The Wondering Latina: Meeting the Revolutionary Young Women of Riverside

Earlier this week, I stopped by Riverside High School to check out their Theater Department’s production of Nelly E. Cuellar-Garcia’s  Las Soldaderas.

This is a subject matter of herstory near and dear to my heart. The lights dimmed and I wasn’t sure what to expect but then the images on the back screen appeared of actual ‘soldaderas’ and we heard one of the characters recite the iconic Emiliano Zapata quote: “mejor morir de pie que vivir toda una vida arrodillado” (translation: it is better to die on your feet than to live life on your knees).

With that first line, I could already feel the lump in my throat holding back the emotion that was bubbling up.

See, it wasn’t that long ago that in high school, we NEVER studied Mexican-American anything, nothing really Latino content related, I can’t recall a celebration of any sort that was incorporated into the school program aside from maybe a Ballet Folklorico recital here and there.

And that is how it has been for decades in Texas, sure we study the Alamo, but it is always through the lense of Anglo settlers, and the whole “manifest destiny” teaching but that isn’t really our culture, our story as Mexican-Americans.

As Texans, we have a varied, quilted fabric, and here in El Paso we have multiple layers to our own story, so until our text books actually reflect accurate history, we will continue to be a community which doesn’t really know our whole, complete story.

I, myself, discovered my own roots much later in life, when I was able to select “special topics” courses at the university level. Of course there is always cultural oral history that is shared in our homes, but actual text knowledge is not really available as a standard, it is always a “special topic” or month, or day…but hey at least now we have Google.

So for me to be sitting here, watching an ALL-FEMALE cast acting in a play based on the women of the Mexican Revolution, this itself is revolutionary, my emotions were already getting the best of me.

The ensemble began to sing a beautiful rendition of “La Adelita” and out came all the cast will authentic soldadera clothing and weapons, there was no downplaying. They may be young girls but the mission was to express the lives and hardship of the women of war.

The next hour takes us through the experience of a couple of days within their camp and what life must have been like, complete with talks of love, singing, fights, strategy sessions etc.

They take us through some of their backstory and we find that the lead soldadera grew up a wealthy aristocrat, whose parents were kidnapped by Huerta and after denying him and her parents held hostage, he then violates her and executes her parents.

This is accurate of something that would most definitely have happened during that time.

Another one of the central characters, Adelita, has never known life outside the revolution so through her we see hope for future. One of the important supporting characters was the wife of the governor, Angustias, a spy who infiltrates the camp by allowing herself to be taken prisoner and befriending poor innocent Adelita.

This character (Angustias) is really important in that she represents the long standing divide in our culture. There is this poignant moment where a fight breaks out amongst the women, wondering who the spy among them is, and she rises in the background watching the two women tear each other apart and she says:

Since the time of the Azteca, low-born women have been birthed simply to be drones at the feet of those like me: rich, ennobled and entitled. This filthy Revolution dares to suggest that these animals can be more than that. What idiocy! To give them any say in the destiny of this great land is ludicrous. God is always on the side of the victors, and soon, very soon, these soldaderas will know the feel of true ownership

Given our current political climate, it is hard for anyone to miss these words. If you ever find yourself in a conversation today in 2018 where some of our own Mexican-American community can turn against our own culture and say atrocious things; we have all met those friends or cousins that deny being Mexican heritage and instead claim “Spanish” when they have no actually tie to Spain, aside from the one we all have, which is the colonization.

It is because of this ideal, expressed in this speech, that some folks think that way still to this day. Our culture has long been divided by colorism, skin tone, rank, class of birth, that is ALSO part of our history.  This play touch on so many relevant points, about our intersectionality of feminism, Latina-ism, Mestizaje, colorism, gender roles, politics, love, life, etc.

The tears I had been holding back finally were unleashed in the final moment, I did not expect the ending to turn the way it did, which is a testament to the playwright and the cast, they did a phenomenal job of keeping us all in our seats.

Afterwards I sat down with the girls to get their take on this experience, I was very pleased to find almost all the girls were familiar with the soldaderas prior to the play.

When I asked how many were already Spanish speakers prior to the play, again I was pleased to see almost all the hands go up.

I asked several different ways what this play has meant to them, and several different ways the same answered appeared. Strength. “We feel strong, walking out on stage all their strength comes with us. They lived very hard lives, a lot of the women were raped, had parents/children killed, so we wanted to make sure we got it right, we had their strength.”

Another actress said “they did everything the men did, they weren’t afraid they were out there too.”  Two of the cast members mentioned how they had family members linked to Pancho Villa and his participation in the Revolution.

I asked the “spy” among us, the young girl you played Angustias, how she felt playing the traitor, she said she loved it…and with that, we all had a good laugh.

The girls definitely understand that what they are contributing is something very special, but as a Mexican-American Latina myself, who has traveled across the nation, and has had to fight some battles in the world, I know they can’t fully appreciate what this moment means until years down the road when they look back.

I am excited for them, thinking of when that day will come, the moment when “life” is happening and they will be able to reflect back to this moment in time, where they were a part of their own revolutionary moment, and draw from it. What a gift.

A huge congratulations to directors, Stephen Solis and Jasmine Estrada, who brought this play to the campus.  Their costume designer, Nancy Nava and crew, and especially the first ALL-FEMALE cast of Riverside High School, these young women that honored and reminded us of the the women of the Mexican Revolution, Las Soldaderas.

*UPDATE due to popular demand, the theater department has announced an added a date open to the public, if you wish to see the play you can catch it this Wednesday February 21st 2018 — 7pm at Riverside High School $5 (cash)

*Riverside High School will be presenting Las Soldaderas later this month for their UIL competition piece.