Petra Herrera: the Soldadera Princess (late 1800s?-early 1900s)
Ladies and gentlemen, today we fight for Pedro. I give you Colonel Petra “Pedro” Herrera, Mexican revolutionary, demolitions expert, and leader of a battallion of an all-female brigade that boasted hundreds of women.
Oversimplified, glib background: Mexican Revolution. 1910s. President Diaz was being shitty. Revolutionaries (Pancho Villa, Zapata, others from the “bad boys of the revolution” calendar series) pop up and say, “hey, stop being shitty and step down already.” Bam, war. The armies engulf huge swaths of Mexican people, including many women.
Most of the embedded women (soldaderas) were covering the minutia that the let’s-go-fight-already soldiers hadn’t thought through — like, you know, eating. With the war swallowing up town after town, more and more women (and children) joined up with the growing armies, although, some of the forces straight-up kidnapped them (and worse). The result of the whole thing was that the armies of the time looked like a giant block party (a journalist at the time described the revolutionary Carranza’s camp as appearing like “an immense picnic”).
Petra Herrera, though, was not about to cook or clean. Petra was there to kick ass.
Disguising herself as a man (Pedro) in order to be eligible for battlefield promotions — a commonplace tactic among female soldiers of the time — Petra established her reputation with the revolutionaries through solid leadership, good marksmanship, and, you know, blowing up bridges. Eventually, she became so popular (rebel brigades: “you’re cool! come work with us!”) that she dropped the “I’m a man” pretense (rebel brigades: “well, that answers a lot of questions we were having about ourselves”). Afterwards, she started wearing braids and fighting under her own name. By 1914, she was a captain underneath Pancho Villa, leading 200 men into battle.
Her crowning achievement was to sack the city of Torreon, which is a big freaking deal. Taking Torreon — in the biggest fight in the war to that date — gave Pancho Villa access to heavy artillery, a half million rounds of ammunition, armored rail cars, the works. And yet, Herrera was not given much, if any, credit for her work in the massive fight. Now, mind, she’s not mentioned in the official papers on this, so take it with a pinch of salt, but according to another soldier in the battle, “she was the one who took Torreon, she turned off the lights when they entered the city.” Still: she received no promotion to general afterwards.
In response, Herrera said “I’m out.” She left Villa’s forces and made her own — an independent all-female brigade. By the end of the war, it was estimated to comprise around 300-400 women, down from (possibly wild) estimates of 1,000 at its peak. She looked after her women like a mama bear armed to the teeth. She wouldn’t let men sleep in her camp, and enforced that rule by staying up late and using any wayward male soldier that tried to get in as target practice.
At the end of the fighting, she again requested to be made a general and remain in the military — but in return, she was only promoted to colonel, and her brigade was disbanded. What happened to the women of her brigade afterwards is unknown.
Sadly, Petra met at ignominious end soon after. Working as a spy for Carranza’s forces in the role of a bartender in Jimenez, she was shot three times by a group of drunken men, and later died of her injuries.
And here’s the thing — as cool as she was, Petra was not unique in being an amazing soldadera. She wasn’t even unique in being an amazing soldadera named Petra who went by the male name of Pedro. There were so many awesomely distinguished women in the Mexican Revolution, it was hard to pick just one. Some others include:
- Petra Ruiz (who also went by Pedro). She was nicknamed “Echa Balas” (Bullets), had a bad temper, and was so skilled with knives and guns that other soldiers would just let her have her way. One account tells of some soldiers arguing who would be first to rape a young girl, when Petra shows up, demands the girl for herself, and then, winning her through intimidation, lets her go.
- Rosa Bobadilla, who, when widowed by the war, took up arms and fought in one hundred and sixty-eight battles — surviving them all to die at the age of eighty-three.
- A woman named Chiquita, who rode into an enemy camp, saying she was a trained nurse. Hours later, she was fleeing town after having stolen papers, documents, and maps.
- A 13-year-old girl named Elisa Grienssen, who, when US President Wilson sent an army into Mexico, rallied the women of Parral to kick them out. They surrounded the American commander (who was apparently already leaving, but taking his sweet time with it), throwing rocks and sticks, shouting “Viva Villa, Viva Mexico!”
Unfortunately, for most of the post-war history, soldaderas were largely memorialized through folk songs that, to my mind, didn’t quite do them justice, the most famous of which being La Adelita. In the song, the eponymous Adelita follows the army because she is in love with the sergeant. Although certainly that sort of thing happened, love wasn’t exactly the prime motivator for Petra “make me a fucking general already” Herrera.
Other portrayals of soldaderas, especially early on, tended to play into sexed-up gender stereotypes. Los de Abajo, a novel serialized in newspapers beginning in 1915, was a war novel that had two female leads: Camilla, the maternal, demure girlfriend, and La Pintada (the Painted One), who, though an excellent soldier, is portrayed as vulgar, out of control, and generally monstrous. She ends up stabbing Camilla out of jealousy and being exiled. Lame.
- Because Petra dressed as a man for much of her career, she is seen here in a period-accurate officer’s outfit. She has an officer’s sword, characteristic ammo bandolier, and is unfurling her braid from her hat, in a nod to her “guess what, I’m a lady” reveal. Her revolver is a copy of the one that Emiliano Zapata used (a Mexican S&W replica).
- The soldaderas below her are in outfits more typical of the standard soldadera representation. I gave them each different tones that together comprise the colors of the Mexican flag.
- The woman in green is based on this picture. Just look at this lady. Holy hell.
- The woman in the picture is carrying a Winchester rifle — a rifle which carries with it a history for another quite interesting woman.
- The setting is an actual Mexican bridge that was around at the time, but it was clear on the other side of Mexico from where she operated (mostly Durango and Chihuhua). Still, I liked the visual, and it’s hard to find accurate pictures of bridges that were blown up a century ago.
- Battleground Women: Soldaderas and Female Soldiers in the Mexican Revolution by Andres Resendez Fuentes
- Soldaderas in the Mexican Military: Myth and History by Elizabeth Salas
- I added more info (citations!) to the Nzinga Mbande entry. Still doing research to uncover the basis of those rumors, though!
- Still working hard on figuring out how to make an RP book happen. These things take time. If you want to be kept in the loop, though, there’s a mailing list!
Next week on Rejected Princesses
Giving the people what they want: 90 cats from a cloud.
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