Writing mothers back into historyUCI Ph.D. candidate broadens historical record to include mothers and motherhood in the Mexican Revolution
By Annabel Adams
When Araceli Calderón, a University of California, Irvine Ph.D. candidate, ventured to the archives in Mexico City to learn about the role mothers played in the Mexican Revolution, she encountered a problem—there was no academic research on the topic.
And so began her dissertation project and personal mission: to reconstruct the voices and representations of mothers and motherhood in the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920). A student in UCI’s Department of Spanish and Portuguese with emphases in Latin American studies and visual studies, Calderón takes a unique interdisciplinary approach. Using photographs, films, postcards, and interviews, she brings into the scholarly and historical record women who—until now—were completely omitted.
While the mission to historicize the important and broad ways that women contributed to, or were affected by, the Mexican Revolution is academically vital, for Calderón it is also personal.
“My mother is the inspiration for my project,” she says. Scrolling through archival images of women during the revolution, she adds, “Though she didn’t live during the revolutionary period, what I was reading for my dissertation reminded me of her. She is like a soldadera who had to overcome many of the socio-political conventions of her gender.”
Calderón knows a thing or two about the strength of mothers. She raised her son Brandon, age 18, alone and her path to higher education, like the women’s stories she is uncovering, was not easy.
An untraditional path
Calderón remembers that it was her brother’s heart attack in 2008 that “put things in perspective.” By the time her brother had a heart transplant, she was in her second master’s program while still maintaining her position as a high-school Spanish teacher and caring for her young son. She earned an M.A. in Spanish and a teaching credential from California State University, Fullerton, and an M.A. in education from National University with an emphasis in teaching and learning.
“I loved being a high school teacher. But I felt I had reached my intellectual limit. It was time to move on.” Leaving behind the security of a fulltime teaching position she had held for ten years, she started teaching at various higher education institutions and applying for Ph.D. programs.
Though she would leave her high-school teaching days behind, she would take with her what she felt was one of the most important parts of her job: ensuring the path to college feels accessible and comfortable to students who would be first in their families to attend. “I remember what it feels like to believe you don’t deserve to be there,” says Calderón. One of eight siblings, she is the first in her family to earn a college degree.
As a teacher, she took her students to Golden West College’s Chicano/Latino Day, where the community college motivates students via workshops and panels to attain a higher education. She would fundraise and give up her sick days to take students to Spanish Immersion Camp in Big Bear. Providing and then feeding this spark of possibility for her students was her passion because she remembers what it was like to receive it. She recalls that a high-school program for children of migrants enabled her to visit UC Riverside for a week. She stayed in the dorms and connected with faculty. “I saw the possibilities,” she says.
Making the historical record inclusive
In Mexico, reverence for the maternal takes shape in many ways, though there is a disconnect between what is revered and what is documented for posterity. The mother figure is revered religiously (Virgin of Guadalupe is a venerated Catholic figure), civically (Día de las Madres) and through public displays such as Monumento a la Madre, which depicted a mother carrying a child was inaugurated on Mexican Mother’s Day in 1949. The monument was destroyed in the 2017 Mexico City earthquake. Calderón says, "There is a true elision of the mother in the historical record of the Mexican Revolution. The men who fought in the war have taken priority in the history. It is only recently that there has been an effort to rescue the female history and or feminine perspective in Mexican history.”
Her dissertation project, “Motherhood in Movement: Artistic Depictions the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920)" focuses on the representation of the Afro-Mexican revolutionary woman, the maternal figure who emigrates to the United States, and the effects of the Mexican Revolution on women of the same genealogical line.
Women played a variety of roles in the Mexican Revolution. Some had direct military intervention on the frontlines as soldaderas (soldiers), some carried weapons or cooked, some were reporters, organizers and spies, while others fled north. “When you see films or photographs of the Mexican Revolution, there’s a fixed eye on the male participation. Women were relegated as helpers or the supportive hands of the revolutionaries, but they were so much more,” Calderón says. “Some were generals in the various revolutionary factions, there were whole fleets of women generals. Even though not all women actively participated, the revolution affected everyone. As women, mothers and maternal agents, some had to protect their families and move north through all of this violence. I believe that my research will contribute to a deeper understanding of maternity during the Mexican Revolution because I will be delving into various discourses of motherhood in tension with the official narrative during the revolutionary period.”
With support from several grants, Calderón has been able to conduct research and visit archives in Mexico and Texas. A UC-Mexus Dissertation Fellowship enabled her to conduct important research at the archives at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, Centro Unviersitario de Estudios Cinematográficos, Colmex, Museo de la Mujer, and Instituto Nacional de Estudios Históricos de las Revoluciones de México.
Established in 1980, UC-Mexus is an academic research institute dedicated to encouraging, securing, and contributing to binational and Latino research and collaborative academic programs and exchanges.
In 2017, Calderón departed to Mexico City with her mother, who insisted on accompanying her. Together, they made important discoveries. Calderón was introduced to the granddaughter of Franco Pliego Galarza, a revolutionary who was a member of the Emiliano Zapata’s Estado Mayor. She had an opportunity to hear stories about the revolution from her great-aunts. One of her uncles shared that his birth certificate, and Calderón’s mother too, originally only included the name of their father. The maternal name was added over 15 years after her death. A copy of the birth certificate will make its way into Calderón’s dissertation she says, because it showcases the historical pattern of making women’s contributions invisible at the same time that motherhood as an ideal is revered.
“It’s a constant effort to shed light on these stories,” she says.
A travel grant from Humanities Commons made it possible for Calderón to attend and present her research at the Congreso de Literatura Mexicana Contemporánea in El Paso, Texas. She made connections with academics that assisted her when she visited Mexico. In addition, a Humanities Commons Summer Grant allowed her to conduct archival research at the Benson Library and the Briscoe Center for American History at the University of Texas, Austin.
To add to her list of accolades, Calderón recently earned an American Association of University Women (AAUW) American Fellowship to complete her doctoral dissertation. The award will help Calderón offset expenses while she finishes the last year of her dissertation. “It is an honor to have been selected for this prestigious award because it makes me realize that my research is important and that significance is being recognized,” she says.
Calderón is grateful for the necessary opportunities that grants and fellowships have provided her. “Without travel grants and fellowships, I wouldn’t have been able to do any of the archival research I did in Mexico and Texas, which have been fundamental to giving me a better perspective on what I’m writing. Being in Mexico, interviewing some of the professors, and accessing archives is when and where I realized that nothing has been written about motherhood in a country that values motherhood so much. I wouldn’t have been able to contextualize that had I not gone there. I wouldn’t have been able to travel, without support—it’s impossible.”
Making visible the people and policies that matter
Calderón believes that her work as a scholar is important outside of the classrooms and archives. While in Mexico City, she witnessed how the activist group Bordando por la Paz used embroidering techniques to make visible the rising violence and homicides occurring in Mexico. It made her think about how her research and personal experiences could make an impact on contemporary issues like Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), a federal program created in 2012 to provide children brought to the United States without documentation, the temporary right to live, study and work in America. Those protected under the program are also known as Dreamers.
“When I got back to the States, I started a conversation with Oscar Terán from the DREAMers office at UCI to develop an activity called ‘Art for a Change’ that would make visible how the rescind of DACA was causing distress on the UCI student community,” Calderón says. “At the grand opening of the DREAMers office, we had an activity where participants drew on a piece of cloth to show what the change in the policy meant for them. This activity allowed participants to express their feelings in a creative way while shedding light on relevant political issues.”
Calderón is passionate about Dreamers because she experienced what it is like to be undocumented in a country that she considers home. She immigrated to the United States at ten years old and was not documented until she was 22. When she sees the challenges undocumented students are facing today, it breaks her heart. “That could have been me,” she says.
In 2017, she was named one of ten graduate students across the nation to become a Publicly Active Graduate Education (PAGE) Fellow through Imagining America, a consortium of colleges, universities, and cultural organizations whose members strengthen the public roles of arts, humanities, and design fields through research and action initiatives, coalition building, and leadership development. Through the program, Calderón was able to make her research visible to academics outside of the humanities, and to share her insights with the public through a blog. Her blog post, titled, “Dreamers: Citizens without a Homeland,” discussed the need to make DACA permanent.
A bright future
While she will not defend her dissertation until next spring, this spring Calderón celebrates a graduation nonetheless—her son Brandon’s. Brandon Amezcua is graduating from Fountain Valley High School and will attend California State University, Fullerton as a computer science major. For his entire life, his mother has been in school. He can recall attending conferences with her, visiting libraries with her, and seeing her head buried behind books. As he embarks now as the second-generation in his family to attend college, he has his mother’s footsteps to follow.
“She is the most influential woman in my life,” he says.
Pictured: Araceli Calderón and son Brandon Amezcua. Photo credit: Audrey Fong, UCI