MEXICO Benita Galeana Returns

September 25, 2007

"So I have told you the history of my whole life. Judge me as you will. There are tremendous differences be- tween the Benita Galeana of San Ger6nimo, the Benita that wandered from man to man, the Benita of the cabaret, and the Benita Galeana that I am today. After years of struggle -against Nature, against my family, against men, against society and the state-I now feel like my life, my youth, is just beginning." Dofia Benita listens intently as this last chapter, censored from all but the first limited edition of her autobiogra- phy published fifty years ago, is read to her. Her dark eyes look up from the page and rest on the reader's face in the stillness of scrapbooks and bundles of papers in her study. Long a part of Mexican popular history, Benita Galeana has become an important figure for a new generation of women activists. When the 1988 electoral "uprising" opened the door to greater grassroots political action, women from 19 union and neighbor- hood organizations, leftist political parties and middle-class feminist groups formed a national coalition to demand democracy, lower food prices and an end to violence against women. Elaine Burns is a long-time resident of Mexico City who works with "Mujer a Mujer," an organization that fosters links between U.S. and Mexican women. The new coalition needed a name. "Women for Democratic Unity" wouldn't do, nor would "Las Adeli- tas," (after the legendary guerrilla of the Mexican Revolution), nor the vari- ous phrases in Nahuatl that were also proposed. Finally, one barrio commit- tee suggested the coalition be named after a woman like the thousands who have always formed the invisible back- bone of the country's social movements. They proposed Benita Galeana, one of the first three women to join the Mexi- can Communist Party in the 1920s. Benita, the committee argued, had struggled like the poor women of to- day's cities; the only difference was that she "managed to save herself from anonymity by writing her autobiogra- phy." Moreover, she was still alive, and could be coaxed into sharing her experience with the new movement. On November 11, 1988, during a solemn and then raucous ceremony, the "Benita Galeana" National Women's Steering Committee was born. Benita, who had spent years in reclusion, sud- denly returned to public life, as speak- ing invitations began to pour in. Dofia Benita's modest house is crowded with decades of memorabilia from a life lived and risked in the expec- tation of a communist revolution in Mexico. These are the archives of this "mujer del pueblo," practically illiter- ate and ironically kept on the sidelines of the party she believed in. "I never VOLUME XXIV, NUMBER 2 (AUGUST 1990) 7A young Benita: one of the first women in the Communist Party dreamed I would grow old in this sys- tem," she muses. Vital and self-suffi- cient at 86, she lives independently on a pension from the postal service job she sought when she "made it to 35 and they hadn't killed me yet." A week ago, she called the funeral parlor to come take the measurements for her coffin, to be black and unadorned. Meanwhile, she "sows Benitas," meeting with the numerous local groups that make up the national women's coalition, the broadest in Mexico since Benita herself helped organize the United Front for Women's Rights in the 1930s. And she writes, probingly, on her old upright. Lately, an unfinished poem to Noriega lies curled there, the last missing piece for what is to be her third book. Benita recounts how she taught herself to write at the age of 36, without ever having read a book cover to cover. In the evenings after work, she would sound out words and then find the let- ters on the keys of her Olivetti (the only remnant of a ruined relationship), slowly composing the book-entitled simply "Benita''--that would "save her from anonymity." Popular History Benita was born in 1904 in San Ger6nimo, in the state of Guerrero, to a father whose downward mobility was hastened by bad luck and alcoholic generosity. The San Ger6nimo of her memory is a lively haunt of local leg- ends fabricated out of the corpses, rapes and stolen gold deposited there with each coming and going of "the Revolu- tion." Her own domestic world was equally violent, but smaller and devoid of magic. Her mother died young, and she was raised by an elder sister, who kept her out of school and worked and beat her harshly. She says those early years taught her to look at the world with a cold eye, to survive. "One night I woke up to feel a hand moving over me like it was looking for something. I thought it might be one of my little sisters, but when I grabbed it I realized that it was Pedro, my sister's husband. I got up very quietly and grabbed one of the knives I used to kill pigs, and, the next time he reached for me, I got him. He said nothing, just grunted, and then disappeared for 10 days. When he came back, his hand was still bandaged." Benita first heard of Mexico City when she was eight, and she decided at once it would be her salvation. Illiter- ate, but refusing to be trapped into a life of housework, as an adolescent she discerned her only means of getting what she wanted: "I knew that all I had in life was the fact that I was a virgin, and I needed to take care of my only capital to have a chance to be happy." But before she could leave town, she was "tricked" into a loveless rela- tionship, outrof which her daughter was born. The road of sexual "favors" continued until, at twenty, she made it to her promised city, leaving her daugh- ter with a sister in Acapulco. Two years later, on May 1, 1926, she found herself standing on a fruit crate in the Plaza Hidalgo, speaking in public for the first time in her life. The night before, her compahiero, a taxi driver, had told her that he joined the Communist Party "because in Russia everything belongs to the workers." Now he was in jail, and members of the party had come to her apartment to ask her to speak on his behalf. Though at NACLA REPORT ON THE AMERICAS first she was furious over the trouble they had caused, she finally agreed. No sooner did she begin speaking, when the police pulled up to arrest her and the other comrades. During those three days in jail, she became convinced of the need to "link my own trial of misery and hunger with the workers' cause." A week later, she was back in Plaza Hidalgo, not only seeking her comrades' release, but protesting the Japanese invasion of China. It was a curious encounter. Benita was working at the "El Viejo Jalisco" cabaret, a world of "scratched faces, jackknives and drunken brawls," sav- ing money to send for her daughter. The Communist Party in 1926 was in its eighth fitful year of existence. In- structions arrived by boat from Moscow, and stem discipline, centrali- zation and countless purges were the order of the day. Yet for all the awkwardness of this union, the dream was compelling, and Benita gave herself to the task. Her story-pieced together here from her autobiography, unpublished manu- scripts and interviews--offers a vision of the daily, and frequently thankless, commitment that helped give rise to the short-lived flourishing of the mass movements of the 1930s. "I felt honored when the party asked me to sell the Machete (the party news- paper). Often the workers would insult us, though, saying 'Hey, good looking, I'll buy your newspaper if you'll go out with me.' We'd leave on the verge of tears when our class brothers treated us that way. But, we had to make sacri- fices so that the Communist Party would not lose touch with the masses. It was the task we had been entrusted with. "At that time, the party had very few people, so I soon became involved in everything-rallies, strike support, recruiting factory workers, distributing propaganda, hanging posters. "When it was decided to move from the streets into the workplaces, we went to the La Lagunilla garment district. We didn't really know what to do. We stood on boxes at the doors of the sweatshops and started our speeches as the women left work: 'You are being exploited, the sweatshops are hell. We Communists have come to support you in this decisive battle. We invite you toorganize and struggle against your bosses!' But the women weren't inter- ested; they just left us standing there talking to the empty street. "We kept going back until finally we were able to gather a crowd to- gether. Then we had to hold lightning rallies to escape the police. Those were the first steps we Communist women took, always learning from our own experiences. We went on to organize other workplaces, developing workers organizations-all the while in and out of jail. "Refugio (Cuca) Garcia rose within the party to become the leader of the women's struggle. We named her the Women's General Secretary, opened an office, and our movement began to grow. Our first big marches were for Social Security, work for the unem- ployed, land and water for the campesi- nos, and the unionization of govern- ment employees. We met with teachers and students. We went to the markets. We organized the wives of the miners, the railroad workers, the oil workers. We sent out commissions all over the country and even developed contacts with women in other countries. "Then one day Cuca called us in to talk about a new demand: the vote. We agreed, and we were back on the street again, marching with giant banners demanding equal rights for women. The government blasted us with water from fire hoses. "When Cuca presented our petition to the Legislature, they laughed at her -'The vote for women? Where did you Communists come up with such a crazy idea?'--and tried to keep her from speaking. The rest of us rallied outside, making speeches and throwing stones at the building until dark. A lot of women learned how to struggle during that period. "During the marches of the 1930s, our strength was so great that I felt the party would take power at any moment. When C.rdenas became president, we could finally operate in the open. He took on many of our demands as his own, and a lot of Communists got jobs in the government. All of a sudden the government was giving us maternity hospitals and social security, and no one even recognized that Communists had paved the way. We got lazy. We forgot how to struggle." Neglected By the Party Benita never held an official posi- tion in the party. She claims power and prestige never interested her, that she preferred to be with and among the masses. But in her 1940 autobiography, the explanation is tinged with bitter- ness: "I have been jailed 58 times for the struggle. I have been hungry, have almost lost my sight, have risked my life for the party. But I am nothing but a politically backward, rank-and-file member, a nobody in the party. The party leadership never attempted to stimulate me to become more aware and capable. They left me alone with my ignorance. "In my years of active struggle, I managed to win sympathy among the people. At rallies people would shout: 'Let the compariera with the braids speak!' The people trusted me because I spoke in a way that they understood. The party could have made better use of me, by orienting me and helping me develop myself. But they never did." In the manuscript she is compiling for her third book, Benita describes her expulsion from the party in 1946, when the Communist leadership made a back- room agreement to support the ruling party's conservative candidate, Miguel Alemin, to succeed President Avila Camacho. She considers that agree- ment to have sounded the party's death knell, particularly after dissident Com- munists were fired on by Alemin's police during the 1952 May Day march. Benita withdrew from politics for more than four decades. Now, two generations later, she has come to be a symbol not of intrigue and rivalry but of unity. An array of poor and working women-garment and domestic work- ers, residents of the city's slums and members of Christian base communi- ties-pin small black yam braids to their collars, the insignia of the national women's coalition. "Sowing Benitas" In their post-earthquake housing project, the Pefia Morelos Neighbor- hood Union women's group receives Dofia Benita with a basket of fruit. She asks the women present to speak first, then she nudges the silence, patiently, but with conviction: "I, too, entered the "I never expected to grow old in this system" movement not knowing how to read or write. But we have to learn to say 'I want to speak now.' We have to de- velop our minds." A matronly woman in a blue apron, her hair greying toward Benita's white, looks around hesitantly and then be- gins: "When I helped negotiate the credit for our housing, people criticized me for being out there in the middle of all the men...." Another woman describes the fear she felt at a recent demonstration at- tacked by police dogs. Benita looks up, takes a long draft on her home-rolled filterless, and responds: "Courage is an illusion. I always felt fear. I could al- ways feel my soul knot up in my throat. But one day I found out something very important: The other side feels fear, too. "That was in 1946. We had a num- ber of companieras in prison, and we had exhausted all legal means of ob- taining their release. Our cell decided to organize an assault on Miguel Alemdn. There were six of us who said we were willing to risk our lives to do it. We were afraid. All the way out I kept saying, 'It's still not too late for us to VOLUME XXIV, NUMBER 2 (AUGUST 1990) 9 Women are at the heart of the urban popular movement turn back, you know.' But we kept on going. "As it turned out, all the others backed out and left me hiding there alone in the alley as Alemin's car pulled in. When the door opened and Alemdn stepped out, I jumped up and grabbed him. It was one of those moments that last forever. Alemin's Adam's apple jumped under my hand as I held his collar. I looked him up and down and even had time to say, 'Our lives are worth nothing.' That's when I realized that we all feel fear, even those who carry the weapons, those who wield power. None of us served time for that action, probably because they felt so humiliated by an unarmed woman." Shyness dispelled, the women lean in now, wanting to know about her children, how she combined her family life with her activism. Her answer is succinct: Her one daughter died at 27. No questions follow, so she continues: "The struggle brings such tremendous satisfaction that it makes us forget about our husbands and children. It's very personal, but at the same time it makes us want to share what little we have, and it teaches us new ways of being men and women together." It's dark now. Older children come in to whisper in their mother's ear. Dofia Benita concludes: "You know, old age is something we never gave a thought to in the struggle, the fact that, after all, we each end up alone." She thanks the women for "giving me life, for making my old age beautiful." The morning's wash, bright as her flowers, hangs drying in the sudden sun. Benita stands at her back door, closes her eyes and takes in the clean air. When she turns inside, she recalls, "I'll never forget a perfume I brought back from the Soviet Union: mimosa blossom, it was called. It was divine. I put it on only when I really wanted to caress myself with something special, and it lasted for years." Ochre shadows of a couple in vari- ous poses grace her breakfast room walls, watercolors done by a friend from photos taken during the early years of her marriage to Communist intellec- tual Mario Gil. They met while she was writing her autobiography, "exploring my past to recover from so many rela- tionships which had ended in abandon- ment and failure." With Gil, she says, she found her hoped-for "love which does not destroy the personality, but ennobles it." Their marriage lasted 38 years until his death in 1974. Benita marvels at how her passion- ate faith in the revolution continues to thrive after so many unexpected dec- ades. She says she maintains her faith in the Communist Party (which she sug- gests may still be alive somewhere), as well as "amor politico"--an attach- ment to a host of heroes like Fidel Castro, Qaddafi and Noriega. m The new women's movement brings together grassroots activists, union mamhare ond mirfddir.rlnc feminists nf 1al a es NACLA REPORT ON THE AMERICAS A number of feminist scholars and surviving party contemporaries have questioned the choice of Benita Gal- eana as the namesake of the national women's coalition. Benita was an agi- tator, they say, not a leader, and she showed no particular interest in women's issues. In hushed voices, moreover, her aging comrades-all re- tired professionals-remark disparag- ingly on the numerous affairs Benita purportedly had with party members. Yet the roots of her limitations are the source of her strength: She is a "mujer del pueblo," a woman with whom an emerging generation of "grassroots feminists" strongly iden- tifies. Through skits, coalition mem- bers reenact her life as their own. The scenes of childhood violence, her mi- gration to the city and sexual exploita- tion, are a prelude to a discussion of their own experiences. Dofia Benita confesses that she has still never read a book cover to cover. But since her return to public life, she rarely refuses an invitation to speak. Watching the resurgent groups of Mexican women grapple with social issues makes her believe that she-and they-have turned the tables on his- tory: "Miguel Alemin has been dead for 15 years, and everyone's forgotten about him except his son. Who remem- bers Avila Camacho? Yet Benita is alive and strong, and many other Beni- tas are being born."

Tags: Mexico, feminism, Benita Galeana, Communism

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