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Las Soldaderas

Southwestern American Literature

In Las Soldaderas: Women of the Mexican Revolution, Elena Poniatowska thrusts the reader into the raw truth of the lives of the women who were a part of the Mexican Revolution of 1910 and who remain on the margins of México’s history. A prominent feminist journalist and writer, Poniatowska makes a successful attempt to unearth the history of these women by including colorful anecdotes of the lives of soldaderas. Photographs taken during the revolution complement the anecdotes, the majority obtained from the prestigious Agustín Víctor Casasola Collection. Whether fragile and subservient or strong and commanding, the soldaderas are described as the backbone of the Mexican Revolution of 1910.

Las Soldaderas begins with an account from Rafael F. Muñoz’s Un disparo al vacio, in which he writes that sixty soldaderas were burned alive after one of them tried to assassinate Francisco Villa. This shocking account is not an apt introduction because it represents an extreme situation that was not very common in the lives of the soldaderas, as Poniatowska relates throughout the book. It is an unstable beginning that does not set the stage for the rest of the narrative; it is too tragic and leaves the reader thinking the rest of the book will steer in the same direction.

Most of the soldadera anecdotes are quoted directly or paraphrased from other works such as Friedrich Katz’s Pancho Villa, Rosa E. King’s Tempest over Mexico: A Personal Chronicle and Poniatowska’s own Hasta no verte Jesús mío among others. Though the citing of so many different authors makes Las Soldaderas appear like a compilation of second-hand sources, Poniatowska
pulls through with insightful and significant commentary acquired from her acclaimed Hasta no verte Jesús mío, which she wrote from a personal interview with Josefina Bórquez, the wife of a revolutionary. She vindicates the marginalization of the soldaderas with eloquence and firmness:
Wrapped in shawls, they carry both the children and the ammunition. Standing or sitting by their man, they have nothing to do with the greatness of the powerful. Quite the opposite, they are the image itself of weakness and resistance.

In spite of the excessive inclusion of second-hand sources, with each anecdote Las Soldaderas fulfills Poniatowska’s premise and honors these women who were protagonists in Mexico’s history but who for decades remained as passive agents in history books and backdrops in photographs. The Casasola collection is responsible for salvaging the neglected history of the soldaderas. Each photograph negates the secondary position the soldaderas received in Mexican history by showing their unremitting presence in train stations, military posts, barracks, and on battle fields.

It is not difficult to imagine Petra Ruiz, also known as Pedro Ruiz, “el hecha balas” (the bullet shooter)—who led a battalion that defeated the federal army in Mexico City and earned the rank of lieutenant—when contemplating photographs of young soldaderas dressed as revolucionarios, ammunition belt and all. Photographs of young women carrying provision baskets, babies on their backs, and looking lovingly at their revolutionary men also depicts the loyal, hard-working and subservient soldadera who served as the backbone of the revolution.

There is one major contradiction in Poniatowska’s description or depiction of the soldaderas, which in turn ends up becoming the major point of the book. Poniatowska mentions that there is no proof that the tough, commanding soldadera brought to life by actress María Félix’s character La Cucaracha existed. However, the real-life accounts she cites contradict this with examples of soldaderas who commanded battalions, earned high military ranks, and earned the respect of generals, including General Emiliano Zapata.

Poniatowska’s commentary includes a crucial part of soldadera history—popular culture. She demonstrates her pop culture savvy by including references to film and music: María Félix’s La Cucaracha and La Valentina and the corridos that immortalized La Adelita and La Coronela. These references are a clear indication that the soldadera—though marginalized from Mexican history is not completely forgotten in Mexican culture.

Las Soldaderas serves its main purpose: to serve as a platform for the women of the Mexican Revolution. More than a staid, academic history book, Las Soldaderas is a collection of stories that reflect the submission, valor, devotion—the bravía of the daughters of México.
- December 18, 2007 

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