Most Soldaderas Wanted to Fight Just Any Man
Las mujeres que buscan ser iguales a los hombres carecen de ambición.
Adelante con confianza. Tengan fé. Todos caminos llegan al mismo lugar. Go on ahead with confidence. Have faith. All roads go to the same place. That’s what the señora said out her pickup window. We were in the salt flats south of Laguna San Ignacio, winding our way through a maze of roads and trails running in all directions. By dead reckoning we had bounced north out of Scorpion Bay, looking for a road to the east, toward the Sierra San Pedro, when her pickup appeared. ¿Y los monos de San Juan de las Pilas? we asked. Más allá she answered while pointing north. ¿Y como me puede saber el cindero? we asked. Hay bote blanca encima del cardón. We would know the road to Las Pilas by a white can on top of a saguaro. Gracias. Que le vaya bien. Thanks. Have a good one.
Eventually we found the white can and the trail into the mountains. To call the sandy track a road would be generous. Once we had started to climb, the track turned into rocks and gravel. We bumped beside a dry arroyo. Ahead we saw an enormous oasis of huge palmas de taco. Back in the shadows sat an old woman in a rocking chair.
Into the shade we spoke. “Buscamos donde hay monos.” We are looking for where there are monkeys. As mountain people call cave paintings monkeys, we used the appropriate word. After a short pause, the vieja answered. “Miren al espejo.” Look in the mirror. Before we could understand, she chuckled and raised her hand from her hairless dog Crespo and pointed to the east. “Que allá quedan los monos. Lejos a llegar.” There stay the paintings. It is a long way to arrive. “Descansen poquito.” Rest a little while. And she swept her hand to offer squat seats in the shade, and we accepted, and thereafter we learned her name, and we began to talk politely, but the conversation soon turned more substantive, and eventually we became listeners to the tales of Fogosa.
The vieja was the daughter of a soldadera who had participated in the actual fighting and had come to La Baja from Sonora. Even though her mother’s side had prevailed in victory, the soldadera had departed the mainland for the peninsula, and when asked why, Fogosa responded: “Soldaderas became unpopular after the formation of the PRI in 1928 and the subsequent officers revolt of 1929, and Sonora turned somewhat hostile to strong-willed women. La Baja has always been a hospitable place to troublemakers.”
Fogosa was the first person with whom we had ever spoken about soldaderas. She proved to be a lively storyteller, and the shade of her ranchito veiling us from the oven of La Baja offered a cozy theater, so we encouraged her deep voice to thunder out over the desert and entertain us with a vivid telling. An abrupt flapping of wings announced the arrival of a buzzard to perch atop a tall cardón cactus to join the listening to the tales of the old woman.
“Yes, mi mamá was a soldadera. But do you know that which is a pocho? This is a Mexican who wants to be a Gringo. The most famous pocho of all was the first vice president of Tejas. Lorenzo de Zavala was what Texicans call a Good Meskin. Schools in Tejas are named after this pocho. There are no Tejas schools named Antonio López de Santa Anna, of course, even though this pendejo is the reason Tejas exists. During the Revolution, soldaderas considered perfume Cucarranza to be a pocho, and many soldaderas appeared during that time in order to fight pochos. Most soldaderas wanted to fight just any man. Cuca enjoys an undeserved corrido.
“The tradition of soldadera comes from long before the arrival of the Spaniards, for particular pre-Colombian women accompanied their warriors into battle as strategists. Malintzin is the best known of the early soldaderas. This skillful woman advised Cortés, and she has been blamed by scornful Mexican nationals for the success of the Conquest. For her abilities, she has been shamed as La Chinga and is known as Malinche, betrayer of all Mexicans. To true soldaderas, she is an authentic heroine.
“The Revolution produced other heroines. Many were known to Mamá. Time and myth have transformed most soldaderas into legends unrecognizable to those who knew the living being. Contemporary Mexicans imagine all soldaderas as feminine sweethearts fashioned after the theatrical versions of Adelita. This is not so. Adelita herself did not resemble even faintly her person as recalled in myth. Mamá knew her well. The corrido about her is pleasant, but it is misleading.
Adelita was truly Adela Velarde Pérez, a nurse from Ciudad Juárez. She was the granddaughter of Rafael Velarde, a friend of Benito Juárez. In 1914, Adelita treated the wounded soldier Antonio del Río Armenta, who composed the famous corrido in her honor. Adelita was a fierce, tough woman. More than once Mamá heard her shout to reluctant men that if they were afraid they should stay in camp and cook beans, and Adelita promised every man that she would shoot el que carece tanates, he who lacks testicles. And she shot more than one mandilon.”
At the top of the abrupt mountain range
camped a regiment,
including a muse who bravely followed them,
madly loved by the sergeant.
Popular with the troop was Adelita,
the woman the sergeant idolized.
And besides being brave, she was pretty,
so that even the Colonel himself respected her.
And you could hear the one who loved her so much say:
And if Adelita wanted to be my girlfriend,
And if Adelita were my wife,
I would buy her a silk dress
to take her dancing in the barracks.
And if Adelita left with another,
I would follow her by land and by sea.
If by sea on a warship,
if by land on a military train.
“Soldaderas usually dressed as men. Cartridge belts and khaki cloth were favorites because this composed almost a formal uniform. Some soldaderas smoked and drank and gambled and feared no man. Some of them fought each other over men, especially for the well-paid officers. Some of them enjoyed cockfights and singing and guitar playing, all of which were male activities. All soldaderas could ride and shoot and rope. Some soldaderas cultivated personalities of dominance and decisiveness and almost all of them cut short their hair. More than one soldadera lit a brief fuse to spark dynamite and blow up a bridge.
“Soldaderas have been misunderstood by other women. Especially the Gringas. During the time that many of our people were unjustly imprisoned in El Paso del Norte, there was a shortage of clothing for women and children. When Pancho Villa sent a thousand pesos to buy clothes for the prisoners, it made big news. Donations of goods began to flow from the East to the border. But the snobby puta who wrote the society page in the El Paso newspaper printed a story reprimanding anyone for feeling sorry for the soldaderas. ‘They enjoy the fact they can straggle on behind the guns. What would be death to an American woman is an appetizer to the class of Mexican woman found at Fort Bliss. Donations should go instead to the worthy poor of El Paso.’ Other Gringas called all soldaderas whores because many had no husbands, yet they stayed in the military camps. Soldaderas considered las mujeres que buscan ser iguales a los hombres carecen de ambición. Women who want to be equal to men lack ambition. Gringas were such women.”
Here Fogosa paused and passed her tongue across her upper lip. She tossed her head in the direction of the corral and mentioned that cool water could be had by lowering a bucket into the well. One of the children started in that direction, attended crisply by Crespo. Fogosa then remarked that cups could be found inside the casa on the table, and another child moved toward the doorway. This suspected intrusion caused Crespo to rush back to the casa, barking furiously and snarling, and only when Fogosa snapped her voice at him did he stop. Clearly flustered, the naked dog lurched one way and then the other, uncertain whether to guard the well or the kitchen. Fogosa lowered her hand and he came to her, and she stroked him and he calmed, and shortly thereafter we dipped cups into a worn wooden bucket and drank cool water while Fogosa continued her telling.
“Many of the soldiers believed soldaderas were there for the taking. Rape was often attempted, but seldom accomplished. Other soldaderas always rushed to help an attacked woman. One famous soldadera named Echa Balas saved many women from being shamed by lustful cabrones. This heroine fought disguised as a man and few knew Echa Balas was actually a woman, as she could ride and use a knife better than most machos. Once she came upon a group of soldiers about to rape a young woman. Echa Balas told the men to leave, that she wanted the girl for herself. They complied because they were afraid of her. She then pulled the girl onto her horse and carried her to a safe place and released her unharmed.
“Not all the leaders of the Revolution liked soldaderas either. Pancho Villa hated them, even though they provided his victory at Torreón . When the Centaur of the North captured Camargo, his hat was accidentally shot off by a soldadera. Villa demanded to know who did it, but no soldaderas would reveal the woman responsible. So the demente cabrón Villa shot eighty soldaderas and some of their children and then rode over their bodies on his horse.”
Fogosa looked away and shook her head sadly after she told about Villa. She rubbed her hands on her lap as if she wanted to wipe away the memory. The sudden stillness seemed to alarm Crespo, and he rose and whined softly and turned around twice before settling down again beside Fogosa.
“Some nice corridos came to be written about soldaderas. Whereas La Adelita is the most popular corrido of all, La Valentina is also famous. Although the music of this corrido is from Sinaloa and predates the Revolution, Valentina Ramirez was a real soldadera. She was brave and strong, and a brutal fighter, but the lyrics in the corrido named for her portray her as a femme fatale, and there is not in the entire ballad even a single verse pertaining to her battlefield heroics. After the Revolution, Valentina received a pension, but it was so small that she lived alone and eventually died in the slums of Navolato.
A passion dominates me,
And it's the one that made me come.
I would like to tell you.
They say that for your loves
An evil will follow me.
It doesn't matter that they are the devil,
I also know how to die.
Yes, because I drink tequila,
Tomorrow I drink sherry.
Yes, because they see me drunk,
Tomorrow they won’t see me anymore.
I'm surrendered at your feet.
If they will kill me tomorrow
They can only kill me once.
“Juana Gallo is another soldadera with a famous corrido. She and Mamá were good friends. Her real name was María Soledad Ruiz Pérez. After the Revolution, she moved to Juárez to find Mamá. Her pension was so small that the slums were all she could afford. She died about ten years ago. Her father had been murdered by Carranza, so she sided with Villa against Cucu. She was with Mamá and four hundred other soldaderas at Torreón. From that battle came the first and second stanzas of the corrido.”
The vieja paused to sip from her cup and softly stroke Crespo. “Cantenos el corrido,” we appealed. Fogosa lifted her eyes quickly at our request and a sly smile twisted her mouth. “Quizas se puede,” she whispered. And after a moment to vocalize to herself inside her heart, the vieja began to hum, and her eyes gazed into the desert, and in a deep bass voice she sang.
“Among the noise of cannons and shrapnel
Comes forth a popular story
About a youth called Juana Gallo,
Because she was valiant without a doubt.
Always at the front of the troop you saw her
Fighting like all other soldiers.
In battle no federal soldier escaped her.
Without mercy she shot them with her big pistol.”
When Fogosa finished singing, she turned to stare sternly at we Gringos sitting in the shade. Her demeanor demanded respect, and there was no softness in her grim lips, and at that moment none could doubt that Fogosa inherited her mother’s character, and thus deserved her name Fiery Spirit. Abruptly Fogosa spoke again.
“Juana Ramona of Sinaloa was called by many names. The Tigress. The Widow of Flores. La Coronela. La Güera. It is by this last name that her corrido is known. She was a leader of women. More than a thousand soldaderas composed her brigade, and she won fourteen battles. She is famous for castrating men who opposed her. Once a General suggested to her that she not meddle in the affairs of men by leading women to fight against them. La Güera countered by saying that it is only because things have been left up to men that all things are unequal. Her stature is expressed well in the corrido by the lines ‘The Blond One and her people dig their trenches. Although she is a woman who holds the rank of Colonel her braids do not get in the way of her stars.’ After the Revolution, La Güera married a timid school teacher and had his child before he left her for another woman.”
Atop the tall cardón cactus across the dusty road, the scrawny vulture shook his black feathers until they ruffled. Then he craned his skinny red neck toward us and opened his beak and vomited out his last meal. Fogosa chuckled and nodded and remarked flatly “Ni modo.” What’s the use.
Following the ostentatious histrionics of the buzzard, the Fiery Spirit appeared to end her telling, and we all sat still and sipped sweet water from old porcelain cups while we reflected upon what she had told us. Suddenly the smallest child turned to Fogosa and asked, “Señora, is there a corrido in your mother’s honor?”
The hardened vieja melted as snow in sunshine, and she began to glow, and her eyes glistened, and she extended a wrinkled bony hand toward the chico, who stepped to her and stood at attention as she touched his shoulder. “Si, Señor,” she smiled. “Se llama La Generala.” It is called The General. “Pero no lo canta bien esta vieja.” But this old woman does not sing it well.
The boy nodded and held his eyes on her and asked. “Then will you tell us about it?” And the wrinkled vieja smiled to him and agreed and once again her clear bass voice sang out over the desert.
“La Generala, mi mamá, was a soldadera named Petra Herrera. She was known by most as Echa Balas. After being abducted by the Federales and raped and made to serve the troops, she escaped during a battle. She hid in the sierra until one day an arriero discovered her and tried to rape her. She killed him with his own knife and stole his clothes. With the pilfered garments, she disguised herself as a man named Pedro Herrera and joined the Dorados of Pancho Villa. She blew up bridges and robbed trains, and, for her valor, she received battlefield promotions. Soon she became Capítan and leader of two hundred Durango Dorados. All of this she accomplished without Pancho Villa discovering that Pedro Herrera was really a woman named Petra.
“The second battle for Torreón was critical for Villa. Soldaderas were essential for victory, but Villa the proud pendejo would order them away, only to have them return as soon as he left. During the final assault on the city, Capítan Pedro Herrera and her friend Juana Gallo tricked the Federales and entered the population disguised as local women. The two soldaderas located the power plant and simply threw the switch that turned off the lights. With this signal and the advantage of darkness, Villa and his Dorados and four hundred soldaderas stormed Torreón and seized the city in conquest.
“After the battle and during the victory celebration, Capítan Pedro Herrera revealed to Pancho Villa that he was a she named Petra. Villa became crazed and angry when he was faced with acknowledging that two women had been the catalyst for his great victory. He vowed that the story would never be made public and he banished Petra Herrera from his army.
“Soon Petra has raised her own brigade of over a thousand women and several hundred men. She became known as La Generala. Camps were segregated by men and women. Men attempting to enter the camp of the women were shot. Rapists were lynched. For this strength, women called Petra feisty and spirited. As Villa became weak following his loses to Obregón, La Generala switched allegiance to the eventual victor. By the end of hostilities, her brigade numbered almost two thousand and had been a significant factor in several of the victories of Obregón. As a reward for her service and support, Obregón demoted La Generala to Coronela and disbanded her brigade.
“Dismayed by her betrayal at the hands of Obregón, Petra Herrera resolved to cease her activities as a soldadera. In 1917 she became a Carrancista spy, operating from her cantina in Juárez. One night three men hired by Villa entered her business and shot her three times. The doctor who treated Petra told her that Villa wanted revenge against her for the Torreón incident, as the true history had just been published and Villa felt shamed by Petra and Juana Gallo. The doctor offered to help her by declaring her dead. In return, the doctor would receive her cantina. She reluctantly accepted the overture and the next day the Juárez newspaper reported the lie that Petra Herrera was killed in a bar shooting.
“Destitute, Petra approached Obregón for help. El Presidente agreed to both aid her and hide her. She took work as a seamstress in Hermosillo. She gave birth to a daughter there in 1922, when she was 35 years old. That was me. A year later, in 1923, Villa was killed in Parral and Petra Herrera felt safe enough to return to Juárez. There we lived until Obregón was assassinated in 1928. Then the new regime of Calles formed the PRI and, desiring to extinguish all possible resistance, the PRI began to hunt anyone whom Obregón had ever hidden. Mamá and I fled to La Baja. There we found this isolated rancho and Mamá resolved to stay as far away from men as possible. Our only male friends have been bald dogs. Although Mamá is now gone, I have preserved our tradition.”
Throughout the telling of her story, Fogosa had kept her hand on the boy and had spoken directly into his eyes. Her telling completed, she squeezed his arm and returned her weathered hands to her lap. Across the road could be heard a sudden flapping, and we turned to see the ugly buzzard lift off the cardón top and rise into the stark blue sky. He circled twice before soaring away toward a distant rocky peak.
Feeling that our welcome was waning, we Gringos rose also, and each of us touched the hand of Fogosa, daughter of La Generala. Thru the time we had been there, she had never risen from her rocking chair, nor did she then. All she said was Cuidado con los monos. Careful of the monkeys.