"Women at War"
By Mildred Boyd
January 2004 Guadalajara-Lakeside Volume 20, Number 5

     In 1914, U.S. officials at Fort Bliss, Texas, were somewhat surprised to find that the army of 5,369 Mexican revolutionaries interned there included 1,256 women and 554 children! It shouldn’t be surprising. Both Indian and Spanish sides of the Mexicana’s heritage include courageous women. Meso-American myths teem with tales of female warriors and virtually every Earth Mother deity doubled as War Goddess, wielding both shield and broom to symbolize that duality. Spanish wives and daughters accompanied their men throughout the conquest and several earned encomiendas for extreme bravery.
     The role of the Soldaderas has been denigrated to that of loose women and whores (which, admittedly, some were) by calling them galletas (cookies) and cucarachas (cockroaches). They were, nevertheless, essential as foragers, cooks, nurses, laundresses, couriers and spies. Most carried weapons and fought alongside the men. A few achieved high command, especially under Zapata, and still fewer received veteran’s pensions. Even mere camp followers managed to achieve a dubious equality, if only in the right to face enemy fire carrying infants on their backs. They were also equal on the long marches but, on troop trains, the men rode inside while women and children clung precariously to the roofs.
     “If I die in battle,” the soldiers sang, “ Adelita, I implore you, cry for me.” But who was Adelita? Was she the shy 14-year-old nurse or the vicious 21-year-old killer? Was she a harlot, a saint, the sweetheart of the regiment or Pancho Villa’s private paramour? Although there is a photograph identified as Adelita, there is no proof that this most famous of soldaderas actually existed. Certainly, the glamorous heroine of song and story never did. Many of her purported exploits happened, but to other women who remain faceless and unsung. In time, the name denoted any female soldier so, in a sense, Adelita not only existed but, according to another song, “Adelita never dies!”
     In 1910 a force of over 1000 swept through Tabasco and Chiapas looting, burning and killing. Hardly an unusual event in wartime, except that this particular group’s commander, brandishing a bloody machete and vowing to decapitate Diaz, was a woman. Margarita Neri earned such a reputation for ruthless slaughter that the Governor of Guerrero, on hearing of her approach, hid himself in a crate and was sneaked out of town. Some say that she served as an officer under Zapata. Others insist that, although he admired and sent men to recruit her, they so offended her that she cut off their ears to emphasize her refusal. Whatever the truth, she seems to have deserved the accolade of “a superb guerilla commander.”
     As weapons expert, crack shot, and nurse Margarita Ortega would have been invaluable but, teamed with her daughter, Rosaura Gortari, she also excelled as courier and spy. Unfortunately they fought on the losing side against Madero. Captured by the Maderistas, they were force-marched into the desert and left without food or water. They survived the ordeal but Rosaura died soon after reaching refuge in Phoenix. Margarita did not long outlive her daughter. Sent on another mission into Sonora, she was recaptured. Forced to stand in a cage, poked, prodded and savagely beaten when she collapsed, she still refused to betray her comrades and, after four days of torture, was summarily executed.
     Choosing pen and petition over knife and gun made Flores de Andrade no less the rebel. She was an ardent member of a secret society whose not- so-secret aim was to overthrow Diaz and achieve freedom for all Mexicans. To this end, she marched and petitioned so successfully that she annoyed, not only Diaz, but the U.S. officials who supported him. Hunted by both, she sought refuge in the north but was eventually captured and sentenced to death. Facing the firing squad, she allegedly grabbed the commander’s rifle, forced his men to down their weapons and held out until President Taft ordered her release! However improbable, she did survive to tell the tale.
     Maria de la Luz Espinoza Barrera, La Coronela, served with such distinction throughout the war that she was actually awarded a veteran’s pension. Unfortunately, she had survived all those battles only to find herself and her lifestyle socially unacceptable in peacetime. For one who “smoked, drank, gambled and feared no man” to revert to the timid submissiveness expected of women was unthinkable. Like many veterans, Maria found conformation impossible and spent the rest of her life, “a restless soul” as an itinerant peddler, still dressed as a man and carrying a pistol.
     In all corners of the world an anguish lives,” wrote Dolores Jimenez y Muro, “and I don’t have the indifference to see, the cowardice to flee, or the meekness to accept it.” A powerful political writer and speaker, poet and private secretary to Carranza, Jimenez allowed neither persecution nor imprisonment to distract her. While in jail she helped create a “plan,” primarily to bring Madero to power, but also addressing numerous social reforms, including higher wages for all and land restitution. Her stand on the latter issue earned the admiration of Zapata and an invitation to join him, but it was not until Madero’s death in 1913 that she accepted. Though over 70, she remained politically active, still with a price on her head, long after Zapata’s assassination in 1919.
     As early as May, 1901 Juana Belen Gutierrez de Mendoza was publishing an inflammatory anti-Diaz newspaper in Guanajuato. Since she also attacked the church and advocated emancipation for women, it’s little wonder that she often found her presses confiscated and herself imprisoned. After Madero’s accession in 1911, disenchanted with his apathy in redressing social injustices, she joined the equally disillusioned Zapata and fought on, this time with a gun. After Zapata’s death she returned to the intellectual battle, founding yet another newspaper. Her outlook, after nearly two decades of conflict, was bitter and grimly realistic but still, somehow, hopeful.
     To the handful of women mentioned here and to the legions of others who fought and are still fighting with equal courage, Viva, Las Adelitas!

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