By Phillippe Diederich
November 20 is the day we celebrate the Mexican Revolution, that long war (1910-1920) that ended the dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz and began a new age for Mexico. Every year it seems we celebrate the heroes: Emiliano Zapata and Pancho Villa, and the politicians: Francisco Madero and Venustiano Carranza. But the heroes we tend to forget are the Soldaderas, the women of the Mexican Revolution who fought right alongside the men.
The name Soldadera comes from the Spanish soldada, which is a term used to define the payment to the person who cares for soldiers. During the Mexican Revolution, there were two types of Soldaderas. There were the female soldiers, and there were the majority of the Soldaderas—the women who accompanied the soldiers but were not soldiers themselves.
The fighting, or soldier Soldadera, usually belonged to a roving column of rebels fighting against government troops. Many of them had to dress like men, act like men, ride horses, march and fight like any of the other revolutionaries. Best known among them was Margarita Neri, a Mayan Indian from Quintana Roo who became a commander in Zapata’s army.
Pancho Villa’s army actively recruited Soldaderas to fight alongside the men. Some Soldaderas were feminists and socialist activists who not only fought on the rebel side but fought for women’s suffrage, fair wages and affordable housing. Dolores Jiménez y Muro was a former schoolteacher and activist who was involved in drafting the ideas behind the “Political and Social Plan,” which led to the Complot de Tacubaya, a failed attempt to overthrow Díaz and install Madero as president near the start of the revolution. Her writings influenced Emiliano Zapata’s own ideas of social reform.
But the majority of the Soldaderas of the Mexican Revolution were women who accompanied the men they loved into battle. They traveled the plains and sierras of the country, always at the rear, behind the large battalions of soldiers, carrying kitchen utensils, their children, and sometimes even their husband’s rifles.
There were Soldaderas on both sides of the war. To avoid desertions, the government allowed the wives and girlfriends of soldiers to travel with them. The women cooked and washed for the soldiers, and kept them company at camp.
In the rebel armies, some women were actually recruited to fight, but in most instances, the women just followed their loved ones. When the soldiers made camp, the women always found ways to procure food from nearby villages and cooked for their husbands, although, this was not the case in Zapata’s army. Zapata had good relationships with the peasants in the region, who would provide food and water for his fighters.
The Soldaderas played a vital role in the Mexican Revolution, but most of them did not get the credit they deserved. Most women did not draw wages and were not official members of the various armies, so they didn’t garner pensions of any kind after the war. Most of the Soldaderas went home, and some had difficulty adjusting back to civilian life. Many died in poverty. The Mexican author Elena Poniatowska wrote a stunning and heartbreaking novel based on her own friendship with a Soldadera: Here’s to You, Jesusa!
While few names of Soldaderas exist, there is a classic corrido from the Mexican Revolution called, La Adelita. This famous song plays homage to all the Soldaderas and tells the story of Adelita, who is in love with a sergeant, and he with her. Adelita is beautiful and brave; she has even earned the respect of the colonel. The song is a powerful ballad of love, bravery, and patriotism.
These days, when you go to a Mexican restaurant, you might see a poster of a beautiful woman wearing a pair of ammunition belts across her chest, holding a bugle in one hand and the Mexican flag on the other, and smiling. That’s the simplified version of La Adelita. She may be idealized, but she represents all the Soldaderas who fought in the Mexican Revolution.