By Marcia Chaiken and Jan Chaiken
Women who participated in the Mexican Revolution (about 1911 to 1920) have been memorialized in photos, paintings, films, plays, songs and pageants. Many of these media envision the women through a romantic lens. They are portrayed as attractive young patriots, dressed in scrupulously clean flouncy traditional dress, with hair in braids, and chests criss-crossed with bullet-holding bandoliers. Each holds a rifle upright ready to march to battle. The folksong, “La Adelita,” which was widely popular during the revolution and still is included in the national repertoire, is a corrido praising a brave beautiful woman who joined the army to be with her lover, a regimental sergeant. The song, like almost all these representations, was produced by men who by and large ignored the actual history of women caught up in the revolution.
The generic term for women who participated in the revolution was either adelitas, from the song, or they were called soldaderas. The truth belies this terminology. Although there were hundreds of women who joined the men in military camps, most of them were not combatants nor were they necessarily revolutionaries. The federalists too had camp followers. The women were adjuncts to the military for many varied and complex reasons. As in wars over the millennia, some were prostitutes who were following propitious trade routes to earn a living. They were called cucarachas (cockroaches) and were also memorialized in a bawdy folksong of that name. Others were wives or daughters of fighters who felt safer with troops they knew than remaining at home where they would have been vulnerable to strange battalions or individual men who knew they were unprotected.
The majority of the women who participated in the revolution appeared to be simply meeting the expectations or demands of their husbands to provide meals, clean clothes, and a warm bed. They joined their spouses who were fighting far from home – mainly in the north. Troops fighting closer to home in the south reportedly conducted a commuting war; the women staying at home and the men returning at night. A number of other women in the north were involuntarily coopted by men who had no wives or whose wives remained at home. The men swooped into towns and villages, kidnapped women, and forced them to provide the comforts of home in camps along the battle routes.
Independent of the reasons they joined the men, their lives as soldaderas were harsh rather than romantic. In between camps, the women functioned as pack animals, carrying supplies as well as children. And conditions in the camps were unsanitary, unsafe, and unkind. Still, there were indeed a few that chose this life not as servile camp followers, but as combatants.
The women warriors were a class apart. Many adopted men’s clothing and some identified themselves as men, choosing names that were male counterparts of their own – Angela became Angelo, Amelia became Amelio and Petra became Pedro. While most of the women combatants outwardly pretended to be men to protect themselves from sexual discrimination and assault, a few apparently were transgender. Indeed, although most who identified as male lived out their lives as women after the revolution, several continued to identify as male for the rest of their lives.
Some adopted men’s clothes and mannerisms but fought unabashedly as women. Encarnación Mares “Chonita” de Cárdenas was one such soldier. Chonita battled along with northern rebels against Victoriano Huerta. Huerta was instrumental in the assassination of Francisco Madero and other revolutionary leaders. He was commonly detested as a “usurper” who seized the presidency and instituted the same types of repressive measures that had been grounds for the revolution. Chonita originally joined her fighter husband in Nuevo Leon, but so distinguished herself in battle that she was given a role as standard bearer. After that, she was described as having short hair, wearing ragged shirts and pants, and rallying the troops in a low voice, and she continued to be esteemed by other soldiers for her valor.
Other combatants were secure in their identity as women and confident in their leadership and military skills. They had practice in running ranches, and when their property and families were threatened, they mounted horses, collected their weapons and organized their own workers and like-minded women into battalions. Although many men considered them freaks, after proving themselves in battle, several became admired among the top brass and they were given honorary high ranks – although never General. Margarita Neri became a legend in her own time. She rallied 200 nearby workers to fight with her and reportedly increased that number to over 1000 in two months. She conducted raids primarily in the southern states, from Chiapas to Guerrero. She was so feared that a story circulated that when she entered Guerrero with her battalion, the governor left in a hurry by having himself transported out in a shipping carton.
A few women, usually wives of revolutionary military leaders, actually fought side by side with their husbands in attacks or defending positions. María Quinteras de Meras joined Pancho Villa’s troops along with her husband. Dressed in identical outfits, husband and wife fought so fiercely that they were both acclaimed by Villa. She participated in ten battles and achieved the rank of colonel. Her battle dress was actually consonant with the national image of the soldadera sans skirt – khaki suit, wide-brimmed khaki sombrero, a belt of bullet cartridges slung diagonally across her chest, and her rifle defiantly held in her hand. Her aim was so accurate and her accomplishments so deadly that the other troops decided she must have had supernatural powers.
Lest we forget, another important role of women in the revolution was to wield a pen rather than a rifle and to fight the repressive government with the printing press. They were the much treasured and equally reviled women journalists who published passionate articles setting out the revolutionary causes in black and white. One of the most influential was Juana Belén Gutiérrez de Mendoza who was instrumental in organizing the Mexican farmworkers, miners, and other laborers in the fight against the Díaz regime. Her newspaper, Vesper, was even more widely read than The Eye and described in vivid detail the subjection of the majority of Mexicans by the foreign-dominated banks, the Díaz government and the conservative clergy. She was given dubious recognition by the male revolutionary journalists who said her writing was “virile,” and she was also accorded recognition by Díaz as dangerous enough to imprison several times. Although her revolutionary hero was Emiliano Zapata, she pragmatically supported replacing Díaz with Francisco Madero. And once the Díaz government fell and Madero was installed, she continued to publish diatribes against the government in disgust at Madero’s unkept promises.
She was one of the most influential activists seeking social justice from the government. As one of her biographers, Anna Macías, described her, she “could not be bought, could not be intimidated, could not be frightened, and could not be broken.” The same might be said of many of the brave women who participated willingly or unwillingly in the Mexican Revolution.