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Soldadera: The Tiny Things They Carried

Top image: Still from "Soldadera," Nao Bustamante's documentary-in-­progress about Leandra Becerra Lumbreras and her family.

Inspired by Nao Bustamante's exhibition, Soldadera ­­-- the artist's "speculative reenactment" of women's participation on the front lines of The Mexican Revolution­­ -- Artbound is publishing articles about the exhibition's development, historical contexts engaged by this project, and writing inspired by the work. Soldadera was guest curated for the Vincent Price Art Museum by UC Riverside professor Jennifer Doyle, and is on view from May 16 ­- August 1, 2015.

Leandra Becerra Lumbreras was the last known survivor of the Mexican Revolution, the last living soldadera. In January, I travelled to Zapopan, Mexico with the artist Nao Bustamante, who has been learning about the women who fought in the Mexican Revolution. In the fall, stories about her longevity appeared in the news -- she was then 127 years old, and in these stories, she was identified as the leader of a battalion of Adelitas. The artist took me on her pilgrimage to meet Leandra. I was part of Bustamante's team: facilitating conversation, translating -- language and history -- this was my role.

Just months later, in March 2015, Leandra would move on to the next world. She did not go without a fight.

During our visit, we saw Leandra lying on a potpourri of multi colored and functioning pads, blankets, and pillows. Her nest rested against the outer wall of the small room in which she would spend the final weeks of her life. We were the guest of Leandra's family for two full days. To thank them for their hospitality, we offered to get them something they might need. "An air mattress, that's what she needs," explained Miriam, one of Leandra's numerous relatives and now caretakers. "She scratched a hole through the last one and it deflated."

Leandra by design or circumstance was an independent person. She had a great capacity for love, though she never married. Up until recent years, she lived with her octogenarian daughter, who took care of her until she passed. Leandra then begrudgingly relocated to Zapopan (a suburb of Guadalajara) to live with one of her numerous relatives. She says the Mexican Revolution saw her fighting with "tortillas en vez de tiros" (loosely: tortillas instead of bullets), as one of the many women who played a logistical role as soldiers, nurses, spies, and cooks. After the Revolution she was one of the few women to receive an ejido, a communal land grant, in the agrarian land reform that followed.

Leandra Becerra Lumbreras's family, photographed in front of the family's home in Zapopan, Mexico.
Leandra Becerra Lumbreras's family, photographed in front of the family's home in Zapopan, Mexico.   

As the story is told, much to the chagrin and warning of other women, with babes in arms she lined up with other men demanding that she too receive compensation in the form of land for her military service. Men pushed her while woman berated her but she held steadfast, vocally insisting that she had bled, fought, and mothered children of the revolution, but silently taking large steps toward reaching some semblance of gender parity in Mexico. The certainty of these details are unclear, but maybe for her family it gives a historical context for Leandra's prickly disposition.

Our first 10-hour day with Leandra took the shape of a meditation. The day was spent waiting for her to have a moment of clarity. Hoping that her silence was her laboring, mining, for information that answered our questions.

Miriam would telegraph our request to her, shouting into her one good ear:


"ABUELA, DIGALES DE DON DOROTEO!" ("Don Doroteo" is a reference to Pancho Villa, whose given name was José Doroteo Arango Arámbula.)


"Tell us about the when you first found out about the revolution?" Silence.

"How is it that you became involved?" Silence

"Do you remember any songs from the revolution?" (She came from a musical family.)

"As a woman, what did the revolution mean to you?" Silence.

More questions, more silence. Oral history is an elusive creature. She flirted with answers:

"Yes, yes, the revolution, yes. So many things, yes."

"Let's go, yes, let's go. Yeah by that path we will go. You'll see where we have to climb up through."

"Where will we go through?"

"Yeah that one, yes, that one, yes." Tap, tap, tap, she clapped her hands.

"Yes let's go. Come on dad lets go, dad, let's go. Let's go. Come on."

"My mother stayed, my mother stayed by herself. They only speak of your father."

Still from "Soldadera," Nao Bustamante's documentary-in-­progress about Leandra Becerra Lumbreras and her family.
Still from "Soldadera," Nao Bustamante's documentary-in-­progress about Leandra Becerra Lumbreras and her family.

She clapped her hands again: Tap tap tap, tap tap tap, tap tap, tap tap, tap tap tap. In fact, this clapping was recurrent -- by the end of our stay, her beat had wormed its way into our minds.

I would like to believe she was improvising a secret code, hoping that we were of sufficient age and/or wisdom to understand a magical presence, a pattern that defines in the universe, or that we had the Rosetta stone to decipher it.

An uncomfortable truth washed over our faces. 127 years, as an age, is a long time. From such great heights you can see the world for what it is. The curvature of the earth, the enormity of it all. From such great heights you cast a long shadow, and maybe it's too much to take in.

Very little was vocalized. But much was said.

Her hands (papel picado) reached out blindly, touching whoever was near, asking for a cookie or a Coke.

"No, no, no, estas no," she grabbed Miriam's, hands. "These will not work, a woman's hands need to be rough from working the metate." Her prickly nature was intact.

Answers to our questions would be found in the family members who suffered the slow deterioration of Leandra's body, and later, mind, but who also enjoyed her presence and stories, such as they were.

Can you tell us about her role in the revolution? "Yes."

Was she politically conscious of the ideals, as they were, of the revolution? "No."

Was her participation a victim of circumstance? "Yes, no, maybe."

Why did she comment on your hands not being rough enough? [Laughter.]

Leandra's primary role, the role of many Adelitas, was to provide logistics for the male soldiers. Among many things this included cooking. Miriam supposed that the measure of a good woman started at her hands and her ability to grind corn, slap tortillas and turn them over a hot fire. For Leandra, it may have been that the measure of a good soldadera started at her hands.

Still from "Soldadera," Nao Bustamante's documentary-in-­progress about Leandra Becerra Lumbreras and her family.
Still from "Soldadera," Nao Bustamante's documentary-in-­progress about Leandra Becerra Lumbreras and her family.

Speaking to Leandra's strength, Miriam explained with a mischievous smile -- certainly inherited from Leandra -- that, a few months earlier Leandra had escaped from her bed and was found on the living room floor. She was a military crawl away from the front door. Still true to her spirit as a revolutionary.

It was this incident that led Miriam to ask for the air mattress. As it turns out, an air mattress afforded Leandra's frail body with the most amount of comfort and security -- acting as both a cocoon and prison. Having my fair share of uncomfortable nights on one, I immediately understood. As night transpires, and over the course of many hours, the mattress will deflate you into itself, its many air chambers pouring over you with the force of your own body. Countersunk in an uncomfortable slumber you will struggle to find a load-bearing point from which to lift yourself out. This design flaw, however, held Leandra in a comforting embrace, and also detained her at night while most of her family slept upstairs in the modest cinder block home. When the mattress fully deflated, however, Leandra's remaining strength afforded her the perfect means of egress -- the barrel roll.

A makeshift slab of wood now cribbed her in at night, but the problem of her comfort remained.

The challenge presented to us was where to find an air mattress in Guadalajara? Certainly not an impossible task, it is one of Mexico's largest cities. As foreigners however (albeit in a familiar land), our knowledge of domestic goods and the commercial spaces that offer them is distinctly American. We were also in Zapopan, one of the many peripheral neighborhoods of the city. Whereas the city center is known for its colonial heritage and in recent years its modern architecture, these 'off center' communities are distinguished by a certain aesthetic best described as necessity, improvisation, and hope. These neighborhoods are marked by what are jokingly called "las varillas de la esperanza," 3-4 ft. lengths of rebar that protrude vertically out of load bearing sections of the cinder block houses that populate the area. They give the appearance of something unfinished, in a state of construction, imagining a future, suggesting that this will work for now but transmitting to the powers that be that more is desired.

As we loaded up and left the first of what would be two 10-hour days filming and interviewing, the enormity of it all hit the crew. 127 years of age. A person that has seen so much, experienced countless heartaches and worries, so much love and laughter. She became a mirror, a reflection of our own life lived and yet to live. At the end of the day, our car was full of tears and emotion.

Bustamante and film crew, with Leandra Becerra Lumbreras and family. | Photo: Moises Medina.
Bustamante and film crew with Leandra Becerra Lumbreras and family. | Photo: Moises Medina.   

Stoically, ever the historian, I held back, thinking about questions yet to be answered by Leandra. I mulled over a story that Miriam shared with us.

Leandra loved making tortillas, but had a habit of making them very small, tiny. Why, I asked. Because in the revolution everything was tiny. It had to be tiny. You had to fit everything in your rebozo. Cups, plates, metates, all had to be tiny so if you had to flee in a moment's notice you could take what was most important for the survival of the soldiers and the revolution. Food. Nothing more.

Looking out the car window, the glow of a familiar blue and white sign caught my attention. Nestled between a major highway and a Mexican circus adorned with images of clowns, between the banal and the absurd, there it was: Walmart. The air mattress, not even two kilometers from Leandra's home.

Among the excess of capitalism and the paradox of choice, between the practical and the impossible question of her comfort, we mused: "What's the difference between a queen and a full?" "Should we get her one with a memory foam top or goose down?"

I excused myself and found myself quietly sobbing, and thinking of my own grandmother, who is, herself, over 100 years old.

Read more about Nao Bustamante's "Soldadera" project:

Nao Bustamante's Soldaderas, Real and Imagined
Nao Bustamante's exhibition "Soldadera" is a "speculative reenactment" of women's participation in The Mexican Revolution. ­­

Searching for Soldaderas: The Women of the Mexican Revolution in Photographs
What can portraits tell us about soldaderas? Nao Bustamante draws from UC Riverside's archival holdings of photographs of the Mexican Revolution to investigate further.

Soldadera: The Unraveling of a Kevlar Dress
Made out of bulletproof Kevlar, Nao Bustamante's re-imagined Soldadera dresses protect the female body against violence.

My Love Affairs with Soldaderas
From calendars to corridos, the image of the Soldadera lives strong in popular culture. Nao Bustamante's new artwork re-imagines dresses of female soldiers.

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