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To date, the Mexican Revolution is largely considered the greatest transformative event in the country’s history. What began in 1910 with an uprising to oust the country’s then-President Porfirio Díaz, the major armed struggle would later usher in Mexico’s 1917 constitution and many other changes to society.
Amelio Robles Ávila is believed to be one of the first transgender figures in Latin American history.
A quick online search of those who fought in the Mexican Revolution will turn up a treasure trove of black-and-white images. Most are of weathered, somber-faced men holding rifles, and then there are photos of soldaderas – women who participated in the armed conflict. Often called Adelitas, these women ranged from camp followers who helped cook and nurse wounded soldiers to commanding officers.
Some soldaderas dressed as men and took on male names to protect themselves against sexual violence and high-ranking officials who resented women warriors, according to Pablo Piccato, a professor of Latin American history at Columbia University.
“Women were always present, but they were never recognized in the military, not even by their partners,” Claudia Ceja, a researcher with the Autonomous University of Queretaro (Universidad Autónoma de Querétaro), told El País’ Verne. “There’s a silence in historiography and the sources at the time offered information only in dribs and drabs.”
One notable soldadera of the time was Amelio Robles Ávila, believed to be one of the first transgender figures in Latin American history. Assigned female at birth and named Amelia Robles Ávila in 1889, Robles would later rise to the rank of colonel during the Mexican Revolution. In one of the few available photos of Robles, he stares ahead, dressed in a suit and tie ensemble with a cigarette in his right hand. His left hand rests on his gun secured in a holster.
Gabriela Cano, a historian and professor at The College of Mexico (El Colegio de México) in Mexico City, told El País’ Verne that Robles’ case was an exceptional one because it’s documented.
Robles moved from an imposed feminine identity to a masculinity that felt right for him.
“Col. Robles was not a transsexual, nor a transvestite, nor a butch lesbian, what you call a women who likes other women – but someone who adopts behaviors that are traditionally masculine,” Cano, who has examined Robles’ life, told the outlet.
Robles was born the child of a middle-class rancher in Xochipala, Guerrero. He attended Catholic school and, by the age of 12, was well trained in the chores expected of Catholic school girls, according to Horacio Legrás, author of Culture and Revolution: Violence, Memory, and the Making of Modern Mexico.
Even before joining the Mexican Revolution, Robles was a famed marksman and rider. He was a member of the Zapatistas, an armed group led by Emiliano Zapata, and would serve under different revolutionary leaders until he commanded his own troops.
Without hormones or surgery, Robles in the early 20th century constructed a physical appearance and masculine social identity with the cultural resources at his reach in an isolated area in rural Mexico, wrote Cano in her examination of the colonel’s life.
Robles, Cano added, moved from an imposed feminine identity to a masculinity that felt right for him. The military man was quoted as saying he felt “the sensation of being completely free” while in the guerilla, something Cano said he didn’t feel as a woman in his hometown.
According to El País’ Verne, at the time Robles was transitioning, Mexican society was overwhelmingly binary. People had only the choices of being a heterosexual man or woman.
“There was an inability to understand that there were people who felt different and that’s where the historian’s gaze comes in, to place distance before this binarism and analyze it,” Cano told the outlet. “Many times armed conflicts are idealized, but in the extreme contexts of death, suffering and pain, and it’s in war that the parameters of the existing gender are shaken.”
“It’s in war that the parameters of the existing gender are shaken.”
Robles led and won multiple battles. In November 1919, after Zapata was assassinated, Robles surrendered (along with 315 men under his command) to the military chief of Guerrero to become part of a new, unified military structure, according to Legrás. A year later, he joined the forces of Alvaro Obregón, a general in the Mexican Revolution who became president of Mexico from 1920 to 1924.
In 1970, the secretary of national defense officially recognized and listed Robles specifically as a veterano, or male veteran, of the Mexican Revolution, which made him the first trans soldier in Mexican military history.
He died more than a decade later on December 9, 1984.
Although Robles was accepted as a man by his family and friends, with time the recognition of his transgender identity became diluted, according to Cano. He later became known as “Coronela Amelia Robles,” with a primary school and museum in his honor carrying the same feminine name.