Sadly, few history books remember the heroism of Petra Herrara. She was a fighter in the Mexican Revolution and one of the bravest and most successful of Las Soldaderas.
The Mexican Revolution was a battle for civil liberties in which ordinary people fought to free themselves from the oppression of the corrupt federal government. Eventually, the success of the uprising would transform the country’s political, financial and cultural life, but not until Mexico had endured a decade of bloody civil war between 1910 and 1920.
It is unlikely that the forces of the revolution would have been able to finally topple dictator Porfirio Díaz and his army without the tremendous contribution of Las Soldaderas – the female soldiers who not only cared for and supported the revolutionary troops but also fought alongside them.
Little is known about Petra Herrara’s early life but, like many of her sisters, as a young woman she was inspired to fight for the freedom of Mexico. Many Soldaderas supported the troops as cooks, nurses and nannies etc in traditionally female gender roles. Such a life would never have satisfied Petra.
She disguised herself as a man in order that she might fight in the league commanded by General Francisco “Pancho” Villa, one of the most prominent figures of the Mexican Revolution. She called herself Pedro and would pretend to shave her beard early each morning, thus avoiding any awkward questions about her hairless skin.
She quickly became a celebrated member of the Villistas, admired for her leadership qualities and her talent for strategy. With a flair for demolition, her game plan often involved destroying key bridges to limit the enemy’s movement. Her skills soon earned her the rank of captain and she led a brigade of around 200 men.
Feeling confident in her position within Villa’s force, Petra thought she could be honest about her true identity and revealed herself to be a woman. Sadly, her skills and reputation as a fighter could not protect her from being ousted from the military when she told the truth. Pancho Villa did not want a woman bearing arms with his company.
Nevertheless, Petra remained a soldier and created an all-female troop with around 400 other women who, like her, had been barred from taking part in military action due to their sex. In May 1914 Petra and her all-women army played a vital role in capturing Toma de Torreόn. The city had been one of dictator Porfirio Díaz’s most important military bases, so its capture was a hugely important victory for the revolutionary forces.
In light of this success, Petra asked General Castro to promote her to the rank of general and re-instate her in the armed forces. He refused to do as she wished but did concede to make her a colonel.
Ultimately, her troop disbanded, Petra was forced to retire from the battlefield. However, she was still determined to fight for Mexico’s freedom and in 1917 became a spy, working for Venustiano Carranza, another prominent revolutionary leader.
Her new role in espionage saw Petra posing as a bartender in the northern Mexican state of Chihuahua. It was working in a canteen that she met her end; one evening a group of drunken men attacked and shot her. She was not killed immediately but died sometime later as a result of her wounds.
Tragically, she would never enjoy a life of liberation in the post-revolution Mexico for which she had fought so hard.
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