Friday 14 November 2014

A Revolutionary Colonel

For my third article of transgender veterans we travel to Mexico.

Amelio Robles (1889-1984) was a participant in the Mexican Revolution of 1911. He was born biologically female and was given the name Amelia. His father was a wealthy rancher and farmer, and sometime registrar of births, deaths and marriages for Xochipala in southern Mexico, the village where Amelio was born and raised.

Amelio had a strict Catholic upbringing and was educated by the Society of the Daughters of Mary of the Miraculous Medal and at the College for Young Ladies in Chilpancingo. At first Amelio learnt the activities that girls were expected to learn – washing, sewing, ironing. He soon began to show a fondness for other activities that were considered more appropriate for a boy. Perhaps being raised on a farm gave him the passion for horses – learning to ride and tame them. He also learnt how to handle firearms.

Despite this, life on the family ranch was not good during his childhood. His father died when Amelio was only 3 years old and his widow remarried a ranch worker. Amelio hated his new stepfather. He hated him so much that he planned to kill him on more than one occasion. This may have been the biggest factor in Amelio’s decision to leave home as soon as possible. Political events in the country provided the channel for his future life.

In 1910 the Mexican president, the dictator Porfirio Díaz, ran for his 8th consecutive term of office in the country’s general election. As usual, through corrupt practices, he won, and this was the final straw for his opponents and armed rebellions began against him.

Almost immediately Amelio joined the revolutionary cause. He became the treasurer of a local group who supported Francisco Madero’s campaign to oust the president and raised funds for him. In late 1911 he was member of a contingent from the group who went to the Gulf of Mexico region to obtain funds from oil companies based there.

President Díaz’s government crumbled under the armed opposition. Legendary figures emerged from this early stage of the revolution – Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata.

One of the main causes for the revolution was Díaz’s’ policy of promoting foreign investment at the expense of the rights of the working classes, particularly land rights. The new president, Madero, who had been supported by the revolutionaries, refused to change the land reforms and soon lost their support.

In 1912 the revolutionary Gen. Juan Almazan (a supporter of Zapata), passed through Amelio’s home village recruiting soldiers. Amelio joined the revolution. However, from interviews he gave later in his life, it seems that Amelio’s reason for joining was not so much from any political ideology but from the appeal of the excitement and thrill of being a soldier. He joined the Liberation Army of the South, the forces of Emiliano Zapata. These are often referred to as the Zapatistas.

Once enlisted Amelio began to wear men’s clothing and insisted on being treated as a man. Women were not excluded from joining the Zapatistas, and Amelio is just one of many women who lived as men during the revolution. He was given command as a lieutenant soon after he enlisted. By the end of the revolution he had reached the rank of colonel. Being a revolutionary these ranks had no official status once the revolution ended but Amelio used the title of Colonel throughout the latter part of his life as a civilian.

Amelio’s first experience in an armed conflict came in February 1913. A small group of Zapatistas, including Amelio, was encamped at Carrizalillo on the Pacific coast of southern Mexico, not far from his home village Xochipala. Most of these soldiers were from Xochipala. State troops attacked the encampment, and despite being heavily outnumbered the revolutionaries won that encounter.

In 1915 Amelio was wounded in the leg at the battle at Apango. By this time he had around 600 soldiers under his command and was highly regarded as a brave leader who led from the front.

He served with Zapatistas until 1918 when the majority of the revolutionaries agreed to support the new government of Veunustiano Carranza and the new Mexican constitution. Some of the Zapatistas remained loyal to Zapatista, who had decided to fight for more reforms and rights.

Amelio remained active in the military and political history of Mexico right up to 1950. He took part in the fight against the Huerta revolt in 1923, and actively supported his former commanding officer, Juan Almazan, in his unsuccessful campaign for the presidency in 1939. Having returned to live in Xochipala in 1926 Amelio, now calling himself Col. Amelio Robles, was elected to the village council. He also met his partner Angela Torres shortly after returning home and adopted a girl called Regula.

Col. Robles was recognised as a veteran of the Mexican Revolution in 1970 with a government medal. In order to qualify for this medal he had to change the gender his parents registered on his birth certificate. Otherwise he would have been recognised among the 300 or so female veterans who were also honoured. He was also honoured with the Legion of Honour of the Mexican Army. Unfortunately, this caused hardship in his later life when he applied for a military pension. During his service with the Mexican army after 1918 he was still officially registered as female, and there was no record of Amelio Robles, only an Amelia Robles Avila, his baptismal name. His pension was refused.

Throughout his final years Amelio gave interviews on his life as a soldier, a revolutionary, and a trans man. Over time people forgot his earlier female lifestyle. So much so, in fact, that even his nephews and nieces were unaware of it for some years.

Col. Amelio Robles, Veteran of the Mexican Revolution, died at the grand old age of 95 in 1984. Despite having lived as a man for over 60 years he was remembered in memorials under his female name. One exception, it seems, is the Amelio Robles Award, created in 2007 and awarded at the Festival of Gender Diversity in Monterrey, north Mexico.

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