Juan Noriega: From Immigrant Coal Miner and ‘Wobbly’ Agitator to Colorado State Senator
Juan Noriega was one of the most active rank-and-file organizers in the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) led 1927 Colorado coal strike. A decade later he was a ‘New Deal’ Democrat elected to the Colorado state senate. His story has thus far been overlooked by historians. We discussed Juan Noriega in three episodes of our weekly community radio show (scroll to the bottom to listen). By looking at a variety of primary sources–including newspaper articles and mining company personnel records and spy reports–we sketched out a brief biography of Juan Noriega, and discussed the impact of his activism. We present here some of that biographical information alongside a variety of primary documents and a very rough summary of our on-air analysis.
Early Life and Migration to the USA
From looking at a variety of documents we know that Juan Noriega was born June 24, 1898 in Ojebar, a small village (roughly 150 people today) located in Spain some forty miles southeast of Santander, the capital city of the province of Cantabria. Facing the Atlantic Ocean (the Bay of Biscay) to the north, Cantabria shares a border with the Basque country directly to the east. The people of Cantabria generally speak Castellano (Spanish). The economy of Cantabria includes a zinc mining industry, with several mines (still active) relatively close to Ojebar. We don’t know if Juan Noriega or his family were involved in mining in Spain, though it is certainly a possibility and might help explain why Noriega and his brothers chose to become coal miners in Colorado.
We do not know why Juan Noriega left Spain and came to the United States, though we do know that he was not the first in his family to make the journey. It appears that he was following his older brother Benjamin Noriega who first migrated to the US in 1909. Looking at the 1910 US census (see below) we can see that by April of that year Benjamin was working as a coal miner and living in the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company (CF&I) camp of Engle in southern Colorado. As well, two CF&I personnel documents (see below) show Benjamin Noriega working as a miner between 1912 and 1914 at various CF&I mines, including Morley, Tabasco, and Berwind. It is unclear from these records if he participated in strike activity during this time (the big UMWA strike was 1913-1914), or if he worked as a “scab”– a replacement worker. It certainly is a possibility that he worked as a strikebreaker, as records show he worked at Morley mine at various points during the strike. Though we hesitate to make such a judgment with the limited records we have, and given the possibility that the records might contain erroneous information.
We think that Juan Noriega’s first attempt to enter the US was in 1911, and was unsuccessful, based on an Ellis Island document labeled Record of Aliens Held for Special Inquiry (see below). According to this document, Juan Noriega arrived at Ellis Island on November 4th, 1911, having departed from Le Havre, France, aboard the SS Caroline on October 21, 1911. Only thirteen-years-old at the time (matching the age of our Noriega), this record shows that Noriega was detained for being underage (“under 16”) and being unaccompanied by an adult guardian. While this document shows that Noriega was subsequently deported six days later aboard the SS Chicago, it does not show where he was deported to (whether France, Spain, or some other destination). We suspect but cannot confirm that this individual is our Spanish-born Juan Noriega, despite the fact that the ship manifest shows him having departed from La Havre, France. We recall that Italian immigrants Mario and Humberto Zanovello each separately appeared on manifests of vessels that departed from La Havre and arrived in New York, as this port was a hub for travel from other parts of Europe to the USA.
Four years later, on November 14, 1915, Juan Noriega entered the USA through the Port of New Orleans. He was accompanied by his older brother Ben and his sister-in-law Andrea Noriega (Ben’s wife), all of whom had departed two days earlier from Havana, Cuba, aboard the SS Excelsior. According to the ship manifest (see below), Ben and Andrea Noriega were accompanying young Juan Noriega (along with another relative and/or friend, Andio Trahaga?–the writing is somewhat illegible) back home with them to southern Colorado, which was recorded as “Camp 298” at the CF&I “Tabasco” mine near Trinidad, Colorado. According to this record, Juan Noriega (named here as John Noriega), had been living for the last two years in Havana, Cuba, working as a “mechanic.” We discussed on-air that in the early 20th century the term “mechanic” could have referred to all manner of factory work. This document also states that he had briefly been in the USA (New York) once before, though neither a specific date nor other details were included. Perhaps this bolsters our argument that our Noriega was the 13-year-old youth who four years earlier had been held for a week at Ellis Island before being deported for being “underage.”
According to a CF&I personnel record (see below), on November 20, 1915, just one week after entering the USA at the Port of New Orleans, Juan Noriega began working at the Tabasco mine in southern Colorado (presumably alongside his older brother Ben). It appears that according to this record he only worked at this mine for a little over a week before being “dropped” for unspecified reasons.
Mystery brother: Teodoro “Teddy” Noriega:
Two CF&I personnel records (see below) show that Juan and Benjamin also had a younger brother named Tedoro “Teddy” Noriega who was born December 6, 1900, and lived in southern Colorado at least between 1917-1919, if not longer. The first document shows Teddy working at the Tabasco coal mine in southern Colorado in 1917. The second document shows he worked at the CF&I steel mill in Pueblo for a short period in 1919. We have been unable to locate any other documents, and so it is unclear what happened to him after this point. We have several questions. Did he go back to Spain? Why are there no ship manifests for Teodoro, yet there are for his brothers? Similarly, why are there no WWI draft registration documents for Teodoro since it seems he lived in Colorado during 1918? Was Teodoro perhaps an alias for someone else?
Marriage and Tragedy: John Noriega and Victoria Romero
On December 16, 1917, nineteen-year-old Juan (John) Noriega married twenty-two-year-old Victoria Romero, who was Colorado-born and was of New Mexican descent. The ceremony took place in Trinidad, Colorado, and was performed by a catholic priest (Father Francis X. Tommasini). Together they had one child, Mary Anna Noriega born around 1921. Sadly, Victoria passed away on March 5, 1924. It is unclear why she died.
Second Marriage and More Children: Juan Noriega and Domitila Pedregan
It is not clear exactly when Juan Noriega remarried. A CF&I application from 1926 lists his second wife as Tilda Noriega. We believe her full name was Domitila Pedregan Noriega. It appears that they were not officially married in the eyes of the state until 1930 when they had a ceremony conducted by a justice of the peace. By that point they already had two children of their own, Joe born around 1928 and John born around 1930.
Benjamin and Andrea Noriega Move to Detroit, ca. 1920s
Based on the 1930 US census (see below), it appears that at some indeterminate point in time in the late nineteen-teens or early 1920s, Benjamin, Andrea, and their children, moved from southern Colorado to Detroit, Michigan, where Benjamin then worked in an auto factory. Notice that this document shows that by this point both Benjamin and Andrea had become US citizens. Juan Noriega also became a citizen at some point, though we have not yet discovered when exactly that happened (certainly before 1936, as will become clear further below).
Working in a Coal Mine: 1915-1927
We have located seven CF&I personnel documents (see below) from 1915-1927 that show Juan Noriega’s work history as a coal miner. Taken together these documents show that Noriega worked as a miner for about 12 years, and roughly half of that time was spent working at various CF&I mines, including Tabasco, Walsen, etc. These documents also show that Juan Noriega was also seriously injured on the job at least twice, first in June 1919, and then again a year later in June 1920.
The first injury, 6/13/1919 according to one of the records:
“Dr. says he wanted to go to hospital but he would not send him as it was not a case requiring hospital attention. He was asked to report to the Doctor here until such a time as released for duty. Dr. Andrews thinks should be able to go to wrk in two weeks from this date, or three weeks as the outside limit of time. -JCM 6/17/19”
The second injury was described in another record simply as “injured 6/17/20 to hosp’t this date.” He returned as a “driver” on 10/12/20.
We speculated on our radio show about how these types of injuries, along with a lack of concern by supervisors and company doctors, might have radicalized Noriega and helped convince him to participate in union activity.
Juan Noriega as a Leader in the 1927-1928 Colorado Coal Strike
As we discussed on our radio show, Noriega was one of the most active rank-and-file miners in the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW–also known as the Wobblies) led 1927-1928 Colorado coal strike. What we know about Noriega’s participation in this strike comes mainly from newspaper articles and from the reports of spies who infiltrated the union.
Newspaper articles from 1927 tell us that Noriega was involved in two court cases brought against mine operators, both of which occurred about a month before the strike officially began. The first involved charges of “coercion” brought against CF&I superintendent J.L. McBrayer (who oversaw operations at two mines just outside of Walsenburg), who had reportedly illegally fired Juan Noriega because of his membership in the IWW.
An article from September 16, 1927, from the Daily Times of Longmont, Colorado (see below), in part reads:
“Walsenburg, Colo., Sept. 16–Trial of J.L. McBrayer, superintendent of the Robinson mine of the Colorado Fuel and Iron Co., on coercion charges is set for Sept. 26…J.W. Hawley, district attorney, filed an information against him charging he discharged John Noriega, member of the IWW strike committee. IWW officials installed a local union at Aguilar last night. Feeling is running high over Noriega’s suspension…”
A little more than a week later, on September 27, 1927, the Denver Post ran an article (see below) showing that McBrayer was acquitted of the charges against him. The article in part reads:
“Walsenburg, Colo., Sept. 27.–J.L. McBrayer…charged with discharging John Noriega because he belonged to the IWW., was found not guilty in the court of Justice of the Peace Allen Monday night. McBrayer said that Noriega was discharged for spreading IWW propaganda and not because he was a member of that organization.”
The other court case involved charges against the operators of the Toltec mine, where Noriega had gone after being discharged from the “Walsen” mine. A CF&I memo (today located in the CF&I archives at Steelworks of the West) from George Parker, head of the CF&I “protective department” in the Walsenburg district, explains that “about ten” IWW members began working at the Toltec mine after being fired and blacklisted from the CF&I mines near Walsenburg. Among these was the IWW leader and artist Conrado Alvillar, who we covered in a previous blog post. In this memo, Parker principally blames Jose Villa (a Spanish immigrant, coal miner, and rank-and-file IWW organizer) for “directing men to go to Toltec for employment.”
9-24-1927: Memo to R.L. Hair (CF&I head of all mining operations in Colorado) from George B Parker (head of CF&I spying in Walsenburg):
“…John Noriega was put on as check weighman at Toltec and Rino and Alvillar are both working at Toltec [a non-CF&I mine near Walsenburg]. Villa seems to have a habit of directing men to go to Toltec for employment. About ten of the men who have been discharged in the Walsen district are now working at Toltec…”
The memo states: “John Noriega was put on as check weighman at Toltec.”
One of the ongoing demands of Colorado coal miners had been the recognition of check weighman who were elected and paid by the miners themselves to monitor the company weighmen (weighmen determined pay based on the weight of the mined coal). As far as we understand it, by the 1920s the right of miners to elect and hire their own check weighmen had become Colorado law. Yet some mine operators, such as those at Toltec in 1927, continued to refuse to allow these elected check weighmen.
An article from September 25, 1927, from the Alburquerque Journal (see below) explains:
“Miners Threaten Suit: Trinidad, Colo., Sept. 24 (AP)–Refusal of Toltec mine operators to allow Juan Noriega, elected by the miners, to act as check weighmen will result in court action, according to Paul Seidler, IWW organizer, Saturday. Applications for injunction, he said, will be filed at district court in Walsenburg to compel the company to accept Noriega.”
That same day a somewhat longer article ran in the Denver Post titled “IWW Will Fight Summary Dismissal of Check Weighman” (see below):
“Trinidad, Colo., Sept. 24.–(By Associated Press.)–Refusal of of Toltec mine operators to allow Juan Noriega to act as check weighman will result in court action, according to Paul Seidler, IWW organizer, Saturday. Application for injunction, he said, will be filed in district court at Walsenburg to compel the company to accept Noriega. According to Seidler the miners elected Noriega to the position and the company has refused him right to officiate. He is the IWW member who it was alleged recently was discharged at Robinson, a CF&I mine, for his reputed connection with the IWW strike movement and over whom a test case was instituted in district court in Huerfano county against Supt. W.L. McBrayer.”
Unfortunately we have not been able to locate any newspaper articles or other sources that tell us whether this lawsuit against the Toltec Mining Company was successful or not.
Some of what we know about Noriega’s participation in the strike comes from the reports of company spies who had infiltrated the union. For example a report filed on October 17 (the day before the strike was to officially begin) by a spy referred to in company documents as XX, shows that Juan Noriega served on the executive state strike committee.
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 in at least one CF&I document. 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.
On our radio show we discussed two other XX reports, both of them filed by phone from Walsenburg on November 6, 1927 (see below). The first occurred at 4pm, wherein XX said of Noriega:
“If Noriega can be picked up you will have one of the worst agitators out of the way as he does more to incite and inflame the Spanish speaking members than any one else in the field. Is a good talker and has a powerful influence among the Mexicans.”
In our on-air discussion we talked about how CF&I officials worked closely with local and state law enforcement agencies to target, arrest, and imprison union leaders as a strategy to break the strike. We also talked about the solidarity that was built between Spanish immigrants and Mexican immigrants, not only during this strike but also throughout the southwest mining towns in the 1910s and 1920s.
The other XX report we discussed was also made by a phone call, this one at 4:30pm. The report in part reads:
“…This afternoon at Ludlow I was talking to Noriega and was telling him about the gunmen at the meeting. He said he did not give a d— about the gunmen. I then asked him if he had heard about the fire at Starkville. He became extremely nervous and told me to shut up as no one was suppoed [sic] to know anything of the fire until it came out in the papers. He then started talking rapidly in Spanish with Mrs. Edilla and they talked for several minutes. After I had started on to Walsenburg I asked Mrs. Edilla why Noriega had gotten so excited over the mention of the fire at Starkville. She said that he told her the less said about it, the better; that the IWW were not supposed to know a thing about it…”
In our on-air-discussion we talked about about how to read and interpret this report. It seemed to both of us as if XX was trying to implicate Noriega and the IWW in illegal activity, including the apparent arson at Starkville (a mining town in southern Colorado). Though given what we know about Noriega, and given that we have reason to doubt the veracity of XX’s report, we ultimately decided that it was unlikely that Noriega was involved in this activity. His remarks that “the less said about it, the better,” and “the IWW were not supposed to know a thing about it,” if they were actually said, should not necessarily be read as suspicious themselves. Instead, they could be seen as borne out of Noriega’s impatience and suspicions of McGirl (XX) and other potential ‘stool pigeons,’ who might seek to instigate and take advantage of the suspected arson.
Juan Noriega In Jail, November/December 1927-February 1928
Spy reports and other CF&I documents make it clear that at some point in late 1927 Juan Noriega was arrested and spent an extended period of time in the Trinidad jail. And while we can confirm that Noriega was finally released in early February 1928, there appears to be some confusion in these reports about exactly when his arrest occurred.
We know that Noriega was not arrested earlier than November 7, 1927, as we can look to a telegram addressed to Payne (secretary of strike committee and general secretary of IWW IU 210-220) sent by Juan Noriega at 6:07 a.m. on November 7. The telegram read:
“Meeting Ludlow today–stop–over three thousand present–stop–aeroplanes flew over us with machine guns–stop–cannons been placed all c.f. and I. camps–stop–they are after me–stop–notify chicago and all branches at once must have lawyer stop answer immediately to thomas garcia–stop”–Box 51, Folder 20, IWW Records, Walter Reuther Library, Wayne State
While we did not discuss this document on the air, we should briefly remark upon the sense of fear and urgency conveyed in this telegram, as Noriega and other strikers faced violent repression. In addition to being somewhat haunting (even nearly a century later), the phrase “they are after me” also suggests that at this time authorities were targeting and actively seeking to arrest Noriega. We can speculate then that he was arrested shortly thereafter.
We can also look to an undated CF&I report (likely December 1927 or January 1928) written by a “Mr. Hawley” (most likely Joseph W. Hawley, District Attorney in Trinidad). This document lists several dates in October and November 1927 when crimes of “inciting strike” and “picketing” were supposedly committed by and filed against Noriega, with the last date of a “commission” of a crime being November 8, 1927. Unfortunately this document does not list any specific date(s) of arrest, though for each charge it was noted that “no bond” was given. Given the other information contained within, it would be reasonable to assume that Noriega was finally arrested on November 8 or shortly thereafter.
Yet a spy report from X-3 (not to be confused with XX) challenges this assumption, as it places Noriega at a union meeting in Aguilar, Colorado, on December 15, 1927. Of course it is possible that one or both of these documents contain erroneous information. For example it is possible that X-3 was mistaken and incorrectly identified a different IWW leader as being Noriega.
Despite this confusion, later spy reports confirm that Noriega did spend an extended period of time in the Trinidad jail, and he was there by at least late December. For example a report filed on December 30, 1927 by X (not to be confused with XX and X-3) asserts that Noriega was among a small group of IWW members being held at the Trinidad jail who were engaged in a hunger strike (unfortunately we have not been able to find any other information about this hunger strike).
Noriega was finally released from jail on Saturday, February 11, 1928 (according to a spy report filed by X on Feb. 13, 1928). By this late date the strike was essentially already defeated, though the miners had not yet officially voted to call it off. According to X:
“…Juan Noriega was released from Trinidad jial [sic] last Saturday and is making his headquarters in Walsenburg. In talking to the Strike Committee today, he said that the Strike would have to be called off, but that it would have to be put up to the rank and file for their decision, but that he would never be in favor of calling it off and allowing the organization to die. Said that they would have to keep up organizing and keep the headquarters open at Walsenburg at all times…”
Juan Noriega, Colorado State Senator 1937-1940
In late 1936, Juan Noriega was elected to the Colorado state Senate to serve as a representative of a district in southern Colorado that included the city of Trinidad. Unfortunately we have not been able to conduct very much research about this period in his life, and we are hoping that other researchers will pick up the slack and help answer some of our remaining questions. We discussed some of these questions on the air, and they included: What was his campaign like? Was his nomination and election the result of a major mobilization of working-class people (including coal miners), or was he anointed by Democratic Party leaders? When and why did he join the Democratic Party? What sort of formal and informal education did he get in order to prepare for this role? Why did he only serve one term? Did he run for reelection? Given that Noriega’s story has thus far been ignored by historians (we literally could not find anything written about him in any secondary source), we think it might be worth someone’s time to look closer at this period in his life to try to answer some of these questions.
While having conducted limited research we were still able to draw some conclusions about Noriega’s time as a state senator. For example, by looking at the published Index of Senate and House Bills from 1937 we can see that Noriega cosponsored a number of bills during his first year in the Senate that dealt with a variety of topics, including: a bill establishing and funding junior colleges in Colorado; a bill on water conservation; a bill regulating the use of mechanical loading devices at coal mines; a bill regulating trains (number of train cars allowed, etc.); a bill prohibiting employers from interfering in the political activities of employees; a bill requiring state agencies to use Colorado mined coal to heat buildings; a bill establishing maximum daily hours of work in industry.
We can also look to a number of newspaper articles we found from the late 1930s for information on Noriega’s time in the Colorado Senate. We include the following excerpts as examples:
3-17-1937: “Senate Votes Licenses for Sales Rings,” Greeley Daily Tribune: “…The bill of Senators Taylor, Ritchie, and Juan Noriega to require state institutions to use Colorado-mined coal for heating has been amended to exclude institutions which already have transferred to natural gas or other fuel.”
1-17-1939: “2 Sponsors Say Clash Brewing…,” Fort Collins Coloradoan: “…Two measures calling for $12,000,000 for direct relief were prepared Tuesday for introduction in the Colorado senate…Another measure providing a $10,000,000 relief appropriation for the biennium starting next July 1, was to be introduced by title during the afternoon by Senator Noriega (D. Trinidad), who with Senator Sam T. Taylor (D. Walsenburg), sponsored the memorial. The 31st general assembly two years ago appropriated $3,000,000 for direct relief for the current biennium. Noriega said he was doubling the request because of WPA layoffs…”
1-18-1939: “Bills Introduced Pass 1,000 Mark,” Fort Collins Coloradoan: “…Senators Sam T. Taylor (D. Walsenburg) and Juan Noriega (D. Trinidad) introduced a bill to provide for protection and guarantee of civil liberties, prohibiting interference with parades or meetings in public streets or public places, with specific exceptions, and providing for equal protection to all persons for hiring places of public assembly and meeting.”
It should be noted that some of these bills seem to deal directly with issues that the IWW faced during their strike ten years earlier. For example, the bill providing for protection and guarantee of civil liberties during parades, and equal protection for hiring places of public assembly, could be read as a direct response to the dirty tricks (implemented by CF&I officials in conjunction with law enforcement) that led to mass arrests of IWW picketers and made it hard for the IWW to secure union halls.
Unfortunately we do not know how many of these bills actually became law (if any), and we are not planning to conduct any further research into this topic (electoral politics really stands outside of our main area of interest). So again, this might be a good topic for other researchers to look into.
While we have not given this period in Noriega’s life as much attention as it probably deserves, we did spend some time during our radio show talking about some preliminary conclusions we could draw from what little know. Rather than go into too much detail here, suffice it to say that we spent some time discussing Noriega’s trajectory from being a leader in a militant and explicitly anti-capitalist labor union and working alongside anarchist and communist compañeros in 1927, to being an elected representative of a pro-capitalist political party just ten years later. Given that we generally analyze history from an anarchist-communist perspective, we were somewhat critical of the efficacy of Noriega’s path. Yet given the bills he sponsored, we both agreed that Noriega’s short-lived political career seemed to be motivated by a genuine desire to serve his working-class constituents, and for that we commended him.
Later Life, 1940-1980
We did not conduct much research on the last forty years of Juan Noriega’s life, nor did we spend much time discussing his later years on our radio broadcast. We will however briefly sketch out what we do know (based on a variety of documents) and provide a little commentary as well.
For whatever reason, it does not appear that Juan Noriega sought reelection for a second term in the Colorado state senate. We speculated that perhaps this was due to his grief over a tragic automobile accident that occurred in June 1939 that led to the death of his 11-year-old son Joe. Regardless, Juan Noriega did remain in Denver after his term ended in 1940, and over the next few decades he worked a variety of jobs for the state/city/county, including utilities inspector, railroad inspector, court investigator, police officer, and court bailiff. It seems that despite his earlier associations with the radical IWW and its many anarchist activists, by the 1940s Noriega had completely embraced ‘the state.’
We briefly discussed how despite his break with the more radical politics of the IWW, Noriega was likely operating in the arena where he thought he could help make the most lasting positive impact. While we ourselves are highly critical of the use of the state to bring about working-class power, it seems likely that Noriega became more and more convinced that promoting the reformist politics of the Democratic Party, and working for regulatory state agencies, were the best ways to make the greatest impact for working-class people. Though certainly we do not actually know what motivated Noriega in the latter half of his life. Also, while we are critical of the historically oppressive role of the police, we did not spend very much time talking about Noriega’s work as a police officer, in large part because we really lack sufficient information on Noriega’s specific job and his attitude towards that job, to have an informed conversation on this topic.
Shortly after we recorded our radio shows we had the opportunity to speak with Juanita Higgins, a granddaughter of Juan Noriega, who provided some details on his later years and helped us to better understand the person that he was when she knew him. In her words, “I do know that whatever he did, activism, being in the senate, policing, would have been to help others in whatever way he felt best.”
As well, through speaking with her we gained some insight into Noriega’s attitudes on assimilation and the USA, at least in his later years. For one, despite being an immigrant from Spain, in later years he only allowed English to be spoken in the home. His granddaughter suggested that this was because “He came here to make a life as an American,” and “We were Americans and we lived as Americans. Period.” However we wonder whether perhaps it was also because Noriega wished to spare his children and grandchildren from a perceived stigma attached to being a Spanish-speaker and/or being an immigrant in Colorado. Perhaps he was reacting to the discrimination he had faced decades earlier. Regardless, given his work as a state Senator and the various jobs he did afterwards (e.g. police officer, court bailiff, etc.) it does not seem surprising that Noriega, at one point an immigrant ‘wobbly’ agitator, eventually became a ‘patriot’ and a proponent of ‘English-only’ total assimilation (though to be clear, we do not promote those views ourselves). Of course being light-skinned and from Europe, Noriega almost certainly had an easier time assimilating and being accepted as an American than many of his Mexican compañeros would have had.
Juan Noriega passed away on June 23, 1980, the day before what would have been his 82nd birthday. There is a lot more to be learned about his later years, but we leave that to other researchers.
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