Hello and welcome to A Murderess Affair, my name is Gabrielle and feliz Dia de los Muertos! In honor of the holiday, I’m covering Mexican revolutionary Petra Herrera, who also went by “Pedro”. She was an active participant of the Mexican Revolution under the leadership of Francisco “Pacho” Villa. When she was outed as a woman, removed of her military rank and status, she formed her own militia of women with members between 400-1000 who would fight alongside the men in battles.
Petra was born June 29, 1887. There isn’t much known about her early life, not that I could find anyway. It’s estimated she joined the military under the alias Pedro Herrera in her early to mid 20’s. She fought in many battles of the Mexican Revolution, and worked her way to being under the command of General Francisco “Pancho” Villa.
The Mexican Revolution was fought roughly from 1910-1920, and is known as being something that majorly transformed Mexican culture and government. It began due to the regime of Porfirio Diaz, who was president for 31 years, and who’s political party struggled to find a successor as he became increasingly unpopular. This lead to a rigged election, which lead to those challenging him and long story short-war.
“I think the idea that she had to disguise herself as a man to gain entry into that many places shows how resistant other men would have been to her presence, even if they knew that women were just as capable or they knew that women were playing this particular role in helping to support the revolution,” Delia Fernández, an assistant professor of history and core faculty in Chicano Latino studies at Michigan State University said in a Teen Vogue article. “The fact that she had to dress up like as man is really telling about the resistance to equality amongst men and women at that particular time.”
Her reputation preceded her, and she was described as an exemplary leader. To keep her secret, she would dress in baggier men’s clothes, saying that she woke up at dawn to shave before the other soldiers, even letting herself be caught at that time doing exactly that to prove her story. She stood out among the other soldiers for her courage, as well as her specialty: explosives.
Eventually, she reached the rank as captain, and led a squadron of around 200 men. People loved her, and she had a natural charisma about her that played a huge part in her success as a leader. Eventually, she felt comfortable enough to reveal that she was a woman. Unfortunately, after she did so Pancho Villa refused to give her military credit, and was removed from her newest position, as general.
Female participation was common in the Revolution, but oftentimes only officially sanctioned in activities involving food or other service positions unrelated to the fighting.
When Pancho Villa refused to have her in his army, she quit his forces and formed her own brigade exclusively made up of women. There is honestly an estimation between 400 and 1000. There really hasn’t been much consistency there, and as it was a war and there were battles where people died I think the shifting in numbers is pretty understandable.
Like I said before, Petra’s specialty was explosions. She would explode bridges as enemy forces were crossing, or use these explosions to trap them within battles.
One of the most legendary battles that Petra Herrera fought was the second battle of Torreon, Coahiula on May 30, 1914. In this battle, Petra lead her forces of 400 women to fight alongside Villa’s army. One of the others who fought there, Cosme Mendoza Chavira, said “Ella fue quien tomo Torreón y apago las luces cuando entraron en la ciudad" (She was the one who took Torreón and turned out the lights when they entered the city."). Due to her leadership and command, they were able to capture the city alongside Villa’s forces.
Villa refused to credit Petra for her and her brigade’s part in this battle, but it was widely known and later admitted that they had a pivotal role in it. The government was trying really hard to keep the idea of women in battle and involved in the Revolution under wraps.
This didn’t stop Petra from leading, or participating. Eventually, her group expanded to be a total of 1000 women, still unrecognized by conventional history by the way. She was definitely described as a Momma Bear, taking extraordinary care of the women in her camp. She wouldn’t let men sleep near where they’d set up, and would enforce that rule by doing nightly patrols and using any male soldiers trying to sneak in as target practice.
General Castro, who was a leader in the revolution, eventually called for all soldadera brigades involved in battle to disband. It isn’t too clear what happened to the women of her brigade afterwards, which makes sense in a sad way considering that many people tried to forget Petra altogether.
In 1917, she allied with Venustiano Carranza and began working as a spy. She was placed undercover to work as a canteen girl in a bar in either Jimenez, Chihuahua or Cuidad Juarez. She was still working as a spy when three bandit men, insulted by Petra in some way-not clear how, drew their guns and shot her 3 times. She survived the initial attack, but ultimately died of infection due to her injuries.
Petra Herrera had an amazing life, one that I wish we knew more of. Her impact in a decade long war that left over 1.5 million dead is one that should be recognized, so I’m glad that there are those historians out there who have done their part to piece together what they can of her life and impact.