Conrado Alvillar, Wobbly Artist: “As Dangerous to Society as a Rattlesnake”

Conrado Alvillar was an artist, an organizer, and a working-class intellectual. He was also a coal miner, a beet worker, a husband, and a father. His story is fascinating and important, but it has been overlooked by historians.

We first learned of Conrado Alvillar after seeing his name mentioned in various documents in the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) records at the Reuther Library at Wayne State University in Detroit. Then we came across dramatic descriptions of Alvillar in documents held in the archives of the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company (CF&I) in Pueblo, Colorado. Our curiosity piqued, we searched out references to Alvillar in other sources, such as newspaper articles, CF&I personnel records, US census records, Colorado marriage records, military draft records, etc.

Together these various documents tell the story of an “organic” working class intellectual–to borrow a concept from Italian Marxist theorist Antonio Gramsci. That is to say, Alvillar channeled his experiences as a Mexican miner into artistic and verbal expressions that resonated with and inspired his “fellow workers,” and helped shape the way they thought about capitalist society, their own working-class identities, and the need for internationalist working-class solidarity.

In January 2020 over the course of three episodes of our weekly radio show History is Revolting we talked about the life of Conrado Alvillar (scroll to the bottom of this post to listen to these episodes). We were gratified to have had the opportunity to introduce Alvillar’s story into the historical record, and to have been able to highlight his contributions to the labor movement.

We present here a summary of much of what we talked about in those episodes, along with new additional information we have learned since those broadcasts. We also present here images of a number of the primary source documents that are discussed in the text.

CF&I Spy Reports: “He is a fanatic”

Conrado Alvillar played an integral role in the lead-up to a four month statewide strike launched by IWW coal miners on October 18, 1927. In addition to being a striking miner, Alvillar was an artist who painted elaborate pictures that hung in various IWW union halls in southern Colorado. He was also a rank-and-file IWW organizer who at times spoke publicly for the organization.

Most of what we know about Alvillar’s activities during the lead-up to the strike come from the reports of a spy known as XX who worked for the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company (CF&I), the largest coal mining company in southern Colorado. Several spies were employed directly by CF&I to infiltrate the IWW during the strike, and XX had already done so by late August, 1927, almost two months before the strike began.

XX was known to the miners as George McGirl and referred to by CF&I executives as Mr. Sibley. Beyond this we do not know much about XX other than that he had a history of working as an undercover agent inside the IWW in other locations before he began working for CF&I in Colorado. In fact XX had previously met Conrado Alvillar at some point while working as a spy in the copper mining town of Miami, Arizona.

In a report from September 4, 1927, XX introduced the figure of Alvillar to his employers and explained their shared history together. XX said of Alvillar:

“This Mexican is very smart and learned, and is an artist of some ability, but is the worst renegade and criminal that ever came out of the West. He is a fanatic, and will stop at nothing, and is as dangerous to society as a rattlesnake. He has been tried for almost every crime in the calendar. I worked with him in Arizona and secured information that caused him to be arrested, tried and convicted in Miami, Arizona. He knew me the minute he saw me today and introduced me to Svanum [organizer and secretary treasurer of IWW IU 210-220] and Payne [secretary of strike committee and general secretary of IWW IU 210-220] as the ‘radical Wobbly from Arizona’. Svanum became very friendly after this, stating that he needed a lot of “Wobblies” like me. He said he wanted me to keep in touch with him as there would be lots of work to do very soon. I believe this [Alvillar] is now wanted in Miami, Arizona, and Marysville, California and possibly in Oregon.” –XX Report, September 4, 1927, page 3, Folder 26, Industrial Relations Box 1300, CF&I Collection, Steelworks Center of the West

Page 3 of a copy of XX’s report from September 4, 1927 (Folder 26, Box 1300, Industrial Relations, CF&I Archives); Notice that Alvillar’s name is redacted in this copy of XX’s report. A note at the bottom of this page is from semi-reitred CF&I executive William H. Reno (who oversaw CF&I surveillance efforts in Las Animas county) explains the redaction as an effort to avoid exposing the identity of XX. However Alvillar’s name was not redacted in subsequent XX reports (though it was often misspelled). Click image for larger view.

Given that XX was a spy who made this report for an audience of CF&I executives, we should not take his hyperbolic descriptions of Alvillar as a “renegade and criminal” and “dangerous to society” at face value. Instead, we need to read these documents against the grain.

For one, we should entertain the possibility that XX was not being entirely truthful. Perhaps he felt it would impress his bosses if he embellished his reports. Also, we might read the accusation that Alvillar was a “fanatic” as evidence that XX saw him as an authentic revolutionary, a true believer, unlike so many other IWW leaders that he characterized in other reports as “grifters.” As well, we might examine the charge that Alvillar was “as dangerous to society as a rattlesnake.” Is this mere hyperbole? Perhaps. Or perhaps it can be read as an expression of sincere anxiety over the threat people like Alvillar presented to continued ruling class hegemony in capitalist society (though XX certainly would not have conceived of it in those terms exactly). Perhaps implicit in XX’s charge of “dangerous to society” is an admission that he saw Alvillar as a powerful and talented artist and organizer. Through his artwork and speeches, Alvillar helped inspire many of his fellow workers to embrace more radical visions of change, and to take collective action in the pursuit of that change. Thus it is not hard to understand why Alvillar would be seen as “dangerous to society” by CF&I executives and their paid mercenaries.

Also, it is unclear if XX’s references to Alvillar’s possible connections to Marysville, California and Oregon are reliable, given that other company reports do not mention these places, and we have thus far been unable to find any other documentation to connect Alvillar with these locations. Yet we cannot discount these assertions out of hand. It is certainly possible that Alvillar was among the Mexican IWWs who were involved in the so-called Wheatland Hop Riot that took place in Marysville in 1913, for example, though he would have been only 17 years old at that time.

We might also take a moment to comment upon the fact that XX had previously met (and informed upon) Alvillar in Miami, Arizona, when he was hired to work as a spy for one of the copper mining companies there.

First, it is unclear exactly when this occurred, other than that it happened sometime before fall 1927. The IWW had been active in mining towns throughout Arizona for almost two decades by this point, including during a statewide miners strike in 1917. Given Alvillar’s personal history (see sections below for more biographical information), we speculate that the events in question could have occurred at any number of different times during the late 1910s and the early to mid-1920s.

Regardless of the exact date in question, it is remarkable that XX was able to successfully infiltrate and disrupt the activities of the IWW across multiple states, and over a seemingly extended period of time. Given that Alvillar introduced him to other IWW leaders as the “radical Wobbly from Arizona,” the time XX spent spying on the IWW in Globe/Miami seems to have actually improved his credibility within the organization, thus aiding him in his spying efforts in Colorado. One might speculate about how many other spies there were like XX–people who spent years undermining the struggles of working-class people. How much more successful could organizing efforts have been if these spies had been discovered and neutralized? How much more successful could the IWW have been in Colorado if XX and his accomplices had not been so effective?

In a subsequent XX report dated September 6 (see below), it was explained that Alvillar (described here as “the Mexican from Arizona”) was a “publicly known” figure in the area who had been “painting all these inflammatory pictures for the different halls such as ‘The CF&I Slaves Are Marching’ and ‘Breaking Down CF&I Resistance’ and etc.” Of his artistic abilities, it was said that Alvillar had “quite a talent if properly applied.”

In a follow up report (see below) written later that night at “12 midnight,” XX further explained: “The pictures he paints are at least 2 1/2 x 3 feet, and are on display at different halls where the IWW meet. Two of them were on display at Aguilar Sunday. He is going to paint a card and possibly pictures notifying the public of the strike call and put it on display in the IWW hall in Walsenburg.”

Copy of XX report dated September 6, 1927 (Folder 26, Box 1300, Industrial Relations, CF&I Archives). Click image for larger view.
Copy of Page 2 of XX report dated “12 Midnight, ” September 6, 1927 (Folder 26, Box 1300, Industrial Relations, CF&I Archives). Click image for larger view.

Unfortunately we have been unable to locate any surviving copies or photographs of any of these paintings, and we fear that none remain in existence. Apart from the titles already listed above, the only other information we know about the artwork Alvillar created for this strike comes from two short descriptions discussed below.

The first of these descriptions comes from XX in a report dated September 11, 1927 (see below), where he described a “picture, possibly 3 x 3 feet, on oil cloth” that hung inside the IWW hall in Walsenburg, Colorado. XX described this painting–which he said was entitled “CF&I Justice”–as a “monstrosity” that depicted “a man of hideous visage holding a sword dripping with blood, over CF&I miners. On this sword is written ‘the Rockefeller Plan.'”

The second description of Alvillar’s artwork comes from an article in the Santa Fe New Mexican newspaper on January 28, 1928 (see below) entitled “How Wobblies Planned, Executed the Dynamiting of Prosperity” (that sure doesn’t sound biased!). While discussing a mass meeting held in early August 1927, the article described Alvillar as a “cartoonist” who “drew pictures of the famed governor washing his hands in blood.”

Page 2 of a copy of XX’s report from September 11-12, 1927 (Folder 26, Box 1300, Industrial Relations, CF&I Archives). Click image for larger view.
Clipping from Santa Fe New Mexican, January 28, 1928. Click image for larger view.

What can we really say about this artwork? All we really have to go on are the supposed names of three paintings, and two paltry descriptions written by hostile sources. While we are well aware how limited we are, we will attempt here a preliminary (and perhaps rather facile) analysis.

Perhaps we can say that it seems significant that CF&I–the largest and most powerful coal mining company in southern Colorado–is at the center of all of this artwork. And perhaps this might demonstrate the central importance that IWW miners and organizers placed on “breaking down CF&I resistance” as the only way to successfully build lasting unions in Colorado’s coal fields. And unless the “CF&I slaves” joined together in the IWW, the fake “justice” of the Rockefeller Plan (the CF&I company union) would mean that miners all over southern Colorado would continue to be exploited and to be exposed to hazardous conditions, all without any means of collectively fighting back. And of course all of this injustice (including continued deaths from mine accidents) was seen as sanctioned by the state, even under the supposedly pro-labor Governor Adams who washed “his hands in blood.”

Is it possible that any of these paintings still exist? We will keep looking. Anyone out there have a copy of any of these paintings?

Fired, Blacklisted and Evicted, October 1927

By early October 1927, Alvillar, his wife Juana Flores, and their five young children, were facing imminent eviction from their CF&I owned home.

An image of the Alvillar family was featured on the front page of the October 15 issue of the IWW newspaper Industrial Worker (see below). The caption explained:

“Conrad Alvillar, a blacklisted Wobbly miner. This man is one of the hardest fighting IWW miners in Colorado. He has been repeatedly discharged from the mines because he believes in organizing his fellow workers. He is completely blacklisted in all of the mines now, and is facing eviction from a CF&I house simply because he takes the right of free speech seriously.” Industrial Worker, October 15, 1917

Clipping from Industrial Worker, October 15, 1927. Click image for larger view.

According to a report from J.L.McBrayer, superintendent of the mines near Walsenburg, Alvillar had been “discharged” from the Robinson #1 and #2 mines on September 6, 1927, because he violated company rule 2-A, which prohibited any “attempt to organize or spread propaganda of the IWW or other Red organizations.”

Another document (see below) provides a transcript of this firing. We assume this transcript was written by McBrayer, but it is not clear for what purpose. The document reads:

McBrayer: I talked to Conrado Avillar [sic] this afternoon. He went in the bath-house to get his clothes and I met him when he came out and said to him: “Conrado, you have gone on strike have you”? Conrado: Yes, I have.

McBrayer: What are you striking about? Conrado: Well, conditions and wages are not right. We are not getting enough money.

McBrayer: Have you taken up any grievance with me or the bosses, and have we mistreated you in any way? Conrado: No, you have always treated me all right.

McBrayer: Tell me, Conrado, are the leaders of the IWW citizens of this country? Conrado: No, I don’t believe they are.

McBrayer: You are a citizen, aren’t you? Conrado: Yes. I was born and raised in this state.

McBrayer: Then you are going to let these radical foreigners come in and dictate how you are going to live? Conrado: Well, I don’t know whether I have done right or not.

McBrayer: How many children have you? Conrado: Six.

McBrayer: Conrado, by the time winter sets in, we will have to be sending provisions over to your family. Conrado made no reply but seemed to feel very bad about the whole thing, and quite broken-up.

McBrayer: I shook hands with Conrado as he left and said to him: You’ll not be permitted on company property. Conrado: No, I won’t come on your ground.”

–Conversation between J.L. McBrayer and Conrado Alvillar, September 6, 1927, (Folder 9, Box 1300, Industrial Relations, CF&I Archives)

Conversation between J.L. McBrayer and Conrado Alvillar, September 6, 1927, (Folder 9, Box 1300, Industrial Relations, CF&I Archives). Click image for larger view.

We should say here a few quick things about this document. For one, it is striking how different the Alvillar in this conversation appears from the Alvillar in the XX reports. There seems to be no trace here of the Wobbly “fanatic” described by XX, who made graphic, monstrous, “hideous” paintings, and who would supposedly “stop at nothing” to further his radical agenda. How do we respond to these two seemingly contradictory portrayals of the same person?

For one, we cannot trust that this transcript accurately reflects the conversation that occurred between McBrayer and Alvillar, if any such conversation even actually occurred. In fact this document could represent a total fabrication by McBrayer. More likely though, this transcript is probably based on what McBrayer remembers about a real event that actually occurred. Yet if this is so, how then do we reconcile Alvillar’s supposed comments here with contradictory information that we know to be true?

For example, in this transcript, Alvillar claims to have been “born and raised” in Colorado. As we will make clear in a later section of this essay, Alvillar was born in 1896 in the copper mining town of Morenci, Arizona. He most likely lived there until he was roughly 15, when he moved with his family to Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, where he then lived for an indeterminate amount of time. The earliest record we have of Alvillar living in Colorado is from 1917, when he was already 21-years-old.

In response to a question about whether he would “let” a bunch of radical foreigners come in and dictate how he was “going to live,” Alvillar reportedly responded: “Well, I don’t know whether I have done right or not.” It seems extremely unlikely that this is an honest response by Alvillar. For one, both the question and the answer seem to support the patronizing and false premise that the miners in Colorado were led by ‘outside agitators,’ and that the IWW locals were not actually directed by the rank-and-file miners themselves. To believe that Alvillar did not know whether he had “done right or wrong” would require us to believe he was some sort of ‘hapless dupe.’ It would also require us to ignore evidence (discussed in a later section) that Alvillar was already himself a national leader in the IWW by May 1926 (and likely much earlier)–at least a year and a half before the strike began. It would also require us to ignore the likelihood (discussed further below) that for decades prior to the strike Alvillar had been steeped in various forms of immigrant radical traditions that pervaded Arizona mining towns like Morenci (where he was born and raised) and Miami/Globe (where we know he lived at some point).

So if McBrayer did not invent this event, and the transcript more or less represents how he perceived the conversation to have occurred (allowing for some errors, omissions, and/or exaggerations), how then do we explain these discrepancies? The most obvious answer is that Alvillar intentionally misled McBrayer throughout the conversation. It seems reasonable to assume that even though he had already been identified as a leader in the IWW, Conrado felt it advantageous to conceal the full nature of this involvement. Alvillar seemed to have no desire to disabuse McBrayer of the patronizing notion that he was being taken advantage of by “radical foreigners.”

Art Studio in Pueblo, Colorado, October 1927

In response to his blacklisting and imminent eviction, IWW leaders devised a plan whereby they would finance Conrado Alvillar’s move to Pueblo, Colorado, and they would use his artistic and organizing abilities to recruit Mexican workers at the CF&I steel foundry there. It is unclear if his wife and kids were also to move to Pueblo.

On October 3, 1927, XX reported:

“Svanum [organizer and secretary treasurer of IWW IU 210-220] stated that he was going to send Conrad Avillar [sic] to Pueblo to finance him to open an art studio as a pretext, and have Conrad organize the Mexicans and other Spanish speaking men that work in the steel mills into the IWW. Svanum said that in a week or two he wanted me to go to Pueblo and on the pretext of soliciting for Conrad’s studio, to deliver literature and collect dues and deliver IWW cards to members…” –XX Report, October 3/4, 1927, Folder 27, Industrial Relations Box 1300, CF&I Collection, Steelworks Center of the West

Copy of XX report from October 3, 1927 (Folder 27, Box 1300, Industrial Relations, CF&I Archives). Click image for larger view.

Unfortunately we do not know whether the IWW ever actually ended up financing an art studio for Alvillar in Pueblo. Nor do we know very much about his organizing efforts among the Spanish-speaking steelworkers at the CF&I foundry in Pueblo. However we can get just a glimpse of these efforts from two spy reports filed on October 13, 1927.

The first document (see below) indicates that XX reported by phone from Pueblo at 2:20pm on October 13, 1927, and he stated that he “came to Pueblo bringing” both Conrado Alvillar and Roger Francezon (chair of the IWW general executive committee): “They have rented a suite of rooms…This will be headquarters of delegates coming in and out of Pueblo. They have rented a hall…about 3 blocks from here for the Mexicans only.” A “supplemental” report (see below) from 5:00pm from that same day from George B. Parker (CF&I executive and head of the “protective department” in the Walsenburg district) stated: “Conrado Avillar [sic] states that he got 15 members at Pueblo and the sentiment seems strongly favorable to the IWW. Thinks they will have all the Mexicans at the Works organized in a short while.”

Copy of XX report by phone from October 13, 1927 (Folder 27, Box 1300, Industrial Relations, CF&I Archives). Click image for larger view.
Copy of report from XX and George B. Parker from October 3, 1927 (Folder 27, Box 1300, Industrial Relations, CF&I Archives); One might notice the name “George McGirl” among those listed as members of the statewide strike committee. As was mentioned earlier in the article, the name George McGirl was an alias for the CF&I spy referred to in company reports as XX; Click image for larger view.

Arrested and Jailed, 1927-1928

On Sunday, October 16, 1927, just two days before the strike was slated to begin, Conrado Alvillar was elected to serve on the “Executive State Strike Committee” at a state-wide conference of miners held in Pueblo (XX Report, October 17, 1927).

On Saturday, October 22, 1927, just four days into the strike, Alvillar was arrested in Las Animas County for violating Colorado’s strict anti-picketing law. Charges of “Inciting a Strike” were eventually added. For whatever reason, no bond was posted for Alvillar, and it would not be until early February 1928 that he would finally be brought before a judge and released. Though not yet officially over, by early February 1928 the strike had essentially already been defeated.

“Report by Mr. Hawley” [most likely Joseph W. Hawley, District Attorney in Trinidad], Undated (Dec. 1927/Jan. 1928?) (Folder 9, Box 1300, Industrial Relations, CF&I Archives). Click image for larger view.

While Alvillar was prevented from participating in IWW pickets and creating more IWW paintings during his extended stay in the Trinidad jail, he was not prevented from participating in the strike altogether, nor was his voice completely silenced.

On December 30, 1927, it was reported by a spy known as X (not to be confused with XX) that Alvillar and other IWW leaders being held in jail (Jose Villa, Juan Noriega, Kristen Svanum) were engaged in a hunger strike. As X reported from Walsenburg (see below), 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.

Copy of X Report on December 30, 1927 (Folder 30, Box 1300, Industrial Relations, CF&I Archives). Click image for larger view.

In January 1928, Alvillar testified before 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. When the IWW strike began in October 1927, the Industrial Commission originally ruled the strike was illegal. This ruling was based solely on the charge that the IWW was an “illegitimate” labor organization, and thus could not be capable of truly representing the will of the coal miners. As the strike wore on, and after much lobbying by Colorado miners (some of whom reached out independently to Governor Adams and to members of the board of the Industrial Commission), the Industrial Commission decided to hold a series of hearings in various locations throughout both the northern and southern coal fields.

On January 18, while he was still being held in jail in Trinidad (still waiting to see a judge), Alvillar was brought to Walsenburg to testify before the Industrial Commission. An Associated Press article 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 activity…Alvillar was detailed in his testimony reciting that it ‘costs plenty’ to work for the CF&I, and detailed various items ranging from 15 cents to $1.50 a month to gain employment which included physical examination, goggles, medical fund, lamp, blacksmithing and a booklet on the Rockefeller plan. Alvillar declared that he had lost much money since the tipple weigh men were dispensed with, stating that once he and other miners would weigh in two tons of coal and were ‘now lucky to get 3,500 pounds.’ He recited instances where ‘cars disappeared.’ He also testified as to alleged bad working conditions they knew injurious to their health, since the bosses replied to all complaints, ‘If you don’t like it, get out.’” Fort Collins Express Courier, January 18, 1928

Clipping from Fort Collins Express Courier, January 18, 1928. Click image for larger view.

In early February, just before he was released from the county jail in Trinidad, Alvillar spoke with a reporter from the Santa Fe New Mexican. Here are his statements as printed on February 6, 1928 in an article titled “IWW Welcomes Anarchists” (of course we love anarchists, but that headline is obviously not meant as a compliment):

“[A] conversation was held with Conrad Avillar [sic] who was recently an organizer from the state of Arizona. Mr. Conrad Avillar [sic] is at the present time in the Trinidad jail. The following is his statement taken from him in shorthand: ‘The IWW had come to stay: we now have a foothold in the state where we can command the situation. It is only a question of time before the surrounding states will be organized thoroughly enough for action.’” Santa Fe New Mexican, February 6, 1928

Clipping from Santa Fe New Mexican, February 6, 1928. Click image for larger view.

What are we to make of these statements?

First, we should remember that these statements have been transmitted and likely somewhat distorted through the unfriendly capitalist press, and so we should be wary of making too definitive of conclusions.

Also, it seems noteworthy that Alvillar’s comments at the commission hearing seemed to focus mostly on ‘bread and butter’ issues and specific rectifiable grievances. Again we see no trace of the “fanatic” described in the XX reports. Of course why would we? Alvillar was not talking to his fellow workers here, but to bureaucrats. He had no interest here in mounting a sweeping critique of capitalist society. His purpose instead seemed to be merely to show that the miners had been mistreated by CF&I according to the rules as laid out by Colorado law.

Finally, we are not quite sure what to make of Alvillar’s comments about the IWW having a “foothold in the state” whereby they could take “command of the situation” and organize workers for “action.” For one, we find it unfortunate that these predictions did not come true. As well, printed in an article prefaced with an ominous headline about scary “anarchist” unionists, his statements might seem somewhat foreboding. Yet perhaps we ought to give Alvillar the benefit of the doubt here and assume he gave this reporter a much more detailed and measured statement than what was published.

Juana Flores and the Children

During all of the aforementioned events–while Conrado Alvillar was creating paintings, organizing steelworkers in Pueblo, picketing mines, spending three months in jail, while the family was getting evicted from their CF&I owned house, etc.–Juana Flores was presumably taking care of their five young children. Even more remarkable is the fact that she was also pregnant with their sixth child, Conrado Jr., who was born on March 23, 1928, less than two months after his father was finally released from the Trinidad county jail. (Below is a drawing of Conrado Jr. made in 1929 by Ruben Alvillar, 11, Juana and Conrado’s eldest child).

Clipping from the Denver Post, December 16, 1929 showing an award winning image drawn by “Denver Post Junior Artist” Ruben Alvillar, 11. Born in 1918, Ruben was Conrado and Juana Alvillar’s oldest child. The subject of this drawing appears to be Conrado Jr., who would have been roughly one and a half years old when this drawing was published. Click image for larger view.

Where is Juana’s voice? There were a number of women who spoke at IWW rallies, who participated in IWW pickets, and/or were arrested during this strike. Some of these women were subsequently interviewed by the press, or their conversations were paraphrased in company spy reports. Sensationalized as “amazon warriors,” or as “girlfriends to the miners,” their voices were no doubt distorted. Yet however distorted by the press and company spies, at least we can hear some of these voices. Yet Juana’s voice cannot be found in any sources. All we really have are a handful of documents tying her to Conrado and their children.

Juana Flores no doubt had things to say, and we can imagine that as the wife of an underpaid coal miner, and as a mother trying to raise a large family in company owned housing, she had a unique analysis of work and exploitation in capitalist society. Perhaps her critique was much broader and more incisive than Conrado’s in certain ways. Unfortunately her voice seems to be absent, and it seems unlikely that we will discover new sources that will provide us access to Juana’s perspective. As well, her and Conrado’s older children (Ruben was almost 10 and Arabella was almost 9 when the strike began) no doubt were deeply affect by and had their own perspectives on this strike and the impact of their father’s union activity upon their lives. Unfortunately their perspectives on the strike are also unlikely to be uncovered.

Release from Jail, End of Strike, & Rebuilding, February-April 1928

Conrado Alvillar was finally released from the Trinidad County Jail in early February 1928, though it is unclear what the exact outcome of the legal proceedings were. Within days of his release, Alvillar’s name returned to the pages of the CF&I spy reports.

On February 8, 1927, X reported that Alvillar had come to the Walsenburg IWW hall “to see about relief.” According to X, Alvillar did not stay long because “he was afraid of being picked up by the state police and went back to Trinidad.” It is unclear exactly why Alvillar suspected he would be arrested again, other than that it was an ever-present threat. X also reported: “There is a move on foot now to send Alvillar to Arizona to the Copper mines.” (We have found no evidence that Alvillar went to any of the Arizona copper towns at this point in the strike or afterwards).

On February 9, 1928, X reported that Alvillar again came to the Walsenburg IWW hall. X reported: “Conrado Alvillar was here today with a note from Svanum, which was written in the jail and…made on typewriter by Alvillar, saying he could not see anything but to call the strike off, but he wanted the organization kept up.”

On February 10, 1928, X reported that Alvillar had been elected Chairman of the strike committee, and that he oversaw a long and contentious committee meeting. X reported: “Everyone there was in favor of a plan whereby they might call the strike off, if relief could not be had. Tomas Garcia opposed it and said they were all crooks and traitors or words to that effect, and finally Garcia was ordered out of the room…as he was not a member of the Strike Committee.”

On February 18, 1928, X reported that both Alvillar and Jose Villa (who had also been held for months in the Trinidad jail) gave speeches to the rank-and-file miners at the Walsenburg hall.

X Reported: “Conrado Alvillar in his talk told the men that he did not think any of them could get work at the CF&I mines as the company through their system of stool pigeons had the names of everyone belonging to the organization. He said they had tried every way to get the names of these stool pigeons but couldn’t do it. He also told the men to try the CF&I mines first then if they could not get work to go to the independent mines. He cautioned them about remembering about what the superintendent told them so they could put it before the Industrial Commission. They also have instructions to all speakers to forget the present strike in their speeches and to talk organization and strike on the job.” X , February 18, 1928, Folder 1, Industrial Relations Box 1301, CF&I Collection, Steelworks Center of the West

Two days later, on February 20, 1928, the strike was officially ended by a statewide vote of striking miners. An AP article in the Fort Collins Coloradoan (see below) reported that the miners “conducted the referendum in eighteen coal camps with the result that approximately 88 percent voted to return to work today.” Printed alongside this was another AP report, this one from Trinidad that stated: “There has been no strike activity in this district for many weeks and men connected with the industry here looked up the announcement of ending the strike as merely clearing the atmosphere.”

Clipping from Fort Collins Coloradoan, February 2, 1928. Click for larger image.

While the strike ended in failure, IWW leaders worked to maintain the organization they had built in the region, with mixed results. Ultimately, within a matter of a few years the IWW essentially disappeared from the Colorado coal fields. This was due to a number of factors, and a full discussion of these is outside of the scope of this essay. But in short, it seems one of the major factors had to do with a major drop in demand for the type of coal they were producing, and the resulting closure of mines all across Colorado. As well, the UMWA took advantage of the outcome of the strike to build their organization at the expense of the IWW. There are no doubt many other factors as well.

As far as Alvillar’s involvement after the failure of the strike, we know that he continued serving as an organizer and in-house artist for the IWW branch in Walsenburg for an indeterminate amount of time.

Wobbly miners faced many challenges in the wake of the failed strike. Many were unemployed and/or blacklisted. The organization owed money all over town, and with a loss of membership that accompanied the loss of the strike, they lacked the funds to sufficiently pay their bills. In addition they had to deal with all of the fallout that accompanied the repeated violence they had been subjected to, both upon their persons and upon their property. To that end they did what they could to repair the damage. For Conrado this meant creating more paintings.

A bulletin for the IWW IU 210-220 Coal Miners and Coke Over Workers Colorado District dated April 20, 1928 (see below) explained:

“No doubt you will remember that with the exception of Aguilar all our halls in the Southern District were destroyed by the state police, the CF&I gunmen and other such ‘law and order’ ruffians. When the state police murdered two of our fellow workers in Walsenburg, they shot out the plate glass windows in the front of the hall and in trying to kill our members who were on the stairway leading up to the office, they shot through the wall causing considerable damage. The Trinidad hall was on two occasions was completely demolished. However, both of these halls have been put in order. The Walsenburg hall has been repainted throughout. Our artist, Fellow Worker Conrad Alvillar has completed the first of several large paintings which will make the hall more attractive. This hall in Walsenburg is, without question, a credit to the IWW. THE BEST part of it is that all of the work has been done by our members. Other branches take note.” — Bulletin, IWW IU 210-220 , April 20, 1928, Folder 4, Industrial Relations Box 1300, CF&I Collection, Steelworks Center of the West

Bulletin IWW IU 210-220, April 20, 1928, Folder 4, Industrial Relations Box 1300, CF&I Collection. Click for a larger image.

Childhood: Born and Raised in Morenci, Arizona, 1896-1911

Conrado Alvillar was born in Morenci, Arizona–or perhaps nearby Clifton (depending on the source)–at 4pm on June 11, 1896. Located just a few miles apart from each other in eastern Arizona, both Morenci and Clifton served the nearby Morenci Mine, one of the largest copper mines in the world. 

Alvillar’s parents, Urbano Alvillar and Maria Guadalupe Romero Castañeda, were both from Ciudad Juárez in the Mexican state of Chihuahua. In 1892 they brought their three children to the Clifton-Morenci area. We speculate that they left Ciudad Juárez because of a famine that occurred in Chihuahua in the early 1890s, brought on by drought and the hoarding of water and land by rich landowners.

A Los Angeles Times article from October 11, 1891 (see below) provides a glimpse into the situation: “there is a great destitution among the lower class of Mexicans in Chihuahua and Durango. There are about 4000 people seeking employment on the railroad extension…These men and their families are half-starved and in utter want. Hundreds of unfortunates subsist entirely on the maguay plant…”

Clipping from Los Angeles Times, October 11, 1891. Click image for larger view.

The Alvillar family remained in Morenci/Clifton until at least 1901 (and possibly until 1911), likely living in deplorable conditions in the hills of the Morenci miners camp.

Here are descriptions from other scholars of what Morenci was like at this time:

Jane Little Botkin: “Old Morenci…was mostly a Mexican and Italian camp with some of the most deplorable living conditions in Arizona. Most Mexicans lived on steep hills surrounding the isolated camp near smoky copper works, paying ten dollars in monthly rent to build on company-owned land. The community had no streets, merely trails leading upward to flimsy Mexican shanties, many made of scrap lumber found on company grounds. No electricity or public facilities were provided, so company-owned mules hauled water in from the San Francisco River, almost five miles away. Businesses and the company store, built in ‘the hole’ as the canyon was called, sold miners supplies, paid with boletas, or company scrip, and not with actual American dollars.” — Jane Little Botkin, Frank Little and the IWW: The Blood That Stained An American Family, (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2017).

Andrea Yvette Huginnie: “Housing for Mexicans in the Clifton-Morenci district was deplorable, according to a witness before the President’s Mediation Commission in 1917: ‘Previous to…1915…about forty per-cent of the houses had no floors and about sixty per-cent had no furniture other than candle and powder boxes and crude home made articles. The living conditions were bad and the store prices were high.’” — Andrea Yvette Huginnie, 1991 PhD dissertation “‘Strikitos’: Race, class, and work in the Arizona copper industry, 1870-1920.”

We know the Alvillar family first arrived in the US in 1892, and that they lived in Morenci in 1900, because of information found in the 1900 US Census (see below). This document also tells us that while their father Urbano Alvillar worked as a miner, the school age children attended school. It also tells us that three of the family’s children (Estefana, Conrado, and Josefa) were born after the family arrived in the US in 1892.

Page from 1900 US Census from Morenci, Arizona. Click image for larger view.

By examining the Mexican civil birth registration of Conrado’s younger sister Josefa (see the next section below for more on this) we can also conclude that the family still lived in Morenci/Clifton in late March 1901. We have not found any sources to definitely confirm where Conrado Alvillar and his family lived between March 1901 and 1911, though three separate issues of the Clifton newspaper The Copper Era–in 1902, 1903, and 1906–make brief references to people who might be members of the Alvillar family (or at least people with the same or similar surnames and first initials). This perhaps provides some positive evidence of the family’s continued residence in the area until at least 1906. And lacking any other evidence tying the family to any other locations during this time, we think it is reasonable to speculate that the family likely stayed in Morenci until around 1911 when they returned to Ciudad Juárez, Mexico (see more about this in the following section). Of course it is possible that members of the family traveled back and forth between Ciudad Juárez and Morenci (and/or other locations) during this time. However we have not found any specific evidence to support this.

If the Alvillar family did remain in Morenci during this time they would likely have witnessed or participated in a number of labor uprisings that took place in the area, including independently organized miners strikes that occurred in 1903 and 1907. These strikes were led mostly by Mexican workers with a sizable contingent of Italian and other immigrant workers also participating, and they occurred without the participation of any unions–though these strikes would spur unions to redouble their efforts to organize workers in the region.

Also, if Conrado Alvillar and his family did continue to reside in Morenci during this time, they might have met Práxedis Guerrero and/or other activists associated with Ricardo Flores Magon’s Partido Liberal de Mexico (PLM). The PLM was a revolutionary organization popular among working-class Mexicans in the American Southwest and throughout the border region. Many PLM activists in these areas were also simultaneously affiliated with the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). On July 3, 1906, Guerrero (who was working as a miner at the time) joined about fifty others to form a PLM club in Morenci known as Obreros Libres (Free Workers). While Guerrero left Morenci in mid-1907, PLM/IWW activity continued there into the 1920s at least.

Move to Mexico, 1911

On December 4, 1911, at 3:50 p.m., Urbano Alvillar stood before Judge Refugio Soto Sandino in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico. Stating that he lived in the Partido Escobedo (a neighborhood less than two miles from the US border), Alvillar was joined by his three youngest children, Estefana, Conrado, and Josefa, all of whom (according to his testimony) had been born in Clifton, Arizona (located just a few miles from Morenci). Though it had been a decade since his youngest child was born,  Alvillar was just now finally registering their births with federal authorities in accordance with Mexican law. While most children in Mexico had their births registered when they were still just days old, the Alvillar children ranged in age from ten to nineteen (Estefana 19, Conrado, 15, Josefa 10). Given their age and the date of their birth registrations, this seems to further support the idea that the Alvillar family remained in Clifton-Morenci until 1911 (or at the very least that they did not return to Mexico until 1911).

Mexico Federal Birth Registration records for Estefana and Conrado Alvillar, December 4, 1911. Click image for larger view.

The specific date of these birth registrations (December 4, 1911) seems somewhat curious given the timeline of the Mexican Revolution and its impact on Ciudad Juárez. Just six months earlier President Porfirio Diaz had been forced to resign and flee the country. This followed nearly six months of battles between federal troops and various revolutionary factions. Among the earliest revolutionary groups to respond to Francisco Madero’s call for insurrection in 1910 was a small band of PLM revoltosos led by the aforementioned Práxedis Guerrero that launched its revolt from El Paso, Texas and entered Mexico through Ciudad Juárez on December 19, 1910. Fighting under a red flag carrying the slogan “Tierra y Libertad” (Land and Liberty), these insurgents had planned to march on the state’s capital (the city of Chihuahua), “liberating” communities along the way. After taking the town of Janos, however, Guerrero was shot in the head and killed on December 30, 1910, (under circumstances that are somewhat unclear), and his troops were ultimately repelled from Janos by federal forces.

Is it reasonable to wonder if the presence of Conrado Alvillar and his family in Ciudad Juárez almost a year later is somehow also connected to the Mexican Revolution? We cannot help but wonder: was anybody from the Alvillar family a revoltoso? Alternately, was there maybe some other reason why the fall of the Porfiriato would convince Urbano Alvillar to return home with his younger children? Was the political situation more safe for him for some reason? Or was there an economic pull?

Or perhaps they returned due to the poor health of Conrado’s mother, Guadalupe, who passed away in Ciudad Juárez on October 1912. The cause of death was listed as “chronic enteritis.”

Colorado Coal Miner, 1917-1927

Following his December 1911 federal birth registration in Mexico, the next document we could find on Conrado Alvillar’s whereabouts comes from a 1917 CF&I job application from what appears to be Walsen mine in Walsenburg, Colorado (see below). Blurry and faded, the writing on this document is somewhat difficult to decipher. Even the date is difficult to read, though there appears to be some important information that can be gleaned from this application. For one, it lists 21-year-old Alvillar’s last place of employment as the coal mining town of Dawson, New Mexico. Now a ghost town, Dawson was once a company-owned coal mining town located about ninety miles south of Walsenburg. Also, the application lists his father Urbano Alvillar—age fifty-five and living in Ciudad Juárez—as a dependent, and as his nearest relative. It also seems relevant that given the absence of Juana Flores, this document shows that Conrado and Juana were not yet married. Perhaps not directly relevant to any of the questions at hand, but maybe interesting nonetheless, the application also indicates that Conrado had previously had typhoid fever and smallpox. Perhaps his case of typhoid was related to his mother’s death of “chronic enteritis” in 1912.

CF&I Job Application, Walsen Mine, ca. March 1917? Click image for larger view.

While the 1917 CF&I application lists Alvillar’s previous place of employment as Dawson, New Mexico, it is unclear when he began working there. We also have no way of knowing if he worked elsewhere in the region before he worked in Dawson. It is possible that Alvillar had spent the previous five years living and working in mining towns in Arizona and New Mexico. And it is also possible that he remained with his father in Ciudad Juárez until 1917. We also do not know why he chose to move to Walsenburg exactly, other than presumably to look for work. Perhaps he was enticed by job recruiters in Dawson or elsewhere. We also found evidence of his older brother Urbano living in Walsenburg in 1920 (listed on the 1920 US Census as the owner of a billiard parlor there). Perhaps Urbano was already living in Walsenburg in 1917, and perhaps this was the reason for Conrado moving there.

We can also look to other sources to learn more about Alvillar’s life during this period. For example, in June 1918 Alvillar registered for the WWI draft before the draft board in Walsenburg (see below). In late September 1918 Alvillar and Juana Flores were married before a Catholic priest in Walsenburg. Interestingly, Alvillar listed Flores as his wife when he registered for the draft more than three months earlier. As well, later documents associated with their oldest son Ruben show him to have been born in Walsenburg on January 29, 1918.

We also found five additional CF&I job applications (for a total of six) that Alvillar filled out from 1918 to 1927 (see below). Each of these documents lists various pieces of information, including age, physical description, previous employer, years of experience in mining, etc. Together these applications tell the story of a man who by mid-1927, at age 31, was married with five children and had worked as a coal miner for eleven years, with much of that work being done in Colorado coal mines. During this time Alvillar seemed to most often work at the CF&I mines near Walsenburg, but there were periods of time where he worked at other CF&I and at non-CF&I mines in the area. According to an internal CF&I report from January 1928, Alvillar had worked “at various intervals” in CF&I mines for a total of 7 years 3 months (from May 1917 to September 1927).

WWI Draft Registration, Conrado Alvillar, June 5, 1918, Walsenburg, Colorado. Click image for larger view.
State of Colorado Marriage Record Report, September 17, 1918. Click image for larger view.
CF&I Job Application, ca. late 1918?. Click image for larger view.
CF&I Job Application, Walsen Mine, March 19, 1921. Click image for larger view.
CF&I Job Application, Walsen Mine, January 14, 1925. Click image for larger view.
CF&I Job Application, Walsen Mine, April 28, 1925. Click image for larger view.
CF&I Job Application, Walsen Mine, July 6, 1927. Click image for larger view.

Becoming a Wobbly “Fanatic,” 1900s-1920s

How did Conrado Alvillar become an IWW organizer and a Wobbly “fanatic”? For that matter, how did he become a talented painter and a cartoonist? We do not have answers to these questions, though we can speculate based on what we know about his background.

The earliest direct evidence we have of Alvillar’s participation in the IWW comes from the minutes of a national IWW IU 210-220 (miners unions) convention held in May 1926, where it is noted that Alvillar was elected to chair the convention. This would seem to indicate that Alvillar had already been a leader in the organization for quite some time by this point.

Our guess is that Alvillar was introduced to the IWW at a young age. He was likely educated and inspired by a variety of organic working-class intellectuals, many of them IWW and/or PLM members, who were leaders in the Spanish-speaking immigrant communities in Arizona copper mining towns such as Morenci (where he was born and raised) and Miami/Globe (where at some point he worked as a miner and was arrested and jailed). He was also likely impacted by witnessing or participating in aspects of the Mexican Revolution as it unfolded in Ciudad Juárez.

We think it fair to theorize that Alvillar’s political ideas and his artistic interests were at least in part shaped by his acquaintances with “radical” immigrant leaders in these Arizona mining towns. Yet when attempting to tease out the specific nature of these influences we are hampered by ambiguity in the timeline. We are faced with several unanswered questions: When exactly did Alvillar work in the Arizona mining town of Miami? And when was he arrested? Did he ever return to Morenci after moving to Ciudad Juárez? Did he work in other mining towns in Arizona, such as Bisbee or Jerome? Etc.

The documents we have are ambiguous on these questions. As an example we can look to a five-page internal CF&I report from January 31, 1928 written by George B. Parker, head of CF&I intelligence gathering in Walsenburg. The report provides detailed background information on a number of top IWW leaders active in the strike. On page three is found a paragraph on “Conrad Avillar” [sic]. In part it reads: “Before coming to Colorado was an agitator and organizer in the State of Arizona and was arrested in Miami, Arizona and put in jail for some length of time. Quite a quantity of IWW literature and other radical papers were found in his possession and seized by the Chief of Police of either Globe or Miami, Arizona.”

Given what we already know about Alvillar’s history in Colorado this report does not really answer our questions. Does “before coming to Colorado” refer to before he initially came to the state in the spring of 1917? Looking through his numerous CF&I job applications we get the sense that Alvillar left Walsenburg and returned again with some frequency. Perhaps this was due to the seasonal nature of the coal industry and the agricultural work in the region. So it is quite possible that this report is suggesting that Alvillar was in Miami Arizona before he returned to Colorado in 1925, or 1927, or even some other time. Also, given that Parker does not seem to know whether it was the chief of police of Globe or Miami that seized Alvillar’s cache of “radical papers,” we are left to wonder about the source and reliability of this information.

So given all of this ambiguity, perhaps the best way for us to talk about the impact these communities had on Alvillar’s intellectual and artistic development is to very briefly provide a general picture of what we know about these communities and the “radicals” who lived there.

In order to provide a quick snapshot, we will briefly examine three reports made by an informant named S. Guzman to the US Bureau of Investigations (BOI)–the precursor to the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI).

On November 30, 1917, Guzman made a report on a “Spaniard” named Alvaro Fernandez who he described as “living in Morenci, shifteless at present, and a member of the IWW.” Guzman wrote of Fernandez:

“He distributes anarchical newspapers among the revolutionary element of Morenci; is managing an anarchical-literary entertainment, to be held on the 23rd instant at the hall of the IWW local. The object of this affair is to raise funds for the benefit of those members who are in jail at Chicago. These men are either IWW’s, members of the Mexican Liberal Party, or else members of the Rebel Socialist Party. There will take part members of the IWW and other professed anarchists of the three mining districts; also a number of women of the IWW…Fernandez had sent for approximately one thousand anarchical newspapers published in different places in the country…to be distributed among those who will attend the affair…” — Report of S. Guzman on Alvaro Fernandez, November 30, 1917, Investigative Reports of the Bureau of Investigations, 1908-1922

Report of S. Guzman on Alvaro Fernandez, November 30, 1917, Investigative Reports of the Bureau of Investigations, 1908-1922. Click image for a larger view.

On April 20, 1918, Guzman made a report (see below) from “Globe & Miami, Arizona,” with a list of names and descriptions of fourteen men, some of whom had recently attended a meeting together. Four of the men were identified as “Spaniards,” and three were identified as Mexicans. Almost all of them were described as members of both the IWW and the PLM. Some were identified as “anarchists” and members of a local anarchist group called “Lucha Tenaz” (Tenacious Struggle), and some were identified as proponents of the Plan de San Diego.

Report of S. Guzman, April 20, 1918, Investigative Reports of the Bureau of Investigations, 1908-1922. Click image for a larger view.

Finally, we turn to a report by Guzman made on November 25, 1918, from Globe, Arizona. With some consternation Guzman explained that a PLM organizer had boasted to him “that at Globe and Miami all the Mexican, Spanish, and Finn revolutionaries had united.” Guzman explained:

“I must advise that I think there is a good foundation to this statement for the reason that the uniting of all nationalities among the revolutionaries were clearly demonstrated at a picnic given last Sunday…All the agitating element of Miami went to this picnic, no matter to what nationality they belonged. When the feast was over the Spanish IWW P.F. Alvarez made the following statement ‘This feast is very significant to us, for by it are our principles demonstrated, the uniting of all races to form one great family, and the not recognizing of nations.'” — Report of S. Guzman, September 25, 1918, Investigative Reports of the Bureau of Investigations, 1908-1922

Report of S. Guzman, September 25, 1918, Investigative Reports of the Bureau of Investigations, 1908-1922. Click image for a larger view.

In presenting these documents here we are not necessarily suggesting that Alvillar took part in any of these activities or had personal contact with Alvaro Fernandez, P.F. Alvarez, or any of the other revolutionaries mentioned here, though this is certainly possible (probably not the picnic though as his marriage record places Alvillar in Colorado a week earlier). Instead our purpose is simply to provide the reader with a sense of the types of people and the types of radical traditions within which Alvillar would likely have been immersed. Perhaps from this we can get a better sense of what XX meant when he called Alvillar “a fanatic” and “more dangerous to society than a rattlesnake.”

Since we are not quite clear on the timeline of Alvillar’s IWW activism in Arizona, and we presented here documents from 1917-1918, we should probably briefly mention the impact of 1919-1920 Red Scare repression on IWW and PLM activity in these Arizona mining towns. In short, during this time a large number of IWW activists were arrested, imprisoned, and/or deported. Included among them were Mexican IWW/PLM members in the American Southwest. Others like Pedro Coria (who was featured in the first three episodes of our radio show) feared imminent arrest and left the country on their own accord. This repression no doubt dampened IWW/PLM activity in Arizona mining towns like Globe and Morenci. Yet IWW organizing continued in these places through the 1920s, and the legacies of arrested and/or deported Mexican and Spanish revolutionaries no doubt still resonated in the IWW union halls of these mining towns.

Organizing Beet Workers, 1928-1930s

In addition to working as a coal miner Conrado Alvillar was also a sugar beet worker. Given the seasonal nature of both agricultural work and the coal industry in Colorado, Alvillar likely switched back and forth between the two types of work, along with whatever other types of work he could obtain.

We also have evidence that after the 1927-1928 strike, significant numbers of Mexican IWWs left the coal fields to organize their fellow workers in the beet fields. Perhaps we will address this topic on a future episode of our radio show or in a future blog post. Suffice it to say here that we suspect Alvillar was one of these Wobblies.

During the 1920s-1930s Walsenburg served as a hub for the contracting of Mexican farm laborers to work seasonally in Colorado, Idaho, Wyoming, Montana, Nebraska, etc. We know that at times Alvillar left Colorado to do agricultural work in other states. An article in the Billings Gazette places him in central Montana in September 1928–he was among a number of Great Western Sugar Company workers who were honored with awards for excellence in beet thinning. As well, US Census records place the whole Alvillar family in South Dakota in 1930 and 1935. However other records place the family in Colorado at various points in the 1930s. For example, baptism records for Ernesto and Georgina Alvillar (Juana and Conrado’s youngest two children–out of 8 total) show that Juana and Conrado were at the Walsenburg Spanish-speaking Presbyterian church in both July 1931 and February 1934. Our assumption is that the family (or perhaps at times just Conrado) moved seasonally depending on the availability of work.

We have also found evidence that in addition to organizing beet workers into the IWW in the late 1920s, Alvillar was part of an effort in 1932 to organize Spanish-speaking agricultural workers in Colorado into a new independent labor organization.

In March 1932 the Santa Fe based Spanish-language newspaper El Nuevo Mexicano ran an article on the creation of a new Colorado based agricultural workers organization called the Frente Unico Betabelero (Unique Beet Worker Front). The article stated that hundreds of Spanish-speaking beet workers had already joined the new group. Of these it lists only a dozen people by name, and Conrado Alvillar was among them. By this we can presume that his name had a certain resonance among Spanish-speaking agricultural workers in the region.

While we still have much to learn about this organization, it appears that it led a failed strike during the summer of 1932. It is not clear if the organization lasted much beyond this strike. As an aside, news articles present the Frente Unico’s main leader as someone named J.R. Cordova. We suspect that this might be the same J.R. Cordova whose name appears in the CF&I files as a blacklisted IWW miner who participated in the 1927-1928 strike.

Hail Conrad, Redeemer of the Faith, 1950-1951

By 1940 the Alvillar family had moved to El Paso, Texas. City directories from the 1940s show that for several years Conrado and Juana (and their younger children) lived just a few short blocks from the US-Mexico border, and roughly two miles away from the neighborhood where Alvillar lived with his parents in Ciudad Juárez in 1911.

At some point in the 1940s Conrado Alvillar began working as a janitor and painter at Western Texas College (now the University of Texas at El Paso). In 1950-51 Alvillar so impressed students involved with the school’s student newspaper (whose offices he frequented as part of his duties) that he became the subject of multiple columns. As well, Alvillar himself contributed artwork and writing to student publications at Western Texas College.

In February 1951 student journalist Chester McLaughlin published a glowing profile of Alvillar in the Western Texas College student newspaper The Prospector titled “Meet Conrad…Philosopher, Artist, Linguist, and Scholar” (see below). In part the article read:

“Finding Conrad was like finding the one true religion, one true prophet, the light in the deepest pit of hell. Many come professing to be educated, to be enlightened, to be students of the best things in life, but most of them wear only the thinnest veneer of culture. Conrad came in the dress of a painter, unpretentious, unassuming…Conrad is the perfect answer to those practical men who believe nothing that can’t be proved by cross-checking, and those who live for nothing except their own self-glorification…Hail Conrad, redeemer of the faith, carrier of the torch of knowledge, scholar.” — Chester McLaughlin, The Prospector, February 10, 1951

Clipping from The Prospector, February 10, 1951. Click image for larger view.

We might compare McLaughlin’s adulatory description of Alvillar here with XX’s description of Alvillar as a renegade, a criminal, and “as dangerous to society as a rattlesnake.” Perhaps rather than contradictory we can see these descriptions as complementary. In essence they both show Alvillar to have exhuded such intellect and passion that any description of him seems hyperbolic.

In his profile McLaughlin also described Conrado as a philosopher and a linguist who learned German in order to read German philosophy, and who quotes philosophers “with the ease of one well-versed in the arts.” In particular Alvillar was said to have wanted to “read the philosophies of Kaplan in the original. He found the translation lacking. He now speaks fluent German.” It is unclear exactly who McLaughlin was referring to as “Kaplan,” as we have been unable to find a prominent philosopher from this time period or earlier who would fit this description. Is there someone out there who knows more about German philosophers than we do that can help us out? Is it possible that McLaughlin misheard Alvillar? Is it possible that Alvillar said he found the translation of Capital to be lacking (and not Kaplan)?

This article also explains that Alvillar contributed a cartoon for a student publication called El Burro (printed February 1950, see below). McLaughlin wrote of Alvillar and this cartoon: “To contrast the ancient philosophy of Stoicism, with modern actions, he quoted Marcus Aurelius, a student of Stoicism: The perfect man must know no passion; he must meet all situations without emotion; he must be the master of himself. To illustrate modern laxity, Conrad drew male students ogling a curvaceous co-ed.” It is unclear if McLaughlin’s interpretation of this cartoon was based on his own analysis or whether it was based on conversations he had with Alvillar.

Artwork by Conrado Alvillar, printed in El Burro, February 1950. Caption reads: “Shades of Marcus Aurelius–‘the perfect man must be free from passion, unmoved by either joy or grief, taking everything as it comes, with supreme and utter indifference.'” Click image for larger view.

McLaughlin also described an artistic contribution Alvillar made (direct action style) to a pre-existing mural on a wall in the student newspaper office. McLaughlin explained that “the mural on the wall of the editor’s office, a desert scene, wasn’t to his liking. It was bare, he said. It had nothing to draw the attention of the eye. So he painted a wood gathering peon with vultures circling high above. It was as if I had seen the mural for the first time.” Again, we do not know if Alvillar would have agreed with McLaughlin’s description of the figure as a “peon.”

Unknown students in front of the mural to which Alvillar added elements, such as the figure (obstructed) on the right and vultures overhead. Image taken from the 1951 Western Texas College student yearbook, The Flowsheet. Click image for larger view.
Unknown student sitting in front of the mural to which Alvillar added elements, such as the figure on the far right. Image taken from the 1953 Western Texas College student yearbook, The Flowsheet. Click image for larger view.

In March of 1951, a month after McLaughlin’s adulatory article, Conrad submitted a short piece of his own to the student newspaper (see below). In this text titled “Conrad…On Life” Alvillar discussed his own intellectual development.

Alvillar wrote: “…If I have acquired things of the intellect, I owe them to those unknown heroes who have given their all to advance the cause of humanity. They might be blackened now with the mud of lies, but in my heart there is only gratitude for their act in opening my eyes to Truth, and from the depths of my soul I thank them and say to them: ‘I will always remember you…’” — Conrado Alvillar, from “Conrad…On Life,” The Prospector, March 10, 1951, Western Texas College

Clipping from Conrad Alvillar, “Conrad…On Life,” The Prospector, March 10, 1951

It is unclear exactly who Alvillar was referring to here as the “unknown heroes” whose memories have been “blackened now with the mud of lies.” But given everything we have already discussed, it seems reasonable to suppose that he is referring to those organic working-class intellectuals of the IWW and/or PLM who inspired his activism decades earlier. Given that this was written in the midst of the second Red Scare, we can certainly understand why Alvillar would obliquely refer to these people simply as “unknown heroes” who had been unfairly maligned, rather than provide more specific information. We also find it interesting that Alvillar referred to these people as “unknown.” This would seem to indicate that he was referring not necessarily to prominent leaders who would be remembered in history books, but instead to rank-and-file radicals whose stories almost never get told. One of the goals of our radio show and this blog is to help uncover some of these stories, and to help scrape away the “mud of lies” that taints the historical memory of militant grassroots movements.

At some point (we believe in 1951 or 1952, though we have found conflicting information) Conrado and Juana Alvillar moved to Los Angeles, where some of their older children already lived. Student journalist Daisy Culley wrote a short blurb in remembrance of Alvillar printed on October 25, 1952 in The Prospector. It read:

“The Prospector is greatly missing the notes left us by our janitor, Conrad, last year. There is one sign put on the door by the chief which says, “Always use Small Words to tell Big Story.” To this our Conrad said, “Words are but the wings of soul. Small words spring from small thoughts.’ Maybe that is something for all college students to consider.” — Daisy Culley, The Prospector, October 25, 1952

In March 1955 The Prospector again ran an article on Conrado Alvillar, though he had left campus nearly three years earlier. Written by student journalist Gabby Meehan, the article focuses on Alvillar as the artist who painted the “stark and uncompromising figure” featured in the mural in one of the offices of The Prospector (Meehan also mistakenly credits Alvillar as the artist who drew the desert scene background, an error that was corrected in a follow-up article). In his 1951 article, McLaughlin had described this figure as a “wood gathering peon with vultures circling high above.” Meehan however was more elaborate. She wrote: “An Indian, carrying on his back a load of kindling wood is trudging homeward over the desolate desert sand dunes. Over his head several buzzards circle hopefully.” It is unclear if Alvillar would have agreed with Meehan’s description.

Though Alvillar had only left El Paso a few years earlier, Meehan described him as “years beyond the recall” of any of the student journalists at The Prospector. She points out however that he was well-remembered by many faculty as “one of the most interesting characters on campus at his time.” Using similar language as McLaughlin in his profile of Alvillar, Meehan called Alvillar a “linguist, poet, painter, and philosopher” who was an “avid reader of the classic literature and German philosophers, whose works he read in their original language.”

Meehan also wrote: “As mementos of his friendship he left to his friends several small paintings, one of which is hung in the Library-Administration Building basement, and another of which is in the possession of Baxter Polk, librarian.” We contacted UTEP and spoke with one of the librarians there. Unfortunately she was unable to locate any of the paintings in question, nor was she able to find any other information on Alvillar.

Conclusion

Conrado Alvillar died in Los Angeles on November 15, 1956. He was sixty years old. We have not yet been able to locate any information on his cause of death, though we would not be surprised if it was related in some way to the long-term health complications that often plague coal miners (e.g. Black Lung).

We are gratified to have had the opportunity to share Alvillar’s story through our radio show and through this blog, though we still have much to learn. We are hoping that through listener and reader feedback we can refine our analysis and perhaps even learn new details about Alvillar and the historical events he participated in. Most of all we are still holding out hope that some of Alvillar’s artwork still exists. Do you have one of Conrado Alvillar’s paintings? Or even a photograph of one of his paintings? Let us know. Leave a comment or send us an email.

Listen to our discussions about Conrado Alvillar:

Conrado Alvillar Epidode 1:

Conrado Alvillar Episode 2:

Conrado Alvillar Episode 3:

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3 Responses

  1. David Alvillar says:

    This was incredible. I had no idea. — David Alvillar, son of James, grandson to Rubin, great grandson to Conrado

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