Inspiration in the Archives: Leonor Villegas de Magnón

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Group of nurses from La Cruz Blanca

I am starting my third week as a volunteer at the Recovering the U.S. Hispanic Literary Heritage Program and I am happy to say this has already been a rewarding experience. I’ve learned to use Omeka (an open source web-publishing platform for the display of museum, archives, and scholarly collections and exhibitions) to contribute to  the program’s digital collections, Recovering the US Hispanic Literary Heritage Digital Collections, and I’m excited to jump into digital mapping soon, all in view of providing new learning tools and techniques for the courses I teach at Houston Community College. But the most rewarding feature so far has been sitting with and exploring archival material belonging to visionary Hispanics/Latin@s. For that reason alone, my time here has been inspiring and exciting and I am grateful for spaces and programs like these dedicated to the preservation and proliferation of the accounts and stories of our people which have too often been left by the wayside.

These last two weeks, I have been perusing the Leonor Villegas de Magnón Collection in order to complete a digital exhibit of this revolutionary woman and as part of my own research for the creation of a Mexican American Studies OER (Open Educational Resource). Born in 1876 in Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas, Leonor Villegas de Magnón embodied a borderlands existence. In her early years, her family often traveled across the Rio Grande (Rio Bravo) as her father did business on both the Mexican and U.S. sides of the border. Two of her three siblings were born in the U.S. and she was educated in multiple U.S. schools as a child. Her perception of the world early on must have been one that saw borders for the man-made, political illusions that they are. In many ways, her life work suggests that she understood the two nations as one, linked by history, proximity, and human connections; she saw the possibility of true solidarity and camaraderie among the inhabitants of these two nations.

While Villegas de Magnón and her family enjoyed the privileges of bourgeoisie life, in part because of the succesful enterprises of her father, by the time of the Mexican Revolution (1910), Magnón was ready to abandon those comforts in view of the nascent revolutionary movement.  Influenced by what she saw as “the noble relationship between her parents and their laborers” (translation of Lomas), by the liberal and democratic ideals of the era, and by her own sense of justice, she was steadfastly committed to the true progress of Mexico defined by the progress of the disadvantaged and by the just treatment and compensation of the Mexican labor class (Clara Lomas, Introducción, xxi).

 

Nicknamed “La Rebelde” at birth, Villegas de Magnón fulfilled her moniker at every step. During the beginning of the Mexican Revolution, she wrote pieces supporting the revolutionary cause and stood firmly against the exploitation of the Mexican people under Porfirio Diaz. Later down the line, she wrote informational articles on the Revolution’s progress and events for La Cronica, El Progreso, and El Radical. But it was her role as nurse and leader of La Cruz Blanca Constitucionalista that anchored her to the cause and through which she became an indispensable figure of the Mexican Revolution. Villegas de Magnón founded La Cruz Blanca Constitucionalista, an organization of nurses formed in 1913 to treat the injured during the bloodiest years of the Mexican Revolution.

In her autobiography, Villegas de Magnón narrates the decisive moment in which she is called to serve as nurse by a “strange force that she does not resist,” thus fulfilling a vision that her mother had once described to her:

La Rebelde despertó de su intranquilo sueño al oír resonar los primeros tiros en ambos Laredos. Movida por una influencia extraña a la que no presto resistencia, se vistió precipitadamente. Con calma escribió en un sobre ya usado que encontró sobre de la mesa: ‘Hijitos cuando se levanten vayan a la casa de su tío, allí espérenme, volveré pronto’. Eran las seis de la mañana, las calles desiertas a esas horas no la desanimaron; se dispuso a ir inmediatamente a auxiliar a los heridos.

El problema que ya estaba trazado en su vida fue resuelto en pocos momentos, en los que ya estaban visualizados por aquella madre que vio a su hija enarbolando una bandera blanca, la hora había sonado y obedecía a su llamado. La Rebelde resuelta a cumplir este patriótico y piadoso deber no vaciló; sin esperar abordó un automóvil que en esos momentos pasaba por su casa al mismo tiempo que llegaba otro con un grupo de señoritas que venían huyendo de Nuevo Laredo para escapar de las balas, diciéndole que toda la población de Nuevo Laredo estaba ya cruzando el puente para el lado americano.

La Rebelde las hizo ver en el acto que era necesario regresar, se bajaron de su coche para abordar el de La Rebelde. (60-61)

Leonor Villegas de Magnón and Aracelito Garcia dredsed in white next to the flag of La Cruz Blanca (White Cross), 1914

Leonor Villegas de Magnón and Aracelito Garcia with flag of La Cruz Blanca, 1914. From Recovering the US Hispanic Literary Heritage’s Leonor Villegas de Magnón Collection

La hora había sonado. It was time. Magnón hears the sounds of battle, the firing of guns,and she does not run from them but runs towards them with an almost impulsive resoluteness. She writes a short note to her children, instructing them to go to their uncle’s and assuring them that she will be back. She takes with her a group of brave women that eventually would become the first group of nurses of La Cruz Blanca Constitucionalista.

So begins this magnificent chapter in Mexican and Mexican American history; more importantly, so begins a chapter in women’s history that is often overlooked. I envision these women, heroes, rushing towards the battle sounds and feel pride and inspiration. And, I am reminded that the story of Hispanics/Latin@s has always been inspiring. It simply needs to be told. 

Stay tuned for a Leonor Villegas de Magnón exhibit at Recovering the US Hispanic Literary Heritage Digital Collections

Villegas, de Magnon, Leonor and Clara Lomas. La Rebelde. Houston, Texas: Arte Público Press. 2004. Print.

Melinda Mejia is an instructor of English and Humanities at Houston Community College. She received her PhD in Comparative Literature from the University at Buffalo – SUNY in 2014. Her current projects include creating an Open Educational Resource in Mexican-American Studies and an article on the concept of translation in Maria Cristina Mena’s writing.

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