Gutiérrez de Mendoza, Juana Belén (1875–1942)

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Gutiérrez de Mendoza, Juana Belén (1875–1942)

Mexican revolutionary, journalist and feminist who never abandoned her belief in the need for the sweeping agrarian reforms that had been fundamental to the political agenda of Emiliano Zapata. Born in Durango state in 1875; died in Mexico City on July 13, 1942; daughter of Santiago Gutierrez; children: two daughters.

Born in the arid region of Durango in 1875, Juana Belén Gutiérrez de Mendoza grew up in a world in which poverty was the norm but the human spirit was not crushed. Indeed, her family was proud that her grandfather, a poor workingman, had been executed by firing squad because of his beliefs. Juana's father earned meager wages as a blacksmith, horse-tamer, and farm laborer. Racially, the Gutiérrez family was typical of the Mexican masses, with Juana's father being of mestizo background, and her mother of pure Indian descent. Juana was trained to be a typographer, and since printers were often political freethinkers, by 1901 she had become a teacher and was an active member of the Precursor movement, a small but committed group throughout Mexico who spoke out against the increasingly oppressive regime of President Porfirio Diaz (1830–1915).

In 1901, Gutiérrez was living in the town of Guanajuato, and it was there that she and fellow schoolteacher Elisa Acuña y Rossetti founded the weekly newspaper, Vésper. Gutiérrez had sold some of her goats in order to raise sufficient cash to buy a small printing press. From its first issue, Vésper was militant in its defense of the rights of the poor and oppressed. In her articles, Gutiérrez called for sweeping social reforms that would improve the lot of local miners, who worked in deplorable conditions for pathetically low wages. She linked the servile state of an ignorant peasantry to the teachings of a Roman Catholic Church which claimed that it only held the keys to heavenly salvation. Besides attacking the Diaz presidency for its arrogance and indifference to the sufferings of Mexico's masses, Vésper laid some of the blame on the same masses, who would not rise up and demand change. Gutiérrez's journalism infuriated conservatives, but one male editor characterized the content and style of her writing as nothing less than "virile."

Within a short time, Vésper had become famous beyond the confines of Guanajuato. In 1903, one of the leading anti-Diaz newspapers, Regeneración, paid tribute to a brave dissident journal edited by two provincial women: "Now, when many men have lost heart and, out of cowardice, retired from the fight…. now that many men, without vigor, retreat… there appears a spirited and brave woman, ready to fight for our principles, when the weakness of many men has permitted them to be trampled and spit upon." When Gutiérrez began publishing some of her essays in Excélsior, one of Mexico City's leading opposition newspapers, it was a sign of the growing esteem in which she was now held in anti-government circles.

By 1904, the Diaz regime had reached the limits of its ability to tolerate sharp dissents like those customarily found in Vésper. Both Gutiérrez and Acuña y Rossetti were arrested and thrown into the women's prison at Belén. Gutiérrez remained incarcerated for three years and was then exiled. In 1910, Camilo and Juana Arriaga , respected veterans of the anti-Diaz struggle, reestablished Vésper and began to publish it in exile in San Antonio, Texas.

The resignation of Porfirio Diaz in May 1911 did not end Gutiérrez's militant journalism. She soon concluded that both of the men who had succeeded Diaz, Francisco Madero and Venustiano Carranza, were either too politically inept or cynically Machiavellian to deal decisively with Mexico's immense social and cultural burdens. In 1911, at the beginning of Mexico's turbulent and bloody decade of revolution, Juana Gutiérrez became an enthusiastic supporter of Emiliano Zapata, the fiery champion of Mexico's oppressed peasants and Indians. By 1914, she was serving as a colonel in Zapata's "Victoria" regiment, a military unit she not only commanded but had organized from scratch. During this time, she also served as editor of a journal, La Reforma, advocating liberation of the Indian masses. For her outspoken writings, she served another prison term, after having been captured by government forces.

In June 1919, Juana Gutiérrez began publishing El Desmonte, a lively journal that enabled her to offer commentary on Mexico's increasingly chaotic political landscape. Her publication was based on the notion that "one must dismount" from the "old logs" (e.g., it was imperative that Mexico's newly emancipated citizenry cut through all the conflicting claims to political leadership). Although only a few issues of El Desmonte appeared, it remains one of the most interesting documentations of women's concerns in the final phase of the Mexican revolution.

Disillusioned by the military men and politicians who offered little more than flowery rhetoric or ceaseless bloodshed to a war-weary people, the only national figure Gutiérrez continued to have faith in was Emiliano Zapata. Even when Zapata was assassinated in April 1919, Gutiérrez refused to abandon her belief that one day, perhaps in the distant future, Mexico's peasants would possess the land they labored on, and Mexico's women would be liberated from their ancient burdens and discriminations.

In the 1920s and 1930s, she made a precarious living as a journalist, also spending much of her time in the struggle for an effective system of rural education. Having grown up in a world influenced by Indian traditions, she also alerted the public to the need for preserving indigenous cultural values. In November 1935, Gutiérrez began publishing a biweekly magazine entitled Alma Mexicana: Por la Tierra y Por la Raza, which more than ever embodied her radical and independent spirit. She did not hesitate to criticize by name those feminists she believed to be "un-Mexican" because of their inability to understand the needs of ordinary women. She also was disillusioned by what she believed to be pointless ideological dogmatism and infighting within the women's movement, and decided to break off her contacts with a number of leading feminists and Communists.

Although she was no longer young, Juana Gutiérrez refused to accept the limitations imposed by her advancing years. Extreme poverty did not break her, even when she was forced to burn many of her papers in order to heat beans that she sold on the street. Choosing to ignore her own destitution, she continued to speak out for the cause of social and economic justice for women. Towards the end of her life, Juana told an interviewer that she could never abdicate her responsibilities and simply retreat into a peaceful corner: "I don't have a corner. In all the world's corners lives a pain; in all the world's corners is coiled a treachery with open jaws, ready to swallow; and I don't have the indifference necessary to ignore it, nor the cowardice to flee it, nor the gentility to accommodate it." Shortly before her death, she spoke to friends of her plans for building a girls' school in the state of Morelia. An uncompromising foe of injustice and a dreamer of dreams to the very end, Juana Belén Gutiérrez de Mendoza died forgotten by most of her compatriots in Mexico City on July 13, 1942.


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John Haag , Associate Professor of History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia

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Gutiérrez de Mendoza, Juana Belén (1875–1942)

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Gutiérrez de Mendoza, Juana Belén (1875–1942)