For the next few weeks, we will be celebrating LatinX history month. September is chosen to remember LatinX history because of the significance around the Mexican War of Independence. This defining, 11-year war, both began and ended in the month of September. And it was through this struggle that Mexico gained independence from the colonization of Spain. For over 300 years Spanish military and priests had worked to eliminate the rich history of what is now known as Central and South America. The glory of the Aztec and Mayan empires of Mexico were erased along with the Incan kingdom of modern-day Peru. But these grand atrocities were only the beginning as countless smaller civilizations and tribes were killed off or enslaved during centuries of Spanish rule.
Today marks the 210th anniversary of Grito de Dolores (the Cry of Dolores). It was on September 16, 1810, that Miguel Hildalgo y Costillo rang the church bell to signal a call to arms launching the Hildalgo revolt and in essence, the Mexican Revolution. More than two centuries later this moment is still celebrated each year on the eve of September 16th. The Mexican President wears full traditional garb and yells Viva Mexico! after ringing the exact same bell that Hildalgo rang 210 years earlier. Through their freedom, the country has worked to return to the traditions and roots stolen from them by Spanish conquerors. Yet it has not been an easy transition. One of the most glaring examples of the inner turmoil came 100 years after the Hildalgo revolt in the form of the Mexican Revolution. As the government faced off with an oppressed people, one fighter found freedom of expression in the Zapatistas, more formally referred to as ‘The Liberation Army of the South’.
Twenty-one years before the official outbreak of the Mexican Revolution, a child was born to wealthy parents, Casimiro Robles and Josefa Avila. Though he was assigned female at birth, Amelio bucked the feminine traditions thrust upon him. He became an expert marksman and horse trainer preferring the roles typically reserved for men. And while his parents initially enrolled him in an all-girls school, after the fourth grade they withdrew Amelio. We do not know the full reason but it is possible his gender identity and expression played a part in their decision. The young child’s defiance of his assigned sex is even more striking when contrasted against the intensely conservative and gendered society of Mexico. But even with the liberties his family’s wealth and status granted him, it is doubtful if Amelio would have become the man a nation knew and revered had it not been for the Mexican Revolution.
As with any revolution, the flames of resistance were fanned for decades before the war finally broke out. When General Porfirio Diaz took control of the presidency in 1876 he set the wheels of an uprising in motion. Diaz spread the reach of his power by replacing political leaders with his own pawns. He used the Rurales, a mounted police force similar to the American Rangers, to intimidate opponents and put down rebellions. In addition, Diaz brought in foreign capitalists and drove the Mexican peasant class further into poverty and submission. His final seal of power came when he amended the Mexican Constitution to allow for unlimited terms in the presidency and held onto his title despite accusations of voter suppression and rigged elections. Between 1876-1911, Porfirio Diaz served as president; with the exception of four years between 1880-1884 when his close friend and supporter Manual Gonzalez briefly stepped into the role. This 35 year period is known as the Porfiriato in Mexican history.
Diaz promoted “Order and Progress” much the same way Donald Trump uses the words “Law and Order” to justify his outrageous abuse of power. Throughout Diaz’s reign, many wealthy Europeans and Americans bought up land in Mexico and established industries, manufacturing plants, and large estates in the developing country. Those in the working and middle class were forced out of their homes as the land was bought up by outsiders. To add insult to injury, many laborers were forced to take positions working on the estates and in the factories of the foreign capitalists. Naturally, the low wages and abusive working conditions that are the hallmark of capitalism were brought down upon the peasant class. As the 19th century began to close and a new era dawned, laborers around the globe began to rumble in resistance.
By 1905, the president’s power was in sharp decline as opposition mounted. Partido Liberal de Mexico (PLM), translated as The Mexican Liberal Party, was formed and immediately lead an all-out call for labor reform. Anti-Diaz newspapers were printed and distributed, a program of reform was drawn up, and unions began to form. The following year the Cananea Strike took place. Cananea was a town of miners, and their families, who worked at the Cananea Copper Company. Cananea had been founded and was owned by an American businessman. Of the 23,000 residents, only 2,200 were American. Yet the Americans held all positions of power within the company and base staff were paid 1 ½ peso more per day than their Mexican counterparts. In addition, the Mexican citizens were forced to work and live in horrible conditions and their only source for food and supplies was the town general store that charged high prices.
On June 1st, 1906, the majority of the Mexican miners went on strike. They demanded the right to promotions and higher responsibility in their jobs, required equal pay to the Americans, and requested a 75% Mexican quota in the company ensuring they would not be replaced with white men. Their demands were rejected by company leaders which resulted in a riot and eventually a massacre. Over the next 3 days, more than 3,000 Mexicans marched through the streets of Cananea and it wasn’t until a hose was turned on them and three people were killed that the march became violent. By June 3rd, the Arizona Rangers had crossed the border to put down an uprising which they had no jurisdiction over. Diaz’s Rurales were deployed as well and when all was said and done an estimated 23 people were killed and 22 were injured. At least 39 of the suspected 45 victims were Mexican resisters. The leaders of the riot were arrested and sentenced to 15 years in prison. Thankfully, their sentence would end 5 years later when the Revolution began.
The Cananea Strike turned a glowing flame into a national fire as more strikes and labor uprisings erupted across the country. Things further escalated when Diaz, once again, rigged his election. This was the 7th election Diaz had corrupted during his 35 years as president but this time he had far overestimated the strength of his power. For more than a decade Diaz had been promising to step down as president and allow for true democracy in Mexico. Yet when Porfirio had legitimate opponent Francisco Madero jailed right before the 1910 election, and then claimed he had won in a landslide, even those most resistant to war had reached their limit. When Madero escaped from prison he sent out a call to action sparking armed resistance. Throughout the end of 1910 small rebellions broke out and by 1911 a disjointed, disorganized, yet national war erupted. Amelio Robles joined the resistance just as the Revolution began.
Writer Gabriela Cano touches upon the many ways the Mexican Revolution influenced Roble’s gender transition and social legacy. She writes in Women Warriors and National Heroes Global History:
There are at least three meanings of the term Mexican Revolution: first, as a war and political conflict; second, as the drafting and institutional enforcement of laws and reforms; and third, as rhetorical trope. The revolution was a symbol of nationalism, social justice, and secularization. Throughout the century, both governments and opponents invoked the Mexican Revolution as a source of their legitimacy. More importantly for our purposes, the Mexican Revolution celebrated binary gender as the epitome of national identity: the male peasant, worker, and soldier, and the sexually available young woman and mother…Each of these meanings is relevant to the story of Amelio Robles. The process of his gender transition took place during the armed struggle and his constructed masculinity was accepted in the midst of the instability and violence of the war. 
In late 1911 Amelio, still identifying as a woman, went on a mission to secure funding for the revolution. Earlier that year, Diaz had been forced to resign as President at the age of 81. Madero and his supporters had beaten the Federal Army projecting change on the horizon as Diaz fled to France in exile. Yet the real struggle that would become known as the Mexican Revolution was only just beginning. On November 6, 1911, Francisco Madero at the age of 38 was elected as President of Mexico by a 90% vote. Yet his glory was short-lived as he would be removed and then assassinated just 15 months after taking office. The outrage leveled at the man noted as sparking the Revolution was brought over his supposed inaction to make the changes revolutionaries had demanded. Especially his failure to immediately act on his promises around land reform.
Madero had promised to re-distribute the millions of acres held by corporate entities and haciendas (large estates and plantations). Tax and property laws disproportionately favored these groups even though studies by revolutionaries such as Andres Molina Enriquez. Molina had spent nearly a decade as a notary and had tracked the output of small rancheros verse the output of large haciendas. He found that the smaller ranches were better farmers who produced better work but were often forced out of business by the hacendados (plantation owners) and an unbalanced system. It was leaders like Molina and Emiliano Zapata Salazar that were most vocal against Maderos inaction around land reform. It was under Zapata that Amelio would build his legacy.
Amelio’s trip to secure funding for the Revolution was the last known record of his old name during his lifetime. By 1913 he was serving under his masculine identity as a colonel for the Liberation Army, often informally called the Zapatistas. It was not uncommon for a woman to adopt a masculine persona while serving during a war, but these identities were later dropped once the individual returned to civilian life. However, Amelio was 24 years old when he began to openly identify as male and he remained in this identity until his death 71 years later. And though occasionally he was challenged or ridiculed, for the most part, Amelio Robles was a highly respected military leader. He served under Zapata for 5 years during the Revolution. While many other groups were corrupted or came to fight with ulterior motives, the Zapatistas were among the most devoted to the people. They rebuilt the state of Morelos in 1915 and redistributed the land before handing over the power of city councils to local leaders.
The peace of 1915 was short-lived and infighting among Revolutionary forces continued until 1920. During this time Zapata was killed and Amelio led a band of 315 soldiers to join forces with another leader and conquer Zapata’s sworn enemy in 1920. The legacy and impact of Zapata and his troops are visible to this day and remained a source of pride to Amelio for the rest of his life. And even through the decades of unrest in Mexico that followed the revolution, the work and success of the Zapatistas in Morelos remained. A constitution was drafted in 1917 and ratified over the ensuing years. It protected laborers and Mexican land rights and gave the power of democracy back to the people. There continued to be battles and uprisings for the next several years following the election of 1920 and Amelio served in a newly formed national military.
In years following the Revolution Amelio settled down in Iguala, Mexico. He met Angela Torres and the two married, later adopting a daughter together. His return to his home brought up rumors of his past and it became common knowledge that anyone who dared call Amelio a woman or a “Dona” would have a pistol drawn on them. When two men attacked Amelio and tried to ‘expose’ his gender by stripping him naked, Amelio killed the men. The actions were passed off as self-defense and he was not charged. For the most part though, Amelio was respected as a veteran of the Revolution and the Zapatistas. By the time he was elderly most of the younger generation had no idea about his sex assigned at birth.
Some historians mark the official end of the Revolution in the 1940s even though the fighting stopped in 1923. The unrest and rapidly changing leadership caused years of turmoil in the country as is typical in the aftermath of any civil war. But by the end of the 1940s the country was beginning to calm and rebuild. Amelio was awarded a medical certificate in 1948 to mark him as a veteran of the Mexican Revolution. The certificate noted 6 bullet wounds on his body. Yet it would 22 years before he would officially be recognized as a veterano by the Secretary of Defense. Over the next 14 years, Amelio received high claims and honors for his service during the Revolution. In the final year of his life, he was unable to speak due to illness and on December 9, 1984, he died at the age of 95. Unfortunately, after his death, some tried to erase his trans identity and rename him, Amelia Robles. Because of this, there is some conflicting literature out there about Amelio. Yet the Robles family has denounced this dishonor to the Colonel’s legacy.
We do want to mention the fact that Amelio Robles was by no means a perfect person. During the Revolution, there were many atrocities committed against innocent people though it does seem that Zapata did his best to avoid unnecessary bloodshed and abhorred the violent methods of other leaders. It is also true that Amelio himself was an aggressive drunk and a womanizer who later chased away his wife and child. Whether he felt compelled to adopt this hyper-masculine persona to survive in society or whether it was simply who he does not excuse his behaviors. Still, he did leave behind wealthy lineage to pursue a more ethical form of government. We honor him as a queer person in history who worked to make a difference.
Your recommended resources are chapter 9 of Women Warriors and National Heroes Global Histories. This is linked for free in our script. We have also attached a YouTube short, docu-clip on Robles. Please note, the vide is in Spanish. There are other YouTube clips on Robles as well.
- Mexican Independence (wiki) – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mexican_War_of_Independence
- Amelio (wiki) – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amelio_Robles_%C3%81vila
- Amelio – https://remezcla.com/features/culture/little-known-history-amelio-robles-trans-zapatista-fought-mexicos-revolution/
- Mexican Revolution – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mexican_Revolution
- Amelio – https://www.bloomsburycollections.com/book/women-warriors-and-national-heroes-global-histories/ch9-gender-and-transgender-in-the-mexican-revolution-the-shifting-memory-of-amelio-robles