On one of my recent trips to Mexico, while visiting my family in the state of Guerrero, my father told me a story that I had already heard a few years earlier, but forgotten. It was the story of Amelia Robles Ávila, a woman who took part in the Mexican Revolution from 1912 to 1918 and achieved the rank of colonel, and who was the half-sister of my paternal great-grandfather, whom I was not fortunate enough to meet.
I did, however, meet his wife, my great-grandmother Isabel Domínguez Bacilio. I remember well how I would visit her and she would tell me how her grandson, my father, had inherited Don Luis’ green eyes. At the time I wasn’t interested in learning about my ancestors because I was a teenager and had other hobbies, which is why I never asked her all the questions I have now.
A few years later, my sister did a school project that consisted in drawing her family tree. I remember how she only managed to gather information up to our great-grandparents – both maternal and paternal – and that she hadn’t managed to find any famous people in our family – unlike some of her classmates, who could proudly boast that this or that historical figure was among their forebears.
As time passed, my interests changed, and I learned to appreciate all the old stories about my family. That was why, on this trip, I asked my father to tell me everything he knew about Amelia. .
His tale was complemented by a visit to Xochilapa, a small settlement close to the town where my father lives and where Amelia and my great-grandfather were from. Before we got there, we visited a nearby archeological area called La Organera, which takes its name from the myriad organ pipe cactuses that grow in the region. We were the only ones there. There were no guards and nobody working on the archeological site, so we had to sneak in by jumping the barbed-wire fence that was unsuccessfully protecting the place. An archeological site just for us: what a privilege!
After this unlawful visit, we carried on towards Xochipala. The town was deserted. Later we found out that, because of certain conflicts around drug trafficking in the region, people barely leave their homes for fear of running into someone who might ruin their lives as a consequence of sheer chance.
We passed by the the public primary school – named after “Coronel Robles”, with coronel in the masculine – before finally reaching the house museum dedicated to the same person, the Casa Museo Coronela Amelia Robles – coronela, in the feminine.
We were so disappointed when we found out that the museum was closed that we thought our mission had been in vain, but the owner of the shop opposite, when he noticed that we were a pair of strange visitors, told us that we should go to the house of the town historian just around the corner, and that, in all likelihood, this man would give us the necessary information about the museum and could even open it for us.
The historian received us in his house with great kindness and interest. We explained to him that my father was the grandson of Luis, the half-brother of Colonel Amelia Robles, and that we would like to know more about her life.
In the historian’s house there were several photos of Amelia and also of my great-grandfather. My father had never seen a photo of him and I still remember how emotional he was as he held the image in his hands. There was Luis, on horseback, with a look that, yes, recalled my father’s eyes, but which also reminded me of my beloved Uncle Guillermo.
At that moment I understood that, through my curiosity, I had not only discovered the famous figure in my family tree that my sister could have spoken about after her project, but that I was also witnessing something more personal and intimate: the connection between my father and his grandfather, of whom he had only heard stories and whom he had never seen, even in a photograph. The image lined up with the stories that his mother – my grandmother – had told him about Luis and the horse on which he took her riding.
He also showed us photos of Amelia and her mother, my great-great-grandmother Josefa Ávila Campos, who had first been married to Casimiro Robles and later on to Jesús Martínez, my great-great-grandfather. She had three children with Casimiro: Prisca, Teódulo and Amelia; and another three with Jesús: Luis (my great-grandfather), Concepción and Jesús.
Amelia was born on November 3, 1889. As a child she learned to ride and break in horses and also to use weapons. At the age of 21, she quit her studies due to the beginning of the Mexican Revolution. She said in an interview that her interest in weaponry was born of her hatred for her stepfather – my great-great-grandfather – whom she twice planned to kill. It’s very likely that it was because of this conflict that she decided to leave home and join the revolutionary cause at the age of 23.
In another interview, she claimed she had joined the Revolution “just out of a young girl’s madness… an adventure like any other”, and that the sensation she had felt was “one of being completely free”.
This freedom would lead her to fight for the ideals of the Revolution from 1912. She came to have as many as a thousand people in her charge and took part in around 70 battles. She surrendered arms in 1918; however, she went on joining in other armed conflicts until 1924 and was later involved in various activities in the political life of her town.
When she returned to Xochipala from the Revolution, she officially adopted her masculine personality in the town, as he had already done on the battlefield. He cut off his braids, began to dress as a man, and asked everyone to call him Amelio rather than Amelia.
Not long after his arrival he brought Ángela Torres to live with him, with whom he spent the rest of his life and raised an adopted daughter.
In 1955, he began to carry out official proceedings with the Ministry of National Defense under the name of Amelio Robles Ávila. Fifteen years later, he was officially recognised as a “Veterano ( in the masculine) de la Revolución Mexicana” and that same year as a “Legionario (masculine again) de Honor”. In 1973, he received the medal of Mérito revolucionario.
The town historian read us one of the chapters of the book about Amelio’s life that he is soon to publish. It was the most personal. He read that it was Amelio himself who murdered my great-grandfather Luis in 1952, although it is not known for certain whether this occurred because of a dispute over his mother’s inheritance or due to a conflict of another kind.
It was an emotional moment for my father and for me: not only had we discovered more about our family's revolutionary hero and about our direct ancestor, we had also confirmed a painful truth that left us more disturbed than contented.
Amelio died in 1984. He lived for 94 years, 70 of them as a man. In 2007, a prize was created in his honour: the Premio Amelio Robles, awarded each year at the Festival de la Diversidad de Género in Monterrey, one of the biggest cities in Mexico. This award, created by LGBTQIA+ community groups, aims to recognise the contributions and careers of activists who work to improve respect of gender diversity.
A day after our visit to Xochipala, we visited the museum in Chilpancingo, state capital of Guerrero, and there we saw a statue of Colonel Amelia Robles Ávila. “I’m a coronel (masculine), because I earned the rank in blood and fire, and not a coronela (feminine) because I was never any colonel’s wife”. These words, spoken by Amelio in one of his interviews, still echo within me.
'Gender and Transgender in the Mexican Revolution: The Shifting Memory of Amelio Robles' by Gabriela Cano in Women Warriors and National Heroes: Global Histories (2020) (ed. Cothran et al.)
Amelia Robles en la Biblioteca virtual Emiliano Zapata
Amelio Robles, un coronel trans en la Revolución mexicana - El País (España)
Amelia Robles, la coronela (Historia gráfica de Sergio Cena) - La Izquierda Diario
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July 10, 2021
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