Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Yesterday was el Día de la Revolución, November 20, an official patriotic Mexican holiday. The holiday commemorates the beginning of the first great revolution of the twentieth century on November 20, 1910. Years in the making, the Revolution was a response to Mexico's "modernization," which played itself out on the backs of the rural and urban poor and also resulted in the exclusion of the country's growing middle class from political power. In October of that year, wealthy Coahuila landowner Francisco I. Madero wrote El Plan de San Luis Potosí calling for the ouster of Porifio Diaz, who had ruled Mexico since 1876, as well as the installation of Madero as provisional president, and the uprising of Mexicans in revolution on November 20. The Revolution lasted for a decade; some say it never ended because its goals of justice have yet to be met. It resulted in the deaths of about a million people and the great movement of a million Mexicans to the United States.
For many of us, the Revolution is our origin story, the history passed down from generation to generation about how we came to this country.
In my own family, the Revolution played itself out for decades. Both my parents came to the United States as children, their families fleeing the violence of la Revolución. My father, descended from peones living in haciendas in Mexico's north, remembered the Revolution as a grand struggle for justice, a fight between the poor and the rich. He recalled witnessing battles as his family followed his Villista father from battle to battle. My mother remembered it very differently. From an educated, middle-class family in Ciudad Chihuahua, her family lost everything coming to the United States. Her memories of the Revolution were of purposeless violence that threatened her family. Her oldest sister had been almost shot one day walking home from school. The emotional debates over the meaning la Revolución flared between them throughout my growing up.
In my neighborhood, too, memories and connections to the Revolution were evident. My friend's abuelita told us about a vecina who had been one of "those women" during the Revolution, perhaps even a prostitute with Pancho Villa. My next door neighbor growing up is the grandson of General Toribio Ortega, who fired the first shots of the Revolution on November 14, in Cuchillo Parado, Chihuahua when he led seventy campesinos against the government. On Sunday drives, my parents would point out places associated with Villa and his wife, Luz Corral de Villa who had been a friend of my tia abuela.
La Revolución was no abstraction. It was and I think still is a living history.
General Toribio Ortega courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Thinking about the Revolution and the iconic images associated with it, especially the soldaderas, always makes me think about the stories that are so often unheard. When I returned to El Paso in 2001, I remember seeing an ad in the local newspaper that incorporated both el Dia de la Revolución and Thanksgiving. The ad's border alternated soldaderas with turkeys. I still laugh when I think about it. But it also hurts me to remember the lived experiences of the girls and women and how they have been forgotten or silenced.
I've been working on a manuscript about Mexican children on the border for decades now and reearching the book has led me to discover incredible, poignant, tragic oral histories. In the 1970s, El Instituto de Antropología e Historia collected oral histories, especially in the south, that were published as the multi-volume Mi pueblo durante la revolución. The Institute of Oral History at the University of Texas at El Paso, which I am grateful to direct, is also filled with these remarkable stories of the Revolution.
Today, in honor of the celebration of the first great social revolution of the 20th century and in recognition of the experiences of the women who were to become our mothers, our grandmothers, and our great-grandmothers, I share these two stories from my manuscript.
Photo from the Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons
Manuel Servín Massieu captured the essence of women's and girl's experiences when he affirmed that, "Para las mujeres, la bola era el miedo.” For the women, the unruly hordes of soldiers were the fear embodied. Servín recalled the enthralling stories which his elderly relative Celedonia often told him of her youth in Zacatecas during the Revolution. One day in the fall of 1916, she and several other young women were drawing water from a well when a commotion started. Soon, several of their parents appeared, "todos pálidos y asustados,” pale and scared, because Villistas were on their way to the rancho. To hide the girls, the parents made them climb down the wooden ladder which led to the interior of the well. Celedonia remembered that the well was so deep that a stone thrown into the well would take ten minutes to hit water. Afraid of falling into the dark depths of the well and afraid to leave because of the Villistas (who their elders had warned would "steal them and take them by force" or "would kill them and throw them to the side of the road"), the girls hid "con la muerte abajo y con la muerte arriba.” If they came out of the well, they could be killed. If they fell into the depths of the well while hiding, they would drown. It was indeed a case of “death below and death above.” After throwing them some shawls and a few tortillas, their parents covered the mouth of the well with boards and dirt. Such measures evidence the terror with which parents and girls viewed the coming of “la bola." (from Manuel Servín Massieu, "Las historias de los viejos," in Mi pueblo durante la revolución, vol. 1, 37.)
.María Cristina Flores de Carlos, born in Gruyo, Jalisco, in 1906 became sick with fear after being threatened by a Villista. She recalled her fear at hearing shooting while hiding beneath a sack when the indistinguishable groups of revolutionaries came to town. But the most traumatic event came with the arrival of Villistas to her town:
"When I was between 13 and 14 years old, well one time the Villistas gave me a great scare... because they wanted to take me with them, and one even threatened me with a pistol. He pointed at me because I wouldn't go with him. To me he looked very tall, surely because of the fear. He told me, 'I'm going to take you with me, girl...’ What horror! And I trembled, but I didn't want to show him fear, right? But I got scared and I got sick... I was in bed for about a month."
For children like María Cristina, the militarization of gender roles entered her consciousness and her life, intimately and traumatically, during this encounter. Tellingly, there is no evidence of a protector in this story-- no mother or father, only the child herself. Flores de Carlos eventually saved herself by running into and hiding in the house of her father's employer. According to Flores de Carlos "I ended up so scared, I’m scared of everyone, especially at night. I'm here at night and I don't go out for anything, only by car if some emergency comes up and if they take me and watch over me. But I've been very scared since then." (María Cristina Flores de Carlos, interviewed by Oscar J. Martínez, transcript 557, 20 June 1979, Institute of Oral History, University of Texas at El Paso)
Maria Arias Bernal courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Years ago, I used to conduct a "museum for a day" project with Juan Garcia, a social studies teacher at Socorro High School, east of El Paso. Students interviewed their families and neighbors and created an exhibit that we displayed in the school cafeteria for one day. I remember clearly that one student had recovered the story of one of her family members being raped during the Revolution. It was a story that was long-hidden because of the shame and trauma. Our families are filled with such tragedies, the susto and the miedo of our grandmothers buried as deep as the girls hidden in the well.
Today, I want to remember that the Revolution with its iconic images of soldaderas has another side. I want to listen to the voices of the girls and the women reaching across the decades.