Here’s to You, Jesusa!

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

The author’s introduction to this English translation of her novel describes her collaboration and friendship with Josefina Bórquez who, after her teenage years as a soldadera, or woman soldier in the Mexican Revolution, lived a life of poverty and oppression in the tenements of Mexico City. Elena Poniatowska first met Josefina, to whom she gives the fictional name of Jesusa, in 1964, and in a series of interviews learned the story of her life. In this novel the author integrates the stories told to her by Jesusa with imaginary events of her own invention. This combined form of reality and fiction is sometimes called a documentary, or testimonial, a genre common in Latin American literature. Jesusa in telling her story gave Poniatowska the material from which she created her novel. In an ironic exchange, however, Jesusa also gave Poniatowska, who was born in France of a Mexican mother and a Polish father and moved to Mexico when she was eight years old, a sense of her own identity as a Mexican woman.

The author first interviewed Jesusa when her subject was in her early sixties, then returned to visit her before her death at the age of eighty-seven. In her introduction she reveals her friendship with and admiration for this woman, eulogizing Jesusa as: “rebellious, obstinate, fierce. . . . She never asked anyone for anything; she never knew self pity. Her whole life was a challenge.”

Jesusa narrates her own story in her blunt peasant language. The author, after some indecision, includes the obscenities and often gruesome details of Jesusa’s life as a poor Mexican woman, oppressed by a society in which she is invisible. So arresting is Jesusa’s narrative voice that the reader immediately trusts her.

Jesusa is born in a rural village in Oaxaca of mixed parentage. Her mother is an Indian, and Jesusa herself is dark-skinned, a fact that she notes frequently as it defines her status in a class-conscious society. When Jesusa is five years, old her mother dies, and her father takes up with a series of women who serve as Jesusa’s “stepmothers.” Jesusa’s father, although outwardly sympathetic and attentive to his daughter, is undependable as her protector. The women with whom he lives often abuse her cruelly. For her part, Jesusa is not a tractable child; she is fiercely independent and rebels against learning the traditional domestic skills assigned to women. She does, however, learn to protect herself and to hone her skills as a street fighter. Recalling a series of beatings from one stepmother, she says that this treatment was justified; it forced her to learn to endure the hardships that assured her survival as a Mexican woman in a society indifferent to her suffering.

When she is twelve, Jesusa serves as an unpaid nursemaid to a wealthy family and attempts to get an education. However, she quickly abandons her schooling, blaming the incompetence of the Catholic teaching sisters, and beginning a life-long suspicion of the Catholic Church. Although she never learns to read or write, her shrewd intelligence is never in doubt. She learns to speak several languages while she does housework for “gringos” and foreigners. She is skilled with numbers and successfully manages several businesses during her life. While she is frequently outraged at the injustices she suffers, she never expresses self-pity or minimizes the willful violence of her actions, which result in a number of brushes with the law. On the contrary, she is exultant whenever she wins brutal fights with both men and women.

After the death of her favorite brother, Emiliano, a soldier, Jesusa takes his place beside her father as a soldadera and joins the revolutionary army of General Jesús Carranza, doing the cooking and laundry for the soldiers and sometimes going into battle herself. When she is fifteen, her father abdicates his responsibility for her, and she is forced to marry Pedro Aguilar, a seventeen-year-old cavalry officer. He teaches her to ride horses, drink, and shoot, but she soon realizes that he intends to dominate her. He confines her in the house for several months, then orders her to accompany him to war. He is jealous and physically abusive, and she comes to hate him. Still, Jesusa is not a feminist; she has contempt, not pity, for those women who allow themselves to be abused. Finally she stands up to him and threatens to kill him; the army has given her confidence in herself. Describing her hard life as a soldier, she says: “My body’s used to doing without the basics of life. I could take it. Rage, that’s what kept me going.”

This rage, along with a stubborn will to survive on her...

(The entire section is 1907 words.)