Mexican Revolution: the forgotten story of Amelio Robles, the transgender colonel who fought with the army of Emiliano Zapata

For a simple “madness” being young, Amelia Robles Ávila found freedom.

The ranch girl, raised in conservative Mexico at the end of the 19th century, had only just passed adolescence when she joined to the Mexican Revolution.

In the armed struggle he reached the rank of colonel, overcoming all the prejudices of a time when a “male” should not show signs of not being one.

Most important to himself, on the battlefields he forged his new identity, one that he showed to the world for the rest of his life.

“We found a person for whom the Revolution will be his pretext, his path, his transit, to make you what he wanted be“, Says the historian Noemí Juárez to BBC Mundo.

“It is a moment in which the roles, the good customs, the spaces, everything is diluted so that she can be what she wanted to be”.

That young teenager became Amelio Robles Ávila, one of the first documented cases of a transgender person in Mexico.

Young Amelia Robles

That Colonel of the Revolution was born as Amelia Malaquías Robles Ávila into a wealthy family in the state of Guerrero, in southern Mexico, on November 3, 1889.

In the mountains of Xochipala, his life was the countryside, without many windows to the world.

“Growing up in this environment, she had a good handling of weapons and command of the horse. Skills with which he will later excel in the revolutionary process, ”explains Juárez.

The possibilities of her family gave her a very religious education in a college for young ladies, the Daughters of Mary Immaculate of the Miraculous Medal.

“That is where he already had some signs of rebellion. I followed a partner a lot, I tried to maintain a relationship with her ”, explains the historian.

The revolutionary outbreak

The groups opposed to the government of General Porfirio Díaz, led by Francisco I. Madero, took up arms on November 20, 1910, beginning the Mexican Revolution.

The ball”As the crowds who recruited guerrillas in cities and towns were told, he passed through Xochipala and, like many other young people, caught the attention of Amelia Robles.

That armed group was the nascent Liberation Army of the South, led by Emiliano Zapata, one of the most important leaders of the Mexican Revolution who fought for agrarian justice through the Plan de Ayala.

The cause was not the main thing in the mind of the young Amelia Robles.

Emiliano Zapata was one of the most charismatic leaders of the Mexican Revolution. (Photo: GETTY IMAGES)

Years later he confessed that he joined “the ball” for “mere boy’s madness.”

“I mean, I said well, I didn’t know what Ayala’s Plan was, I didn’t know what was happening. But the ball came and I went with the ball, “he said in an interview with the newspaper. The universal in 1927.

His idea was that of “Be completely free”.

Juárez says that it often goes unnoticed how events like the Mexican Revolution disrupt daily life in many ways.

“It benefits her at a certain point. Suddenly, he knows that he has a world outside, in which he can get involved in the handling of weapons, the horse and interact with other groups ”, he explains.

Masculinize to survive

In the history of the Mexican Revolution, the participation of women in the role of the “soldaderas” or “adelitas”, those in charge of the support tasks of the troops.

However, they also had an armed role in which many times they had to adopt the appearance of a man to get ahead. Some even had to change their names.

A woman with several children during the Mexican Revolution
The accounts of the Mexican Revolution tend to pigeonhole women in support tasks, such as childcare, without mentioning their role in the armed struggle. (Photo: FOTOTECA NACIONAL / INAH)

“Indeed, there were many women who joined the ranks as soldiers. But there is one thing they had to do and it was masculinize. In this sense Amelio was not the only one, we have other examples ”, explains Juárez.

Petra herrera it was the revolutionary Pedro Herrera, Angela Jimenez It happened to be Ángel Jiménez in the match. Only some, like the coronela Pink Bobadilla, they kept their appearance and name.

Why did they do it?

“Many times to defend yourself from sexual violence. If right now, in a context in which we are supposed to be living a peaceful moment, violence against women is a daily problem, imagine yourself in a context of war, ”says the historian.

“They also adopted an identity to be able to command the troop, something that being women, because many times it would have been impossible.”

Rosa Bobadilla with President Miguel Alemán
Rosa Bobadilla (center) was one of the few women who did not have to cross-dress to gain command of the troops. (Photo: GETTY IMAGES)

At the end of their participation in the Revolution, characters such as Petra Herrera and Ángela Jiménez they returned to their localities to continue their lives as women.

But the case of Amelia Robles was different.

The battle of Amelio

Upon entering the armed struggle, Amelia Robles’ skills were noticed, mainly when plan and execute ambushes against the Federal Army in the mountains of southern Mexico.

He participated in the taking of Chilpancingo that led to the fall of the coup president Victoriano Huerta.

And even, in combat, he managed to steal the horse from a general of the Federal Army, which showed not only his great ability to direct assaults, but also his individual skill.

“There are some testimonies that say that she entered the Revolution with her petticoats or red dress, with her braids. But it is in this process of the Revolution that this identity of Amelio ‘el güero’ Robles begins to change, ”says Juárez.

He soon went from lieutenant to major and then to colonel. He was in charge of groups of up to 1,000 men.

It is at this point where a great debate arises around the figure of Colonel Amelio Robles that to this day is the subject of discussions about gender identity, the advancement of the rights of the LGBT community and feminism.

Who does Amelio Robles claim?

Amelio Robles’ decision to live his gender identity fully during the Mexican Revolution was liberating for him: he became the man he wanted to be from his childhood.

But in doing so, he adopted the system of values ​​-machistas, mainly- that dominated the time.

“Amelio, being a transgender colonel, is exposing the values ​​of the men of the moment. You might think that the Zapatistas were very open in accepting this colonel, but homosexuality was very frowned upon“Explains Juárez.

Revolutionaries with Pancho Villa
The Mexican Revolution lasted from 1910 to 1917. Men dominated the stage. (Photo: GETTY IMAGES)

“The acceptance of Amelio is given because after all she represents the values ​​of the revolutionary, of masculinity, of the strong, brave, macho man. Of the revolutionary macho, proud“, Add.

On the contrary, there were other revolutionaries who reached high ranks, such as Manuel Palafox in Zapata’s army, whose homosexuality was rejected and reviled.

“The doors began to close on him, because homosexuality was the equivalent of being effeminate. And that was the symbol of weakness“, Warns the historian.

The figure of Amelio Robles raises multiple questions: was he a person who vindicated the role of women in the Mexican Revolution, choosing to be a man and adopting the prevailing system? Or did it vindicate transgender people and their aspirations? Or did it just reinforce machismo?

It is an open debate today.

Women aim with rifles in the Mexican Revolution
Many women took up arms, but their participation in the Mexican Revolution has been minimized in the accounts of the time. (Photo: GETTY IMAGES)

“Homosexuality is frowned upon, but this transgender colonel – who after all represents the masculine and with power status – is what he does accept at that time,” says Juárez.

What history shows is that Amelio Robles served the Mexican Revolution and is he used her, to continue the rest of her life on the path that that young ranchera from Xochipala was looking for.

And I think that’s the important thing. Take the revolution for this transit of change in your life. It’s what I wanted to be ”, considers Juárez.

“He becomes free by staying like this until his death”.

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