- Transnational Activist:Magda Portal and the American Popular Revolutionary Alliance (APRA), 1926–1950
In March of 1929, the young Peruvian poet and political activist Magda Portal departed from the Yucatán in Mexico to give a series of lectures in Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, and Colombia.1 She traveled as an emissary of the Alianza Popular Revolucionaria Americana (American Popular Revolutionary Alliance, APRA), a recently founded political organization that sought to transform Latin America by creating a united front against foreign imperialism. On July 14, in Santo Domingo she gave a lecture titled “Latin America Confronted by Imperialism,” at “the largest theater in town” to an audience of about 200.2 Her presence as an intelligent, energetic, and beautiful woman, standing on stages normally reserved to men, enhanced the power of her words, and she was well aware of the striking effect on audiences of seeing a woman in the traditionally male role of political orator.3 A journalist reporting on Portal’s lecture at the University of Puerto Rico described her in the following terms: [End Page 677]
There are few times that such tough spirits as that of this woman, who embodies the perfect type of the woman of the future, have passed through our cultural centers in subordination to the noble apostolate of an idea or a social doctrine, sowing in the freshly dug furrow of inquisitive youth, the seed of a new way of feeling, a new way of thought, a new mode of action. Because Magda Portal, more than a poet of revolutionary art, more than a forceful essayist, more than a personality in emotional tension, is a force in action, a trembling fount of dynamism, a liquid metal in continuous fusion.4
The male imagery used by the journalist—“toughness,” “sowing seeds,” “liquid metal”—is indicative of the unusual role that Portal played in stepping boldly into a public sphere normally reserved to men.
Portal did not shy away from topics that had traditionally been the purview of male orators, such as political economy and a denunciation of U.S. imperialism in Latin America. In fact, the U.S. Department of State kept a close eye on Portal during her tour. Its report on her visit to the Dominican Republic included the number of attendees at her lecture and also pointed out that she had missed another lecture she was supposed to give at the Ateneo cultural center there because she had “apparently devoted her efforts to getting drunk instead.”5 The life of a wandering revolutionary needed its lighter moments. Yet there was nothing light about Portal’s anti-imperialist message, which had particular poignancy at a time when U.S. military invasions had become the norm in the Caribbean and Central America. Aprismo promised no utopias but rather set before its followers a concrete example of a Latin American revolution they could emulate: the Mexican Revolution, with its call for agrarian reform and nationalization of foreign property. Aprismo called for similar revolutions throughout Latin America. In her lecture on the Mexican Revolution, Portal stated that “the Mexican Revolution is a standard for the people of America.”6 Her Caribbean tour made her one of the most visible proponents of a new political doctrine that was spreading quickly throughout the continent, influencing the development of political parties in Peru, Cuba, Costa Rica, Chile, and Venezuela.7
Magda Portal reached a position as the highest-ranking female leader of a political party in Latin America in her time. This article argues that she did so thanks to the unique nature and status of APRA as an international political [End Page 678] movement. Her association with the organization allowed her to escape many of the constraints of gender.8 The transnational networks that defined APRA during the first decades of its history freed Portal of the limits normally experienced by women within the male-dominated environment of Latin American national politics.9 As an Aprista writer and political activist, her voice was heard, her lectures and articles published, her life story admired. She appears in Figure 1.
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