The Lost Grave of Mexican Anarchist Rafael Adames

2016 0602speakout

Wispy clouds gave way to a warming sun on a recent Sunday morning at Odd Fellows Cemetery in Boyle Heights, California. The shroud of a historical mystery surrounding the grave of Rafael Adames, a slain Mexican anarchist and member of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), also lifted from the grounds. A small group of anarchists and activists formed a circle for a humble ceremony around a new marker adorned with his name and the IWW symbol. Adames, who fell victim to a police officer’s bullet during the Christmas Day Riot of 1913 in Los Angeles, had been buried in an unmarked grave at the cemetery for more than a century.

The whereabouts of Adames had been forgotten, and the history surrounding his death largely suffered the same fate. A fading footnote of the past, the Christmas Day Riot is not often recalled by aficionados of Los Angeles or anarchist histories. The Plaza (La Placita), known as the birthplace of the great metropolis, served as an epicenter of discontent. The Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce and railroad barons flooded an already depressed job market with more workers — a move meant to lower wages and hamper unionizing efforts. The unemployed multiplied, as did their frustration.

In 1913, the IWW — or “Wobblies” as they were popularly known — called for a Christmas Day rally at the Plaza to protest the influx of laborers and to sound demands for a public works program for getting people back on the job. Crowds began gathering around 2:30 in the afternoon. At its peak, the holiday rally attracted 500 mostly Mexican workers, including Adames. According to William Estrada’s The Los Angeles Plaza: Sacred and Contested Space, the events went on without a hitch for an hour-and-a-half until Alfredo Ojeda, a local member of the Wobblies, addressed people in Spanish.

Law enforcement arrived on scene ready to break up the unpermitted rally. Lieutenant Herman W. R. Kreige approached Ojeda, and the events that transpired next are of a contested history. “I touched him on the leg and said, ‘Say, mister, you’re not allowed to speak in the park without a permit,'” Kreige told The Los Angeles Times. He claimed the crowd clamored for a fight and struck him in the back of the head. The Wobblies told a different story ofa much less polite Kreige trying to pull the chair out from underneath Ojeda and striking a worker in the head soon after.

The rally turned into a riot in no undisputed terms. Police shoved through the crowd violently. Protesters returned by throwing rocks, encircling Kreige and bloodying his face in the beat-down. In the midst of the melee, police officer Alfred Koenigheim zeroed in on people chasing a fellow patrolman. He claimed to have seen a protester brandish a .38 revolver toward the officer, though no such weapon ever turned up. Koenigheim opened fire and the downed man turned out to be Adames. Supporters carried him off back to the IWW headquarters nearby, where he died beneath a portrait of Karl Marx.

Back at Odd Fellows Cemetery, activists learned all about Adames’ life more than a century after it came to a violent end. Matt Aulger recounted the dramatic death of Rafael Adames in ceremony. A member of the Black Rose Historical Society, a group that seeks to restore the rich anarchist history of Los Angeles, Aulger first encountered Adames in Estrada’s book. “We wanted to make sure we found out who he was,” he said. “In every way possible, he’s a martyr for working people, labor and the anarchist movement.” The search for his body began in 2006, but ended when wandering around the grounds of Odd Fellows Cemetery proved aimless. “I spent several hours walking through the graveyard trying to find a marker,” Aulger said. He eventually gave up on the quest, especially after cemetery officials noted no known records related to the burial of a “Rafael Adames.”

The name of the Mexican anarchist came up once more in the Black Rose Historical Society’s work, piquing the interest of East Los Angeles activist Francisco Coronado. In late October 2015, the young IWW and Black Rose Anarchist Federation member returned to the cemetery. Coronado discovered that burial records existed for an “Aldames” and an “Adams,” but not “Adames.” The search had been thrown off by a single letter. The information office gave Coronado the grave number, but the anarchist still couldn’t pin down the location. Mexican cemetery workers offered help to him when they saw that he appeared to be lost. They invited Coronado to come back another day because the cemetery neared closing.

The search resumed for the mysterious whereabouts of Rafael Adames. Every grave at Odd Fellows has a cup and number. The workers followed the pattern of the rows, before coming to a grassy area where the grave number for Adames was supposed to be. “They scratched the surface a little bit,” Coronado said. But there was no marker. The workers outlined where the headstone would have been. At long last, the resting place of Rafael Adames had finally been found. “They were surprised that I was looking for a grave that was that old,” Coronado said of the workers. He shared a little bit of Adames history with them. Odd Fellows confirmed the grave and allowed the activists to place a new marker with “Adames” engraved on it.

The impact of the Christmas Day Riot goes far beyond the killing of Adames. In the immediate aftermath, police repression targeted the Mexican community. The Los Angeles Police Department conducted sweeps that netted 73 arrests, 56 of whom were of Mexican people. Errol Wayne Stevens notes in Radical L.A.: From Coxey’s Army to the Watts Riots, 1894-1965 that only 10 accused men got convicted in the following trial, but that Judge Thomas White handed down harsh sentence to teach the supposedly “ungrateful” Mexicans a lesson. The Los Angeles City Council also considered passing an ordinance cracking down on public speaking for people without citizenship and a permit. It ultimately passed but not without an amendment to maintain the Plaza as a free speech zone. Tamale wagons, however, were banned from the area amid suspicions they served as conversational hubs of radicalism.

One of the most notable protests immediately after the Christmas Day Riot that claimed the life of Adames took the form of his own funeral procession. A few days into the New Year, supporters sang songs near the Plaza before a march of about 250 people made its way through the streets of Los Angeles. Wobblies and anarchists gathered at Odd Fellows Cemetery to inter one of their own. Adames, 25 at the time of his death, left behind a wife and two children.

Why Adames’ grave remained unmarked for so long is still a mystery. Once the location of his long lost resting place had been found last year, anarchist activists started a crowd sourcing campaign on the 102nd anniversary of the Christmas Day Riots to raise the $700 necessary for a new grave marker. “Within six days, we were able to raise the funds from all over the world,” Aulger said. Contributions came in from Australia, Europe, Canada and across the United States. “We wanted to commemorate the memory of Rafael Adames, and also to celebrate the concept of mutual aid and solidarity which thankfully still exists within our community.”

Long-stemmed white and red roses were laid on the shiny black marker for Adames during the small ceremony. Coronado translated a poem about Adames that first graced the pages of Pluma Roja, an anarchist publication founded in Los Angeles at the time, and read it aloud. “Your life was guided by anarchy, and in the fertile groves of the heart of the people, your ideas sprout in a beautiful beam of light,” Juan Francisco Moncaleano, a Colombian anarchist, wrote of Adames. “You were a star of the humble skies eclipsed by criminal hands, but eclipsing isn’t death.”