There is a saying that behind every great man is a great woman. Truth can be found in that statement, and I would also add that sometimes great women can stand alone. One definition of mythology is that it is a widespread belief or assumption that has grown up around someone or something. Regarding the Mexican female soldier known historically as the “Soldadera”, this is undeniably true. Their role in history of often obfuscated or unknown outside of Mexico. However, in Mexican history, they earned a well-deserved place that cannot be overlooked. But when exploring history, it is imperative to separate fact from fiction, and that is exactly what author Elizabeth Salas has done here in this book that examines the Soldadera and her role in Mexican society.
The cover of the book is suggestive and captures one’s attention, but for good reason. This strong image is not a myth, but an accurate portrayal of the role accepted by women who decided to pick up arms in defense of their families and country. And to understand the emergence of the Soldadera, Salas revisits Mexican history and the dominance of the Spanish empire. Uprisings against the Spaniards had a significant impact on the morale among subjugated classes of people. Women played crucial roles in the revolts and paid heavy prices. As Salas discusses, one such revolt occurred in 1611-1612 when pure and mixed Africans marched against injustice. These early struggles helped set the stage for the Soldaderas who later proved themselves at home and on the battlefield. Because the number of Soldaderas was extensive, Salas focuses on a select few to serve as examples. Among this group of women is Manuela Oxaca Quinn (1897-1980), mother of the late film star Anthony Quinn (1915-2001). Their stories are not intended to be all inclusive of all aspects of the Soldadera’s life, and for other women, the experience could have been vastly different depending on the circumstances surrounding their existence. But what we do learn from these women is that the Soldadera was unique and destined to become a fixture in Mexican history.
Salas moves through the book in a chronological order, and as the Mexican Revolution approaches, the role of the Soldadera becomes more pronounced and the pace of the book increases, as well as the suspense. Further, the Soldaderas also participated in other military campaigns that required their effort. As the author explains:
“Soldaderas served as part of Gen. Antonio López Santa Anna’s 1835–1838 campaign into Texas, the Mexican War of 1846–1848, the Three Years’ War of 1857–1860, and the French Intervention of 1862–1867”
The Soldaderas gained status and reputations for courage but there was also a dark side to their life in Mexico. Salas also discusses the dangers that existed towards women who were caught on the battlefield or forcibly taken during raids by enemy factions. The Soldadera was sometimes born out of necessity and conditioned to protect herself and other women as much as possible. Frankly, what is revealed in the book would be described today as genocide and sex trafficking. Bandits were plenty and pillaging had become an art form. The women knew that marauders at the door did come with good intentions, and if the men could not protect them, they needed to take up arms. And that is one reason Soldaderas were born. Others sought protection of male soldiers with high rank. The author provides sufficient evidence to prove that the term Soldadera is not a monolithic term. Each woman had their own story, but they were unified in the willingness to fight and defend.
In addition to taking up arms, the women were still required to take care of the home. And the Soldadera also excelled in this regard. What we see are women who had multiple tasks that required extensive physical and mental stamina, but also had to face the threat of abduction, assault, and death in combat. Life could be short and brutally hard. Today, Mexico continues to grapple with the issue of femicide, and as the book shows, that threat also existed centuries ago during the era of the Soldaderas. However, there are bright moments in the book and the feats accomplished by the Soldaderas will leave readers speechless. Daring, cunning and devoted to their causes, the Soldaderas rose to the occasion when needed. But if that is the case, why are they never mentioned in history books? Well, in Mexico they are known but even there, the role of the Soldadera is not always a black and white issue, but one that has many shades of grey. Chicanas today are aware of the Soldaderas’ significance but live in an era far removed from the 1800s, and desire to reinvent the image of the Mexican woman. In fact, Salas points out that:
“There has been a concern among many Chicanas about the appropriateness of the soldadera image as a symbol of the Mexican woman. This issue is important to Chicanas because they want to anchor themselves in Mexican culture while expanding their personal horizons beyond that of wife, mother, and defender of La Raza.”
The Soldaderas are an integral part of Mexican history, but Chicanas today are right to be concerned about their image. The life that existed for Soldaderas is different from modern times and the image of roving bandits and outlaws has become archived material. And though there is no need for the Soldadera today, we can still learn from their lives and experiences. But to do that, separating myth from reality is the first step. Highly recommended.