“Soldaderas” revealed

History has largely forgotten the contributions of women in Mexican Revolution, a Santa Rosa Junior College professor told a Mahoney Library audience.

Behind the revolutionary icons of Zapata and Poncho villa were the efforts of thousands of Mexican women, who participated and in some cases led in the revolution of 1910, said Laura Larque, a history professor with a specialty in Latin American history.

Professor Larque gave an hour-long presentation Oct. 21 to a small audience of staff and students as a part of the “National Hispanic Heritage Month.”

Larque began with a basic background of the Revolution, which was initially the struggle to remove the dictator Porfirio Diaz from the seat of the Mexican government.

Diaz was a fervent capitalist, and his administration tried to make the Mexican economy more competitive on the world stage by affording American investors almost exclusive investment opportunities in Mexican industries, Larque said.

Since the Mexican people could not invest into their country and Diaz would make no concessions on his abusive social and economic policies or agree to leave office, they united in revolt, Larque said.

Women were immediately involved in the leadership of the uprising. Carmen Serdan and Teresa Arteaga, two Mexican intellectuals, joined the revolutionary leader Francisco Madero in 1910 and helped him formulate his plans for reform.

They both wrote for Mexican newspapers, denouncing Diaz for his crimes against the Mexican people, especially women, Larque said.

Maria Arial Bernal was another supporter of Madero. As a teacher, she devoted herself to the social improvement of Mexican women through education. She later served in Zapata’s army after Madero’s assassination in 1913.

Larque explained that women embraced many different roles in the revolution. “They were soldiers, nurses, cooks, cleaners, journalists, teachers, spies and fundraisers,” Larque said. Women were everywhere and doing everything they could do for the cause.

Larque tried to dispel a misconception that female soldiers, or Soldaderas, were all sexy, violent and overly aggressive women. She argued that they were a diverse group that is greatly misrepresented, and attributes the stereotype to modern depictions in movies and TV.

Women’s involvement in the Revolution established new gender roles in Mexico, Larque said. Women were given the opportunity to leave the strict parameters of early 20th century Mexican family unit.

In many cases these opportunities came at a heavy cost. The thousands of women who traveled with the revolutionary armies endured terrible conditions and were sometimes abused and raped by the soldiers.

These “Adelitas” served invaluable purposes. They prepared food, attended to wounded men and saw to the many needs of a mobile army. Larque described their efforts as essential to the Revolution.

Larque said that women have been Soldaderas in Mexico since the Spanish landings of the 16th century, but it was not until the Revolution that they came out in such numbers.

Women were openly invited to join Zapata’s army, and some were given positions of authority. Margarita Neri, for instance, commanded an army of Zapata’s soldiers. Zapata’s wife even fought in many battles.

“Pancho Villa used women in many ways,” Larque said. Espionage was a frequent occupation: women would plant themselves in enemy circles and gather intelligence, much to their own risk.

Villa publically barred women from serving as soldiers in his army so “many were forced to disguise themselves as men,” Larque said.

Larque also stressed in her lecture how women were deeply involved in the politics of the revolution.

Margarita Ortega was an early founder of Liberal Party, an anarchist movement that emerged shortly before the Revolution. She was born into the middle class of Baja California, but decided to renounce her wealth and join the revolution. Ortega commanded revolutionary units in Northern Mexico. She was arrested many times for her involvement.

Elizabeth Trowbridge donated her entire inheritance to the Liberal Party and wrote many articles in American newspapers in support of the Revolution, particularly on the subject of political prisoners and torture, Larque said.

Natividad Cortes fought with Ortega, organized anarchists in Northern Mexico for the Liberal Party and promoted unions. She was assassinated in 1914.

Hermila Galindo was the personal secretary to Venustiano Carranza, an instrumental player in the overthrow of Diaz; he later became the president of Mexico in 1917.

Larque said that Galindo assisted Carranza in the writing of the Mexican constitution. Galindo also produced a feminist newspaper called “La Mujer Moderna” (the modern woman), and worked closely with Carranza for years.

“Very little information has been released on women in the Mexican Revolution,” Larque said. The Mexican government reserves all of its records concerning them in its archives. “You can view them, but you can’t take anything.”

Ali Lawson, an SRJC student who attended the lecture, said, “I had no clue how important women were in the Mexican Revolution. I didn’t know any of their names.”

Professor Larque is a contributor to KBBF 89.1 FM, the first bilingual radio station in the United States. She has been teaching in the United States since 1994.