Monday, December 2, 2019

"La Cucaracha" Was a Female Mexican Soldier

Most of us know the tune as one sung by Pancho Villa's soldiers:

La cucaracha, la cucaracha
ya no puede caminar
por que no tiene, porque le faltan 

marijuana que fumar

The cockroach, the cockroach
Cannot walk anymore
Because she hasn’t, because she lacks
marijuana to smoke

See a 13-year-old Judy Garland singing about "La Cucaracha" and marijuana in 1935:

La cucaracha was a nickname for a female Mexican soldier, and legend has it that "marijuana" too was named for such a woman, since they were also called juanas.

Sheet music dated  January 1918, from Antonio
Vanegas Arroyo Print shop in Mexico City
According to the book Soldaderas in the Mexican Military: Myth and History by Elizabeth Salas, soldiering has been a "traditional life experience for innumerable women in Mexico" since pre-Columbia times. "Women warriors, camp followers, coronelas, soldaderas, and Adelitas are just some of the names given to these women,” she writes. A footnote adds that Juanas and cucarachas were other names applied to women in the Mexican military, along with mociuaquetzque (valiant women), viejas (old ladies) and galletas (cookies).

Salas says "La cucaracha" is a corrido (Mexican folk song) that has its roots in nineteenth century Spain. Later, soldiers in Porfirio Diaz's army sang about "La cucaracha" to mock a soldadera that wanted money to go to the bullfights. "With the Villistas, 'La cucaracha' wanted money for alcohol and marijuana," writes Salas. "She was often so drunk or stoned that she could not walk straight."

Other versions mocked the drunken general Victoriano Huerta as the cockroach. The song had hundreds of verses; Isaac Campos wrote in Homegrown: Marijuana and the Origins of Mexico's War on Drugs, "Like so many Mexican folk songs, this one had innumerable versions that were routinely altered to whomever happened to be singing the tune at the time."

"Unlike corridos about male revolutionaries like Villa and Zapata, none of the well-known corridos about soldaderas give their real names or are biographical. Consequently, there are vey few stanzas that ring true about women in battle or in the camps," Salas notes.

"El baile de la cucaracha" by José Clemente Orozco, 1915-17
Male artists often depicted the soldaderas as semi-disrobed hookers. One etching, "The dance of the cucaracha” by muralist José Clemente Orozco (shown),  is especially insulting.

An early version of the song's sheet music from 1918 (above) has a better—if somewhat placid—depiction of a cucaracha / soldadera, an etching by Jose Guadalupe Posada. It is titled, "Corrido de la Cucaracha Que No Ha Salido a Pasear Porque No Tiene Centavitos Que Gasta" (Ballad of The Cockroach That hasn't been able to go out because she doesn't have money to spend).

One “Juana” was the famed or fabled “Juana Gallo” (the Rooster Woman), a fearless fighter. Some say she was Angela Ramos Aguilar, a Zacatecana soldadera, and she was the subject of a 1961 film "The Guns of Juana Gallo."

corrido titled "La güera" extols her:

Among the noise of cannons and shrapnel
comes forth a popular story
about a youth called Juana Gallo
because she was valiant without a doubt

Always at the front of the troop you saw her
fighting like all the other soldiers
in battle no federal soldier escaped her
without mercy she shot them with her big pistol. 

"When the army needed their services, the soldaderas stayed in the ranks, and their actions many times were considered awesome and morale inspiring. But at other times, they were abandoned without much hesitation or ordered not to advance with the men into battle," Salas writes. "The cultural reconstructions of the soldaderas have reflected extremes between the fierce fighter (Juana Gallo) and the base camp follower (La Cucaracha). The 'middle ground' soldadera character in the person of 'La Adelita' has emerged as the clear favorite of artists and writers. 'La Adelita' is the 'sweetheart of the troops,' a woman who is valiant, pretty, and a wonderful helpmate to the soldier." A painting by Frida KahloLa Adelita, Pancho Villa and Frida, (1927) depicts herself as a soldadera in Villa's army.

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