The Mexican Revolution is widely viewed as a time of daring desperados, such as “Pancho” Villa and Emiliano Zapata, corrupt military governments and immense rural poverty. However, the stories of Mexican women during this tumultuous time are often forgotten and lack representation. Whilst Frida Kahlo effectively portrays the social discord of Mexico in the 1950s, through her infamous paintings, Nellie Campobello is arguably one of the hidden figures of early 20th century Latin American writers.
Nellie Campobello is arguably one of the hidden figures of early 20th century Latin American writers.
Campobello not only gave female experience during conflict and revolution an authentic voice, but also humanised the often-glorified experiences of Mexican outlaws and revolutionaries. Her style of writing transcends the expectations of 20th century literature, as she adopts a childlike tone throughout her notable short stories and poems that encapsulate oral storytelling traditions.
Campobello was born in Mexico in 1900 and therefore went through adolescence at the height of the Mexican Revolution and its aftermath. Her most famous short story collection, Cartucho, was published in 1931 and was one of the only literary pieces from this period to reflect a woman’s experience. Throughout the stories, Campobello adopts a deliberately blunt childlike writing style in order to portray the unfortunate normality of every-day violence in early 20th century Mexico. Generally viewed as a feminist take on the revolution, Campobello emphasises the notion of private space within conflict and depicts strong female characters. This is most notably illustrated in the story Nacha Ceniceros, which encompasses and parodies the romanticised depictions of female fighters that are presented throughout history. During the Mexican Revolution female fighters, otherwise known as soldaderas or coronelas, became common folklore through the popularisation of revolutionary corridos. In reality, these supposed “female fighters” were frequently kidnapped to simply cook and clean for revolutionary militias; however, the symbolism of female empowerment through revolution is a universal theme that continues to be prevalent in literature that deals with broader themes of conflict.
The symbolism of female empowerment through revolution is a universal theme that continues to be prevalent in literature
Campobello describes Nacha as a coronela who “could do anything a man could” and intriguingly comments on how she “could have been one of the most famous women of the revolution” but how she instead “returned quietly to her ravaged home and began to rebuild the walls”. Although women who fought in the Revolution were somewhat empowered as a result of their role, ultimately they had to return to pick up the pieces, with the fight for women’s rights being paused until Mexico regained stability. Interestingly, after the revolution Campobello pursued a career as a choreographer and dancer, trying to share traditional Mexican culture around the country with the assistance of her sister Gloria. It is undeniable that Campobello’s writing had an impressive impact on Mexican society and the arts through her ability to showcase elements of the female experience. Her writing is also a key historical source that can be used to portray the lives of ordinary Mexicans under the revolution; her other book Apuntes sobre la vida militar de Francisco Villa gives great insight into the experiences of one of the most famous revolutionaries from this period.
Given that Cartucho was written in the aftermath of the Mexican Revolution, it is significant that Campobello attempts to give her male characters, which are frequently outlaws or bandits, greater emotional characterisation and depth. During the 1930s, Mexico was undergoing great cultural and political change in which the recent revolutionary past was being pushed aside. Perhaps Campobello was trying to use her writing to highlight the archaic nature of the revolution whilst also demonstrating the bravery of these young soldiers through raw depictions of their emotional vulnerability. Though Nellie Campobello died in 1986, her literary accounts of the intense violence Northern Mexico experienced throughout the revolution continues to act as enlightening material to this day. In light of the current tension on the Mexican-American border, which also prevailed nearly a century ago, the significance of Campobello’s writing and influence over Mexican history and culture cannot be diminished.
Image: Amber Conway