The Hidden Power of Women behind Pontificating Men

Kathleen Alcalá

Publisher’s note: Set in 19th-century Mexico, “Bringing Down the Clouds” is Kathleen Alcalá’s contribution to our short story anthology The Female Complaint. The protagonist, Estela, is invited to a mysterious party where all the guests are “women who answer to no men.” Here Kathleen describes the story’s historical background: Mexico’s early feminist movement.

“Bringing Down the Clouds” is an excerpt from my 2000 novel, Treasures in Heaven. One of three novels set in 19th-century Mexico, it traces the feminist movement that was under way in Mexico at the same time that the country was grappling with its colonial history, leading to the Mexican Revolution of 1910, which was really a civil war of the poor against the rich.

“Bringing Down the Clouds,” however, is a chapter that allowed me to explore the hidden power of women behind the stomping and pontificating of the men. It was well known that Porfirio Díaz kept a mistress, Juana Cara, just outside Mexico City in her own mansion; it had its own platform served by the train from Mexico City, although the train did not officially stop there. La Doña Catarina, as I call her, was known to entertain her friends, and I alternated scenes at her place of rich and powerful women with scenes of indigenous women performing their traditional dances to try and break the drought that gripped Mexico for several years in the late 1800s. Some women dance at La Doña’s place as well, but to entirely different ends.

The feminist movement in Mexico was interesting in that women schoolteachers allied with factory workers and women of the streets to try and better all of their conditions. As in much of the United States, schoolteachers were expected to remain single as long as they taught, be of upright and moral character, and perform other duties such as chopping wood for the stove and keeping the classrooms clean.

At the same time, there were over a million prostitutes in Mexico City, as the countryside was eaten up by big companies taking the communally held lands of the people, and Díaz’s attempts to industrialize the country came at great pain to a largely agrarian society. A naive domestic worker from the countryside who got knocked up by her employer soon found herself doing what she needed to do to support herself and her child or children. An official church marriage was so expensive that most working-class couples had common-law marriages.

The feminists were supported by the male governor of Yucatan, Salvador Alvarado, who agreed that education for all was the only way to break the class structure still holding Mexico back today. He offered to host a conference and picked up the expenses for it. It was a rare show of idealism and forward thinking. Women in Mexico did not get the vote until the 1950s.

Kathleen Alcalá is the author of six books of fiction and nonfiction, including The Deepest Roots: Finding Food and Community on a Pacific Northwest Island, forthcoming from the University of Washington Press. She lives on an island near Seattle, and until recently, taught in a graduate program in creative writing.