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A Few Notable Women in Puebla’s History

With the bicentennial of Mexico’s independence and the centennial of its revolution both happening this fall, the country has been proudly honoring its national heroes, the most prominent of whom happen to be men. This prompted me to wonder about the women who helped shape Mexico throughout the course of history, especially those with particular significance in Puebla. A little research unearthed several heroines (and perhaps one anti-heroine), who made their marks long before Blanca Alcalá became the city’s first female mayor in 2007. In fact, it is here in Puebla that a revolutionary’s bold sister, a stylish slave girl, and a tastemaking group of nuns not only introduced new ways of thinking, but also started trends that ultimately became internationally recognized symbols of Mexico.

Carmen Serdán

It’s nearly impossible to visit Puebla without encountering one of the many landmarks — the airport, the baseball stadium, schools, a major thoroughfare, etc. — named after the hermanos Serdán. The four siblings were native poblanos and early, vocal proponents of the Mexican Revolution. Although each played a role in the uprising, Aquiles and Carmen Serdán get the most credit.

Aquiles worked closely with Francisco Madero and Emiliano Zapata to plot the overthrow of Porfirio Díaz’s government, which closely resembled a dictatorship. Carmen, who went by the male pseudonym Marcos Serrato while engaging in conspiratorial activities, supported the cause by distributing anti-reelectionist propaganda, delivering money to Texas, and helping stockpile weapons in the family’s home in Puebla. When the house was raided by police on November 18, 1910, just two days before the revolution was scheduled to begin, the Serdáns refused to surrender — even though they were outnumbered 500 to 21.

As the bullets flew, Carmen stepped out onto a balcony to harangue the crowds of onlookers.

Carmen was wounded, but unlike Aquiles and their other brother, Máximo, she survived the onslaught and was arrested. After Díaz was ousted, she was released from prison, and her activism continued. “Then came General Huerta’s counterrevolutionary putsch and the overthrow and murder of Madero,” notes Jim Tuck of MexConnect. “In the Villa-Carranza-Obregón campaign against Huerta, Carmen served in field hospitals as a nurse.”

Carmen later returned to Puebla to raise the children of her slain brothers. She also served as a nurse in different blood banks during the Constitutional struggle. She died in 1948. In 1960, the Serdán home was opened to the public as the regional Museum of the Mexican Revolution (6 Oriente #206). Bullet holes from the standoff still scar the building’s facade, and a room inside is devoted to women of the revolution.

La China Poblana

The china poblana is one of the most iconic figures in Mexico. Her unique style started a fashion craze that was adopted (and adapted) by women all over the region. A staple of folkloric dance troupes, the china poblana getup is widely regarded as the traditional attire of women throughout the republic.

Who was she? As legend has it, the china poblana (which means “the Asian woman from Puebla”) was a Mexican immigrant named Mirrha. The young girl, mostly likely from India or the Philippines, was captured by South Seas pirates in the early 17th century and brought to New Spain as a slave. Mirrha had been abducted at the request of a Spanish viceroy, but she was ultimately sold to a local merchant in Puebla. Her new owner baptized her with a Christian name, Catarina de San Juan.

Mirrha was highly regarded for her beauty and generosity, which suggests why her style was widely copied.

Mirrha refused to dress like the local women, preferring a sari-like outfit, which evolved into the china poblana ensemble. The typical pieces include: a short-sleeved white blouse with vibrant silk embroidery; a “castor” skirt decorated with sequins and beads; a white slip with lace trim that dropped below the skirt’s hemline; and a shawl woven from blue and white thread.

“For people all over Mexico and audiences throughout the world, the tradition of La China Poblana is seen on the brightly embroidered ballet folklorico dress style from Puebla, thought to be Chinese in its influence,” writes Mark Lacy of the Houston Institute of Culture’s Traditions of Mexico project.

After her owner passed away, Mirrha either married the Chinese servant of a local priest, or became a nun, or both. She apparently spent her final days in a convent, where she is said to have had visions of the Virgin Mary with the baby Jesus. Mirrha died in 1688. She was briefly honored as a saint, until the Inquisition barred devotion to her. Visitors to Puebla today can visit her tomb inside the sacristy of the Templo de la Compañía de Jesús (Av. Palafox y Mendoza at 4 Sur), an 18th-century Jesuit church located in the city’s historic center.

If you’re driving around town, don’t miss the gorgeous statute dedicated to her at the intersection of Heroes de 5 de Mayo and Defensores de la Republica. The 10-foot likeness, which provides the centerpiece of 200-ton fountain, was created in 1971 by poblano sculptor Jesús Corro Ferrer. Ferrer restored the talavera tiles and stonework in 2007.

Sisters of Santa Rosa

Although few people know them by name, anyone who loves Mexican food is familiar with their work. The sisters of the Santa Rosa convent in Puebla are credited with inventing mole poblano, which today rivals the taco as the national dish of Mexico. According to local legend, the nuns, eager to please a visiting archbishop, threw together some two dozen ingredients — chile peppers, fruits, chocolate, and more — to create the delicious sweet and savory sauce. They then probably served it over pieces of turkey (an indigenous bird in Mexico), much to the monsignor’s delight.

It’s said that the sisters got their recipe from an angel, but they may have borrowed from Aztec chefs.

A dish similar to mole may have been prepared for Hernán Cortés, at Montezuma’s request. “This story probably gained credibility because the word ‘mole’ comes from the Nahuatl word ‘milli,’ which means sauce or ‘concoction,’” says a writer for MexOnline. “Another connection could be that chocolate was widely used in pre-Columbian Mexico, so people jumped to that conclusion.”

No matter where their inspiration came from, the sisters of Santa Rosa undoubtedly contributed to mole poblano’s popularity in modern-day Mexican cooking. Visitors to Puebla can check out the colorful talavera kitchen where it all came together when the convent-turned-museum, currently being restored, reopens next year. The ex-Convent of Santa Rosa is located at 14 Poniente #305 (at 3 Norte).

La Malinche

She was smart, courageous, and — in the eyes of many people nowadays — a traitor of historic proportions. La Malinche is essentially the Mexican equivalent of Benedict Arnold. The Nahua woman, also known as La Malintzin and Doña Marina, was a multilingual translator from the Gulf Coast who helped Cortés communicate with indigenous peoples of Mexico. She is credited with many feats, including giving birth to Cortés’ son Martín, one of the first mestizos.

Her name is now used in Mexico to describe someone who betrays his own people: malinchista.

Although historians disagree, La Malinche’s translating may have contributed to the Cholula massacre in 1519. According to some accounts, a local woman told La Malinche that the Cholulans planned to murder the Spaniards in their sleep — and advised her to escape to save herself. Instead, La Malinche told Cortés, who ordered a merciless counter-attack. With help from the neighboring Tlaxcalans, thousands of Cholulans were slaughtered, and the town was set on fire. “The Spaniards turned the tables on the Cholulans and massacred about ten percent of the city’s population,” notes M.E.X.A. at California State University, Los Angeles.

Today, La Malinche most commonly refers to the inactive volcano that rises 14,600 feet above sea level on the Puebla-Tlaxcala state line. The government established a national park there in 1938; it has since become a popular weekend destination for hikers, climbers, and campers. Some 40 cabins and a camping area (with a diner, soccer fields, basketball courts, and more) are available for recreational use by the Centro Vacacional Malintzi. On lower ground, locals often look to the mountain to predict the weather: When the view of La Malinche is obscured by dark clouds, a downpour is imminent in Cholula and the Puebla capital.

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