Women & the Mexican revolution
With (Inter)NationalNovelWritingMonth underway I’ve had little time to work on anything else, so I apologize this is a bit rough and not really how I wanted it to be after feeling so deeply inspired after visiting the Museo Nacional del la Revolucion in Mexico City. Maybe next year…
Women & the Mexican revolution
November 20th is the day we commemorate the Mexican Revolution, one of the most brutal struggles of the early 20th Century which lead to the end of the dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz. Mostly we are only reminded of the men: the leaders and the politicians, more often forgotten are the women.
It can be hard for people today to imagine the cataclysm that gripped Mexico during the Revolution. At the beginning of 1910 the population was around 15 million; by the end as many as 2 million people had died or left the country – that is 1 out of 7. The physical destruction and social disruptions were immeasurable, but on a more positive note workers gained previously unimagined rights; the campesinos won the right to own the land they worked, and the status of women improved immensely.
So many of the photos of the Mexican Revolution were taken with a train or rail road tracks in the background. Rail roads played an monumental role in the struggle. One of the accomplishments of the pre-Revolution Diaz regime was to criss-cross Mexico with rail road tracks. These were built, operated, and owned by foreign corporations. It is difficult to appreciate the importance of rail travel in Mexico in those days unless you understand how mountainous and difficult much of the country is. Up until the mid-20th Century roads were often little more than dirt paths. With a rail roads, armies could travel distances in hours that would have taken weeks on foot.
The word Soldadera comes from the Spanish soldada, a small allowance a soldier received so he could hire a servant. A wo/man who collected the allowance was therefore a soldadera, a person who cares for soldiers.
The Mexican armies at the start of the Revolution lacked many important facilities possessed by more modern armies such as commissary and supply departments, and a medics.
Soldaderas performed many of these functions, but on a relatively informal basis. They set up camp, fed the fighting soldiers, cleaned their clothes, patched them up when they got wounded, retrieved their bodies from the field if they were killed, searched the bodies of the other dead for supplies and equipment, and performed innumerable other small tasks that made their men’s lives, and the life of the whole army, more bearable.
The Mexican Revolution saw two types of Soldaderas: the female soldiers who fought alongside the men, and the majority of the Soldaderas—the women who accompanied the soldiers but were not soldiers themselves. These soldaderas were sometimes called Adelitas (more about this later) and were mostly women who followed behind the large battalions, carrying kitchen utensils, and sometimes even their children. When the soldiers made camp, the soldaderas found ways to procure food from nearby villages and cooked and washed for the fighters, as well as kept them company at night.
Though the Soldaderas played a crucial role in the Mexican Revolution they never got the credit they deserved. What more, the story of these brave women have been suppressed, distorted, or simply forgotten.
As soon as they safely could, most of the revolutionary generals disbanded their female units and rid themselves of women of all ranks. This despite their military value and the proven heroism of individual soldaderas. It was simply too much for the leaders of the time to handle. Most women did not draw wages as they were not official members of the various armies. Aside from being summarily dismissed, many were denied promised pensions for their own service or that of their slain husbands.
Unfortunately this rather reinforces the major perception of soldaderas as simple, unthinking camp followers, women of easy virtue who might even be prostitutes.
Those who could went home and some had difficulty adjusting back to civilian life, dealing with social shame and sometimes with no family left to rejoin. Many died in poverty.
The public image that remained of the soldadera has gradually been taken over by film makers and marketers and distorted further. More often they show female revolutionary soldiers as femme fatales, curvaceous and long-legged, holding their weapons suggestively and they gazing seductively.
The real life of the Soldaderas was tough. The army’s horses were often better treated because the generals viewed women as expendable. The horses on the other hand played vital combat roles.
The Mexican author Elena Poniatowska describes them as:
“…slight, thin women patiently devoted to their tasks like worker ants–hauling water and making tortillas over a lit fire, the mortar and pestle always at hand. (Does anyone really know just how hard it is to carry a heavy mortar for kilometers during military campaigns?) And at the end of the day there’s the hungry baby to breastfeed.”
“Anxious on a train” is one of the most famous photos to come out of the Revolution. The woman on the left scans down the train for her man, while the very young, and very pregnant, girl on the right gingerly makes her way down the steps. The women behind them carry wicker baskets of provisions. More often the women were left to travel on top of the railway carriages, which could be argued was better than to walk (carrying supplies and heavy cooking utensils) but it still left them dangerously exposed to the elements such as sun, rain and wind.
Another painting, Las Soldaderas (1926), by José Clemente Orozco. Orozco’s murals captures the feeling of long marches, the weary women trudge behind their soldiers. Their heavy bundles contain the food and other household goods that make their life in the field.
What happened to these women when her man was killed or she otherwise became separated from him? There was often no place to return, and had she done so it could be very dangerous for her. Rape by passing soldiers or deserters was a common fate of Mexican women in this period. According to Mexican writer Elena Poniatowska, women of every social class were kidnapped. Stolen women would often become soldaderas. Having been dishonored, they could not return to their villages. Women who lost their men would often quickly form new arrangements with other soldiers to survive.
Working conditions for the people living on Mexico’s many haciendas were nothing but slavery. Beginning in 1910, workers rose up, raging against the oppression they and their ancestors had experienced for hundreds of years. Often they killed the owner before they left. Indigenous women often followed their men into battle, and later (with their men gone) many remaining women chose to simply take their chances on the road rather than be sitting ducks for rape and pillage.
As the revolution progressed more and more women became actual combatants. Unlike in the early days when a woman might pick up the gun of her wounded or dead spouse and plunge into combat, these (mostly middle class) woman appear to have been mobilized as a unit, and such units began to appear more often as the war continued.
Some generals were reluctant to accept a combat role for women, much less give them leadership positions. So women may disguise themselves (like Petra Herrera, initially calling herself Pedro) in order to be allowed to fight and to gain promotion, this under Pancho Villa.
Poniatowska writes :
“They nicknamed her ‘El Echa Balas’ (The Shooter) because of her violent character. She’d shoot her carbine squatting behind adobe walls, her aim better than that of a torpedo. On one occasion, two soldiers argued over who would be the first to rape a young girl they had kidnapped when ‘Pedro’ rode up to where they were and claimed her ‘for himself’. The soldiers, afraid of her aim and her knife-handling skills, let ‘Pedro’ take her. Once they were far enough away, Petra Ruiz opened her blouse and said ‘I’m also a woman like you’, and allowed the confused girl to go free.”
“…Herrera blew up bridges and demonstrated extraordinary leadership abilities…having gained a reputation as an ‘excellent soldier’, one day she showed everyone her braids and shouted ‘I’m a woman and I will continue to carry out my duties as a soldier using my real name!’ … Petra Herrera continued to fight in combat and took part, together with some 400 other women, in the second Battle of Torreón in May 30, 1914…Perhaps it was because her worth as a soldier was never formally recognized that Petra was motivated to form her own brigade which quickly grew from 25 to 1,000 women.”
The female soldiers often ‘belonged’ to bands of rebels fighting against government troops. Many of them dressed like men, acted like men, rode horses, marched and fought like any of the other revolutionaries. One of the best known is Margarita Neri, a Mayan from Quintana Roo who became a commander in Emilio Zapata’s army.
Some Soldaderas were feminists and socialist activists who not only fought on the rebel side, but fought for women’s suffrage, fair wages and affordable housing. More often middle-class, these soldaderas and revolutionaries were often educated and motivated by ideology much more than a desire to accompany their men.
Dolores Jiménez y Muro (previously a school teacher) was involved in drafting the ideas behind the “Political and Social Plan” which led to the Complot de Tacubaya. And even though that attempt to overthrow Díaz and install Madero as president failed, her writings influenced Emiliano Zapata’s own ideas of social reform.
Unlike many of his contemporaries, Emiliano Zapata was a true social revolutionary rather than a simple opportunist. He was also famed for his respectful treatment of women. Zapata’s forces was described by one as “not an army, but a people in arms.”
Children too accompanied many of the armies, sometimes participating actively in the battles. The fierceness of the young who grew up practically in the revolution is hard for most to comprehend, yet testimony of it exists. In 1916, a girl named Elisa Griennesen Zambrano was living in Parral, Chihuahua when US troops arrived looking for Pancho Villa. Thirteen-year-old Elisa was outraged when the local Mexican men did nothing as invading troops arrived. So, she took charge. She got the women and children together and asked them to bring whatever was at hand: weapons, sticks, and stones. Infuriated, with their arms in the air, the women surrounded the American commander and forced him to shout “Viva Villa, Viva Mexico” as he ordered a retreat.
So when next you visit a Mexican restaurant and see the popular version of La Adelita: a beautiful woman wearing a pair of ammunition belts across her chest, holding a bugle in one hand and the Mexican flag on the other and smiling, know that there is so much more: When you hear the song Adelita, the classic corrido (soldiers’ ballad) that pays homage to all the Soldaderas. Adelita is a powerful ballad of love, bravery and patriotism and tells the story about a young woman who is in love with a sergeant, and he with her. Adelita is beautiful and brave; she follows her man into war and has even earned the respect of the colonel. In one version (there were many) she died gloriously by blowing herself up to prevent Diaz’ forces from seizing Villa’s ammunition supply. It was so popular among soldiers that the name became synonymous with the term soldadera.
As far as i have been able to find out, all pictures used are public domain. If not, please let me know and I’ll be happy to add credit or replace said picture.