“Ravished Virgins and Warrior Women: Gender and the Literature of the U.S.-Mexican War” by Christopher Conway

Paper version of this article may be downloaded here.

Citation information:

Conway, Christopher. “Ravished Virgins and Warrior Women: Gender and the Literature of the U.S.-Mexican War.” Fronteras: The University of Texas at Arlington Center for Greater Southwestern Studies and the History of Cartography, 2009 18(2), 3-4.

Ravished Virgins and Warrior Women: Gender and the Literature of the U.S.-Mexican War

Christopher Conway, The University of Texas Arlington

Scholars of nineteenth-century U.S. history and culture have documented the impact of the U.S.-Mexican War on the period’s poets and novelists, examining the themes of nationalism, Manifest Destiny and race. For example, in George Lippard’s Legends of Mexico (1847), which is held by Special Collections at the University of Texas Arlington Library, we read striking passages such as these: “As the Aztec people crumbled before the Spaniard, so will the mongrel race, moulded of Indian and Spanish blood, melt into, and be ruled by, the Iron Race of the North. You cannot deny it.” Recent scholarship in literary studies has highlighted the intertwining of gender with political themes in U.S. literature about the war, underscoring the ways in which writers like Lippard availed themselves of the commonplaces of melodrama and its stereotyped characters to interpret and represent the ongoing war in Mexico. In these narratives, swashbuckling U.S. soldiers symbolized the virility and racial supremacy of the United States over Mexico, while Mexican men are caricatured as degraded and barbaric. Moreover, when U.S. writers had their protagonists woo and fall in love with lovely Mexican damsels threatened by their fathers or other Mexican suitors, they allegorized the war as a war of liberation against political tyranny.

The question of what Mexican poets and writers thought about the war, and the specific ways in which they represented it, has received much less attention in U.S. and Mexican scholarship. Three years ago I set out to explore the question of Mexican responses to the war by editing a volume of historical and literary documents that would restore nineteenth-century Mexican voices to conversations about the war. The resulting book, The U.S.-Mexican War: A Binational Reader (Hackett Publishing, 2010), recovers and translates some of the archival Mexican treasures from Special Collections at the University of Texas of Arlington Library. While widely recognized as one of the finest collections in the country for archival holdings on the U.S.-Mexican War, few are aware of the archive’s richness in relation to Mexican journalism, broadsides and manuscripts. Thanks to my work at Special Collections, and a subsequent trip to the Hemeroteca Nacional in Mexico City, I have been able to begin answering the question of how the war played out in Mexican literature at mid-century, and more specifically, how Mexican writers intertwined gender and politics in their representations of the war. Most interesting, my research has led me to uncover heretofore forgotten Mexican women’s writings about the war.

If U.S. writers were quick to use gendered tropes to depict the war, Mexican writers did the same, but they did not represent the conflict as an inter-ethnic love story leading to liberation. Rather, Mexican writers viewed the war as nothing less than a rape of the homeland. To cite one prominent example, let’s consider “A Solemn Moment. To My Motherland” (1847) by Mexico’s most popular nineteenth-century poet, Guillermo Prieto (1818-1897). In the poem, the bombardment of Veracruz by U.S. forces is conveyed through the image of the bloodied corpse of a fallen queen who dies hearing the “hurrahs” of the American forces that “drenched her homes in blood.”[1] Envisioning the possibility of national defeat, Prieto dreads the moment when Mexican women will give comfort to the enemy “amid the remains of our brave men.” And to those compatriots who favor a negotiated settlement with the United States, Prieto indignantly proffers the image of “the violated bed/of the wife and the ravished virgin.”[2] Such imagery of death, destruction and debasement at the hands of the United States was designed to elicit patriotic fervor and self-sacrifice in readers. Out of the horrors of defeat, Mexican poets like Prieto sought the inspiration to call on Mexicans to continue the fight. For example, in an ode titled “To the Supreme Being” published in El Monitor Republicano in May of 1847, a poet named R.B. calls on his readers, the sons of Moctezuma and Cuahtémoc, to protect a supplicating virgin from the dishonor and death that is threatened by the barbaric bandits from the north, latter-day Conquistadors come to destroy Mexican civilization.

In the case of U.S. literature, the representation of Mexican women as victims is tempered by the recurring appearance of cross-dressing women who take up arms against U.S. forces during the war, as in the case of the female protagonists of The Volunteer or, The maid of Monterey by Ned Buntline or the heroine of The Hunted Chief: or the Female Ranchero by Newton Curtis (1847). As Shelley Streeby notes in American Sensations: Class, Empire, and the Production of Popular Culture, these warrior women underscore the failure of Mexican virility during the war (120). The supremacy of Anglo-American masculinity and the debasement of a viable Mexican masculinity is then reinforced when the señorita falls in love with the Yankee invader. In Mexico’s case, such narratives of cross-dressing warrior women are non-existent with the exception of a short story by the Spanish-born writer Niceto de Zamacois titled “Don Luis Martínez de Castro or The National Guard” (1847), which was published in the Mexican newspaper El Monitor Republicano a few weeks after the occupation of Mexico City in September of 1847. We do not know if Zamacois might have read about cross-dressing heroines from story paper fictions brought to Mexico City by U.S. military personnel, but in his version of the plot device, the warrior heroine does not end up falling in love with a U.S. soldier. Instead, the story ends with the self-destruction of the heroine, who dies of grief after the death of her valiant lover, Luis Martínez de Castro, who was mortally wounded at the Battle of Churubusco (August 20, 1847).

The ubiquity of imaginary Mexican women in U.S.-Mexican War literature begs the question of what actual Mexican women might have been thinking about the war. I was heartened to discover that Special Collections holds archival resources that allow us to begin exploring this question. In the pages of the Mexico City newspaper El Republicano corresponding to 1846-1847, we find the lyrics of battle hymns written by women for soldiers to sing on their campaigns, as well as military reports about Doña María de Jesús Dosamantes, a young lady who volunteered her services to General Pedro Ampudia at Monterrey. “The young lady…” wrote Ampudia to José María Tornel, the Minister of War, “reported to me dressed as a captain and mounted, to fight against the unjust invaders.” Ampudia continued: “I received her with the show of affection that her heroic behavior deserves, and ordered her to ride the whole line so that all the corps that makes up this army would see her…” Another exciting find was an article by María de la Salud García, a novelist and short story writer about whom little is known, other than the fact that her fiction appeared in an early women’s literary magazine called El Semanario de las Señoritas Mexicanas. In the article that appears in El Republicano, the woman breaks with patriarchal convention and custom by speaking publicly about Mexican politics. Most striking, de la García writes that if Mexican men don’t rise to the ocassion of properly resisting the Mexican invasion, Mexican women “although used to leisure and household chores” shall fight the Americans like Amazons. It is fair to surmise that the editors of El Republicano sought to marshal intense feelings of patriotism among male readers offended at being lectured at by a woman on the subject of national defense. Finally, similar evidence of women’s vocal participation during the war may be found in another newspaper held by Special Collections, the Diario de la Guerra, which features a satirical poem said to have been improvised by a young lady against Valentín Gómez Farías during the Polkos Revolt in Mexico City, in March of 1847.

While it is not surprising that Mexican women would have written about the U.S.-Mexican War in some form or fashion, it is difficult to trace such voices through the archival record. My ongoing research on this period, and on women poets in particular, shows that educated, elite women were very much involved in writing about the war and involving themselves in ventures to provide support to the war effort. Not only did these women write as individuals, but they also wrote and published together, constituting a community of women writers, bound together by friendship and shared literary sensibilities. Two of the poems I selected for inclusion in The U.S.-Mexican War: A Binational Reader, for example, were written by no less than three women together, women who are also known to have published separately in this time period. These facts lend credence to the arguments of Silvia Marina Arrom who argued, in The Women of Mexico City (1790-1857),  that mid-nineteenth-century Mexico saw a modest loosening of some of the cultural strictures against women’s freedom and self-expression. Moreover, as in the rest of the Spanish-speaking world, the Romantic Movement authorized women’s voices in ways that they had not been authorized before.  In the apt words of Susan Kirkpatrick, author of Las Románticas: Women Writers and Subjectivity in Spain (1835-1850), the traditional linking of women with emotion “was given a more positive meaning by the Romantic cult of feeling: women could now claim authority as subjects possessing a special sensibility, an expertise in empathy” (61).

My current research, anchored in some of the invaluable archival sources held at UTA’s Special Collections, seeks to gather a substantial sampling of Mexican poetry from the turbulent years of 1846-1848, and analyze its tropes and themes. As I’ve tried to show in this brief article, I am particularly interested in the ways in which arguments about masculinity and femininity are expressed in Mexican writing about the war, particularly women’s literature. If Mexican women were very much the symbolic linchpin of U.S. and Mexican literary treatments of the war, why not ask what Mexican women thought and wrote about the war? It is a straightforward question, but its answer lies clouded by time and forgetting. Thankfully, archives like Special Collections at UT Arlington can be instrumental in helping us answer it.

[1] This and subsequent passages from the Spanish are translations by Gustavo Pellón, from The U.S.-Mexico War: A Binational Reader (Forthcoming from Hackett Publishing, 2010).

[2] This theme of the American rape of Mexico figures prominently in a novel titled The Coiner (1861) by Nicolás Pizarro Suárez. In one chapter, set during the fall of Mexico City, an American soldier bursts into a private residence, beats a woman to death and, upon the same bed where his victim has expired, rapes her daughter.


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