- México's Nobodies: the Cultural Legacy of the Soldadera and Afro-Mexican Women by B. Christine Arce
México's Nobodies confronts the systematic silences, invisibility, and misappropriations of women that exemplary feminist texts of cultural history inevitably face when confronting the patriarchal spheres of history and nation-building. Written with a beautiful prose and exhaustive research, Arce's book defies the "nobodiness" of la soldadera and la mulata, two paradoxical protagonists of songs, film, literature, and art who have been "relegated to the margins of Mexico's official memory and history despite that their figures flood the arts" (2). While México's Nobodies joins a corpus of cultural criticism on the soldadera generated since the end of the twentieth century—Elizabeth Salas, Ana Lau and Carmen Ramos, and Tabea Alexa Linhard, to name a few—its fresh approach lies in how it brings this omnipresent feminine trope into conversation with another: the mulata. By encompassing themes of mulatez—lost, as Arce shows, in the Vasconcelian discourse of mestizaje—the text attains panoramic authority on "the concomitant erasure (in official circles) and ongoing fascination (in the popular imagination) with those nameless people who both define and fall outside the traditional norms of Mexicanness" (3).
Theoretically, Arce operates under the logic of what she calls "the paradox of invisibility" of soldaderas and mulatas, ubiquitous figures simultaneously adored, sexualized, muted by anonymity, and feared as transgressors of racial and gender norms. She interrogates these figures through the aesthetic realm, such as metaphor, trope, and metonymy via Jacques Rancière and Hayden White, among others, teasing out their visual, literary, popular, and cinematic manipulations. Historically, the real women that inspired these cultural disfigurations—Carmen Robles became Adelita, a mulatta slave became "La Mulata de Córdoba"—come to life as [End Page 247] Arce bounces from the Conquest to the Mexican Revolution to the present tense. While these cultural (mis)representations reveal a broader political agenda of the post-revolutionary state's desire to create a uniform and obedient national constituency, the re-appropriation of such devices also offers the possibility of escape from prescriptive and unrealistic cultural types. In a prophetic gesture, Arce points to the hope-bearing potential of cultural representations by eulogizing contemporary art exhibits on the soldadera's rebozo (76) and fashion shows in which her undergarments are modernized with Kevlar (274).
México's Nobodies is divided into two parts, each comprising three chapters. Part One, "Entre Adelitas y Cucarachas: The Soldadera as Trope in the Mexican Revolution," attends to the interplay between women of the revolution and cultural production throughout the twentieth century. The first of these chapters, "Soldaderas and the Making of Revolutionary Spaces," re-reads the women soldiers through the twenty-four poignant photographs taken by Agustín Casasola, rethinking how their presence in photography can transcend their absence in historical documents. This chapter, along with the following chapter, "The Many Faces of the Soldadera and the Adelita Complex," will likely be required reading given their extensive historicity of the soldadera. In the second chapter, Arce places the woman soldier on a long tropological chronology, dismantling her three-faced nature as a sweetheart, harlot, and self-abnegating wife and mother, beginning with corridos during the revolution painting them as "raucous whores high on weed and beguiling sweethearts" (80) and ending with the re-appropriation of her by contemporary Chicano artists. The third chapter performs comparative close readings of the canon's treatment of the soldadera in John Reed's Insurgent Mexico (1914), Nellie Campobello's Cartucho (1931), and Elena Poniatowska's Hasta no verte, Jesús mío (1969).
In part two, "The Blacks in the Closet," Arce initiates an emergent conversation of race in Mexico, since discourses of mestizaje permeating the twentieth-century post-revolutionary project ushered in "the nation's historical amnesia regarding slavery" (3). Arce explores the multifaceted cultural legacies ("legends, witchcraft, and myth" ) of the mulatta as a protagonist originating in an Inquisition case during the colonial period. In her...