BY JAMES BELL
Rules of war, created to ensure success or fairness on the battlefield, must be allowed to bend and change in difficult times. This change allows military efforts to adapt to new, unpredictable circumstances, to consider all options, and to most effectively carry out military operations. Beginning in 1910, a large group of Mexico’s more audacious women chose to change the unspoken rules of war by becoming soldiers in their country’s greatest historical battle, the Mexican Revolution.
This tumultuous conflict, the most violent in the Western Hemisphere, came to an end 100 years ago and took the lives of hundreds of thousands of soldiers and civilians, including many of these women soldiers or “soldaderas” well known in Mexico as Las Adelitas. These exceptional women changed the military rules unofficially and became indispensable collaborators in the war. Las Adelitas were also responsible for changing a part of the country’s archaic and oppressive social rules while serving as soldaderas.
Although the existence of women soldiers was unheard of in Mexico before the revolution, many women freely chose to participate in their nation’s civil war, either in support of the federal army or the revolutionary forces bent on removing President (and dictator) Porfirio Díaz from power. Some of the women, who initially joined to assist the male soldiers or their families in the military camps, decided to sling rifles over their shoulders and bandoliers over their chest, and shoot it up on the battlefield. Many of the women who assisted in the camps went on to become proficient soldiers, while others became fierce warriors. This hard-fought war, which ended in 1920, took 10 long years to finish and saw the loss of at least a million of its soldiers and citizens during this period to deadly conflicts, the 1918 pandemic (aka the Spanish flu), famine and firing squads.
During the war, many women provided assistance to the male soldiers by cooking, organizing the battle camps and attending to the wounded. They carried heavy equipment between conflict sites and cared for children. Some served as clever spies. Others, perhaps the toughest among them, fired their rifles from the front lines, or took part in wild attacks while riding skillfully on horseback. Some of the Adelitas cared for children, cleaned, organized, cooked, tended to the wounded and dying, and killed enemy soldiers on the same day in what we might call “serious multi-tasking” today.
The best soldaderas were promoted to positions of higher authority and experienced a sense of liberation and accomplishment like never before. Over time, and with the experiences of a grueling war, some became formidable and hard fighters. Some were as hard as Pedro Herrera. Have you heard of him?
Pedro was known as a fearless soldier, sharp on the battlefield and with a wild temper to boot. He liked to blow up bridges, too. Pedro rose to the rank of captain and then colonel and served as a member of Venustiano Carranza´s revolutionary force. However, after Pedro established himself as an “excellent soldier,” he decided it was time to reveal his true identity. Pedro was actually Petra – one of the women soldiers who disguised herself so she could fight alongside the men. She even pretended to shave in the morning to fool others. Carranza accepted her and gave Petra Herrera an all-women regiment to command. She would go on to lead other Adelitas to many battlefield victories. Petra was a tough soldier.
In 1913, The New York Times published an article titled “Women fight on both sides,” in which it referred to 500 soldaderas as “expert with both knife and rifle.” In 1914, the El Paso Morning Star reported that another fierce woman warrior named Maria Quinteras de Merás, also known as La Coronela, “led many desperate charges and her followers have come to believe she is endowed with supernatural powers.” The list of accomplished soldaderas is long.
Dr. Delia Fernandez, who researched the subject as a McNair Scholar for Grand Valley State University, affirmed: “women’s participation and contributions in the revolution were a liberating experience, and their sacrifice was rewarded with equality. The soldaderas newly found freedom led some women to reject the societal norms imposed on them.” Fernandez says fighting in the war helped women advance their positions in a patriarchal society in which men were accustomed to controlling almost all aspects of a woman’s life. Some women also received payment for their military service, which provided even greater personal freedom. Others, being away or far from their hometowns for the first time, also encountered greater sexual or social freedom not found or tolerated in their conservative communities, and with less risk of being socially stigmatized.
By the 1950s, the image of the Adelita had been misrepresented by popular media. Classic Mexican movies, love songs, and uninformed men with good fish stories created the persona of Adelita as a beautiful, sexy, carefree, loyal and licentious lady who could fight next to oversexed macho men and be easily seduced. For many of these men, she seemed to be the perfect woman.
In truth, however, las Adelitas were real women who worked hard, fought, sweated and got dirty like most soldiers. They were fighters and defenders who acted with great bravery, and great fear at times (just like the men). They were strong soldiers who faced the pain and suffering of war, wounds, abuse, sadness, and the threat of death. They were mothers, daughters, sisters, girlfriends and spouses who found solidarity with each other, told stories and jokes, laughed, sang, and wept quietly or out loud. Some screamed battle cries, rode like the wind, fired their loud rifles, and died violently on the battle fields fighting for their cause. According to historians, female civilians and soldaderas were also shot to death by Pancho Villa himself.
By the time the war ended and Porfirio Díaz was driven from power, many of the women soldiers —bolstered by a new sense of self-confidence and an expanded view of the world — had become the new agents for change so desperately needed in an unfair and unequal society.
“El feminismo, la liberación feminina y la justicia social” were not common social practices in Mexico at the start of the 20th century, but by 1920, a full decade of their emergence would be seen and felt. And in 1999, Mexico would witness Elsa Karmina Cortés make her proud entrance into the armed forces as her country’s first female military pilot. During last year´s Independence Day celebration, highly talented female pilots also flew over the Mexican military parade for the first time in its history.