Marta Elva, author of American Tumbleweeds, guest posts on the soldaderas, the women who traveled with the armies of the Mexican Revolution.
The image of my grandmother has always been fused with strength and power. I recall her hairline moist with sweat, her face tense as she scurried under the hot sun. “Andale!” Abuelita hollered, looking over her shoulder at three children trotting behind her. We were attempting the impossible: to keep up with her stride. She adjusted the burlap bags clutched in each hand, the bags bursting with clean, properly pressed. used clothing for her clients. The furrow on her brow displayed emotion, although I couldn’t tell if the sentiment originated from pain, concern, or determination and willpower.
“That’s because your abuela and bizabuela were soldaderas,” Mama declared. “They were?” I marveled.
I found the idea of my grandmother and great-grandmother as women soldiers pretty radical, since the Mexican Constitution of 1857 denied women citizenship. Without it women couldn’t vote. This kept them under the control of men their entire life: a father in childhood; a husband, brother or uncle in later life. If she joined a convent, her life was regulated by the Catholic Church.
More often soldaderas cooked for the soldiers, nursed them back to health after injury, and carried their equipment and supplies from one battle to the next. Soldaderas were responsible for obtaining food by whatever means possible, even if it meant foraging and looting.
The non-traditional role of soldaderas during the Mexican Revolution was fighting bravely alongside the men in the Federal Army (federales) or on the opposition forces of the revolutionary armies led by Emiliano Zapata, Pancho Villa and Venustiano Carranza. Women were often among the lowest ranks of soldiers; nonetheless, more skilled and assertive soldaderas could become colonels and generals.
Women joined the Revolution for a number of reasons. An indigenous, or mestiza, woman whose livelihood depended on farming was likely to back the revolutionary armies, which supported agrarian reform. A woman fighting on behalf of the los federales could improve her economic situation. Through their participation, soldaderas were liberated from cultural norms and achieved equality with men.
Women made progress by virtue of their accomplishments on the battlefield, but the transformations in their gender roles were not always looked upon favorably. Men were supposed to be the strong figures in Mexican society. Successful women in the Mexican Revolution could not be remembered in a way that would threaten patriarchal structures.
The image of soldaderas needed to be altered so men could retain their dominance in society. This meant vanquishing soldaderas to a subordinate role. The romanticized depiction of the soldadera highlights her sexuality and omits her bravery. Although the image retains the assertive traits of the woman, it also subtly undermines her with sexual overtones. Despite the soldaderas’ efforts to support the Revolution and pursue equality, their memory has been replaced by the idealized one that men have conjured up in their imagination.
My real life soldaderas were strong, independent women who lovingly nurtured my juvenile soul.
Marta Elva was raised in El Paso, Texas, and Juárez, Mexico. She drew from those roots in writing American Tumbleweeds, the bittersweet story of a Mexican-American family’s struggle to stay together as tradition collides with the social upheaval of 1960s America. American Tumbleweeds is published by Circling Rivers, an independent publisher of Americana: fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. Visit Circling Rivers for more information.
Sources: Fernández, Delia. “From Soldadera to Adelita: The Depiction of Women in the Mexican Revolution.” The GVSU McNair Scholars Journal. 13 (2009). Salas, Elizabeth. Soldaderas in the Mexican Military: Myth and History. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1990. Soto, Shirlene. Emergence of the Modern Mexican Women. Indian Hills, CO: Arden Press, 1990.