- México's Nobodies: The Cultural Legacy of the Soldadera and Afro-Mexican Women by B. Christine Arce
Thom Rath, B. Christine Arce, Soldaderas, Afro-Mexican Women, National Identity, Race And Gender
After 1920, Mexico's postrevolutionary regime gradually crafted an official national history. As in older versions, men were the main actors. As an added novelty, it idealized the process of mestizaje. This book examines cultural representations of women apparently at the margins of this national story. First, the soldaderas: poor camp followers who accompanied revolutionary and federal armies in the 1910s, cooked, nursed, secured supplies, sold sexual services, buried the dead, entered into common-law unions, and occasionally took up arms and earned military rank themselves. Second, black and mulata women, as they appear in colonialera legends, Golden Age cinema, and popular music. The central question Arce poses is why, given their apparently marginal status, do these figures appear with such frequency in the arts? [End Page 255]
The book ranges widely across source material and time. The first three chapters focus on the soldaderas. While indebted to other works on the topic, notably Elizabeth Salas's standard monograph, Arce analyzes a broader array of representations in literature, theatre and popular balladry, draws on new scholarship on photography, and brings fresh insights to the material. Chapter one's emphasis on cultural geography is well taken, as soldaderas' physical mobility disrupted traditional ideas of public and domestic space. The latter three chapters examine representations of black and mulata women. Chapter Four covers the colonial period, and discusses the legend of the mulata "witch" of Córdoba, alongside the case Antonia de Soto, a mulata who engaged in witchcraft, fled slavery, worked as a successful muleteer and bandit, beat her husband, and passed as a man for many years, before volunteering a confession to the Inquisition (153). All this illustrates the long history of state officials associating blackness with erotic power and subversion, and offers glimpses of how some women responded. Chapter Five focuses on representations of blackness in Golden Age cinema, analyzing a sudden burst of films tackling the topic in the 1940s. This chapter is also the most explicitly comparative, arguing that Mexican cinema bore the imprint of a stock Hollywood character: the "tragic mulata" (187). A final chapter analyzes popular music from the gulf state of Veracruz, focusing on the famous husky-voiced diva, Maria Antonia del Carmen Peregrino Álvarez (known as Toña la Negra), Mexico's most beloved interpreter of "Afro-mestizo" music from the 1930s to the 1960s (32).
The argument that emerges from these varied chapters is generally convincing. Cultural representations of soldaderas and mulatas proliferated and endured because they were open to different interpretations. In theoretical terms, Arce aims to consider how these figures interacted with "an engaged spectatorship," but her method mainly focuses on the cultural objects themselves (10). In this vein, she skillfully approaches photographs, texts, films, and music from various theoretical angles to tease out possible ambiguities and competing meanings. In many instances, soldaderas and mulatas played the predictable role of the unusual, dangerous and erotic "other"—titillating, perhaps, but generally reinforcing mainstream Mexican identity. For all Toña la Negra's fame, Arce argues her work never really challenged the idea that blackness was exceptional in Mexico's national story. (Indeed, enthusiasts of tropical music often traced the origins of African influence to the larger Caribbean rather than Mexico's own history of slavery.) Sometimes these figures compelled artistic attention because they exposed and mediated tensions within mainstream notions of gender and race. The soldaderas, simultaneously domestic and public, patriotic and disreputable, often played this symbolic role. However, portrayals of soldaderas and mulatas also allowed for more subversive readings and offered a way to recognize experiences normally ignored or distorted by official discourse. For example, this is Arce's verdict on Nellie Campobello's 1931 novel Cartucho, which explored women's experience of the chaos of [End Page 256] revolutionary war in ways that went far beyond...