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Las Soldaderas

Poniatowska, a dazzlingly poetic Mexican writer of conscience, based Here's to You, Jesusa! (1969), one of her most revered novels, on the life of a soldadera, one of the many forgotten woman warriors of the Mexican Revolution. Now, in a bright weave of history, lore, and reflection, Poniatowska celebrates the soldaderas' courage and fortitude. She writes, "Without the soldaderas, there is no Mexican Revolution—they kept it alive and fertile, like the earth."

Vulnerable to abduction and rape at home, Mexican women chose to go to war to fight, care for the wounded, and keep the fires burning. Valued by Emiliano Zapata but reviled by Pancho Villa, who massacred 90 soldaderos one dark day in December 1916, Mexico's revolutionary women soldiers have been all but excised from history.

Poniatowska resurrects their astonishing stories, while striking photographs culled from the vast archive created by Agustin Casasola, whose complete oeuvre is showcased in Mexico: The Revolution and Beyond (2003), preserve the soldaderas' dignity, strength, and beauty, creating a unique and welcoming volume that reclaims women of valor with grace and precision.
- February 15, 2007 
Polish American Journal
Mexican and Polish American Revolutionaries

First published in Mexico in 1999, the book is now available in English, translated by David D. Romo.

Elena Poniatowska was born in France to a Polish father and Mexican mother, and grew up there until the onset of World War I, when they moved to Mexico. One of Mexico's most widely translated writers, she has received many awards for her journalism. She writes about politics and culture in the Mexican society.

Her interest in the Mexican Revolution began long ago and she developed a form of writing, blending personal histories and fiction into what is known as a testimonial novel.

This oversized book is a picturesque story of the women who followed, and at times, fought and died alongside their men, in battles that began with the Spanish Conquest and continued to the end of Mexico's violent revolution.

Photographs from the Casasola Collection containing 30,000 images, are now housed in Pachuca, illustrate the story of these brave and dedicated women.
- January 23, 2007 
The Austin Chronicle
The most arresting thing about Elena Poniatowska's Las Soldaderas: Women of the Mexican Revolution isn't its portraits of the women who served – sometimes willingly, sometimes not – during those long wars, formidable as they are: bandoliered, petticoated, in the arms of stern-looking men or alone, dressed as men, left behind on train platforms or riding on top of box cars so the horses could have food and shelter below.

Rather, it's the information that almost all photographs of the revolution are from the Casasola Collection, part of the archives of Mexico's Fototeca Nacional in Pachuca. This is because typographer and sportswriter Agustín Victor Casasola, along with his brother Miguel, set up a vastly acquisitive photographic agency during the war, sending his photographer brother off to the battlefront and buying other photographers' work (including whole newspapers' archives) as well. Safe in Mexico City, Agustin frequently scratched off the original photographer's name and replaced it with his own. Over time, the collection "developed a near monopoly on the iconography of the Mexican Revolution," according to Poniatowska. Her book, which convincingly argues against Susan Sontag's claim in On Photography that the Spanish Civil War was the first one extensively documented by modern photography, presents only a small portion of the collection's more than 30,000 images of the revolution, but every one is striking. Agustin's habit of revisionist authorship frustrates curiosity about details of subject and scene, but the ferocity of Soldaderas' imagery is undeniable.
- December 15, 2006 
Southwestern American Literature
"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."
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 
The Monitor
Las Soldaderas presents group of stoic, independent women

Women in combat may seem a recent phenomenon to some, but to students of the Mexican Revolution the role of women in battle has long since been known.

For nearly a century, though, these soldaderas have been buried deep in the background of nostalgia, far behind more recognizable figures such as Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata. Celebrated Mexican writer Elena Poniatowska brings these heroines of history to the forefront with a summary of their contributions accompanied by an impressive collection of black and white photographs in Las Soldaderas.

The term soldadera originates from the word for the salary soldiers paid female servants to carry out domestic chores while they were in camp, on the road, or away in battle. Gathering firewood, making tortillas, and making sure gunpowder didn't get wet quickly turned into actual fighting as the male casualties climbed and the ranks of revolutionists were depleted.

The book brings to life some of the most impressive participants of the Mexican Revolution. Rosa Bobadilla rose to the rank of colonel in the Zapatista army, participating in more than 168 armed encounters. Of Carmen Amelia Robles, the author's description bears reprinting here. "Flatter than a board, (she) accentuated her masculinity with a buttoned-up shirt and a knotted tie. With a sullen expression under her black felt hat, even in her sleep she wouldn't stop caressing the pistol she carried on her right thigh. She'd shoot with her right hand and hold her cigar with her left."

Petra Ruiz, another soldadera, who diguised herself as a man, joined the Carrancistas and earned the nickname "El Echa Balas" (The Shooter) because of her violent character. "She'd shoot her carbine squatting behind adobe walls, her aim better than of a torpedo."

Pancho Villa was one revolutionary who did not value the role of women in the military, or in any role of influence for that matter. "I've never thought that women could vote, choose a government and make laws," he told American John Reed.

Villa earned the contempt of many soldaderas. "He was a bandit. He didn't fight like a man, but resorted to blowing up railroads with dynamite. That's why if there's anyone I hate the most, it's Villa," said one soldadera.

Poniatowska relates a particularly horrifying account of Villa's massacre of several dozen women in the town of Camargo, Chihuahua in 1916.

Poniatowska quotes from both history books and novels to portray a group of women who were essential to the 20th century's first revolution. "Without the soldaderas, there is no Mexican Revolution—they kept it alive and fertile, like the earth," she writes.

The books is a short history, but the photographs speak louder than any chapters. Some historians argue that the Mexican Revolution was the first conflict to allow all-access passes to photojournalists and the pictures in this book are culled from the Casasola Collection/Archive of over 30,000 images from the Revolution.

Haunting and penetrating, the photographs depict a stoic group of women, their bodies seemingly at rest, but their eyes always on the move. They are shown traveling on trains and with horse-drawn wagons, sometimes with soldiers, and occasionally with children at their side. Their faces show a determination and a resolve to contribute to the cause in whatever way they could.
- April 6, 2007 
Reforma Newsletter
This is a paperback English translation of Las Soldaderas, which was originally published in Mexico in 1999. When one thinks of the Mexican Revolution, the images that typically come to mind are those of Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata. The images are so ingrained in our consciousness that we tend to think of the revolution as a tumultuous period in which only men participated. This English translation by David Romo is an eye-opening book about the many various roles of women during the revolution in the battlefield as soldiers, in battle support roles (e.g. nurses), and caretakers (e.g. wives, lovers, and girlfriends). The first section consists of 26 pages of text by Elena Poniatowska, a journalist, novelist and dissident of current-day Mexico. The second section consists of 50 black and white photographs of soldaderas shown in a variety of roles. The photographs come from the Casasola Collection in Pachuca, Hidalgo, Mexico. The photographs are superb and reproduced on high quality paper that brings them to life. Highly recommended for public and academic libraries.
El Paso Times
Elena Poniatowska's Las Soldaderas: Women of the Mexican Revolution demonstrates the riveting, almost hypnotic power of photographs.

Poniatowska's text (translated from Spanish by David Dorado Romo) is wisely limited to about two dozen pages and acts as a frame for the remarkable black-and-white images of the brave women who fought on either side of the Mexican Revolution.

The term "soldadera" comes from "soldada," or salary. Poniatowska explains that "during all wars and invasions, soldiers used their 'soldada' (a word of Aragonese origin) to hire a female servant. The woman would go to the barracks to charge her salary, i.e., soldada." Thus, the term "soldadera" was coined.

The photographs are culled from the enormous Casasola Collection in the Fototeca Nacional of the National Institute of Anthropology and History in Mexico. The publisher tells us that the collection is based on the work of Agustín Casasola (1874-1938), one of the first photojournalists in Mexico and founder of the photo agency that carries his name.

It is difficult not to mull over these photographs of Mexican and indigenous women from the early part of the last century as they pose with their pistols, horses, children or husbands. These are women who played different roles, sometimes as brave soldiers, other times as helpmates (or even prostitutes without much choice) to the male warriors.

Poniatowska offers anecdotes to help us know these women, sometimes using their own words. Pancho Villa does not fair well here, nor do other men who took brutal advantage of -- or even murdered -- these women.

Las Soldaderas perfectly weds words with photographs as a poignant tribute to the brave women who were active participants in the Mexican Revolution.
- Daniel A. Olivas, May 13, 2007 
Blogcritics Magazine
Anyone who knows me even just a bit knows that Elena Poniatowska is my favorite author and hero. She, along with Eduardo Galeano, has opened my eyes over the years and has given me the strength to fight for indigenous rights, immigrant rights, and the lifelong battle to regain and preserve our lost traditions and culture.

Her writings on the Mexico earthquake, Nothing, Nobody and on the 1968 massacre of unarmed student protestors at Tlateloco, Massacre in Mexico, moved me greatly, changed how I viewed the world, my Chicanismo, put a fire in my soul, and was first introduction to her work. These books made me a lifelong fan and avid reader of anything she writes. Imagine how excited I was to find this little book through Cinco Puntos Press!

The soldaderas of the Mexican Revolution have always fascinated me. There are stories in my family of them and I’ve always wanted to know more. Elizabeth Salas, in her excellent book, Soldaderas in the Mexican Military, fed some of my thirst for knowledge of these extraordinary women as did Ms. Poniatowska’s Hasta No Verte, Jesus Mio, her biographical book about the experiences of an actual soldadera in the revolution. Still, I found myself wanting to know even more. I have dreams of the soldaderas. They want more, they want their stories to be out there, to be told. Las Soldaderas is one of the answers to them.

Ponitowska writes, “Without the soldaderas, there is no Mexican Revolution – they kept it alive and fertile like the earth.” I believe her. Her narrative of the amazing contributions and tribulations of these valiant women really give you the feel of what it was like to march hungry, search a battlefield for your man, to really suffer as they did, and to be fierce and indomitable. I stand amazed at how much they did, how strong they were, and how little they were valued by most people.

This little book is crammed with photos from the incredible collection of Agustin Victor Casasola in the Fototeca Nacional of the National Institute of Anthropology and History in Pachuca, Hidalgo, Mexico. The photos give voice and face to these women. There is tenderness, anger, rage, sadness, determination, weariness, happiness, romance, and excitement. There are young women with rifles, holding baskets of food, and setting up camps. These women were everywhere in that revolution on all of the fighting sides.

I learned of Nellie Campobello, the only female novelist of the Revolution who was also a soldadera, and was amazed that I had never heard of her. There are a lot of little details like that in the book, little bits of information that are tremendous in what light they give to the darkness of knowledge I have about them. Finding out about Nellie has me on a quest to find out more, to dig deeper, and to go to Mexico and dig up her writings. I want to see for myself, read for myself a soldadera’s memories.

I could go on for days about this important little book, but I won’t. You need this book. The Soldaderas need you to know them.

Visit the Blogcritics Magazine online.
- Gina Ruiz, March 17, 2007 
El Paso Magazine
Adding color to a black and white history

A steady thread of argument running through the history is that it is patriarchal, not necessarily misogynistic, but heavily influenced by male principles. Now, what if we were to go to Mexico circa 1910 and look at history through the eyes of the history makers? We would most likely get what we have observed in popular history: revolutionaries who fought for ideals, good for the common people and bad for the ruling elite—some of which were women.

Historically, the Mexican Revolution of 1910 was sparked by a forceful removal of the Mexican president’s power, in turn causing a series of revolutions. By 1917, when the Political Constitution of the Mexican United States was approved by the Constitutional Congress (the same constitution that stands today), the presidency had switched hands on numerous occasions. It appeared as if the revolution never ceased, especially with the popularity of figures like Emiliano Zapata, Pancho Villa and Venustiano Carranza.

But those popular revolutionaries had their feminine counterparts, both on and off the battleground. They had accomplices who matured their environmental and social senses, and they had lovers. So what about these “valiant, furious, loyal, maternal and hard working” women, and what were their roles during the Mexican Revolution of 1910? Through the old-time photography in Las Soldaderas, we get a glimpse at the bigger picture of Mexico’s turbulent history. Translated from Spanish, Elena Poniatowska’s Las Soldaderas tells us from surviving oral history of a Mexican Revolution brewing with faithful and valiant—or ruthless and uncanny—women. The different angles shaping the stream of narrative in Las Soldaderas add to the history we have come to know as the Mexican Revolution. They were revolutionary women with impressive worth in Mexico’s social change.

The photographs illustrating Las Soldaderas themselves are worth the time to slowly digest. Selected from the Collection of Agustin Victor Casasola (1874-1938) in the Fototeca Nacional of the National Institute of Anthropology and History in Pachuca, Hidalgo, Mexico, the photographs provide the readers with an almost surreal experience, an experience based on a time long past and forgotten until now. The images narrate their own stories and, alongside the provided context, become enchanting, almost enigmatic. Were it not for the social, physical and mental support of the soldaderas, we are told, the armies of the Mexican Revolution would have been skimpy, if they would have existed at all. Mesmerizing, even pleasantly tragic, Las Soldaderas presents us with a perspective of Mexican history in the black-and-white, poignant photographs colored by the interlaced, anecdotal narrative presented by Poniatowska.

“Las Soldaderas is one of a group of books originally published by Ediciones ERA in Mexico,” says Lee Merrill Byrd of Cinco Puntos Press. “These books are similar in shape and concern. For the most part, they are collections of archival photos coupled with an essay by a well-known writer. Since we loved the photos and know there is a lot of interest in the Mexican Revolution, Cinco Puntos bought the rights from Ediciones ERA to publish Las Soldaderas in English and distribute it in the United States and Canada.”

Throughout Las Soldaderas, a subtle undertone can be traced. Of the many versions describing an event, it is collectively that we may paint a more complete picture. Only then do we get a better glimpse of what history is truly about. Las Soldaderas – Women of the Mexican Revolution is a good read, if not for the vintage photographs, then for the dual experience of reading and looking at a history of social change.
- February 9, 2007 
RALPH Magazine
If you were a woman, and wanted to help the Revolution, it was best to be with Zapata. The soldiers were always "caballeros." Josefina Bórquez relates how she and four Carrancista friends were detained in Guerrero. When the general arrived in Chilpancingo, Zapata personally delivered them to him. He told his men,

Stay behind. Nobody goes with me. I want to show the Carrancistas that I fight for the Revolution, not to take possession of their women.

When a sentry asked, "Who goes there?" he responded,


"You're Emiliano Zapata."

"I am."

"Well, I find it strange that you come without protection."

He said of the women, "No one has touched them; I bring them back to you exactly as we found them."

The Centaur of the North was not so gentlemanly, and his opponents were not caballeras, either. In Chihuahua, sixty soldaderas were captured. One of them tried to shoot Villa. "Ladies, who fired that shot?" he asked. No one responded. He tied them up "like stacks of firewood or barrels," ready to set them on fire. "The soldaderas screamed, not out of pain, but out of rage. There were no moans coming out of the women's mouths, only insults. They didn't plead for mercy, instead they threatened an impossible revenge."

The most blunt, vile and violent insults were heard coming from those piles of women pressed tightly against each other by the ropes. Sixty mouths cursing at once...

After they were afire, "the women never stopped cursing Villa."

And after the blaze completely covered them, Villa heard a hoarse voice screaming from the pyre: "You dog, son of a bitch! You will die like a dog!"

There are almost fifty photographs from 1910 - 1920 reproduced here. They come from a collection of some 30,000 of the Revolution, and are located in the Fototeca Nacional in Pachuca.

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