Friday, August 08, 2014

Belén de Sárraga (c. 1872-1950)

The excellent and deeply researched new book by Mexican historian María Teresa Fernández Aceves, Mujeres en el cambio social en el siglo XX mexicano (Women in Social Change in 20th Century Mexico) has one chapter in particular directly relevant to my own book on the Mexican Revolution: a mini-biography of Belén de Sárraga, whom Fernández Aceves calls "one of the most important leaders of her generation." Few people outside of the Spanish-speaking world have heard of or even imagined such a public figure as Belén de Sárraga; that should change.

A Spanish-born Spiritist, freethinker and feminist, differing from but a contemporary of Annie Besant, Sárraga visited Mexico in 1912 as part of an international speaking tour. What she said-- and the fact that her fellow Spiritist President Francisco I. Madero, the leader of Mexico's 1910 Revolution, both welcomed and celebrated her-- caused an uproar. Writes Fernández Aceves (my translation):
"[In a conversation with The Mexican Herald] Sárraga... commented on the Mexican Revolution and said the Catholic Church was responsible for the conditions under which the country lived. The type of education it provided did not allow freedom of thought. The clergy only promoted the masses' fanaticism and made women into slaves." 
Belén de Sárraga
Especially valuable is the detail Fernández Acevez provides about Sárraga's early involvement with and writings about Spiritism-- the French offshoot of American Spiritualism, lead by French educator Alan Kardec. At the same time, Sárraga, a committed anti-monarchist, ardently defended Spanish colonies' rights to independence. In 1896, she protested the execution of the leader of the Philippines movement for independence and she was jailed for protesting against the war in Cuba. For Sárraga, as for Madero, Spiritism led to political action for freedom and social justice.

Fernández Aceves (my translation):
"[In 1912] Sárraga gave a series of conferences in Mexico City's Xicoténcatl Theater. Among the attendees were the President of Mexico, the cabinet officers and their families, Spiritists, intellectuals, Masons, women, politicians, and workers. Most attended in formal dress. Sárraga lectured with great rhetorical eloquence and and attacked the Catholic Church. She covered the following topics: The Evolution of Thought; Religious Congregations; Woman as a Human Being; Education; Progress and Tradition; and Morality."

Francisco I. Madero
President of Mexico
In her 1914 book published in Lisbon, El clericalismo en América, Sárraga argued that the counterrevolution that ended in Madero's assassination was a coalition of the old-guard (porfiristas) and the clergy, and that the Zapatists, Madero's one-time peasant allies turned enemy, had a religious fervor and respected the clergy. Writes Fernández Acevez (my translation):
"Sárraga… did not recognize the legacy and neither did she understand the popular, radical and rural ideas of the Zapatistas and Villistas: Land reform. She did not take into account the Anarchist motto of Zapatismo: "land and liberty." From Sárraga's point of view, their fanaticism was incompatible with a liberal and modern revolution. For her, that was central to the Mexican Revolution."
Among those who protested against Belén de Sárragas were more than a hundred Mexican señoras who arrived at Chapultepec Castle, the Presidential Residence, in protest at these "outrages" against the Church and Mexican womanhood. President Madero, then frequently the butt of cartoons portraying him as a midget ghost whisperer, mildly replied that he was dedicated to protecting free speech-- theirs as much as Bélen de Sárraga's.

Nearly a decade later, when Sárraga returned to Mexico, the contratemps between the Mexican Church and State continued, and she because-- my translation-- "more vocal and active."

"She gave talks for Masons, teachers, soldiers, and workers in Aguascalientes, Colima, Chihuahua, Durango, Guadalajara, Morelia, Pachuca, Puebla, Oaxaca, Toluca, Torréon, Tulancingo, Xalapa and Zacatecas. All her talks attracted very large audiences. In Puebla, she had an audience of 20,000 workers."

Plutarco Elias Calles
By 1923 Belén de Sárraga was receiving financial and political support from Presidential candidate Plutarco Elías Calles-- her fellow anti-cleric and Spiritist. After Calles won the presidency, Bélen de Sárraga continued speaking to the same topics and in support of his administration in Mexico, New Orleans and Havana. In 1926 she became a Mexican citizen.

Fernández Aceves recounts in detail Sárraga's efforts with her magazine dedicated to universal freethinking, Rumbos Nuevos, which lasted from 1925 to 1927. But after 1928, suddenly, information about Sárraga dries up. Speculates Fernández Acevez (my translation), "Perhaps she did not approve of the armed violence of the Cristiada"-- that is, the civil war that had broken out between the adherents of the Mexican State under Calles and the Church. In 1931 Sárraga was back in Spain, where she soon fought against the fascists in the Civil War; when the Fascists triumphed in 1939, she found herself again in Mexico. She continued to give talks, though one imagines to less clamor, and was writing her memoirs when she died at age 78 in 1950.

Belén de Sárraga surely deserves a full-length biography, as does this outstanding collection of case studies of women in social change in Mexico an English translation.

>More about María Teresa Fernández Aceves's Mujeres en el cambio social en el siglo XX mexicano (Siglo XXI Editores, 2014).

COMMENTS always welcome.

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>More on this blog about Plutarco Elías Calles: Una ventana al mundo invisible (A Window to the Invisible World) or, Master Amajur and the Smoking Signatures

>My interview with historian Michael K. Schuessler about Alma Reed, Felipe Carillo Puerto, Pita Amor, and Elena Poniatowska.

>My knock-your-huaraches-off interview with historian John Tutino, "Looking at Mexico in New Ways"

>More about my book, Metaphysical Odyssey into the Mexican Revolution: Francisco I. Madero and His Secret Book, Spiritist Manual