Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 341
The themes concern several interrelated aspects of class, race, and gender politics and economy in twentieth-century Mexico. The central character, Jesusa, was born at the turn of the century and became involved in the revolutionary insurgent movements that toppled the dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz. Elena Poniatowska thus depicts Jesusa’s coming of age as synchronous with that era of Mexican nationhood. The involvement of indigenous women in revolutionary politics is one of the novel’s central themes. At the same time, the idea that women were not as fully liberated as men by the revolution is also a major theme. The impressive strength of impoverished, disenfranchised women in the face of considerable adversity is an important theme that underscores all aspects of this narrative of one remarkable, yet ordinary woman’s life.
Jesusa, an indigenous woman from Oaxaca in southern Mexico, became politically active quite young when she joined the radical paramilitary groups as a female combatant, called a soldadera. Female participation in armed struggle had been rare before the first decades of the 20th century, when the movements to overthrow Díaz gained momentum. Female combatants such as Jesusa swelled the ranks, and contributed substantially to the revolution’s success.
While Mexico’s poor were primarily landless peasant farmers, or campesinos, for whom the combination of indigenous heritage and poverty were in particularly dire straits. Poniatowska presents the ways in which the revolution’s gains in property rights improved male status by privileging men, both mixed race (mestizo) and indigenous, while rarely allocating agricultural lands (ejidos) to women. The author explores the corresponding overall increase in the size of the urban proletariat and disproportionate representation of women among the poor Indians that swelled the cities’ population.
Survival depended on developing many, diverse skills along with tremendous creativity. For Jesusa, an important component of that array was deep faith and the combining of Catholicism with folk traditions, in which women had long played central roles. Overcoming obstacles including homelessness and illness, Jesusa effectively conveys the resilience of the human spirit.