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Women on the Left: Juana Belen

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Juana Belen is one of the many Mexican women who have been largely forgotten by history despite their impact on the country's Revolution. Mhairi McAlpine examines her life and work.

The Mexican Revolution was a remarkable period in the country’s history, and the stories of the women within it well worth a retelling. Many remarkable revolutionaries emerged through this period, including Dolores Jimenez y Muro, a political advisor to Zapata and Hermila Galindo, who supported Venustiano Carranza, particularly with regard to women’s rights. Yet one woman still stands out, her story a testimony to the strength of Mexican female revolutionaries and her diversity remarkable. A political theorist, journalist, teacher, military commander and agitator, Juana Belen is not nearly as widely known as she should be.

Born Juana Gutierrez into an impoverished Caxcan family, Belen was married off at 15 years old to a local miner. Observing the working conditions of her husband and his co-workers led her to write an article for the “Journal of the Home”, alerting people to the dangers of working in the mines and the exploitation occurring there. On the basis of that article – still only eighteen years old – she was imprisoned for three months. The authorities thought this would silence her; instead it provided them a dangerous enemy.

Mexico at the turn of the twentieth century was governed by Porferio Diaz, who attempted rapid moderisation of the country using primarily European investment. Workers, especially those in the mines and in the fields, suffered brutal conditions. With 95% of the land in the hands of 5% of the population – primarily families of European descent – debt bondage of workers and conditions on Haciendas approaching slavery, the increasing sell off of the resources of Mexico angered the population. Women in particular suffered: under the Mexican code of 1884, married women had effectively no legal or political rights. Unable to vote, divorce, initiate legal proceedings or administer property, they too looked to the emerging radical movements to claim what was their right.

 

In 1901, Belen and her husband sold their goats and travelled south to join the ranks of resistance to the Diaz regime, establishing the newspaper Vesper in which she openly criticised not only the government, but also the exploitative mine owners, and called on workers to actively resist the takeover of Mexican mines, railroads and farmlands by foreign capital. In 1903, Vesper was shut down, and Juana Gutierrez de Menza was thrown into Belen gaol. She emerged as Juana Belen, adopting the name of the site of her imprisonment and integrating her struggle into her identity. She continued to write, agitate and be incarcerated many times.

In 1911, when her husband joined the Zapata army, she went with him, initially taking on the role of soldadera. The soldaderas were mainly poor rural women, like Belen, who followed their menfolk to the battlefield and provided nursing and practical support for the fighters. They have been romanticised and sexualised in macho Latin American popular culture, yet the role of women within the Zapata army was active and insolent. Frequently adopting male styles of dress, and expanding their initial supportive role into active battlefield duty.

As with many other women who had joined as soldaderas, Belen took up arms on the death of her husband, assuming the role of comandanta. While taking part in a raid on a Hacienda in 1914, she observed one of the Zapata troops rape the wife of the farm owner. She ordered the Commander to shoot him as a lesson to the other soldiers and later on the instructions of Zapata briefly assumed the leadership of the Victoria regiment. The struggle of the soldaderas and comandantas – Belen and others – within the movement of this period lives on in the Revolutionary Laws of Women of the modern day Zapatistas.

 

Throughout this period and beyond, she continued to publish Vesper, as well as establishing several other publications and societies. After active service, the rights of the indigenous Mexican population and the position of women dominated her work. Establishing a feminist society called the “Daughters of Anahauc” where female revolutionaries gathered to establish women at the forefront of struggle, and later “The Source” a feminist journal she was a tireless campaigner for the rights of women.

She herself had become literate – unusual for a rural girl in late 19th Century Mexico – through a brief stint in a Hacienda school followed by self-study. In her middle age she became a passionate advocate for the education of women and extending education into rural areas, working with Vasconselos, traveling round the countryside, encouraging literacy among farmworkers and their families – particularly among mothers and their daughters.

In 1936, she campaigned for the establishment of exclusively female communities of peasants with childcare, communal land and shared services, but as time drew on she became disillusioned with the feminist movement, seeing it as overly concerned with the preoccupations of the educated urban middle-class and latterly focused on indigenous rights; land reform and the promotion of a uniquely Mexican socialism developed and attuned to local conditions, in response to the socialist movement’s gaze towards the USSR.

She ended her years in obscurity and destitution. Forced to sell her printing presses to buy medicine for an ill grand-daughter, she later burned her private papers to fuel the stove on which she cooked food to sell on the street. On her death, her family sold her only remaining typewriter to pay for the funeral; her story, like so many other women of the Mexican Revolution, almost forgotten.

Juana Belen: (1875-1942)

Mhairi McAlpine is a socialist activist involved in many campaigns in Glasgow. "Women on the Left" is a regular series that appears weekly on www.internationalsocialist.org.uk. Articles are welcomed from those outside the ISG who wish to contribute. Coming soon: Constance Markievicz, Nadezhda Krupskaya and Alice Walker.

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