Soldaderas in the Mexican Military: Myth and History – Elizabeth Salas

SoldaderasThere 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.


The Black Hand: The Story of Rene “Boxer” Enriquez and His Life in the Mexican Mafia-Chris Blatchford

indexLatin America continues to struggle with poverty, gangs and rising murder rates.  Central America and northern South America are rife with turmoil due in part to the continuing pattern of political instability.  The surge in homicides have made the region one of the most violent places on earth.  Honduras is now the deadliest country in Latin America and has the highest murder rate in the world.  The devastating effects of famine and economic depravity have combined with the proliferation of MS-13 (Mara-Salvatrucha) to make life utterly unbearable for the majority of Hondurans.  The rise of MS-13 and other Latin American gangs has not gone unnoticed.  The gang culture has spread north and taken hold in the United States with California becoming a stronghold of gang activity.  And shockingly, nearly half of all gang members in the United States are Hispanic American.

Beginning in 1973, the Federal Bureau of Investigation began to watch a new gang that proved to be as violent and ruthless as any this country has ever seen, the Mexican Mafia.  They have been glorified on the silver screen, most notably in the film ‘American Me’ starring Edward James Olmos.  But the reality is that the real Mexican Mafia is far stronger and far more dangerous than portrayed in the film.  Rene “Boxer” Enriquez teams up with author Chris Blackford in recounting his life as former member of the gang, telling all in this memoir that is guaranteed to leave you speechless.  In 2003, Enriquez was still a ranking member of the gang, but the loss of several loved ones, a brother with health issues and the realization that the gang he swore allegiance to didn’t swear allegiance to him, he decided to step away and become a cooperating witness for the U.S. government.  His testimony has proven to be critical in the apprehension and subsequent incarceration of members of the Mexican Mafia.   He has also become a motivational speaker in the hope of preventing young men and women from making his mistakes.   As of today he is still incarcerated and the possibility of parole is uncertain.

It is with remarkable courage and self-examination that Enriquez is able to tell us his life story.  He does not glamorize the gang life and admits to his failures.  The book is gritty, sad but the reality that awaits young men and women enticed by the fast lifestyle enjoyed by gang members.  Sadly, there will be young adults who readily accept a life on the streets believing that they are invincible or too intelligent to make the same mistakes as Enriquez.  But there others who may read this book and make a decision that will ultimately save their lives.  So take a seat and follow Enriquez as he takes us deep inside the Mexican Mafia and all that is has to offer.

ISBN-10: 0061257303
ISBN-13: 978-0061257308

The Daughters of Jaurez: A True Story of Serial Murder South of the Border- Teresa Rodriguez

113869301Beginning in 1993, female homicides in Juárez City, Mexico began to increase at an alarming rate.  Tragically, the overwhelming majority of the crimes have gone unsolved denying the families of the victims their day in court for justice for the loss of their loved ones.  The city was founded in 1659 and sits across the United States border from the town of El Paso, Texas.  In 2010, there were on average 8.5 killings per day in Juarez City.  Drug cartels and drifters from the U.S. have maintained an iron grip on the city making it one of the most places on earth.   In recent years, the murder rate has declined and the city continues to make progress in reinventing itself and its image.  However, the struggle with its dark past and deadly trend of femicide that has not fully ceased continues to haunt Juarez.  Teresa Rodriguez, a correspondent for Univision, has conducted her own investigation into the murders resultng in this chilling and informative account that reveals the severity of an epidemic that continues to plague Mexico.

Their names are not known worldwide and their families are simple and hardworking.  But their murders and the inaction of the Mexican government and complicity of local police reveal a system in which officials are unwilling and unable to stop the crisis that has gripped the country.  In their faces we see our sisters, mothers, aunts, nieces and friends.   Most of the women are from low income poverty stricken areas who work brutally long hours barely earning a minimum wage. They are often faced with a long commute on deserted stretches of roads that serve as a haven for criminal elements.  Some of the women are never seen again becoming yet another statistic is a growing list of violent murders and sexual assaults.  Rodriguez’s book is a dark premonition of things that will come if the Mexican government fails to address the crisis.  For hundreds of women in Juárez there is no justice and their families are left to grieve without the benefit of closure.  Their cries have been ignored and the deadly trend that was once confined to Juarez has now spread to other parts of Mexico including Toluca, a city I visited in December, 2013.

Mexico is a beautiful country, full of history, good food and beautiful people.   Yet it is plagued by extreme violence fueled by the drug trade and a disturbing pattern of femicide that has never been confronted.   Vice News, the international news organization based in Brooklyn, New York, recently did a story on the rise of the female homicides in Mexico and the struggles the families of the victims face in obtaining justice.  The people of Mexico face a long road in reversing the disturbing trend of murders but as more attention is drawn to the crisis, it might result in long overdue action by the Mexican government.   And authors such as Teresa Rodriguez continue to do their part in exposing a regrettable, tragic and hauntingly disturbing trend.

ISBN-10: 0743292049
ISBN-13: 978-0743292047