The Unrecognized Soldier Of The Mexican Revolution: Petra Herrera And The Adelitas

By Regina de la Parra 

“La Adelita” was one of the most popular corridos, or songs of romance, during the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920). This song is the love story of a young woman who travels with a sergeant and his regiment during the revolution. The song praises Adelita, the sweetheart of the troop, for both her beauty and her valor, noting how she is wanted by the other soldiers. We can imagine this woman as an object of desire, whose beauty and physique attracted the soldiers, and eventually broke their hearts. But this description is actually… incorrect.

The Adelita, also known as soldadera, or female soldier, is the term used to describe women who contributed to many aspects of the Mexican Revolution. These women worked as nurses, food providers, lovers, spies, messengers, and fighters. In fact, some reached the rank of colonel and general. Many of them were forced by their husbands to follow them and work in the camps, but there were also those who volunteered to join the cause. Today, soldaderas are remembered as strong and courageous women who took up weapons and became fighters, often having to cut their hair and dress to appear like their male counterparts, because of the oppressive gender inequality prevalent in the Mexican society of that time.6 There is one soldadera in particular, Petra Herrera, also known as La Guerrera, and as La Generala (female general), who joined the cause and fought with the strongest of the soldiers. But what inspired women to join their male counterparts to fight this war, and why did the revolution even happen?

Soldaderas: Mexican women at war 1912 | Courtesy of Mexconnect

To answer this question and to be able to understand why these women now make up a very important aspect of Mexico’s history and its formation as a country, we need to go back in time to 1876, when the general and politician Porfirio Díaz became president. Porfirio Díaz was known to be a corrupt, elitist president, who favored wealthy landowners, industrialists, and foreign interests. The country was also known for the slave-like conditions rural people faced while working on the haciendas owned by wealthy landowners. These rural workers were very dissatisfied with the lack of voice they had in the government. But the precipitating event that sparked the revolution was Díaz’s announcement, in 1908, that he would run for his seventh term as president in 1910. This caused controversy among the people who had been suffering from his long regime. Francisco I. Madero then rose as the leader of the Antireeleccionistas (Anti-Reelection alliance). Madero subsequently announced that he would be running for president against Díaz. This prompted the mobilization of armies throughout Mexico. Countless leaders, such as Pascual Orozco and Pancho Villa, began raiding government garrisons as part of an uprising to remove the current president and eventually, elect a new president for the country. These were some of the events that inspired and sparked the courage of not only men but of women as well, to join the armies and fight for the shared goal of overthrowing Díaz’ dictatorship and make democracy in Mexico a reality.

Petra Herrera 1917 | Courtesy of Sandra Ferrer Valero

Petra Herrera witnessed the suffering of her country and decided to take action. She witnessed the harshness of landowners and the terrible conditions in which workers lived. She knew that the government had to change from being a corrupt one to being a democratic and fair one. But how would she help? Women at that time faced strict social prohibitions that kept them from playing important roles in the workforce. Instead, they were expected to be caregivers, stay at home, and take care of their children. Women were seen as precious and delicate, something that could not blend with the harshness of war. Petra, instead of following that norm, disguised herself as a man and started calling herself “Pedro Herrera” in order to join the revolutionary troops of Pancho Villa.

During her time in the camp, she had to lie to her fellow soldiers in order to protect her identity. For example, she would lie that she shaved at dawn before the other soldiers woke up. Because of this, “Pedro” was able to blend in perfectly. Quickly after her joining the army, Petra was recognized as an aggressive fighter who carried out military operations efficiently and strategically. In disguise, she came to be known as a courageous and brave soldier, and was soon praised for her intelligence and her skills at blowing up bridges.

Soldaderas: Mexican women at war 1916 | Courtesy of Mexconnect

Thanks to the acknowledgment she faced on behalf of her peers and her establishment as a strong soldier, Petra decided she would confess her true identity. She believed this would not affect her position or status in the militia, and that she would be accepted and even promoted to general. But sadly, when she told the truth, she was removed from the army instead. Consequently, she decided to organize a group of women who were likewise removed from combat, even after they had fought courageously for the same cause as their male counterparts. Petra decided not to give up, and she organized a group of more than four hundred women with the same motive: to put an end to the current presidency and the hardships that Díaz had imposed on the citizens. Her militia not only fought in several battles, but Petra united these fighting women with Pancho Villas’ forces, despite his denial of them fighting and bearing arms. Together, they were able to take the city of Torreón on May 30, 1914, which had been a military base for Díaz’s central federation.  At the end of the fight, she requested General Castro, a leader of the revolution, to allow her to re-enter the military and make her general, but he only granted her the title of colonel and disbanded her woman’s brigade. But her work did not end there. After the demobilization of the woman’s militia, Petra decided to join Venustiano Carranza, one of the main political leaders of the revolution who later became president of Mexico. She became a spy for him and worked as a bartender in Jimenez, a city in the northern part of Mexico. But while she was working there, she was shot three times by a group of drunk men, later dying from the injuries.

Despite the effort and the work Petra Herrera gave for the revolution, she has barely received any acknowledgment as a soldadera. There are several causes for this. Men during those times had mixed feelings about women being in combat and the role they had in the fight. One of the most passionate opponents of women joining the militia and bearing arms was Pancho Villa. He viewed women as liabilities to an army’s offensive strategy and combative potential, even though Petra Herrera and other great female combatants fought at his side several times to free the country from the oppressive presidency. There was also the idea that soldaderas were just images of romance during the Mexican Revolution, such as the song of “The Adelita,” contributing to recognizing only a few of them as strong fighters and contributions to this era. These women should be acknowledged and we should grant them a higher praise because many were forced to take this role of soldaderas after being abducted and often raped by revolutionaries who invaded their towns and cities. At the end of the day, the labor and effort of women such as Petra were very important factors for what we have come to know as the Mexican Revolution.

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Categories: Género, México