Thursday, November 15, 2012

Las Soldaderas: Women of the Mexican Revolution

Soldaderas march in a parade celebrating the Mexican Revolution. The colors of the skirts worn by these Mexican Army soldiers are those of the Mexican flag. They carry the Mauser rifles and wear the crossed bandoliers typically used by those who fought in one of the most brutal struggles of the early 20th Century. Since November 20 is Revolution Day in Mexico, I decided to take a break from my series on Mexico City to tell the story of the women who marched with the armies fighting on all of the many sides in that war. They are generally known as soldaderas, although they are sometimes called Adelitas after the famous campfire song about a woman who followed her man to war. The term soldadera derives from the Spanish word soldada, which was a small allowance a soldier received so he could hire a female servant. A woman who collected the allowance was therefore a "soldadera." During the Mexican Revolution, the term grew to carry a much greater meaning.

Indigenous women often went with their men to fight against the dictator Porfirio Diaz. The people above had probably been living on one of Mexico's numerous haciendas where they were treated little better than serfs. Beginning in 1910, they rose up, raging against the oppression they and their ancestors had experienced for hundreds of years. Often they killed the hacendado (owner) before they left. The women above look submissive and a bit downcast, possibly because this may have been the first photograph anyone had ever taken of them. It may also have to do with the subordinate roles that women played before (and even since) the Revolution. Most soldaderas were not combat soldiers, but still performed absolutely vital functions for the various armies. In her book Las Soldaderas, Mexican author Elena Poniatowska explained that role:

"Without the soldaderas, there is no Mexican Revolution--they kept it alive and fertile, like the earth. They would be sent ahead of the rest to gather firewood and light the fire. They kept it stoked during the long years of the war. Without the soldaderas, the drafted soldiers would have deserted....In Mexico, in 1910, had the soldiers not carried their homes on their backs--their soldaderas with their cots, blankets, pots and provisions--the number of men who would have taken off to shelter themselves in a warm corner somewhere would have meant the end of their armies."

Soldaderas carry baskets of food as they walk beside the troops of Emiliano Zapata. The Mexican armies at the start of the Revolution lacked many important facilities possessed by more modern armies: commissary and supply departments, and a medical corps. Soldaderas performed many of these functions, but on a relatively informal basis. They set up camp for their fighting men, fed them and cleaned their clothes, patched them up when they got wounded, retrieved their bodies from the field if they were killed, searched the bodies of the other dead for supplies and equipment, and performed innumerable other small tasks that made their men's lives, and the life of the whole army, more bearable. Poniatowska describes them as: 

"...slight, thin women patiently devoted to their tasks like worker ants--hauling water and making tortillas over a lit fire, the mortar and pestle always at hand. (Does anyone really know just how hard it is to carry a heavy mortar for kilometers during military campaigns?) And at the end of the day there's the hungry baby to breastfeed." 

Soldaderas ride on top of the railroad cars, while the troopers' horses ride inside. The lot of the women was a hard one. Traveling on top of a railroad car might have been preferable to walking, but it left them exposed to the sun and the weather. The army's horses were often better treated than the soldaderas because the generals viewed the women as expendable ("weren't they just women, after all?"). The horses, on the other hand, played vital combat roles. Poniatowska relates the words of a former soldadera named  Jesusa Palancares: 

"Life was difficult in those could cover your things with a canvas tarp as well as you could so that they wouldn't get wet. But it wouldn't prevent me from getting all wet. I had a cowboy hat that I wore to protect me a bit from the weather. All of us had to squat down on top of the train because the horses couldn't go without food and shelter."

As the train stops, anxious women look for their soldiers. This iconic photo is one of the most famous to come out of the Revolution. The woman on the left scans down the train for her man, while the very young, and very pregnant, girl on the right gingerly makes her way down the steps. The women behind them carry wicker baskets of provisions. They all wrap themselves in their rebozos, the ubiquitous, multi-purpose shawl still worn today by millions of Mexican women. American writer John Reed accompanied the forces of Pancho Villa in the early years. One day he asked a woman like one of those shown above why she fought with the Villistas. The woman simply pointed to her soldier and said: "Because he does."

A soldadera greets her man as his comrades look on enviously. What happened to one of these women when her husband or boyfriend was killed or she otherwise became separated from him? There was often no place to return, and had she done so it could be very dangerous for her. Rape by passing soldiers or deserters was a common fate of Mexican women in this period. According to Poniatowska, women of every social class were kidnapped. Even those who had taken Holy Orders were not safe:

"The Carrancistas (soldiers of Venustiano Carranza) captured fifty nuns. "After a certain amount of time passed, they dropped them off at a hospital 'where they bore their offspring'". 

 Stolen women would often become soldaderas, taking care of their captors. Having been dishonored, they could not return to their villages. On the other hand, women who lost their men would often quickly form new arrangements with other soldiers. Poniatowska tells this story of soldaderas captured by the forces of Pancho Villa.

"In 1914, federal forces (that is, those of Victoriano Huerta) fled from Paredón, Coahuila, without caring that they had left more than 300 soldaderas behind. Within 24 hours, the women had created new families with the Villistas." 

Soldiers and soldaderas pose for a photo. Given his trim uniform and sword, the man on the left is probably an officer. The women wear their rebozos crossed to resemble the cartridge belts of the men. This was the badge of soldaderas. The appearance of these women indicates they were probably middle-class revolutionaries. Often such women were educated and were motivated by ideology as much or more than a simple desire to accompany their men.  

Followers of Emiliano Zapata, including two armed soldaderas. This photo has several interesting aspects. It is dated "Tuesday, 23 April, 1912" during the heady days of Zapatista victories. Both of the soldaderas in the front row wear cartridge belts rather than rebozos, indicating they were combat soldiers. The one on the left holds a rifle, while the one on the right wields a sword as she clinks her glass with the man in the center. Directly behind them is a soldier carrying a violin, who appears ready to play one of the soldiers' ballads, called corridas. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Emiliano Zapata was a true social revolutionary rather than a simple opportunist. Poniatowska notes that he was famed for his respectful treatment of women. "Both women and men, female and male colonels, formed part of the Zapatista Army." Rosa King, a foreign woman who lived in Zapata's home state of Morelos during the Revolution, described Zapata's forces as "not an army, but a people in arms."

As time went on, more and more women became actual combatants. Most of these middle class women appear to be armed with lever-action Winchesters, a weapon very popular early in the war. Later, the German Mauser became the weapon of choice because of its greater range and accuracy. Unlike an indigenous woman who might spontaneously pick up the gun of her wounded or dead spouse and plunge into combat, these woman appear to have been mobilized as a unit. Such units began to appear more often as the war dragged on. Generals (other than Zapata) were initially reluctant to accept a combat role for women, much less to give them leadership positions. Poniatowska tells about one young woman fighting under Pancho Villa who disguised her sex in order to be allowed to fight, and to gain promotion. Her name was Petra Herrera, but she called herself "Pedro" to maintain her deception:

"...Herrera blew up bridges and demonstrated extraordinary leadership abilities...having gained a reputation as an 'excellent soldier', one day she showed everyone her braids and shouted 'I'm a woman and I will continue to carry out my duties as a soldier using my real name!' ... Petra Herrera continued to fight in combat and took part, together with some 400 other women, in the second Battle of Torreón in May 30, 1914...Perhaps it was because her worth as a soldier was never formally recognized that Petra was motivated to form her own brigade which quickly grew from 25 to 1,000 women."

Even the little girls in this photo are armed to the teeth. Many of the women are not only aiming rifles, but have pistols strapped around their waists. Children accompanied many of the armies, and sometimes participated actively in the battles. It is hard for people from the US or Canada (but probably not for Europeans) to imagine the cataclysm that gripped Mexico during the Revolution. In 1910, the country had a population of 15 million. Of these, as many as 2 million people died or left the country before the fighting ended. This amounts to 1 out of 7 Mexicans! By comparison, the US would have to lose 40 million of its current 300 million population. The physical destruction and social disruptions were immense. On the positive side, Mexicans freed themselves from a dictatorship. They ended a hacienda-based feudal aristocracy and freed themselves from the foreign corporations that dominated much of Mexico's industry and resources. Workers gained undreamed of rights, campesinos won the right to own the land they tilled, and the status of women improved immensely--although there was still a long way to go. 

The ballad of Adelita could have been written about a soldadera like this. Mexicans have always loved music, and a form of ballad called a corrida became popular around army campfires. One such corrida told the story of a soldadera called Adelita. The song was so popular among soldiers that the name became synonymous with the term soldadera. Adelita--probably a mythical person--was a beautiful young woman who followed her man into Pancho Villa's army. According to one version of  the corrida (there were many), she died gloriously by blowing herself up to prevent Diaz' forces from seizing Villa's ammunition supply. The corrida about Adelita became wildly popular in Villa's army. Later, it spread to other, opposing armies who had soldaderas of their own. 

Demure and stylish in her felt hat, a soldadera poses in a wooded area. It is hard to imagine anyone going into combat in an outfit like this, but Poniatowska reports that the soldaderas wore whatever they possessed or could loot from ruined haciendas their army overran. John Womak, in his book "Zapata and the Mexican Revolution", describes women like the one above:

"In Puente de Ixtla, Morelos, the widows, wives, daughters and sisters of the rebels formed their own battalion to 'seek vengeance for the dead.'  Under the command of a stocky former tortilla-maker by the name of China, they carried out incursions throughout the Tetecala district. Some dressed in rags, others in elegant stolen clothes--silk stockings and silk dresses, huaraches, straw hats and cartridge belts--these women became the terror of the region."

A young officer stands in a railroad yard, posing with a sword and a flag. The sword and her expensive boots mark her as an officer, perhaps of the cavalry. Although generals on all sides eventually accepted the help of soldaderas in battle, they often tried to hide or minimize the important role the women played. But history shows the women everywhere, as simple soldiers, as commanders of all-female combat units, even commanding male units. Poniatowska details the roles of several famous soldadera fighters:

"Rosa Bobadilla, a Zapatista colonel and the widow of Casas, played an indispensable role in more than 168 armed encounters. Juana Ramona ('The Tigress'), Flores' widow, participated in the capture of Culiacan, Sinaloa. Carmen Parra de Alanís ('La Coronela Alanís') joined the anti-reelectionista movement, acted as Madero's messenger, fought against Huerta's troops, was part of the Villista ranks during the Battle of Juárez, (and) became a Convencionista and a messenger for Emiliano Zapata."

A group of soldaderas relaxes in a box car while a stern-faced young woman stands guard. In viewing photos of the Mexican Revolution, I have often been struck by how many of them were taken with a train or railroad tracks in the background. Railroads played an immense role in the struggle. One of the major accomplishments of the pre-Revolution Diaz regime was to crisscross Mexico with railroad tracks. These railroads were built, operated, and owned by foreign corporations. It is difficult to appreciate the importance of rail travel in the Mexico of those days unless you understand how mountainous and difficult much of the country really is. Up until the mid-20th Century, regular roads were often little more than dirt paths barely passable by ox carts. With a railroad, armies could travel distances in hours that would have taken them weeks on foot. Poniatowska compares a train to a soldadera:

"The locomotive is the great heroine of the Mexican Revolution. She, too, is a soldadera who moves with confidence, huffing and puffing, arriving late, true, but only because she's overloaded. She lets off steam and comes to a stop at the platform so that the men can penetrate her again with their rifles held up straight. There the troops get on and sit on top of her. She bears everything."

A young girl stands, cold and tired, but determined and ready for combat. This girl couldn't be much older than her very early teens. She is armed with a Winchester and a pistol in her belt and wears bandoliers of ammunitions crisscrossing her chest. The fierceness of these young girls is hard to believe, yet testimony of it exists. In 1916, a girl named Elisa Griennesen Zambrano was living in Parral, Chihuahua when US troops arrived, looking for Pancho Villa. The US Government had initially backed Villa, even inviting him to give a talk on tactics at a US Army base in Texas. Then they betrayed him, changing sides and backing his opponent Carranza. In retaliation, Villa attacked the border town of Columbus, New Mexico. US President Wilson sent an army into Mexico in pursuit, one of numerous US invasions of Mexico over the years. Thirteen-year-old Elisa was outraged when the local Mexican men did nothing as American troops arrived. So, she took charge:

"What? Aren't there any men in Parral? If you can't kick them out of here, we, the women of Parral, will! Elisa Grienssen got the women and children together. She asked them to bring whatever was at hand: weapons, sticks, and stones. Infuriated, with their arms in the air, the women surrounded the American commander and forced him to shout 'Viva Villa, Viva Mexico' as he ordered a retreat."

A female soldier poses for a portrait in a photographer's shop. She looks tough and capable. To make sure everyone knows she means business, she carries a pistol stuffed in her front pocket. In her book, Poniatowska describes just such a female warrior:

"Carmen Amelia Robles, flatter than a board, accentuated her masculinity with a buttoned up shirt and knotted tie. With a sullen expression under her black felt hat, even in her sleep she wouldn't stop caressing the pistol she carried strapped to her right thigh. She'd shoot with her right hand and hold her cigar with her left. She became a colonel and participated in many battles."

Two young girls pose, their expressions fierce. Poniatowska tells a story about another fierce young woman named Petra Ruiz who still managed to keep a sense of humanity. To disguise her sex, she adopted the pseudonym "Pedro". 

"They nicknamed her 'El Echa Balas' (The Shooter) because of her violent character. She'd shoot her carbine squatting behind adobe walls, her aim better than that of a torpedo. On one occasion, two soldiers argued over who would be the first to rape a young girl they had kidnapped when 'Pedro' rode up to where they were and claimed her 'for himself'. The soldiers, afraid of her aim and her knife-handling skills, let 'Pedro' take her. Once they were far enough away, Petra Ruiz opened her blouse and said 'I'm also a woman like you', and allowed the confused girl to go free."

Soldadera images of later times. As soon as they safely could, most of the revolutionary generals disbanded their female units and rid themselves of women of all ranks, despite their military value and the proven heroism of individual soldaderas. It was simply too much for the macho leaders of the time to handle. The story of these women was suppressed, distorted, or simply forgotten. Aside from being summarily dismissed, many were denied promised pensions for their own service or that of their slain husbands. The public image that remained of the soldadera was gradually taken over by film makers and marketers and so was further distorted. Above, you see female revolutionary soldiers as femme fatales, curvaceous and long-legged, holding their weapons suggestively as they gaze seductively back at the viewer. How little they resemble the pair in the previous photo! 

Soldaderas on the march, by muralist José Clemente Orozco. Above, Orozco captures the feeling of a long, dusty march as the weary women trudge behind their soldiers. Their heavy bundles contain the food and other household goods that will make their man's life in the field a bit easier. This image is a detail from a mural that I photographed in the city library of Jiquilpan de Juarez on the east end of Lake Chapala. Although accurate as far as it goes, the image reinforces the other major perception of soldaderas as simple, unthinking camp followers, women of easy virtue who might even be prostitutes. As I hope I have shown in this posting, the real story was much more complex, interesting, and sometimes heroic.

This completes my posting on Las Soldaderas. I hope you have enjoyed it and perhaps learned something new about an important era of Mexican history. I always encourage comments and/or corrections. If you would like to leave one, please do so in the Comments section below or email me directly.

If you leave a question in the Comments section, PLEASE leave your email address so I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim


  1. This was an excellent post. These women were extraordinary. I never realized that they were such a force in the revolution. I suppose that is because I have, until now, only seen them portrayed as camp followers in movies. It seems to me that a lot of artistic license has been taken with the portrayal of Las Soldaderas through the years in movies and art. Seeing their faces in the photos and reading the facts about them was a learning experience.

  2. Wow. Awesome post. I just learned a lot that I didn't know while living in Mexico. Woman are so strong there. It's amazing. Their "guerra" way of living. And the children still carry a noble maturity about them: rasing siblings and sometimes working at a young age. It would be interesting to know the percentage of women who participated in the war in some way and also how many were soldaderas. There is a strength that eminates from Mexico that is not based on so many of the things that modern first world culture gives importance to. It comes from a richness of source passed down through life experiences that continue to shape modern Mexico. I always saw the Mexican men as being the heads of the household. Maybe that's just what they like to think. Anyhow, maybe this will help me to understand my relationships with Mexican women better... No, probably not... Anyway, Jim, we are all greatful that you were around way back then to take all of those historical photographs. You look great, by the way. All the best my friends! Jay

  3. Great post (as always!). Jim, I don't seem to have way to reach you except via this blog, so, assuming you have an ereader of some kind, would like to take this opportunity to offer you the new edition of Western Mexico (for either Kindle or Kobo). Let me know your email and it shall be yours!
    Your blog was very helpful in preparing the new edition; thanks!

  4. Thank you so much for writing and posting was very informative and kept my interest all the way through...I look forward in reading more of your stuff again Thank you

  5. I almost forgot here is my e-mail address please let me know when or where I may find some more of your post
    Veronica Olivarez

  6. I loved you piece on las Sadaderas. When I was a teen growing up in LA county, I was told by a Metcha member that the quote I've always thought came from Emillano Zapata actually came from a woman Sadaderas. "I'd rather die ony feet, than live on my knees." Any truth to that?

  7. Fermina Ramos MartinezMarch 13, 2017 at 9:52 PM

    Wow what strong and beautiful women. In my family i've always heard that we are related to one of these strong women. If so i'm honored


If your comment involves a question, please leave your email address so I can answer you. Thanks, Jim