Women in revolt

By Gabi Moore

Artist documents her-stories of Mexican revolution

It was a striking photograph: a black and white image of a woman leaning off of a train during the Mexican Revolution, fear hidden behind the strength in her eyes. The powerful body language spoke to Paloma Rosales, a local artist browsing through books about Mexico in the Library of Michigan in the mid 1990s. The woman was a soldadera, one of the many women who contributed their lives to the Mexican Revolution, traveling and even fighting along with the men, alone or following their husbands.

Rosales photocopied the picture and kept the image in her inspiration folder. She came back to it years later, Googled “soldadera” and became fascinated by what she found. Stories of women trudging along with male-dominated armies, carrying babies and heavy corn grinders on their backs; stories of women dressed up as men to participate in the fighting; stories of female journalists writing against the injustices Mexicans felt during the Revolution.

The soldaderas are the focus of Rosales’ paintings on display at Honora Bird’s Studio Gallery for the month of October. A grant from the Arts Council of Greater Lansing funded the project, so Rosales could create this body of work, featuring the little-documented women who contributed their services to the Mexican Revolution.

“They’re fascinating, they’re big and they’re very strong and colorful,” gallery owner Bird said of the paintings. Bird works on ceramics with Rosales, and when she heard about the soldaderas project, she suggested she show the paintings at her gallery.

Faint splatters of paint on Rosales’ living room wall hints to the room’s recent second life as a studio. The size of the soldaderas paintings, many of which range from 2 feet by 3 feet to 3 feet by 4 feet, moved Rosales out of her office and onto the table in her more spacious living room. This series is the first project Rosales has done on such a large scale (one of the paintings, she said, barely fits on the wall in the gallery), a passion she picked up working on murals with teenagers in Detroit in the ‘90s.

Friends in Detroit, where she lived before moving to Lansing in 1988, invited Rosales to take part in some projects they were promoting to improve the city. “They invited me to work with a former gang leader from California to do murals with teenagers in neighborhoods in Detroit,” Rosales said. “It was really great, and I did a few murals afterwards, and once I started doing murals, it wasn’t my idea, but I thought ‘Golly, I really like working big.’”

The show is Rosales’ second time showing in a soldaderas-themed exhibit. One of her friends owns a gallery in Detroit’s Mexican Town, and Rosales suggested that they invite other artists to create work in line with the soldaderas theme for a show they opened during the exuberant celebrations of Cinco de Mayo. Rosales said she was pleasantly overwhelmed by how many people were out, crammed into cars that filled the streets, cheering, singing and waving Mexican flags out of their windows.

Rosales said one of the strongest and most memorable messages portrayed during that show came from a friend who hung a cast iron skillet and rolling pin on the wall. “I said ‘I don’t get it, what does it mean?’ and she said ‘Well, most women didn’t have weapons, so they used what they had available, which was a cast iron skillet and a rolling pin. You can do some damage with those things.’”

The stories of the soldaderas continue to fascinate Rosales, and she said even as the book she put together with information about the paintings was being finished, she would find some new interesting information she wanted to add. Because of the limited means of documentation during the Mexican Revolution, Rosales said many of the stories of these women have been lost, and she is always researching and trying to find some of the forgotten stories of soldaderas. She hopes to find people with grandparents or relatives who were alive or affected by the Mexican Revolution and continue to create paintings. “The more I search and read, the more amazing stories I find,” she said. “Little by little, I’m finding this little known history.”


by Paloma Rosales Through October Honor Bird’s Studio Gallery 1207
Turner St., Lansing Hours: 11 a.m. – 4 p.m. Wednesday – Saturday; 1 – 4
p.m. Sunday (517) 285-9462