By Brooke Gazer
In 1861 the French archeologist and ethnologist, Charles Etienne Brasseur, compared Juana Catalina Romero’s exotic beauty to that of the Egyptian goddess Isis, and Cleopatra, Egypt’s last independent ruler before the Romans took over. It is easy, then, to imagine her seducing the young officer José de la Cruz Porfirio Díaz. This Zapotec-mestizo woman certainly had a close relationship with one of Mexico’s most powerful men, but while some insist it was passionate, others are adamant that it was completely innocent.
Twenty-one-year-old Juana Cata created controversy wherever she went. She was not only stunning to look at, she was a healer, knowledgeable with herbs, spells and concoctions. Some accused her of being a sorcerer and a witch. To support herself, she sold cigars to military men, and apparently, she was not too shy to frequent bars and billiard halls. Since these were not places patronized by women, a few people had another name for this brash young woman. Whatever her activities, they helped her to act as a spy, garnering information and transmitting messages for the soldiers fighting in the War of Reform 1857 – 60.
Like Juana Cata, Porfirio Díaz also began life in Oaxaca with a mixture of Spanish and indigenous blood. During the War of Reform, he was a minor political figure and a daring captain in the National guard; since they were both in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, it was inevitable that the two would cross paths.
They did, and on one occasion Cata saved his life. During one of Porfirio’s more perilous escapes, Cata hid him from the enemy among her petticoats. Had there been no friendship previously, this certainly would have cemented some kind of relationship. We know that she became a valuable informant for him and that she was handsomely rewarded.
In a region where women dominated in commerce, Juana Cata was an astute businesswoman. In spite of being illiterate until she was thirty, she became wealthy, exporting indigo, sugar, and dried fish. Some of what she accomplished was due to her own intelligence and astute business savvy, but there is little doubt that having the ear of the president opened doors for her. Her supporters argue that jealous competitors spread rumors of a clandestine love affair in hopes of sullying her reputation.
What is known is that when he became president, Porfirio Díaz arranged for a railroad to pass within two meters of Juana Cata’s front door. Porfirio Díaz was a frequent visitor, arriving in caravan of luxurious coaches accompanied by several cadets. If the coaches alone failed to draw attention, the cadet guards entertained themselves by tossing coins at local children while they waited outside her home.
In addition to providing valuable information, she helped Porfirio Díaz on several occasions by covering the payroll for his Federal troops in Tehuantepec. Was this due to her romantic attachment, or did she simply want to repay the many favors he had done for her?
Porfirio Díaz was not the only one she helped. Her humanitarian work touched the lives of almost every person in the area; she founded schools, hospitals and churches. Doña Cata was an elegant woman with an incredible sense of style, and in this regard, she left her legacy to the ladies of the region. After traveling to Europe, she imported exquisite materials and stylized an elaborate costume that became the official dress for women in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. This costume, which includes a heavily embroidered velvet skirt, a lace underskirt, an elaborate lace headdress, and jewelry dripping with gold coins, is still the dress favored by Isthmus women today.
In spite of her stylish beauty and social position, Doña Cata never married. Was this because the love of her life was unavailable for matrimony? Because she lacked any romantic inclinations? Or to maintain her independence? Many have speculated but no clear answer has surfaced,
If they were lovers, they employed a rare level of discretion. Some argue that Díaz makes no mention in his memoirs and no love letters between the two have been discovered. However, discretion would have been the social norm in that era, especially with a politically important figure who had a wife to consider. Were they lovers, good friends, or simply coconspirators? We may never know, but it is a sad irony that Juana Cata died in 1915, the same year as Porfirio Díaz.
Whatever the truth, the Isthmus of Tehuantepec recognizes Juana Catalina Romero as its main benefactor. They have honored her with a huge stainless steel statue at the entrance to the town of Tehuantepec, and refer to her as the “Mother of Tehuantepec.” Conversely, while Porfirio Díaz did much to modernize Mexico, he died in exile and is not remembered fondly by many of his countrymen.
Brooke Gazer operates Agua Azul la Villa,
an ocean-view bed and breakfast in Huatulco.