José Villa: A Spanish Militant in Colorado’s Coal Fields
On a recent episode of History is Revolting we discussed the life of José Villa, who was described in one newspaper as “one of the principal Spanish organizers” in the lead-up to the 1927-28 Colorado coal miners strike (led by the Industrial Workers of the World–IWW). Rather than provide a detailed summary of what we talked about (scroll to the bottom to listen to the episode), we present here some of the primary documents that informed our discussion.
CF&I Personnel Records
Much of what we know about Villa comes from the personnel records of the Rockefeller owned Colorado Fuel and Iron Company (CF&I), the largest coal mining company in southern Colorado. In total we have located seven records (see below) ranging in date from 1921 to 1927. Each of these records seems to have served as both an application for employment at a particular mine, as well as a general record of employment while at this mine.
Taken together, these records suggest that Villa worked in various coal mines throughout southern Colorado for several years before the 1927-28 IWW strike began. During this time he mostly worked as a ‘miner,’ though at times he was employed as a ‘loader’ or a ‘driver.’ The earliest date listed for employment at a CF&I mine appears to be from early 1921, and the latest from 1927. Villa worked at a variety of area mines during this time (e.g. Toltec, Morley, Lester, Primero, and Robinson #1 and #2–both of which were sometimes referred to as Walsen because of their close proximity to Walsenburg). It also appears that there were periods of time where he worked at non-CF&I mines in the area.
Additionally, we located an internal CF&I report from January 31, 1928 (written by George B. Parker, head of CF&I intelligence gathering in Walsenburg) that sums up Villa’s mining experience in the region and confirms our timeline. The report states that Villa worked for CF&I “at the various mines from April 19, 1921 to August, 1927. Has a total of two years nine months service.”
Unfortunately none of these documents tell us when Villa first arrived in the United States. Nor do they tell us if he had previously lived in other parts of the US (other than New Mexico and southern Colorado). They do however provide important details about Villa’s background. For one, they all list Villa’s year of birth as 1899, though they show varying specific dates for his birthday. Two documents simply say March, one says March 23, one says March 24, one says August 19, and one says August 22. Given other matching information on these documents, we think it is safe to assume that they all refer to the same individual.
These records also suggest that Villa worked as a miner for several years before he ever worked for CF&I, which was the largest mine operator in southern Colorado. For example, the earliest CF&I record we have indicates that by 1921 Villa already had five years of experience working in the mining industry, but not in CF&I mines. Another from 1922 indicated six years of experience. Another record from 1925 lists Villa as having a total of eleven years of experience in the mining industry, two and a half with CF&I. Other CF&I records show similar information–with slight variations–that place Villa’s start in the mining industry sometime between 1914 and 1916. Questions remain. Did he begin working in the mines of Asturias as a teenager in Spain, and then move to the US around 1921 (at the age of 22)? Or did he move to the US around 1914-1916 (at the age of 14-16), and then begin working in the mining industry upon arrival (whether in southern Colorado, New Mexico, or elsewhere in the US)?
Several of the CF&I personnel records list Villa’s father as Antonio (Tony) Villa, born around 1863, but they do not include his mother’s name. These records also indicate that during the 1920s, Villa’s parents lived in Lada, Oviedo, Asturias, Spain. We think it a safe assumption that Villa originally hailed from this area as well. Lada is a small parish (with a population today of roughly 3,500 people) located some twelve miles southeast of Oviedo, the capital city of the principality of Asturias in northern Spain. This region was known for its mining industry. Thus we think it is possible that Villa worked in mining in Asturias before he came to the USA.
Sacco and Vanzetti Solidarity Strike, August 6-7, 1927
“Whereas we are firmly convinced that Sacco and Vanzetti are innocent of the crime of which they stand convicted, and that they are victims of master class greed; Be it resolved that this Conference go on record as most indignantly protesting against the planned legal murder of these two union men and demand their immediate release; Be it further resolved that this conference pledges that the members of this district will do all in their power to aid in securing the release of the Centralia prisoners, and all Class War victims.” — Resolution passed at IWW IU 210-220 District Conference in Walsenburg, Colorado, July 10, 1927
In protest against the imminent execution of Sacco and Vanzetti, the IWW General Executive Board (GEB) called for a nationwide three-day general strike to take place in early August 1927. While this was a national call to action, individual IUs, locals, and regional branches were responsible for setting their own level of participation. The participation of southern Colorado coal miners in this work stoppage was impressive. On August 6, 1927, 400 miners attended a mass meeting in Walsenburg to discuss the strike. At this meeting the miners voted to stop work two days later on August 8, and to picket all mines in the region. The vote was not unanimous. A faction of UMWA members attended and spoke against the walkout. After the vote, UMWA officials predicted that the walkout would fail.
Accounts of how many miners participated in the walkout vary. A conservative estimate might suggest that more than 1,500 miners stayed out of the mines in southern Colorado. United Press accounts reported that fifty-eight percent of the 2,020 miners in the Walsenburg area had left their jobs, and an estimated forty-percent of the miners in the Trinidad area had gone on strike. Huerfano County Sheriff Harry Capps estimated that “fully two-thirds of the miners in the district were members of the IWW,” and that 1,132 out of 1,167 miners in the county had participated in the strike.
The Colorado miners agreed to end the strike after two days after IWW leaders met with members of the Colorado Industrial Commission, a state agency created in 1915 (in the wake of the bloody 1913-1914 coal miners strike) with powers to mediate and/or ban strikes in certain industries.
According to an August 10 article (see below) in the Daily Times of Longmont, Colorado, José Villa was one of the “principal Spanish organizers” of the strike, and was a “member of the committee of miners [that] met with the industrial commission and agreed to call off the strike” after two successful days. Yet while most workers were permitted to return to their jobs after the strike was over, “company men refused to let [Villa] return to work.”
According to the newspaper article:
“Villa was not permitted to go to work because of an argument at the mine. This sprang from an incident Monday when Villa was alleged to have handed his foreman one of the IWW strike posters which read: ‘If you refuse to strike for Sacco and Vanzetti you sign their death warrant.’ The foreman alleged that Villa, in handing him the poster, told him: ‘This is your death warrant, too.’ Today when Villa showed up for work the foreman and others joked with him about the poster. An argument followed and Villa was not permitted to return to work.”
In the article it was alleged that Colorado Industrial Commission chair Thomas Annear asserted that Villa “probably would be permitted to return to work later.” Yet this did not turn out to be true, as Villa (like nearly all of the IWW rank-and-file leaders) was blacklisted and prevented from ever again working for any CF&I mines. A memo from George Parker, head of the CF&I “protective department” in the Walsenburg district, explains that Villa was one of “about ten” IWW members who began working at the independently owned (i.e. non-CF&I owned) Toltec mine after being fired and blacklisted from the CF&I mines near Walsenburg. In this memo, Parker principally blames Villa for “directing men to go to Toltec for employment.”
Trinidad Jail, November 1927-February 1928
In October 18, 1927, thousands of IWW coal miners throughout Colorado began a prolonged and bloody strike that lasted nearly four months. Villa played an important role as a rank-and-file organizer in the lead up to the strike. Yet after getting arrested in early November, 1927, José Villa spent the majority of his time during the strike in the Trinidad jail (alongside a number of other IWW leaders).
According to a January 1928 report by CF&I executive George B. Parker (head of the Walsenburg district spying operation), Villa was “arrested October 18th  on charge of picketing and was tried in Justice of Peace Court and released on bond. Re-arrested November 8th for picketing and is still in County Jail at Trinidad. No bond furnished. Case will be heard in County Court during February Term.”
While Villa was prevented from participating in IWW pickets during his time in the Trinidad jail, he was not prevented from participating in the strike altogether, nor was his voice completely silenced.
For example, on December 30, 1927, a CF&I spy known as ‘X’ reported that Villa and other IWW leaders (Conrado Alvillar, Juan Noriega, Kristen Svanum) being held in the Trininad jail were engaged in a hunger strike. As X reported from Walsenburg, IWW leaders were planning to “put some propaganda in the papers” to draw attention to this action. Unfortunately we have not yet found any further information on this hunger strike.
Additionally, on January 18, while he was still being held in jail in Trinidad, Villa was brought to Walsenburg to testify before the Colorado Industrial Commission. An Associated Press article (see below) published in the Fort Collins Express Courier printed some of his comments:
“(Associated Press–Leased Wire) Walsenburg, Colo., Jan. 18.—Two striking miners who have been held in the Trinidad county jail on picketing charges, appeared before the state industrial commission this morning as the last witnesses in the miners’ parade of grievances against the Colorado Fuel & Iron Company, and admitted in evidence that they were members of the IWW, and testified they had worked as organizers for the organization…Jose Villa and Conrad Alvillar were brought before the commission this morning under guard. They told of their arrest and admitted IWW activityVilla recited alleged bad working conditions describing them as injurious to good health; deplored the absence of pit committees, and declared the miners were not actually represented on the Rockefeller committees [CF&I company controlled ‘unions’] since company men always served. The witness made major in his complaint the fact that the CF&I gave ‘no time out for eating.'” — Fort Collins Express Courier, January 18, 1928
Release from Jail & End of Strike, February 1928
José Villa was released from the Trinidad County Jail in early February 1928. Villa’s name soon returned to the pages of the CF&I spy reports.
On February 18, 1928, a spy known as ‘X’ reported that Jose Villa and Conrado Alvillar (a rank-and-file IWW leader who had also just been released from the Trinidad jail) gave speeches to the rank-and-file miners at the Walsenburg hall.
X reported: “Jose Villa, who was recently released from jail at Trinidad, made a big talk at the hall today and explained the situation and urged the men to stay organized and to strike on the job.” — X , February 18, 1928, Folder 1, Industrial Relations Box 1301, CF&I Collection, Steelworks Center of the West
1928-?: José Villa Disappears from the Historical Record
Unfortunately we have not been able to locate any records on José Villa after the strike, so it is unclear what happened to him. On our show we speculated that perhaps he returned to Asturias, where in 1934 miners would lead a failed uprising. Did Villa play a role as a rank-and-file militant there? Did he play a role in the Spanish revolution and civil war a few years later? Do you have access to historical records in Spain? We need you to help us figure out what happened to Villa.