worldview. At the same time that Garza was trying to assert his cultural respectability and masculinity in the face of a rapidly changing northern Mexican society, he was also confronting Anglo Texans who saw him as uneducated, uncultured, and less virile simply because he was Mexican. Garza's autobiography describes his defense of honor and masculinity in order to legitimize himself to a northern Mexican audience, to respond to the discrimination faced by Mexicans in Texas, and to justify revolt and political action.

Garza's autobiography begins with a description of his arrival in 1877 in Brownsville, Texas, and covers the twelve subsequent years he spent living and working in different towns along the border and in St. Louis, Missouri. In the volume's dedication and preface Garza explains that the work should not be read as art or literature but as history or the narration of actual events. "I am basing my hopes," he writes, "not in the aptitude of my pen, but in the security that I faithfully fulfill my duty as a Mexican on foreign soil of narrating the circumstances of our nationals in this country." His autobiography, titled "La logica de los hechos: O sean observaciones sobre las circunstancias de los mexicanos en Texas, desde el ano de 1877 hasta 1889" (The logic of events: Observations on the circumstances of Mexicans in Texas, from 1877 until 1889) served as part of his ongoing defense of Mexicans in Texas (fig. 2). In 1888, he felt the urgency to write a history of the last twelve years of his life because he was afraid that he would be killed, either by agents of Porfirio Diaz or by hostile Anglos. His autobiography, he believed, would allow his voice and his explanation of events to resonate even after his death. More immediately, he hoped that it would publicize the difficult plight of Mexicans in Texas and "arouse the zeal of the representatives of my country." The 431-page handwritten manuscript stops abruptly in 1888, leaving unfinished chapters and blank pages where Garza intended to include photographs. John Gregory Bourke, the U.S. Army captain who led the campaign against Garza, discovered the manuscript under Garza's bed in one of his raids on Garza's headquarters in Palito Blanco. Years after the revolt, Captain Bourke derided the autobiography for its "sickening tone of eulogy." Such a harsh judgment must be put in perspective as the bitter recriminations of a man who had failed in his campaign to capture Garza, and who was ultimately chased out of South Texas by Garza's supporters.

In spite of its incomplete form and the fact that it was never published, "La logica" helps to sketch out Garza's life before the revolution and, most important, it provides invaluable insight into the way Garza conceived of the world and of himself. A loose note at the back of the manuscript gives the dictionary definition of the title. "La logica: The science that teaches how to reflect and reason precisely by means of methodical deductions.... Natural disposition to reflect and judge without the help of art." Rather than an imaginative literary narrative, Garza framed his autobiography as the product of cool, methodical reasoning, a reflection on reality without the influence of art. Thus, even though he wrote a personal narrative as well as a collective one, Garza denied the individuality of his writing by identifying himself as a "son of the people" whose mission was to "educate the masses." Effacing his own literary and artistic skills allowed him to claim that he merely reproduced a story made by el pueblo (the people). "You will not find in all of these writings," he proclaims, "one elegant phrase, nor delicate images, nor erudite phrases, much less literary portrayals, because my pen does not know how to paint, rather it reproduces, photographs and prints truths." The identification of his writing with modern technologies of reproduction, photography, and printing allowed him to deny his artistry and therefore his subjectivity. He thus insisted that his autobiography not be seen as an autonomous piece of art but as a product of a community and a historical process.

Garza's subjectivity can be seen, however, in his choosing to include particular events and to omit or downplay other episodes. Using the autobiographical form had other consequences as well, such as making his individual story dominate the collective one and allowing him space to discuss aspects of his personal life. Like the genre of Latin American testimonio literature, Garza's story is both a political and personal one. Louis Mendoza's Historia, which examines the literary making of Chicana/ o history, demonstrates that even as we make distinctions between literature (the imaginative reconstruction of the past) and history (the "factual" retelling of the past), the line between the two forms of narrative is exceedingly blurry. While Garza rarely used the impersonal third person, he wanted his text to speak for a shared Texas Mexican experience, a history of his people. Just like the framing, cropping, and composition of any photograph, Garza's autobiography did not simply reproduce the "truth" or a story made by "el pueblo." Rather, he was creating a "truth" based on a northern Mexican developmentalist ethic to promote himself as a central protagonist in an ongoing political struggle both in Mexico and in the United States. The autobiography should thus be read as both literature and history.


Little biographical information is known about the early part of Catarino Garza's life, with the exception of the details he included in his autobiography and in a letter he wrote to his wife from exile. Nonetheless, that information combined with other accounts by relatives, friends, and even enemies yields a fairly good picture of his background before the revolution. All versions agree that Garza was not born into privilege. For the first ten years of his life he had apparently not even picked up a book because he was helping his parents, Encarnacion and Dona Maria de Jesus Rodriguez, to raise vegetables and fruit on their farm and to run a dairy. Garza's rendition of his youth highlighted his poverty, his lack of educational opportunities, and his need to work to pay for his books and schooling. Eventually, however, it was possible for him to escape the work routine of the farm in the mornings and study for four hours a day at a nearby ranch. He exhibited such promise as a student that a respected teacher and former priest from Hualahuises, Nuevo Leon, agreed to tutor the young Garza. This teacher, Jose Maria Morales, also gave him some military training, and the writing and military skills that Garza picked up from the ex-priest would prove invaluable in his future career as a revolutionary journalist. On his return to Matamoros, Garza enrolled in the Colegio de San Juan and also briefly served in the Mexican National Guard at the Port Plaza.

Catarino was just eighteen years old in 1877 when he crossed the border from his hometown of Matamoros in Mexico to Brownsville, located at the southeastern tip of Texas. He began working as a clerk at a local drygoods store, Bloomberg and Raphael, which sold shoes, boots, and groceries. The fact that one of the owners was a Spaniard (Raphael) and the other from New York City (Bloomberg) indicates the degree to which the border was already integrated into the international market economy by the late 1870s. Job opportunities on the U.S. side were certainly more attractive than in Mexico, and Garza was not alone in making this move.

Like an anthropologist describing his arrival in the field, the opening chapter of "La logica," titled "Pluma en desorden" (Pen in disorder), begins with Garza's entry into Texas. Garza's first encounter with the "native" Anglo Texans immediately implicated him in a history that preceded his arrival. As he crossed the border from Matamoros into Brownsville, a U.S. customs official stopped him and, without any cause, emptied all of his belongings onto the floor. After rifling through Garza's clothes, the customs guard simply said "all right." Garza describes this episode ironically and notes the impolite speech of the customs official by consciously mistranslating the English "all right" for the Spanish "dispense Vd. la molestia," a formal way of saying "sorry to have bothered you." In the next clause, Garza makes it clear to his readers that everything was not all right "given the disorder in which he left my clothes." Although Garza claims the authoritative voice of an impartial observer who merely "reproduced and photographed" reality, it becomes readily apparent in this first episode that Garza could not extricate himself from the story, nor view it from a neutral vantage point. Throughout "La logica" Garza stresses that he, and Mexicans in general, had better manners than the coarse and rude americanos (read Anglos) with whom he had contact. His insistence on the respectability, dignity, and decency of Mexicans must be understood within a context where Anglos claimed superiority on these same grounds. The middle-class ethic in northern Mexico to which Garza subscribed also emphasized cultural respectability. Thus, culture and custom became the ideological battleground on which Garza strove to prove the equality of Anglo Americans and Mexicans, if not the superiority of the latter.


Excerpted from Catarino Garza's Revolution on the Texas-Mexico Border by Elliott Young Copyright © 2004 by Elliott Young. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

1 The making of a revolutionary 25
2 Resisting the Pax Porfiriana 57
3 Revolution and repression 98
4 Booms and busts 131
5 The Garzistas 155
6 The ideological battle 191
7 Colonizing the lower Rio Grande Valley 209
8 Exile, death, and resurrection in the Caribbean 268
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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 21, 2006

    Excellent beginning

    Finally! A good history of this event is overdue. Years ago, I read a short account of a U.S. Cavalry trooper who won the Medal Of Honor for single handedly killing and/or capturing three 'Garzistas', while defending military correspondence he was carrying along the Rio Grande, in South Texas. Mention was made of the 'Garza Rebellion of the early 1890s'. It was all news to me. I had never heard of it, and until Professor Young's book, couldn't find much information on the subject. It wasn't until I read his book that I learned about Richard Harding Davis' report of the insurrection in 'West From a Car Window'. While many place the beginning of the 20th Century Mexican Revolution in 1910, unrest started decades before in the northern states, and the Garza revolt was one that managed to get the attention of both the U.S. Government and Americans in general. Professor Young has produced an impressive work. His history of the episode is informative, detailed, and quite evenhanded in his treatment of Garza, 'warts and all'. My favorite parts are of activities by Captain John G. Bourke, U.S. 3rd Cavalry, in and around La Grulla, in Starr County. Today, this community is very different from the isolated ranch described by Bourke, but has been a part of many historical events since the 1830s, and continues to be to this day. Overall, this is a fine history of a neglected period, and while this will probably be the standard work, hopefully more will be published.

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