The Feminine Brigades of Saint Joan of Arc

In The Long Read by Sandro F. Piedrahita

Image
Photo from Adobe Stock

The two Cristeros were sitting at the Abajeño Cantina in central Guadalajara after having spent several months in the mountains of Jalisco waging war against the military forces of the anticlerical President Plutarco Elías Calles. Cruz Reyes and Federico Gamboa were two of a kind: swarthy faces, broad shoulders, a thick moustache like that of the revolutionary Emiliano Zapata. It was good to be able to drink their fill. The Feminine Brigades of Saint Joan of Arc often delivered bottles of liquor to their hideouts, but with so many combatants it was never enough. A little brandy did so much to combat the discomfort of the frigid nights in the sierra where they lived at the mercy of the elements. But at the Abajeño Canteen they were able to drink and drink and drink. Their toasts were always the same: “¡Viva Cristo Rey!” “¡Viva la Cristiada!” They were fighting a war of attrition in the Altos de Jalisco area against the Calles government, and they were doing so in order to restore the Catholic faith in Mexico.

At some point, when they were both fairly drunk, Cruz Reyes asked his comrade in arms a strange question.

“Have you ever dealt with a psychiatrist?”

“No,” replied Federico Gamboa. “I don’t think there are many in Guadalajara. They’re doctors who tend to madmen, aren’t they?”

“Something like that. I’m just thinking that Juana may be in need of a psychiatrist.”

“She’s one of the bravest of the Feminine Brigades. The way she appears at our camp dressed as a man in the middle of the night, with two cartridge belts about her chest and a broad sombrero, sometimes even with a fake moustache. Your girlfriend is truly fearless. Is that why you think she’s gone batty?”

“No, that’s not the reason,” answered Cruz, suddenly speaking in a sober voice. “It’s because of what she told me last night.”

“Did you spend the night with her?”

“No, Federico, she’s just seventeen. I’ve been thinking of proposing to her, but with what she told me last night, I just don’t know.”

“What could be so bad?”

“She told me she’s been hearing Voices telling her what to do. She claims the Virgin of Guadalupe has spoken to her as well as Saint Michael the Archangel and Saint Joan of Arc.”

“Well, that doesn’t mean she’s crazy. Juana is such a pious woman that I wouldn’t be surprised if the saints and the Virgin Mary communicated with her directly. Instead of a psychiatrist, I’d recommend that she see a priest. That way she could figure out if the locutions are authentic or whether she’s being deluded by the evil one.”

“It’s not the Voices alone which make me question her state of mind. It’s what she claims they told her.”

“What does Juana say they told her?”

“You’re going to think she’s raving mad as well. She claims the Voices told her to engage in battle on behalf of the Cristeros. But even that isn’t what concerns me. Juana actually believes the Virgin of Guadalupe ordered her to lead the Cristeros in battle. Could anything be more demented? She’s a young girl with absolutely no experience in the art of war. And now she tells me she wants to defeat the Federales in San Julián with all the Cristeros under her command. It’s utterly flabbergasting, Federico.”

“Did you point out the folly of her words?”

“Ever since she joined the Brigades, she’s been reading a lot about Saint Joan of Arc. That was another one of the locutions which she described. Juana claims that Saint Joan of Arc asked Juana to emulate her. As you may or may not know, Saint Joan of Arc, at the age of seventeen, directed the French soldiers in a great battle against the English. Juana reports that Saint Joan of Arc told her that her battle on behalf of the Cristeros would be even more noble than the mission of Saint Joan of Arc. While Saint Joan of Arc fought to rid her country of the English usurper, the Cristeros are literally fighting on behalf of God, sacrificing their lives to rid Mexico of the Antichrist who is trying to crush the Catholic faith in a myriad of ways.”

“Did you ask her how, exactly, she will be able to lead the Cristero army? I mean she can’t just show up at the Cristero base and expect they will allow her to direct their strategies in battle. Does she think Generalissimo Gorostieta will just allow her to take over? I think if you focus on the details, you’ll convince her that all her dreams of leading the Cristeros in battle are absurd illusions.”

“I’ve tried to reason with her, Federico. But the Voices have told her not to worry about Generalissimo Gorostieta. She claims the General will be given such a sign from Heaven that he shall not hesitate to allow Juana to command his soldiers.”

“I think it’s just a passing fancy. If she ever contacts Generalissimo Gorostieta with her plan, he is going to laugh at her and that will be the end of it.”

“That also concerns me. She is going to have to go through enemy territory to reach Generalissimo Gorostieta. It won’t be like when she’s delivering supplies to our base far from the General’s headquarters. The Federales won’t hesitate to rape a member of the Feminine Brigades caught in their midst.”

“I wouldn’t worry about that either,” said Federico. “I’ve seen her in her disguise and she looks like a boy. They’ll simply take her for another peasant. I’m sure she won’t be foolhardy enough to dress like a woman when she makes her way to Generalissimo Gorostieta’s base.”

“No, she won’t do that,” replied Cruz. “She tells me Saint Joan of Arc directed her to engage in battle disguised as a man. According to Juana, Saint Joan of Arc was quite emphatic on this point. Juana told me that the saint had pointed out that when she engaged in battle, it was always in the raiment of a man.”

“Don’t worry about it overmuch,” said Federico. “Juana will soon forget about it.”

***

Juana Espinosa’s grandmother, Graciela Paz de Espinosa, was one of the founding members of the Feminine Brigades of Saint Joan of Arc, formed in Jalisco at the Basilica of Our Lady of Zapopan in June of 1927. She was chosen to be the leader of its sixteen women because she was the oldest among them – most of them were in their early twenties – and because she alone seemed able to articulate the vision of the group in a way intelligible to all.

Doña Graciela was goodness incarnate, never one to join in an argument, let alone participate in politics, but President Calles’ acts of oppression against the Catholic Church were simply too much for her. All the churches had been shut down, monastic vows were disallowed, it was nearly impossible to receive the sacraments, bishops had been arrested or sent into exile, priests and nuns were being killed merely for following their God-given mission. In fact, many priests were put before the firing squad merely for officiating at a wedding or a Mass in clandestinity. And in many Mexican states, priests were required to be married and cathedrals had been blown up. So, from the outset the Feminine Brigades was a quasi-military movement in close alliance with the rough and ready Cristeros, mostly peasants, ranchers and sharecroppers who had chosen to take up arms against President Calles’ extreme anticlerical program.

The women of the Brigades collected money for the combatants, supplied them with weapons and ammunition, nursed them after being injured, wrote letters to the authorities in their defense, became spies for them, warned them about soldiers’ movements, hid them in their homes, visited them in prison, took care of their orphans, organized boycotts in their favor, and sometimes even joined them in battle against the military. All of the women in the Brigades helped the Cristeros in one form or another, but Doña Graciela was the undisputed leader. She was the one who made the hard decisions, especially as the group grew from its initial sixteen members to a battalion of twenty-five thousand women from every corner of the country. Not surprising that they called her General Margarita and never questioned her orders.

The sixteen-year-old Juana often pressed Doña Graciela to allow her to participate in one of the missions of the Brigades, but the seventy-year-old woman always demurred. She wanted to maintain her granddaughter’s innocence as long as possible and keep her from taking any part in a fratricidal war. Juana, doe-eyed and lovely, insisted, pointing out that many of Doña Graciela’s cadres were women younger than her. Finally, the Generala relented and offered Juana the first opportunity to oppose President Calles’ military in an important mission. Doña Graciela knew that the following day the military intended to lay siege to the Convent of the Immaculate Conception in order to oust some recalcitrant nuns who refused to be moved or allow the government to shut down the convent. Doña Graciela knew it because the military had announced their plans as a last warning that the nuns should leave the convent. The subtext of their message was clear: if the nuns did not immediately vacate the nunnery, all of them would be shot for their acts of treason and sedition against the Calles government. It was a ridiculous accusation, but such were the times.

Before concluding the conversation, the Generala handed Juana an old-fashioned pistol.

“You might need it,” the old woman said, “for tomorrow’s event will be an act of war.”

Doña Graciela and her granddaughter Juana arrived at the convent before sunrise when two of the Generala’s coronelas had already arrived on the scene, with their female platoons numbering in the thousands. Soon the military appeared – only about thirty members – and saw the vast number of Doña Graciela’s troops. The soldiers immediately took to their bullhorns and ordered the multitudinous crowd of women to disperse. The truth is that the small number of military men couldn’t reach the convent without going through the throngs of women, many of whom were armed with pickaxes, machetes and even guns. Seeing that the women wouldn’t move, the soldiers warned them that they would be killed if they refused to leave. And then a shot was heard in that cold September morning. One of the women soldiers for Christ had just discharged her pistol, killing one of President Calles’ military men.

Pandemonium soon ensued. The soldiers began to shoot indiscriminately into the crowds and many women fell. But there were thousands of women in front of the convent, and they soon discovered that they had strength in numbers. Those with guns shot at the soldiers. Others struck them with their machetes. Juana aimed at a group of military men and discharged her pistol with her eyes shut. She had never seen a man die, had certainly not killed one, but now she was seeing death all about her. Some of the nuns went out of their convent to beg the crowds to stop the violence, saying that they would agree to leave the convent, but the large brigade of women was omnivorous in its rancor. The women had a grievance against the soldiers. It was President Calles’ military who had ripped the Catholic religion from their lives making it impossible for the women to worship in peace or even teach the faith to their children. And many of their husbands, sons and fathers had been killed while fighting with the Cristeros. Now, the women were getting their opportunity to seek their vengeance. By the time the skirmish ended, all of the soldiers were dead.

“Now that you see what war means,” said Doña Graciela to her granddaughter, “you see that it isn’t very pretty, don’t you? You’ve killed men now, something the Cristeros do every day to reclaim Mexico for the Catholic faith. If you want to stop working with the Brigades, just let me know.”

“On the contrary,” Juana replied. “I want to engage in the battle more than ever. I’ve seen that President Calles’ soldiers can be defeated and that it can be done by women. My only concern is that the soldiers will come back in greater numbers.”

“I have a hunch that won’t happen,” replied Doña Graciela. “This convent is located in Jalisco, where the Brigades of Saint Joan of Arc were founded and have great numbers. If they come back, we shall come back as well with an army of thousands. A bloodbath would follow. Killing hundreds of women would make President Calles lose a lot of his support, so I suspect he’ll let it be.”

“What about all the other convents that are being shut?”

“I don’t think we can do much to protect the women in those convents, although we shall try. Nuns are being raped and killed. I’m sure most will return to their families or seek refuge in the United States.”

“It was done by women,” repeated Juana dreamily. “It was the Feminine Brigades that routed the soldiers. I see much greater feats ahead.”

***

It was Doña Graciela who first suggested that Juana dress as a man for her first expedition to smuggle food, weapons and ammunition to the Cristero base in Los Altos de Jalisco.

“It’s not so much the Cristeros that I worry about since they’re for the most part devoted Catholics, but their general, Father José Burruchaga, is a shameless womanizer and I wouldn’t put anything past him. Still, my biggest concern is you might meet some brigands along the road. Dressed as a woman, they might attempt to rape you, but disguised as a man you’d be safe. Catalina and Rosario will be going with you. They’ve made the journey many times before and they, too, will be dressed like men.”

“What will we be transporting?”

“For the most part, you’ll be taking ammunition, also some carbines as well as a little food. The three of you will each have your own horse with dead rabbits hanging from the saddle and a mule carrying supplies will follow you.”

“If we dress like men, wouldn’t we be in danger of the Federales?”

“There are no military bases on the way from Guadalajara to Father Burruchaga’s Cristero camp in Los Altos de Jalisco. It’s mostly a difficult road hugging the mountains until you find a vast valley. That is where our contact with the Cristeros will await you. Catalina and Rosario will know exactly where to take you.”

“Doesn’t the Bible say something about women dressed like men?”

Juana’s syrup-colored eyes betrayed a certain scrupulosity.

“Yes, we went over all that with Father Martin when we sent our first missions of women dressed like men into the battle zone. Deuteronomy does say that it is an abomination for a woman to dress like a man, or vice versa, since – and I quote here – ‘the Lord detests anyone who does it.’ Still, Saint Augustine said it is allowable in exigent circumstances. By dressing like men, our couriers are defending their lives and protecting their chastity from sexual violence, also fighting to restore the Catholic faith in this country. Those should certainly count as the most exigent of circumstances. Many martyred female saints dressed like men to avoid marriage since they were pledged to the Lord and wanted to protect their chastity. Saint Wilgefortis even grew a beard. So I wouldn’t worry much about it.”

At dusk on a cold and starless night, Catalina, Rosario and Juana began their journey to the Cristero camp in Los Altos de Jalisco. All of them were wearing gray breeches and a red flannel shirt with large chest pockets, covered by a cross-bullet belt, as well as a large straw sombrero over closely cropped hair. They had decided to start their trek at sundown since they figured it would be safer to travel under cover of darkness. For Juana, the journey was especially difficult; she had never traveled on a horse for so many hours and her buttocks hurt, to say nothing of her back. All three women sported black whiskers to make the deception perfect and had strapped their breasts tightly with white bandages. In the night, at least, no one would suspect they were all adolescent girls.

The first few hours went well. They safely traveled the perilous stretches alongside the enormous mountains and after traversing some Indian trails, they finally arrived at the valley where the Cristero camp was nestled. Catalina told Juana that the worst was behind them and that it would take only an hour to reach their destination. At some point, however, three figures appeared in the night with their guns drawn and shot Rosario’s horse such that she soon went tumbling to the ground. The three girls had brought guns with them but had not had the presence of mind to keep them close at hand. Their weapons were with the Mauser rifles on the back of the mule and were utterly useless to them. Catalina and Rosario were so used to making the solitary journey to the Cristero camp without incident that they simply forgot Doña Graciela’s recommendation that they carry their pistols on their bodies. When the men approached the girls, Juana thought that they were probably brigands, but the truth was that they were fugitive Federales who had just escaped from the Cristero base.

“Halt!” said one of the soldiers. “Get off your horses! Don’t unholster your pistols.”

He was completely disheveled, wearing a tattered uniform. His face was pockmarked, his hair and beard were tangled and he looked like he hadn’t bathed in months. Juana had the sense that he emitted a pestilential smell and that his fiery eyes glowed like embers in the night.

“We’re not armed,” Catalina responded as she dismounted her horse. Juana quickly followed suit while Rosario stood with a gun to her temple.

“You must be Cristeros,” said the pockmarked man. In the moonlight, his shadowy figure looked like that of a disfigured ghost. “We are Federales sworn to murder every Cristero.”

“We’re not Cristeros,” Rosario protested in despair. The soldier next to her continued to hold a gun against her face. “We’re merely bringing some supplies.”

“What are the supplies?”

“Food,” Rosario spoke with fear painted on her face. “We’ve also brought some weapons and ammunitions. Please don’t harm us. Take the horses and the rifles if you wish.”

“So you can live to fight another day,” scoffed the pockmarked man. “I don’t think so. Prepare yourselves for death.”

Juana made a silent prayer to the Virgin of Guadalupe. Then she muttered under her breath, almost in a whisper, “Viva Cristo Rey.”

It was then that Catalina made a desperate gambit.

“Can’t you see we’re all girls?” she asked. Then she took off her false moustache. “Surely you don’t murder women in the middle of the night.”

“If you’re a woman, prove it,” panted the pockmarked man. “Let me see your breasts.”

Catalina calmly removed her cartridge belts and her flannel shirt, also the bandages wrapped around her chest. There was no doubt that she was a woman.

“You too,” the pockmarked man addressed Juana. “Don’t be shy. I want to see your body. Take off your pants as well.”

“If you want to kill me, kill me,” responded Juana firmly. “But I shall never undress in front of you.” Then she added in a loud voice this time, “¡Viva Cristo Rey!”

“Let them be,” said a third soldier, much older than the others. “To rape a woman is against the laws of war.”

Juana was astonished that a Federal would come to her defense. She was so used to thinking of them as unrepentant sinners and enemies of the Christ. She found it hard to believe that one of them intended to spare her virtue when it was available for the taking.

But the pockmarked man resisted.

“It’s not for you to tell me what to do, not here in the wild,” he said through his toothless mouth. “These women are soldaderas, and they’re part of the spoils of war. Without the soldaderas, the Cristeros would have lost the war a long time ago.”

The older soldier unholstered his pistol and pointed it at the pockmarked man.

“Don’t force me to shoot you. I have a teenage daughter about the same age as these girls. And don’t forget that I have a higher rank than you.”

The pockmarked man looked at the soldier holding Rosario expecting that he would come to his aid. He was a seventeen-year-old private who made it immediately clear that he submitted to the wishes of his colonel.

“If Colonel Valladares says not to touch these girls,” said the private, “then we do not touch these girls.”

The pockmarked man then reached for his pistol and the colonel shot him. Immediately thereafter, he shot the mule and one of the horses.

“We’ll be taking the other horses,” he told the three adolescent girls. “And you can go on your way. It’ll take you two hours to get to the Cristero camp on foot. By then, we shall be far away.”

Juana made a sign of the cross and thanked the Virgin of Guadalupe as the two Federales galloped away. She would forever remember the day as the one when she lived through her first miracle.

***

The first time Juana heard the Voices, they didn’t bother her much at the beginning. She was busy kneading dough with her grandmother to make chilaquiles and didn’t have time to worry about the Voices. However, at some point they began to cause her a great consternation. Restore the church. Restore the church. The Voices wouldn’t stop, insistently repeating the same refrain. After the chilaquiles were done, she kept hearing the same words inside her head. She went outside, into the busy streets of Guadalajara, to see if some vigorous walking could rid her of the strange internal locutions. But the more she walked, the louder the Voices got. Restore the church as you can see it is in ruins. Restore the church since only you can do it. Juana wondered whether she was like el loco Armendariz, who claimed to receive communications directly from Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata. The truth is the internal locutions were causing her to despair and she thought of ripping out her hair. Stop! Stop! she cried out in desperation, but the relentless Voices didn’t leave her for a moment. Restore the church or Mexico will be ruined.

At some point, the thought came to her that the Voices might be coming from some Heavenly emissary, perhaps the Virgin of Guadalupe or Christ Himself. Who else could be demanding that she repair his church? So she walked to the nearby Church of Our Lady of Guadalupe, which was in fact in ruins. As with most other churches in Mexico during the Presidency of Plutarco Elías Calles, the front doors were bolted shut. She found a side entrance, however, which was wide open and she entered the church. The Voices didn’t stop. In fact, they were getting louder and louder as if someone was screaming inside her mind. Repair the church. Repair the church. Only you can do it. And she thought to herself: how can I possibly repair a church destroyed by the military, as I am neither a mason nor a bricklayer and I don’t have the means to pay a laborer to do it?

The church was dilapidated. All the pews had been removed, as well as all of the statues of the saints. The stained-glass windows depicting the stations of the Cross had been destroyed, and one of the side walls was a mountain of rubble. There were five horses close to where the altar should have been and even some hens and roosters in cages, for Calles’ forces had converted the church into a stable in an act of grand government impiety. There was no crucifix and only a small statue of the Virgin of Guadalupe remained intact. Repair the church. Repair the church. The locutions became more demanding. Juana approached the statue of la Guadalupana and asked for the Voices to stop. Miraculously, the Voices ceased, as if now it was the time for the Virgin of Guadalupe to listen and the time for Juana to speak.

“If it is you, virgencita, please understand I have no means to repair this church. And even if I did, the Federales wouldn’t allow it. They’ve shut down the churches all over Mexico and to repair this church would be to fly in the face of all their laws and strictures.”

Suddenly, Juana heard the voice again, but this time she was sure it was Our Lady of Guadalupe.

“I shall be your strength, my little daughter. Fear nothing but be attentive to my voice and to what I shall require of you.”

“Oh, virgencita de Guadalupe, I would gladly do your bidding but frankly it is impossible. Choose a worthier vessel. A strong man – a man of wealth – could accomplish your designs much more easily than I can.”

“For God, nothing is impossible,” said the Voice. “I want you to be the one who restores His church. Accept it as your sacred duty.”

“Where would I even begin?” asked Juana. “How to obtain the funds for the stones and mortar? And I insist the Federales won’t allow it.”

“The Lord shall provide you with the wherewithal to accomplish His designs. For now, do nothing until you receive further instructions. You shall see, my little Juana de Arco, that you can achieve much more than you imagine. The Federales won’t be able to prevent you from restoring my Son’s Church. Ponder my words and try to understand them.”

When Juana reported the locutions to her grandmother Graciela, the old woman wasn’t surprised. She had lived long enough to realize that miracles are commonplace. She did tell her granddaughter, however, that she felt Juana had misunderstood the Virgin Mary’s message.

“When she asks you to restore God’s Church, she isn’t talking about any particular structure. She’s speaking about the Mexican Church itself, which finds itself in ruins in light of everything President Calles is doing to suppress religion.”

“So she’s asking me to help restore the Catholic Church in Mexico?”

“That’s the way I understand it,” said Graciela. “And you’re already doing it through your work with the Feminine Brigades of Saint Joan of Arc.”

“Maybe that’s why at the end she called me her little Juana de Arco.”

“Could be, could be,” Graciela assented. “Your constant work delivering ammunitions to the Cristeros can only be pleasing in the eyes of God. And only through the obstinacy of the Cristeros will the barque of Peter ever be restored in Mexico.”

***

The next time Juana received an interior locution, she was not afraid. She thought it was no longer the Virgin of Guadalupe but Saint Joan of Arc who was communicating with her.

“I have a special God-given mission to present to you,” said the Voice in Juana’s head.

“I am a handmaid of the Lord,” Juana responded.

“You are to lead an army in a grand battle against the Philistines.”

“The Philistines? Who could that be? And how is it I could lead an army when I am a young woman who knows nothing about war?”

“You are to lead an army of women in a fierce battle against President Calles’ oppressive government. The Lord your God will go with you just like He accompanied the Israelites led by David in their war against the Philistines. Don’t be afraid. The battle is not yours but God’s. Please remember when the walls of Jericho collapsed.”

“I don’t have an army,” responded Juana. “The Cristeros are led by Generalissimo Gorostieta. I’m willing to do whatever the Lord orders, but I simply do not understand His purposes at this point.”

“There are more than twenty-thousand women in the Feminine Brigades of Saint Joan of Arc. There’s your army. And Generalissimo Gorostieta will give you his blessing once you’ve saved his daughter from death. He won’t be resistant to your entreaties. Don’t forget it is thanks to Generalissimo Gorostieta that now women have the right to vote in Mexico.”

“I don’t even think the Feminine Brigades will follow me into war. Even my grandmother Graciela will balk at such a proposal.”

“You are trying to control things,” Juana heard the voice say. “But you should leave everything in the hands of God. Once you obtain Generalissimo Gorostieta’s approval, everything will fall into place. Your first victory will happen at San Julián.”

“That area is in the jurisdiction of Father José Burruchaga,” said Juana. “I know about the man and he isn’t one to take orders from women. Instead, he’s famous for debauching them. He’ll never allow me to lead his troops. He’s known as the Wrath of God, having killed many public schoolteachers in acts of terror and incinerating a train with people inside. Once he ordered fifty captive soldiers to be stabbed in order to save ammunition. Cardinal Dávila has called him a ‘black-hearted assassin.’”

“Father Burruchaga shall be your Torquemada,” said the Voice, “but we don’t have to discuss that now. One day he shall be punished mercilessly for his crimes. As far as whether or not his troops will join you, that is a matter of small importance. You will have more than enough with the Feminine Brigades.”

“I suppose I shall have to go find Generalissimo Gorostieta. Can I go in a week? My beloved, Cruz, is coming back to Guadalajara this week and I’d like to see him.”

“That’s fine,” said the Voice in Juana’s head.

As soon as she had the opportunity, Juana told her grandmother about her strange conversation with Saint Joan of Arc. This time Graciela was less inclined to believe it was a miraculous apparition and more inclined to think her granddaughter was simply deluded. The very idea of a seventeen-year-old leading all the Feminine Brigades into battle against the Federales was completely zany.

“Promise me at least,” said Juana, “that if Generalissimo Gorostieta gives me the go-ahead, you’ll reconsider your position.”

“On that, you have my word,” said Graciela. “But it shall never happen. You shall never convince Generalissimo Gorostieta to go forward with your insanity.”

On the following day, Cruz Reyes appeared in Guadalajara after six months with the Cristero rebels in the mountains of Los Altos de Jalisco. Juana immediately told him about the Voices and about her decision to lead the Cristeros in battle.  Cruz was stupefied. He thought that Juana had lost her mind and tried to dissuade her. But the more he argued with her, the clearer it became that she had made an irrevocable decision. She was already dressed like a man in anticipation of her meeting with Generalissimo Gorostieta. In the end, given his insistent prodding, she told him she would pray about it and asked him to return the next day. She was sure the Voices would guide her. On the following night, however, she was all the more determined to participate in the war against the Federales with the Cristeros under her command.  Worse than that, she confessed that in the latest locution Saint Joan of Arc had demanded that Juana make a vow of chastity. Cruz was crushed, thinking he had lost the love of his life to religious insanity. He would have preferred a hundred times that she had taken on another lover. In such a case, he could have competed for her love or killed the new suitor with his own hands, if necessary. But how could he compete with the ghost of Saint Joan of Arc? How to kill someone who had died five-hundred years earlier? He had spent so many months in the monotony of the mountains without touching a woman, not even the prostitutes that Father Burruchaga allowed to follow the rebels to provide some mercenary love, and now Juana was quite openly spitting in his face.

“It’s not that I don’t love you,” confided Juana. “I couldn’t love you more. But some women are chosen to be God’s betrothed. Saint Joan of Arc herself announced that she had made a vow of celibacy shortly before she was to wed a man. She was devoted only to Jesus. And don’t forget all the virgin martyrs who dressed as men grew a beard, even accepted death in order to avoid arranged marriages to men they could not love.”

“You know what some people are going to say about you. The eccentric way you dress. Your mannish ambitions. The way you’ve cropped your hair. Your resistance to my love. They are going to conclude you suffer from the forbidden vice of the marimacha.”

Juana suddenly seemed discomfited.

“I’m not sacrificing my love for you because of any illicit desires but because the Lord Himself demands it. Sometimes I wish I didn’t hear the Voices, for then my life would be much simpler. I could marry you, have children, live my life in peace. But it is my God-given mission to restore the Catholic faith in Mexico, and I couldn’t do that as a married woman. Sometimes I wish I had been born a man so that I wouldn’t have to face such a brutal choice.”

“Is that your final word? Is there nothing I can say?”

“I’m sorry, Cruz. Did the Virgin Mary ignore the voice of the Archangel Gabriel?”

“I’m repulsed by the person you’ve become and your extravagant pursuits,” said the disappointed and bewildered lover. He picked up his sombrero and departed on his white horse in fury, never to return, leaving a trail of tears behind him. He went back to the Cristero camp at Los Altos de Jalisco, where Father Burruchaga thoroughly corrupted him.

***

When Juana arrived at the base of Generalissimo Enrique Gorostieta, she was dressed as a peasant boy with a poncho and a broad-brimmed sombrero, with threadbare sandals on her feet. Her pleas to see the general initially met with resistance from the Cristeros whom she asked to take her to his living quarters. After all, the Generalissimo was a very busy man – among other things, he was preoccupied with his secret plan, disclosed only to his closest advisors, to attack the port city of Manzanillo in a fortnight – and he had no time to entertain idle teenagers. But Juana persisted and stayed in the rebel camp for a week until a Cristero named Hilario Mendoza finally promised to arrange a meeting with the general in exchange for a few coins. Generalissimo Gorostieta was living in a small house on the periphery of the occupied zone in relative comfort together with his wife Tulita. Before entering his quarters, visitors were required to allow his guards to search them, as well as to provide an explanation for the visit.

Juana told them she had a message for Generalissimo Gorostieta from the Virgin of Guadalupe.

The guards laughed at her response and blocked her way, telling her Generalissimo Gorostieta didn’t even believe in la Guadalupana. Even if he did, they said to her, he still wouldn’t welcome her visit. The Virgin of Guadalupe had appeared once five hundred years ago and didn’t use peasant boys to transmit messages to military men in the twentieth century.

But Hilario Mendoza pleaded with them.

“Give the boy five minutes of the Generalissimo’s time. I promised him an interview with the General if this peasant boy paid me a little money.”

“I’ll try to fit the boy into Generalissimo Gorostieta’s schedule,” said one of the guards. “But I should warn you, boy, that the General doesn’t suffer fools gladly.”

Several hours later, Juana was ushered into the house and asked to sit in the living room. Instead of Generalissimo Gorostieta, it was his wife who appeared. Unlike the Generalissimo, Tulita was a staunch Catholic devoted to the Virgin of Guadalupe.

“Buenas tardes,” said la Señora de Gorostieta in a kind voice. “What is your name? What brings you here?”

“Juan Espinosa,” responded Juana as she took off her sombrero. “I have a very important message for your husband from the Virgin of Guadalupe.”

“So, I hear. Pray tell me, what is the message?”

“I have to convey it to him directly. But for now, tell him I know about his planned siege of the port of Manzanillo and that it will be a rout for his Cristeros.”

“How did you know about Manzanillo?” asked Tulita, suddenly perturbed. “Only his most trusted subordinates, General José Burruchaga and General Aristeo Pedroza, know anything about it.”

“As I’ve tried to explain,” said Juana, “I have been receiving messages from la Guadalupana about your husband’s war against the government apostates. And the Virgin told me Manzanillo would be a debacle for the Generalissimo.”

“Oh, dear,” said Tulita. “I should get this information to Enrique. Can Our Lady of Guadalupe give you a sign? After all, she gave a sign to Juan Diego when she appeared to him in the sixteenth century on the hill at Tepeyac.”

“I shall ask for a sign,” Juana responded. “But for now, the General should abort his projected siege of Manzanillo.”

“You should tell him this yourself. My husband calls himself an agnostic, but in Mexico even the atheists render homage to the olive-skinned virgin. Wait for a moment. Enrique is in his study. I’ll tell him he needs to speak to you.”

An hour later, Generalissimo Gorostieta appeared. He was a slender man unlike most Basques who tend to be stocky, and there was something mournful about his steel blue eyes. He was visibly upset at having to waste his time with a crazy peasant boy.

“What do you have to tell me, young man?” Generalissimo Gorostieta asked in a brusque voice. “What have you told my wife that has her all aflutter?”

“I told her your men would be defeated at Manzanillo. But that is not the purpose of my visit. I wanted to tell you that – ”

“Hold on, hold on,” interrupted Generalissimo Gorostieta. “I don’t see how you could possibly know about our planned attack on Manzanillo. Obviously, someone in the know has a loose tongue. Do you have any idea what we intend to do at Manzanillo? Do you realize we will greatly outnumber the Federales? They only have sixty soldiers guarding the port, and I have a thousand Cristeros ready to attack.”

“All I know is what the Virgin of Guadalupe told me. Ignore her at your peril. But you should know that Saint Joan of Arc has also spoken with me and – ”

“Enough! Enough! I don’t want to hear any more blather about saints and virgins. If you want to help the cause, buy yourself a Mauser and join the Cristeros in battle.”

“So, you don’t want to hear the rest of my message?”

“I think I’ve made that clear.”

“Do you still plan to attack at Manzanillo?”

“Absolutely. We have a failsafe plan.”

“Well, then, let me come back after the battle. If you succeed, I shall not return. But if your forces collapse, I hope you will be more receptive to my message.”

“You should ask for a sign,” Tulita intervened. “If the Virgin of Guadalupe wants to help Enrique, I imagine she would not be hesitant to send a sign.”

***

Generalissimo Gorostieta sent the renowned – and infamous – Father José Burruchaga to invade the port of Manzanillo with the purpose of raiding a gunboat named Guerrero which was full of weapons and ammunition.  Father Burruchaga arrived with a battalion of one thousand Cristeros and the gunboat was protected by a mere sixty soldiers, half of which the rebel priest captured in the first hour of battle. Soon the Cristeros were on the ship, marveling at the prize they had just obtained: rifles, bombs, grenades, dynamite, swords and daggers as well as innumerable bullets. The soldiers fled from the gunboat and not one of Father Burruchaga’s Cristeros was killed during the attack. Father Burruchaga instructed one of his men to go to the telegraph office and send the Generalissimo a message: mission accomplished, the Guerrero is ours.

Father Burruchaga made three enormous mistakes that day. First, he failed to disable the telegraph system such that the soldiers protecting Manzanillo were able to plead for reinforcements from their general. Second, he did not destroy the railroad tracks leading from Guadalajara to Manzanillo such that more than two thousand Federales arrived within two hours. Third, after taking over the Guerrero and its booty, he ordered most of his Cristeros to disperse. By the time Calles’ military arrived, many of Father Burruchaga’s rebels were celebrating in the bars and cantinas of the small port town. The arrival of the Federales caught them entirely by surprise. Within three hours, the Federales decimated the Cristeros and regained control of the Guerrero. More than three hundred of the Catholic rebels were killed and the rest retreated in haste at the orders of the rebel priest. True to his reputation, the pernicious Father Burruchaga ordered that the throats of the thirty soldiers in his control be slashed by swords before he left.

When the news of the defeat reached Generalissimo Gorostieta, he could scarcely believe it. Father Burruchaga, known as Pancho Villa in a cassock, was a storied combatant and had never lost a battle. How could such a reversal have happened? Generalissimo Gorostieta’s troops were low on weapons and ammunition, and the Generalissimo had been counting on the supplies in the Guerrero to continue with his battles. When Tulita learned of the disaster, she reminded her husband of the warning given to him by the boy who had visited him at his headquarters.

“Juan told you he was coming with a message from the Virgin of Guadalupe who wants to aid you. Had you listened to the boy, you could have avoided the horror of Manzanillo. The next time he comes, you should carefully consider what he says.”

“I’m not sure the Virgin of Guadalupe whom you so revere had anything to do with what happened at Manzanillo. Pancho Villa in a cassock was simply careless. Had he dynamited the railroad tracks, everything could have been avoided.”

“Listen to the boy named Juan,” Tulita said. “I think he is an emissary sent to you by God. He accurately predicted the defeat of the Cristeros at Manzanillo. Don’t let your pride prevent you from accepting the gift of grace when it comes your way.”

“I simply don’t believe in fairy tales, the Virgin of Guadalupe and Saint Joan of Arc and all of that. I know we’re fighting for religious freedom and that all my troops are Catholic, but I gave up on the faith long ago.”

“I asked the boy for a sign,” responded Tulita. “If the debacle at Manzanillo wasn’t enough for you, I’m sure the Virgin of Guadalupe will send you another. Just be open to her message.”

“How is the girl doing?” Generalissimo Gorostieta asked, changing the subject.

“Marita still has a high fever. I sent Hilario to town to find a doctor. I’ve tried to cool her little body with ice packs, but to no avail. Fevers usually disappear within a few days, but now it’s been two weeks and her fever hasn’t broken. And her shivering is getting worse as is her diarrhea. You should pray to the Virgin of Guadalupe as I am doing. If Marita recovers soon, that could be your sign.”

“If I had an ounce of faith,” replied Generalissimo Gorostieta, “I would certainly pray for our one-year-old Marita. But I simply don’t.”

The physician soon arrived, an old Catholic by the name of Joaquín Alcantara who supported the Cristeros. He was perplexed by the infant’s condition.

“It’s what we call a fever of unknown origin,” he said solemnly. “Probably some sort of infection but who knows. I frankly don’t know what the cure is. Just keep giving her a lot of liquids, perhaps a little sugared lemonade, and hope for the best. I’m not sure that her little body will withstand many more days at such high temperatures.”

Two days later, Marita suffered from a febrile seizure. Her limbs shook on both sides of her tiny body, her eyes rolled back and her body stiffened. Soon she lost all consciousness and upon seeing her, Generalissimo Gorostieta believed that she was dead. Then he realized that Marita was still breathing and told Tulita, “Teach me how to pray. Only a miracle will help her now.”

Tulita led Generalissimo Gorostieta in praying the Rosary – he still remembered prayers learned as a child – but her condition only worsened. Her breathing became slower and slower and Generalissimo Gorostieta made a silent promise.

“If you heal her, Mother Mary, I shall do whatever you order me to do. Just save her, dearest Virgin, and I shall be your servant forever.”

That was the day when Juana reappeared at his house still dressed like a peasant boy.

***

The Generalissimo’s guard entered the house and told the General that a teenage boy was at the door, asking to see him.

“Is his name Juan Espinosa?”

“Yes,” said the guard.

“Let him in.”

The peasant boy entered Generalissimo Gorostieta’s quarters.

“Thank you,” said Juana. “As promised, I’ve come to speak to you about the messages I have received from the Virgin of Guadalupe and Saint Joan of Arc – messages that pertain to you.”

“Yes, fine,” said Generalissimo Gorostieta. “You were right about Manzanillo. The Cristeros got trounced. I’d be interested in knowing what you think about certain upcoming battles. I’m expecting an encounter with the Federales at San Julián. My informants tell me the government soldiers are planning a siege of the city, which is now controlled by the Cristeros.”

“That’s what I wanted to discuss with you. If you listen to the Virgin of Guadalupe, that battle will be a resounding victory for you.”

“Listen, Juan, maybe we should leave this for another day. I’m afraid my daughter is dying and I want to be close to her in her final moments. We’ve spent all night awake.”

Juana looked at him fixedly in the eyes.

“Marita won’t die of her disease,” she said. “Of that you can be assured.”

“How can you say that? She’s barely breathing. And how do you know her name?”

“The Virgin of Guadalupe appeared to me in a dream last night and told me that the healing of your daughter is the sign you have requested. Come, take me to her crib and you’ll see what I mean.”

Tulita was next to her daughter, her eyes reddened by tears. When she saw Juana, she spoke in a tremulous voice.

“I know you need to talk to Enrique,” she sobbed, “but at the moment, as you can see, we are tending to Marita. Maybe you can come in a week after – after we’ve buried her.”

“Let us pray to la Guadalupana for a cure,” said Juana. “I know your daughter will survive.”

Then, holding one of Marita’s tiny hands, she said a small prayer to the Virgin of Guadalupe.

Suddenly the baby opened her eyes and yawned.

Tulita placed her hands on the infant’s forehead and was astonished. She declared triumphantly that the fever had broken.

“Thank you, Juan, thank you so much!” exclaimed Tulita. “You’re a miracle worker. You’ve just raised Lazarus from the grave.”

“It’s enough to make one believe,” said Generalissimo Gorostieta as he wept. “You truly are sent by God.”

“It was done by the Virgin of Guadalupe and I had very little to do with it. But perhaps now you’ll listen to what I have come to say to you.”

As Tulita began to cradle Marita happily in her arms, Juana and the Generalissimo repaired to his study.

“What is the message you’re so desperate to tell me, Juan?”

“I want you to let me lead the Catholic rebels in the defense of San Julián.”

“I’m not quite sure I understand you,” said Generalissimo Gorostieta in a voice that was at once patient and severe. “Do you mean you want to direct the Cristeros as they fight the Federales in the mountains of Jalisco? What experience do you have in matters of war? Do you even know how to handle a Mauser? You’re but a boy.”

“I don’t need experience. La Guadalupana will instruct me. Saint Joan of Arc will guide me. The archangel Michael will aid me. My enemies will be crushed. Wasn’t the healing of your daughter and the debacle at Manzanillo enough to persuade you that I am acting on the orders of the Virgin of Guadalupe?”

“Yes, you must be,” said Generalissimo Gorostieta. “Still, I don’t know. You know nothing about military tactics or strategy.”

“It will be a magnificent defeat for President Calles’ forces. Why do you doubt? The Voices will tell me what to do.”

“I suppose I can’t ask the Virgin of Guadalupe for another sign, can I? Perhaps I’m a madman, Juan, but I’m inclined to grant your preposterous wishes. Father Burruchaga will be incensed and think that I’m a fool. And he’ll think that I’m replacing him for losing the battle at Manzanillo. The rebel priest is no schoolboy. He’s a man with messianic pretensions who expects to lead the Cristeros in the defense of San Julián. You’ll be earning his perpetual enmity by taking his place.”

“I can deal with Burruchaga’s jealous ambitions,” replied Juana. “What can he do to me?”

“It all depends on whether the opportunity arises. For now, he can persuade many of the Cristeros not to fight under your banner.”

“I don’t need them,” said Juana derisively. “The Feminine Brigades of Saint Joan of Arc shall be my soldiers.”

“The Feminine Brigades?” echoed Generalissimo Gorostieta.

“Yes, I’m a member,” replied Juana. “You should know that I’m a woman.”

“Are you a marimacha?” Generalissimo Gorostieta asked abruptly.

“No, I’m not,” said Juana. “I just emulate Saint Joan of Arc. She dressed as a man, in and out of battle.”

***

Juana learned the date of the projected siege of the town of San Julián by the Federales even before Generalissimo Gorostieta did. The Feminine Brigades had infiltrated the group of women who followed the Federales from town to town, working as cooks, nurses and even prostitutes. One of the Brigades’ spies had found out that the Federales were planning to attack San Julián the following week, commanded by General Espindión Rodríguez Escobar. Generalissimo Gorostieta organized a meeting to discuss the battle plans with Juana and a Cristero militant named Victoriano Ramirez. He was known as El Catorce because he had once been engaged in battle with fourteen military men and managed to kill all of them.  The plan was for El Catorce to defend San Julián from the inside. If his Cristeros couldn’t hold off the soldiers, Juana would appear with her Feminine Brigades. Juana assured Generalissimo Gorostieta that her squad of women would be made up of more than five-thousand combatants residing in Guadalajara who could appear at San Julián within an hour of being called. Father Burruchaga had refused to participate in the battle and told Generalissimo Gorostieta that it would be sheer folly for him to fight under the command of a seventeen-year-old marimacha.

Once General Espindión Rodríguez Escobar arrived at San Julián with his three-thousand soldiers from the seventy-eighth regiment, the fight was fierce and brutal with artillery coming from both sides. The two enemy armies eventually fought each other in hand-to-hand combat, and the streets were soon strewn with cadavers belonging to both armies. By four o’clock in the afternoon, the fighting had reached an impasse. The Federales had not been able to conquer the town occupied by the Cristeros, but neither had the Cristeros been able to oust the Federales from San Julián.  Soon the Federales saw a small army coming from the distance and mistakenly thought they were government soldiers under the command of Joaquín Amaro Dominguez of the War and Navy Secretariat. In fact, the group was led by Juana Espinosa and was comprised of more than seven-thousand women, many of them wearing custom-made gray uniforms with tight leggings just like their leader. Based upon the advice of the celestial Voices, Juana and her Feminine Brigades attacked the federal forces in three columns, one from the south and west, one from the east and north, and the last from the southeast which Juana personally commanded. Juana had her page at her side, a fourteen-year-old named Trinidad Alegría, who carried the Cristero standard, the Mexican flag with the words Viva Cristo Rey and an image of the Virgin of Guadalupe. It soon became clear to General Rodríguez Escobar that his troops were vastly outnumbered by the Cristero soldiers and – worse than that – the Federales were completely surrounded by Juana’s battalion and there was no easy way to escape. General Rodríguez Escobar went into a house where women lived and demanded they give him their clothes so that he could wear them as a disguise. Since he was dressed as a woman, Juana’s forces did not recognize him, and he left San Julián unharmed. It was a supreme irony that the male general dressed as a woman had been defeated by the female mariscal dressed as a man. By the end of the night, one of Juana’s women went to Guadalajara and telegraphed Generalissimo Gorostieta a message: the battle of San Julián has been a resounding success, all three-thousand government soldiers have either died or fled.

The battle of San Julián was the Cristeros’ greatest victory in the entire war.

Soon the exploits of Mariscal Juana’s all-female army became legendary, the subject of many triumphant corridos and an object of dread for members of the Mexican military. The Feminine Brigades of Saint Joan of Arc won battle after battle along the length and breadth of Mexico based upon the advice of the Voices in Juana’s head, from Colima to Zacatecas, from Guanajuato to Jalisco, from Guerrero to Tabasco, from Aguascalientes to León. Mariscal Juana continued to dress as a man in and out of battle and all manner of rumors spread about her and her brigades. Father Burruchaga in particular began to proclaim to all that Juana should not be allowed to lead the Catholics in war since she wore “difformitate habitus” – degenerate apparel unfitting for a soldier fighting for the cause of God. The rebel priest was bitter because now Juana was Generalissimo Gorostieta’s greatest advisor and confidant, and Father Burruchaga by contrast had become a minor player. Despite his own lapses as a priest, the drinking and the womanizing, the tortures and the executions, Father Burruchaga was all too ready to find fault in others and particularly in the repulsive Mariscal Juana and her odious female cohorts. “She arrogates to herself,” said Father Burruchaga with an implacable hostility, “powers which belong only to God. She claims her victories in battle result from advice given to her by Heavenly Voices. It is the height of pride and perhaps heresy as well, dare I say a sign of witchcraft.”

The last major battle of the Cristiada took place at Tepatitlán, Jalisco, directed by Generalissimo Gorostieta himself, with the aid of Mariscal Juana, Father Burruchaga and El Catorce. The rebel priest did not object to fighting together with the young Juana since he was not under her command but that of Generalissimo Gorostieta. The Cristeros lay siege to the Federales in Tepatitlán using a classic pincer movement and managed to encircle the government’s forces. Generalissimo Gorostieta’s soldiers attacked at the front, Father Burruchaga’s men at the left flank, Mariscal Juana’s soldaderas at the right flank, and El Catorce’s Cristeros in the enemy’s rear. Having thus  surrounded the five thousand Federales, the Cristeros proceeded to force them into an ever-narrowing epicenter where the hapless government soldiers were decimated. Those few who survived the onslaught tried to escape through the area where Generalissimo Gorostieta’s forces were waiting and soon shot the Generalissimo in the chest, knocking him off his horse as he was trying to block their path. Juana and her female brigades soon appeared on the scene and Juana got off her horse to tend to the wounded Generalissimo. The government soldiers recognized her and managed to capture her in the midst of battle. They figured that they could probably trade her for all the Federales just taken by the Cristeros or execute her to do away with a troublesome foe. At the end, the Federales suffered through a complete defeat, but they had managed to kill Generalissimo Gorostieta and make a captive of Mariscal Juana. In the aftermath of such a rout, President Calles decided to sue for peace. The Cristeros couldn’t topple his government, but they controlled large swaths of the country and refused to be vanquished. Even without Generalissimo Gorostieta or Juana, they remained a dangerous enemy whose defeat in battle seemed impossible. Juana’s purpose in fighting and the order given to her by the Voices  – to restore the Catholic faith in Mexico – had just become a realistic possibility.

In the aftermath of the battle of Tepatitlán, Father Burruchaga decided to name himself supreme commander of the rebel armies. He knew that the Cristeros would probably be disbanded if the Calles government and the Catholic Church reached a modus vivendi, but for the time being the Cristeros remained a formidable force. So he decided to settle some old scores with past antagonists, first and foremost the cross-dressing, gun-toting Mariscal Juana Espinosa also known as the peasant Juan. The people of Mexico were clamoring for their God-sent warrior to be ransomed by the Cristeros but had no idea as to what Father Burruchaga meant to do with her.

  Joaquín Amaro Dominguez of the War and Navy Secretariat offered to trade Juana for a hundred captive Federales. He had consulted President Calles himself before making such an offer, but the President knew the Cristiada would soon be over and saw no need for her execution. So, President Calles gave Dominguez the green light. Father Burruchaga didn’t even haggle or dicker, not because he was eager to rescue one of the Cristeros’ greatest combatants but because he wanted to seek retribution for past slights real or imagined.

When the Federales first turned over Juana to Father Burruchaga, she thanked her former nemesis profusely.

“You have nothing to thank me for,” he grinned with a murderous expression. “I traded you for a hundred Federales so I can take you to justice.”

“I have no idea what you’re saying. I am guilty of no crime known to military law.”

“I think you were an embarrassment to the cause of the Cristeros,” the priest-rebel replied.  “You stand guilty of heresy, cross-dressing and Sapphic love affairs. Generalissimo Gorostieta is no longer around to protect you. I mean to make you pay for each and every one of your transgressions.”

“What evidence do you have that I ever engaged in heresy or lesbian relationships? As far as the way I dressed, that is neither here nor there. Saint Joan of Arc also dressed as a man when going into battle. And it was her heavenly Voice that recommended I wear such attire.”

“So, the Voices told you to sin?” inquired Father Burruchaga. “That leads me to believe they did not come from saints but from evil spirits.”

“If something is ordered by the saints,” Juana replied, “it cannot be something evil. Saint Augustine himself said it is not a sin for a woman to dress like a man in exigent circumstances.”

“Yes, perhaps, but you never took off your soldier’s uniform. It was a disgrace, an absolute disgrace, for someone leading Catholics in battle to engage in such depravity. And your lieutenants are even worse. The fish rots from the head down. Ana Flores, who goes by the name Captain Aniceto Flores and always dresses like a man, brazenly flirts with young girls and frequently picks up women in the bars and canteens of Guadalajara.”

“And who, pray tell, is going to judge me? You are trying to base a case against me built upon trifles. What kind of punishment do you have in mind? My female soldaderas helped turn back the tide of the Cristero war.”

“I shall have you burnt at the stake, Juana – or should I say Juan? – just like your favorite saint. You shall not have the grace of a firing squad. Your fellow Cristeros and I will judge you. Frankly, I think the cross-dressing Joan of Arc should never have been canonized.”

You are going to judge me for questions of morality?” asked Juana in a mocking tone. “When everyone knows you are an embarrassment to your cassock, a lewd man who frequently consorts with prostitutes. It’s you who had the illicit affairs to say nothing of the way you treated men in battle. My record as a soldier, unlike yours, is spotless. And I have never been defiled. Who are you to throw the first stone at a woman whom you claim to be a sinner when you are a rotten fruit?”

“Your crimes have nothing to do with how you conduct yourself in battle other than the fact you dress as a man. Your sins are offenses against the Holy Catholic faith. We’ll see what evidence is proffered against you in your great trial. I intend to follow all the procedural and evidentiary requirements under canon law and will even give you the benefit of counsel if you so desire. In the meantime, you shall be clothed in chains and be chained to your bed. Let that be your raiment from now on.”

“I need no defense counsel, no attorney to plead my case,” said the seventeen-year-old girl nonchalantly. “My Voices will instruct me what to say. You cannot break me and I shall not be silenced. Please go ahead and take me to trial. One way or another, I shall be delivered in three months. Put me in chains if you wish, but I will not take off my soldadera’s uniform, for to do so would be to admit guilt where there is none.”

***

Father Burruchaga, dressed in his black soutane as always and with the tonsure of a monk, began his opening argument quoting various biblical passages in order to prove that Juana’s cross-dressing was against the laws of God. He didn’t seem to draw a distinction between homosexuality and dressing like a man. He first quoted Deuteronomy: “A woman shall not wear a man’s garment, nor shall a man put on a woman’s cloak, for whoever does these things is an abomination to the Lord our God.” He then proceeded to quote from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, arguing that “nature itself” teaches that men should wear short hair while women should wear long hair. Father Burruchaga further argued that according to Timothy, cross-dressing goes against God’s design for humanity as it blurs the distinction between male and female. He also said that certain passages from Peter supported the argument that wearing clothing typically associated with the opposite gender can lead to lustful thoughts and unnatural desires. Near the end of his argument, Father Burruchaga quoted Scriptures condemning women who “exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature.” Finally, he reminded everyone that “the Lord rained down burning sulfur on Sodom and Gomorrah.”

As his first witness, Father Burruchaga called Ana Flores, also known as Captain Aniceto Flores, who had been promised immunity from prosecution if he agreed to testify in Juana’s trial. The Captain arrived in a gray combatant’s uniform with a golden braid and epaulets on both shoulders, patent leather boots and a saber with gold tassels at his side. On the left side of his face was a thick purple scar, earned years before in a knife fight with a luckless Federal. When he spoke, it was clear Captain Flores had the habit of command for he had led platoons of women in numberless battles.

“It is true, isn’t it,” asked Father Burruchaga in a taciturn voice, “that you claim to be a man and routinely have carnal relations with women?”

“Ever since I was a child,” Captain Flores answered with aplomb, “I have known that my inner self was male rather than female. And it is true that I have loved certain women.”

“And you once had a birthday feast attended by a large group of women who were also marimachas, right?”

“I don’t use that term. But yes, I had a party where a group of my friends who were similarly inclined joined in the celebration.”

“When you say they were similarly inclined, you mean that they were lesbians, don’t you?”

“For lack of a better word,” replied Captain Flores.

“And Juana Espinosa joined you in that party, right?”

“A lot of heterosexual women attended the soirée.”

“Please limit yourself to answering the question put to you. Did Juana Espinosa attend the party or not?”

“She did, but –”

“You’ve answered the question. Now let’s go to the next. Did certain of the women dance together at that party?”

“Yes, but not Juana.”

“But you did, right?”

“Yes,” responded Captain Flores.

“And did any of your friends sit on sofas holding hands as loving couples would?”

“That has nothing to do with Juana.”

“Did Juana ever reprove you for your depravity as a good Christian should?”

“Before we went off to battle,” replied Captain Flores, “Juana always directed us to go to Confession so that we could have a holy death if we died while fighting.”

“Did she tell you to confess you are a marimacha and that you consort with women?”

“Not in so many words,” responded Captain Flores. “She left it to my conscience in terms of what I should confess.”

“And did you confess your unnatural passions?” asked Father Burruchaga.

“I don’t think my aching love for women is a sin.”

“That will be all,” Father Burruchaga stated. “Let the jury note that Juana Espinosa joined in salacious parties where lesbians and transvestites gathered. At a minimum, she’s guilty for not having immediately departed from such grotesque company. And you may infer based on the testimony that Juana gladly participated in their – what word shall I use? – gladly participated in their lustful acts of license.”

At that point, Juana objected.

“The Lord has never commanded that we refrain from interacting with sinners. The Pharisees, hypocrites just like you, chastised the Christ for sharing meals with hated publicans and prostitutes. Captain Flores was one of my most loyal warriors, and I could not avoid joining in the celebration of such a special day. I have no right to judge or condemn Captain Flores for I am not God. Are you?”

“Let the jury realize that she’s now comparing herself to Jesus,” Father Burruchaga noted. “That is one of the charges against her – the crime of heresy. Juana Espinosa claims to have powers which belong only to God. Tell me, Juana, did your Voices tell you to attend the marimacha party?”

“I never broached that issue with them. And I wouldn’t call it a marimacha party. Most of the attendees were heterosexual members of the Feminine Brigades. Many of them were married and some were even mothers.”

“Let me call my second witness, Trinidad Alegría.”

“Trinidad?” echoed Juana.

“Yes, Trini,” Father Burruchaga smiled. “You know her well.”

***

Trinidad Alegría appeared at the trial dressed in a white woolen skirt and a pink flowered blouse, with her auburn hair cascading to her shoulders. She was lovely in every sense of the word, with green eyes bright like emeralds, long eyelashes and a pale luminescent face. At some point, she had worn the gray uniform of the soldadera but no longer. Father Burruchaga asked her if she was nervous and she shyly assented. He instructed her, “Just tell the truth as you’ve already told me and this should be easy.”

He began with some preliminary questions before getting to the crucial part of her testimony.

“Do you know Juana Espinosa, also known as the Mariscal?”

“I do,” answered the honey-voiced Trinidad.

“And how do you know her?”

“I was her page. I accompanied her in battle, on my horse. I carried the banner of the Cristeros.”

“Did you travel to different towns with her, the places where she was engaging in battle?”

“I did.”

“And where did you sleep at night?”

“I slept in the field tent with Juana.”

The crowds attending the trial began to murmur among themselves. Father Burruchaga paused to let Trinidad’s words sink in. Then he returned to the same subject.

“Would it be fair to say you slept in the same tent as Juana on more than a hundred nights?”

“At least,” sighed Trinidad. “I was always at her side and the Feminine Brigades fought all over Mexico, so I spent more than a year with her, on and off. So yes, at least a hundred nights.”

“How large was the tent?”

“Enough for three bodies, maybe four.”

“Ask her if I was ever undressed,” Juana intervened. “Sharing a tent is not evidence of intimacy. And we did not have enough tents for each woman to have her own.”

“You’ll get your chance to cross-examine,” responded Father Burruchaga. “Please don’t interrupt.”

“She was never undressed,” Trinidad confided. “She slept in her soldadera uniform, always ready to do battle.”

“And what about you?” Father Burruchaga probed tenaciously. “Did you always wear your uniform as you slept?”

“I slept in my undergarments.”

The crowds began to murmur again. The priest proceeded with his questioning as his face beamed with vindication.

“Did Juana ever kiss you while you were both in the tent at night?”

Trinidad paused and looked at Juana with an apologetic expression on her face.

“Yes,” she finally answered in a voice that quivered. “After we said our prayers, she always kissed me on the forehead before going to sleep. But you’re confusing tender feelings with what you consider depravity.”

“And did she ever kiss you fully on the mouth?”

“It was like I told you last week. Sometimes – a very few times – she kissed me on the mouth after we prevailed in battle. But you must know that they were chaste and sisterly  –”

Burruchaga cut her off.

“You’ve answered the question. Did you ever bathe with her?”

“We were like sisters as I’ve told you. Sometimes a whole group of us would bathe in a river. It’s not like we had private showers in our makeshift camps.”

“And neither of you were wearing your clothes when you bathed in the river, right?”

“That wouldn’t make any sense,” responded Trinidad.

“Did Juana ever touch you while you bathed?”

“Sometimes she scrubbed my back, but what you’re trying to suggest – how can I put it – there was nothing lascivious about it.”

“You couldn’t know one way or another how Juana felt about it, could you? I mean you couldn’t get inside her heart. You don’t know whether or not she felt lust for you, right?”

“You’re trying to have her engage in speculation,” Juana objected again. “You’re trying to bias the jurors by suggesting alleged vices for which you have no evidence. Stick to the facts, Father Burruchaga. Trinidad is telling you I treated her like a sister, which makes sense, since we were so close in age and we were much younger than the other soldaderas. Our friendship was sublime and there was nothing sinful about it. You assume that everyone succumbs to the same passions as you.”

“You’ll get your chance,” replied Father Burruchaga with a curt indignation. “I understand Trini’s testimony is making you uncomfortable. There is so much evidence of unnatural behavior – kissing, sleeping together, bathing in the nude. And you were trying to seduce a minor.”

“Are you done with your fantasies now?” asked Juana. “Do I now get to ask my questions?”

“Go ahead. The witness is all yours.”

“You say you slept in your undergarments,” began Juana. “During all that time, did I ever touch your breasts?”

“Absolutely not.”

“And did I ever touch your private parts?

“Never.

“Not even when we were bathing in the river?”

“No.”

“When I kissed you on the mouth, what were the circumstances?”

“As far as I remember, it only occurred on three occasions when you thought that I was dead and realized I wasn’t. It happened once after I was thrown off my horse and another time when I was hit with an enemy bullet in the shoulder. I can’t remember the details of the third incident, but I think it was along those lines. In the tumult of battle, you simply lost me among all the combatants from both sides and presumed that I was dead. When you saw me, you simply rejoiced as a sister would.”

“I have a single question on redirect,” said Father Burruchaga.

“Yes, go on,” said Juana.

“Miss Alegría, if you had engaged in an amorous relationship with Juana Espinosa, you wouldn’t confess it in public, would you?”

“We did not have an amorous relationship,” replied Trinidad.

“That wasn’t the question. The issue is whether assuming arguendo that such a relationship existed, you would confess it in this proceeding, knowing you yourself could be tried and punished for sapphism.”

“I guess not,” Trinidad replied in a small voice. “I don’t think I would admit it, but that’s beside the point. Juana is not a lesbian, and neither am I.”

***

In the center of the plaza was the stake where Juana was to be burnt alive. At the foot of the stake, bundles of firewood were piled high so that they could be lit when the doomed woman appeared on the scene – doomed because she had been convicted of heresy, cross-dressing and homosexuality by the unanimous decree of all the jurors selected by Father Burruchaga. On the ground at the base of the platform was a bunch of red glistening coals as well as containers full of gasoline which would be used to ignite the fire. Juana was forced to walk to the central plaza wearing a sanbenito, a penitential garment, and a coroza, a long conical cap, while holding a lit candle. She had not been allowed to die wearing her soldadera uniform despite her wishes and demands. After three months in captivity, she was gaunt and emaciated, looking much older than her eighteen years in her black skirt and white blouse. There was an image of the Virgin of Guadalupe hanging from her neck, the same image which she had taken into battle as part of her Cristero banner, as well as a golden medal with the face of her namesake and patron saint, Santa Juana de Arco. When she arrived at the platform, the soldiers finally took off her chains and she made a sign of the Cross. “Where are your Voices now?” Father Burruchaga asked disdainfully as he observed everything in his black cassock, standing only a few meters away from his pale victim Juana.

“The Voices are satisfied,” responded Juana. “The Catholic Church and President Calles have reached an accord this morning such that within a week all of the churches of Mexico will once again be open, and the sacraments will be available to the faithful. Do with me what you will.”

“I only wish there were a hundred of you, Juana, so I could send you to your death a hundred times.”

“The Voices are speaking to me now, Father Burruchaga, and telling me that while I shall suffer for a few minutes, you shall be damned to eternal fire.”

Suddenly, the priest felt threatened and sought a palliative for his despair. He was a Catholic priest, after all, and knew about the possibility of damnation. But it was hard for him to overcome the habit of cruelty or the penchant for vengeance.

“Confess your crimes,” he said with emphasis. “Abjure your claims about the Voices. Promise never to dress in the uniform of a male soldier. I shall immediately order the cancellation of your execution.”

“Even if everything you said about me at trial were true,” said Juana in a calm impassive voice, “I would not deserve such a death. Becoming a combatant has led to your perdition. You’ve made one brutal choice after another and in the process, you have lost your conscience. My Voices tell me to accept whatever punishment you mete out to me but never to recant. My purposes have been accomplished through the armistice. The Mexican Church has been restored.”

“Is there no limit to your arrogance? I’m offering you the chance to live.”

“And live I shall, no matter what you decide. Saint Joan of Arc was also tried and killed for dressing as a man, and today she is hailed as a saint in Heaven.”

Father Burruchaga let the execution proceed. A week later he hanged himself.

About the Author

Sandro F. Piedrahita

Sandro Francisco Piedrahita is an American Catholic author of Peruvian and Ecuadorian descent, with a degree in Comparative Literature from Yale College. Most of his stories revolve around Latin American mythical or historic themes, told with a modern twist. Mr. Piedrahita's short stories have been accepted for publication in The Write Launch, The Acentos Review, Hive Avenue Literary Journal, Carmina Magazine, Synchronized Chaos, The Ganga Review, Limit Experience Journal and Foreshadow Magazine.

Read more work by Sandro F. Piedrahita .