Scabbing and Retribution: Violence in an Aguilar Pool Hall
On this week’s episode of History is Revolting we talked about a violent incident that occurred during the 1927-1928 Colorado coal strike. Newspapers reported that on November 19, 1927, two “loyal miners” were dragged out of a pool hall in Aguilar, Colorado, and were badly beaten by fifteen “IWW agitators” with ” knives, clubs and brass knuckles.” We examined this incident and found that the full story was much more complicated and interesting than what was reported in the press.
Variations of this story appeared in newspapers across the country, all of them based on a United Press (UP) wire service article. We read two examples on the air:
“Yesterday Juan Salazar and Albert Meranda, working coal miners, were critically injured when fifteen men dragged them from a pool room and attacked them with knives, clubs and brass knuckles. The beatings followed a reported conversation in which the two men were said to have declared to D. Peleo, strike leader, that they ‘intended to work wherever, whenever, and as long as they pleased.'” — St. Louis Star and Times, Nov. 20, 1927
“Two Loyal Miners Are Badly Beaten by IWW. Aguilar, Colo., Nov. 21–Albert Merades [sic] and Juan Salazar, employes [sic] of the Royal mine, near here, were dragged out of a local pool hall late Saturday night by IWW agitators and badly beaten with clubs and brass knuckles. The pair had refused to join the strike.” — Denver Post, Nov. 21, 1927
In our on-air discussion we talked about the bias of the capitalist press, and how the framing of these articles worked to portray the fifteen “IWW agitators” as violent ‘thugs.’ Meanwhile the two “loyal miners” could be seen not just as innocent victims, but almost as defenders of liberty and the American way. After all, what could be more American than defending an individual’s right to work “wherever, whenever, and as long as they pleased”?
We knew there had to be more to the story, which we hoped to uncover through a discussion of the historical context and an investigation into the individuals involved.
Background on Aguilar
Aguilar is a small town located in southern Colorado about halfway between the cities of Walsenburg and Trinidad (each about twenty miles from Aguilar in opposite directions). Although Aguilar itself was relatively small (the 1930 US Census listed the population as 1,383), in the 1920s the town was surrounded by a significant number of coal mines (e.g. Temple, Royal, Brodhead etc.) and mining “camps”/company towns. While some miners might live in Aguilar and commute to work in these mines, many others would live in the camps that were owned and run by the mine owners
On previous episodes we discussed the reputation Aguilar had as a union stronghold across several strikes, including during UMWA led strikes in 1913-14 and 1922, and the IWW led strike of 1927-28. Listeners/readers might remember that in 1922 Luigi Zanovello described the miners of Aguilar and surrounding communities as “emancipated people who know unionism not because the organizers preached it to them, but because they perceived it in their blood.” Zanovello contrasted the “noble” strikers (who took part in the 1922 UMWA strike) with the “cowardly” scabs, the “krumiri,” the “repulsive” and “contagious” strikebreakers who worked in the Colorado Fuel & Iron Company (CF&I) mines. In contrast, Zanovello declared Aguilar to be “the citadel and stronghold of Colorado unionism.” Zanovello wrote that “its name is a beacon of battles, if not of victories for all the fields of the south. The seed of scabism has never sprouted in Aguilar nor will it ever sprout…” (“La Situazione Nel Colorado,” L’Unione, April 21, 1922, translated from Italian via Google Translate–apologies for any errors).
Who Were The Attackers?
Based on newspaper reports, all we know about the fifteen attackers is that they were “IWW agitators,” and that one of them was named as “D. Peleo, strike leader.” While we have been able to find a significant amount information on D. Peleo (Delfino Paleo–see below), the names of the other fourteen men remain unknown. Thanks to documents found in the CF&I archives, we do know the names of quite a few IWW members in the Aguilar branch (e.g.the Zanovello brothers, Ramon P. Gonzalez, etc.), including (as we will see below) one of the attacked “loyal miners.” Yet without further evidence it would be pure speculation to suggest that any of these individuals were directly involved in this incident. It should also be noted that we do not actually know what role Paleo played in the beating, if he even personally took part at all (aside from the verbal altercation).
Everything We Know About Delfino Paleo: Our research suggests that “D. Peleo” was actually Delfino Paleo, a Mexican immigrant born in Nahuatzen, Michoacan, México, on December 24, 1888 (probably, though different documents list varying years for his birth, including 1892, 1893, and 1897). It is unclear exactly when Paleo first came to the United States, though various records suggest either 1911 or 1913.
A Colorado marriage record (see below) shows that in April 1919 Paleo married Ferminia Casados, who was born in Colorado and was of New Mexican descent. Yet two CF&I job applications (see further below) list Ferminia Casados as Paleo’s wife as early as 1917. Given that the 1919 marriage ceremony was conducted by a Justice of the Peace, it is possible that the two were married in a religious and/or community ceremony years earlier, and they only later sought out the state license. Another possibility is that the two were living together in a common law marriage from at least 1917, and that they never made it official until 1919. Also, given that Casados got divorced from her first husband in 1915, we can imagine that there might have been barriers preventing her from getting married a second time in the Catholic church (her first marriage was conducted by a Catholic priest).
Though they are from a decade earlier than the incident in question, the two aforementioned CF&I job applications from 1917 (see below) tell us some interesting information about Paleo. Aside from confirming his relationship with Ferminia Casados, these documents also provide a physical description of Paleo. They also provide information on Paleo’s background and history as a miner. They show that by the time Paleo first began working for CF&I in 1917, he already had five years experience in the mining industry. This included work at the Royal mine in Aguilar, where both he and “loyal miner” Juan Salazar would later work in 1927. The first application also appears to show that Paleo and Ferminia had already been married for two years by early 1917 (though the writing is somewhat blurry and illegible, so is that what it actually says?!?).
Later records suggest that the marriage of Delfino Paleo and Ferminia Casados ended at some point around 1925, though we have been unable to locate any divorce records to confirm this. It also appears that both Delfino and Ferminia remarried, though we have been unable to locate any later marriage records for either to confirm this. It is possible that they were never legally divorced, and each remarried without making it official with the state of Colorado.
It appears that around 1925 Delfino Paleo married 15-year-old Rose (Rosie) CdeBaca (Baca). While we have been unable to locate a marriage record, both the 1930 US Census and Paleo’s World War II draft registration list the two as being a married couple. “Rosie” Baca was the daughter of Miguel (Mike) CdeBaca (Baca), a Hispano miner born in Colorado in 1880 (discussed below, Mike Baca also joined the IWW in 1927). Delfino and Rosie’s first child was a daughter named Hope who was born at some point in either early 1927 or late 1926. Their second child was a daughter named Francis who was born at some point in late 1927 or early 1928. This would have been during the IWW strike and perhaps close in time to the violent incident in the Aguilar pool hall on November 19, 1927.
We can imagine that having a growing family to support made the decision to go on strike much more difficult for Delfino Paleo. And thus we can perhaps also understand the resentment and desperation that Paleo and others might have felt when they faced off against defiant ‘scabs’ (as is described in the newspaper accounts above) whose actions seemed like a direct threat to the welfare of their families. As we discussed on the air, these emotions might have been even more intensely felt if the ‘scabs’ had formerly been trusted comrades (as might have been the case with Juan Salazar, discussed below).
Both the names D. Palio and Mike Baca appear together on an undated (likely fall 1927) list of IWW members (see below) provided to CF&I officials by a spy embedded within the union. The names of several other people from Aguilar or nearby mines also appear on this list, including Louis Zanovello, R.P. Gonzalez, J.P. Duran, Luis Diaz, and Frank H. Flowers (Flores–a brother-in-law of Juan Salazar). Perhaps most important for our discussion here is the name Juan Salazar, listed on this document as an IWW member from Aguilar. We now turn to a discussion on the life and family of Juan Salazar.
The Ballad of Juan and Sara Salazar
We have thus far been unable to locate any information about Albert Meranda/Merades, one of the ‘scabs’ described in the articles above. However we have discovered quite a bit of information about the other ‘scab,’ Juan Salazar, some of which calls into question the characterization of him as a “loyal miner” who simply “refused to join the strike.”
Juan Nepucino Salazar was born to Hispano parents in Trinidad, Colorado, on May 16, 1893. We have found documents showing that Salazar lived in the Aguilar area and worked as a coal miner throughout the 1920s. We have not found any evidence that he ever worked at any CF&I mines. Thus we speculate that during this time he worked at one or more of the non-CF&I mines in the Aguilar region, such as the Empire, Royal, and Brodhead mines.
During the 1927 strike Juan Salazar was married to Sara Varos, who was born in 1896 in New Mexico. 1920 and 1930 US Census records suggest that Salazar and Varos were married at some point in 1919. However, a Colorado state marriage record report (see below) shows that it was not until late 1922 (at least three years later) that Salazar and Varos had a legal ceremony performed by a Justice of the Peace (similar to the situation above with Delfino Paleo and Ferminia Casados). By this point the couple already had a year-and-a-half-old daughter (Mary, b. 1921). By the time the 1927 IWW strike began they would have also have a son (Tony, b. 1923) and another daughter (Viola, b. 1926).
The only reason we think that Juan Salazar was at some point a member of the IWW is because his name appears alongside others on the aforementioned list of Wobblies furnished by the undercover spy XX. However, we know that early in the strike Sara Salazar Varos was an active Wobbly ‘agitator’ because her exploits were published in the capitalist press.
On October 23, 1927, the Denver Post printed a photograph of “Mrs. Sera Salazar and Mrs. Jennie Adams” (see below), “women pickets who were jailed at Aguilar, because of their coal strike activities.”
Associated Press wire articles printed the next day (October 24, 1927) in places like the Salt Lake Tribune (Salt Lake City, Utah) and the Independent Record (Helena, Montana), reported that the two “women pickets” had been “arrested at Delagua” (a ‘company town’ five miles south of Aguilar) a few days earlier, and were “subsequently released on bond from the Trinidad jail.” These articles also reported on a mass meeting in Ludlow that was “attended by between 800 and 900 miners, their wives and children” that “was held in the shadow of the Ludlow monument,” where the “principal speakers were Sera Salazar and Jennie Adams Kavich.”
These newspaper accounts paint a picture of Sara Salazar as a committed Wobbly agitator. Yet less than a month after she addressed hundreds of miners and their families at the Ludlow Monument, her husband was dragged out of a pool hall and viciously beaten by a group of fifteen “IWW agitators.” What happened in that month?!
In our on-air discussion we speculated about what could have turned Juan Salazar against the IWW and caused him to defiantly declare his intention to break the strike to a group of angry former “fellow workers.” Was he desperate to feed his family? Or perhaps something had occurred that had turned him against the union. Was he disillusioned and convinced the strike was lost? Was he drunk? Whatever the cause, Salazar was definitely no stranger to the men who beat him.
We also speculated that perhaps it was Sara Salazar’s participation in union activities and the attention this garnered that bothered Juan Salazar. On a previous episode of History is Revolting we discussed the classic labor film Salt of the Earth. Made in the early 1950s by blacklisted filmmakers together with rank-and-file unionists, Salt of the Earth is a true story about striking Mexican-American zinc miners struggling against racism and economic exploitation in 1940s New Mexico. The film also deals with themes of gender oppression and the struggle for gender equality inside the home and inside the union. We recalled the chauvinism of the film’s main protagonist, Ramon Quintero, who struggled to accept his wife’s participation in union activities. Ramon grew resentful as his wife Esperanza and other women took over the picket lines, were arrested in large numbers, and held organizing meetings. We wondered if Juan Salazar had likewise been bothered by his wife getting arrested, having her picture published in the Denver Post, and/or speaking before a crowd of nearly a thousand people at the Ludlow monument. Is this why he declared his intention to ‘scab?’ Of course we do not know the answer and this is all just wild speculation.
Whatever the nature of the relationship between Juan and Sara Salazar, the couple remained together for at least another three years, if not slightly longer. US census records show that by 1930 they had moved to Denver (though they likely left Aguilar much earlier, perhaps as soon as Juan recovered from his wounds in late 1927 or early 1928). In early 1929 the couple had a fourth child, a daughter named Frances. The marriage ended at some point in the 1930s, though it is unclear exactly when. The 1940 US census listed Sara Salazar as a widow, though other evidence (such as a WWII draft registration card) shows that Juan Salazar was very much alive at that time (though perhaps he was no longer in communication with his wife and kids).
Newspaper reports and an inmate record from the New Mexico State Penitentiary (see below) suggests that the two had already split up by at least 1935.
As the Alburquerque Journal reported (see below), in July 1935 Juan Salazar pleaded guilty to a charge of possession of “marijuana cigarettes,” garnering him a sentence of three years incarceration (WTF?!) in the New Mexico State Penitentiary. The Journal described Salazar as a “Colorado transient seized near the Federal transient camp.” It is unclear exactly where this camp was, or why Salazar was living there, though given that this all occurred in the midst of the Great Depression, we can imagine that Salazar was experiencing economic hardship.
By examining a record from the New Mexico State Penitentiary (see below) we can perhaps gain some more insight into the life of Juan Salazar. For one, the record includes somewhat haunting photographs of Salazar. In our on-air discussion we talked about how we might interpret Salazar’s expressions in these photos to be incredibly sad. As well, despite the fact that we have already vilified Salazar by labeling him as a “scab,” we are still prison abolitionists, and we can not help but feel bad for him for being given such a ridiculous sentence for such a victimless crime.
Other things we might mention: For one, the document shows that Salazar had previously been convicted of a crime in Colorado, though it does not provide information on that conviction. The record also provides information on his family history, and his religious and educational background, etc. As an aside, we noticed a discrepancy in the record. While it lists Salazar as still being married, it says he only had one child. He had four children. This discrepancy is likely the result of a simple recording error, or possibly the result of miscommunication during an intake interview. And as other information matches up (such as his date of birth, his closest relative, occupation, etc.), we are confident that this record is for our Juan Salazar, and not someone else with the same name.
Perhaps the most interesting part of this record is a section that lists “marks on body,” and an accompanying diagram showing where those marks occurred. It seems likely that the scars described on this report bear witness to the severe beating that Salazar received in 1927. In total the record notes five marks: a one inch cut scar on the top of his head; a 3/4 inch cut scar in the upper-center of his chest; and three small cut scars in the middle of his back, left side. We think it is likely that these scars were made years earlier by Wobbly ‘agitators’ wielding knives, clubs, and brass knuckles (as was reported in newspaper accounts).
Conclusion and Addendum
We hope that through our on-air discussion and the documents presented here we have provided an interesting narrative and analysis of a somewhat perplexing violent incident. We welcome feedback of any kind. Leave a comment and tell us what we got right and what we got wrong.
Also, an addendum: Unfortunately we ran out of time, but we wanted to recommend that readers check out a book called We Will Shoot Back: Armed Resistance in the Mississippi Freedom Movement by Akinyele Omowale Umoja. In a post-show recording (linked below) Joe explains that reading this book can perhaps help someone to better understand the role violence can take as a form of discipline in a freedom struggle, and as a way to understand why the Colorado miners might have felt violence was a necessary response to the scourge of scabism. Either way we recommend that you check out this book.