In this original study, Elizabeth Salas explores the changing role of the soldadera, both in reality and as a cultural symbol, from pre-Columbian times up to the present day.
Since pre-Columbian times, soldiering has been a traditional life experience for innumerable women in Mexico. Yet the many names given these women warriors—heroines, camp followers, Amazons, coronelas, soldadas, soldaderas, and Adelitas—indicate their ambivalent position within Mexican society. In this original study, Elizabeth Salas explores the changing role of the soldadera, both in reality and as a cultural symbol, from pre-Columbian times up to the present day.
Drawing on military archival data, anthropological studies, and oral history interviews, Salas first explores the real roles played by Mexican women in armed conflicts. She finds that most of the functions performed by women easily equate to those performed by revolutionaries and male soldiers in the quartermaster corps and regular ranks. She then turns her attention to the soldadera as a continuing symbol in Mexican and Chicano culture, examining the image of the soldadera in literature, corridos, art, music, and film.
Challenging many traditional stereotypes, Salas finds that the fundamental realities of war link all Mexican women, regardless of time period, social class, or nom de guerre.
- 1. Mesoamerican Origins
- 2. Servants, Traitors, and Heroines
- 3. Amazons and Wives
- 4. In the Thick of the Fray
- 5. We, the Women
- 6. Adelita Defeats Juana Gallo
- 7. Soldaderas in Aztlán
Armies, wars, and revolutions in Mexico have had a great impact on the lives of innumerable women since pre-Conquest times. Women warriors, camp followers, coronelas, soldaderas, and Adelitas are just some of the names given to these women. Many of the tasks women performed in armies and during warfare correspond to those performed by men in the ranks and the quartermaster corps.
The fact that these women have no common label is a reflection of military thinking, which seeks to use women when necessary but yet keeps them marginal in what is essentially a male preserve. For this reason, the heroic camp follower or fighter of one war might be condemned as a prostitute or unnatural woman in another era.
In Mexican history, it is not considered appropriate to link legendary and historical figures, such as Coyolxauqhui, Malinche, Leona Vicario, the coronelas, and the soldaderas of the 1910 Revolution, when analyzing women's participation in armies and warfare. These women are usually classified separately, primarily to take into account time period and class.
Yet that is what this study intends to do--to link all Mexican women, regardless of era, class, or nom de guerre under a fundamental historical truth, that soldiering has over many centuries been a traditional and commonplace life experience for thousands of Mexican women. Constant warfare in Mexico from pre-Conquest times to the 1930s assured women many opportunities to show, willingly or unwillingly, their considerable skills in soldiering.
The seminal study about the soldaderas was written by Angeles Mendieta Alatorre (1961). Her work is an overview that cites mythical, historical, and literary female soldiers and patriots from ancient Mesoamerican history to the 1910 Revolution. Other notable works, by Gustavo Casasola (1960-1970), Anna Macías (1982), Shirlene Soto (1977), and Frederick C. Turner (1967), are limited to a discussion of soldaderas during and after the Revolution.
This study follows in the footsteps of Mendieta Alatorre and seeks to elaborate on the interchange between Mexican women caught up in constant wars and revolutions. An understanding of woman's roles in ritual and ancient warfare, as mother/war goddess, as intermediary and sexual companion to warriors, is important because soldaderas in many ways carried on these tribal defender duties for their people.
Both domestic and foreign troops after the Spanish Conquest in 1519 used women as servants. Soldiers used their pay (soldada) to employ women as paid servants (soldaderas). As soldaderas women gained some of their earliest work experience in wage labor. In general, soldaderas are incorrectly perceived as either wives or unpaid female relatives of the soldiers. Yet the semiofficial services they rendered to the soldiers took the form of transactions.
The soldiers would receive their pay and give it to the soldaderas, who as servants would purchase food and personal supplies. Working for soldiers became a way for poor, lower-class women to eke out a meager living for themselves and their children. Not bound by traditional marriage practices, they could travel the country with the armies, leave the soldiers they were serving at will, and at times earn extra money by additional work as laundresses, food sellers, and prostitutes.
By the time of the Revolution, nothing characterized the civil war more than the sight of thousands of soldaderas putting forth a dazzling display of their considerable talents as soldiers and camp followers. While the Revolution can be rightly considered the greatest of times for the soldaderas, by the 1930s they had been barred from the ranks, barracks, and field maneuvers; by the 1940s they had been redesignated as soldiers' wives by the government.
Besides an overview of the soldaderas during the Revolution, I place a separate focus on a Mexican army interned in U.S. forts during 1914. The Mexican army jailed at Fort Bliss and later at Fort Wingate from January to September consisted of 3,559 officers and soldiers, 1,256 soldaderas, and 554 children. This army of men and women came under critical scrutiny from U.S. Army officials and civilian observers.
It is crucial to the study of the soldaderas to include oral history, which can clarify what kind of impact soldiering had on women. Thus the experiences of nine women who participated in the Revolution are presented in this study.
Also important is the considerable impact that these women have had on Mexican music, literature, art, and film throughout the centuries. A common theme in these expressions of popular culture concerns the struggle to tame the soldaderas with romantic love or by fostering their reputations as loose women.
The imagery of the soldaderas has also had a profound impact on Mexicans who emigrated to the United States, on the Chicano movement of the 1960s, and on American popular culture. The soldaderas appear as important characters in Mexican immigration sagas and Chicano literature. The Chicano movement used its own version of the soldadera as both a recruitment technique and a symbol to reinforce traditional Mexican womanhood. EuroAmerican filmmakers and popular novelists made the soldaderas characters in their works about Mexico. A debate developed and still continues among Chicanas about the value of the soldadera as an identity symbol.
Over the centuries, changes in the imagery of the soldaderas are tied directly to the evolution of the Mexican military from its Mexica (Aztec) and Spanish antecedents to the present-day army and to cultural reflections about the roles of Mexican women in conflicts.
“A historical account like this can be appreciated by scholars of all disciplines who are interested in providing a framework for the discussion of the patriarchal conception of 'woman.' It opens the door to the consideration of the history of women as one of resistance, assertiveness, and creativity.”
Hispanic American Historical Review