Maternity at War
A Double-Edged Sword: War and Motherhood in Nineteenth-Century Latin America

A Double-Edged Sword: War and Motherhood in Nineteenth-Century Latin America

Vanesa Miseres

The depictions of war mothers are the touchstone for gender debates and political tensions of any given period in history. In nineteenth-century Latin America, mothers became national icons and were the center of many visual and literary representations of war, at a time when the newly formed nations restricted citizenship to men from the criollo upper class.[1] The numerous stories and representations of war hero Juana Azurduy, as well as the portraits of the indigenous and mestizo women known as the rabonas in Andean military, help us understand the political and cultural uses of maternity at war.

Juana Azurduy and Maternal Heroism

Juana Azurduy (1780–1862) is one of the most prominent women of mestizo origin in Latin American independence history. She abandoned her education in a convent to marry the military Commandant Manuel Ascencio Padilla in 1805. Alongside her husband, she led an army of some 6,000 and established her own troop of women, the Amazons. She helped liberate Upper Peru, today’s Bolivia, from the Spanish at great personal cost, losing her husband and four of her children in war. Only Luisa, whom Azurduy gave birth to in the middle of a battle, survived.

Motherhood is an aspect usually not included in early biographies and visual representations of Azurduy, which commonly portrayed her as a masculinized woman as a way to reinforce the idea that women were ill-suited to war. For instance, revolutionary Antonio Beruti (1772–1841) praised Azurduy’s “manly efforts” in a letter informing General Manuel Belgrano that the Argentine government had conferred on her the rank of lieutenant colonel.[2] Yet by the end of the nineteenth century, Juana Manuela Gorriti (Argentina, 1816–92) and Lindaura Anzoátegui (Bolivia, 1846–98) reclaimed Azurduy’s maternal features in their works. Gorriti’s short biography of Azurduy presented her as a military leader and “a loving mother” among the soldiers.[3] Similarly, Azoátegui’s trilogy on Juana Azurduy depicts her performing military actions within the domestic sphere. Azurduy is a valiant warrior and a good mother and wife. She is hospitable toward her soldiers, receiving them at her home where they deliberate on political matters.[4]

Portrait of Juana Azurduy
Anonymous. Portrait of Juana Azurduy. Circa 1856. (Salón de Espejos de la Alcaldía de Padilla, Bolivia.)

After the wars of independence, a woman’s role in the new republics was almost exclusively anchored in her ability to become a compassionate and submissive mother that would educate the future citizens of the nation. Gorriti and Anzoátegui reimagined Azurduy under maternal premises as a counterexample. Through her maternal heroism, these writers showed that it was possible to get involved in politics while maintaining what were then considered acceptable feminine attributes. Additionally, Azurduy’s mestizo origins allowed both Gorriti and Anzoátegui to portray racialized women in a positive light, unlike most of the nineteenth-century texts that depicted Indigenous and mestizo populations as the cause for Latin America’s backwardness. Women’s literary efforts did not translate, though, to tangible political rights for these groups, but Azurduy’s maternity continued to be addressed in future biographies, literary works, and political speeches.[5]

Juana Azurduy’s profile as a combative yet motherly woman has triumphed over her masculinization in contemporary references as well. In 2009, the Bolivian government initiated a conditional cash transfer program, the Juana Azurduy Voucher Program, to encourage the use of preventive health services by pregnant women for themselves and their children. Currently, Bolivia has the second highest maternal mortality rate in South America and Indigenous women are particularly vulnerable to death from pregnancy, childbirth, and postpartum complications. This current use of Azurduy’s image linked to maternity confirms that the idealization of motherly figures in heroic national narratives does not necessarily grant rights to ordinary women in their everyday life.

Rabonas: Mothers in the Andean Battlefield

Other mestizo and Indigenous women who were actively involved in Latin American wars were the rabonas. They accompanied local troops and served as cooks, laundresses, nurses, lovers, mothers, and occasionally as combatants.The rabonas gained recognition during the War of the Pacific (1879–84), fought between Chile and the joint forces of Bolivia and Peru for long-standing territorial and resources disputes.

An emblematic image of this war is El repase, a painting by Ramón Muñiz (1830–1909). The repase was the practice of stabbing fallen opponents with bayonets to ensure their death. Muñiz’s portrait shows a rabona attempting to stop the repase and is considered a national symbol of the sacrifices that women were willing to make during the war. Maternity is, again, the main aspect of the representation. The woman is accompanied by a crying infant on one side, demanding the presence of their mother and, on the other side, by culinary instruments such as pots and vessels. Both reinforce the extraordinary nature of women in the battlefield and corroborate that their main role was still expected in the domestic realm. The rabona personifies the division of roles in wartime, even in combat zones.[6]

A hunched woman carries an infant on her back in a blanket wrapped around her shoulders, and she carries good and shelter in her hands
Pancho Fierro, Rabona en marcha, 1854. (Courtesy of the author)

Similarly, watercolor artist Pancho Fierro depicted rabonas in their maternal role. In Rabona en marcha, an Indigenous woman transports domestic equipment on both hands and a baby on her back, following the ancient Inca custom of carrying children with a blanket or aguayo. The accent on these maternal care practices in visual representations of the rabonas demonstrates that they were a vital part of the military, contributing to the soldiers’ wellbeing and preventing their desertion. But unlike portrayals of Juana Azurduy, nineteenth-century depictions of the rabonas recurrently identified them with sacrifice, hunger, and suffering. In Peregrinations of a Pariah, the Franco-Peruvian socialist activist Flora Tristán (1803-1844) pointed out the extreme climates that they endured, without proper clothing and footwear, the additional fatigue of maternity, and the “horrible ugliness” of their appearance as a product of their hostile life.[7] Rabonas were never formally incorporated into the army and were victims of the rigors of encampment as well as the abuses perpetrated by the soldiers.

The presence of the rabonas in the army was despised in the years immediately after the war, when the country sought to rebuild and modernize. In that path to restoration, there was no place for the image of a poor, indigenous woman from remote areas of the country. However, her image continued to generate reflections on the role of women and motherhood at war throughout the twentieth century. In 1924, Peruvian feminist and pioneer in women’s education Elvira García y García (1862–1951) devoted several pages of The Peruvian Woman through the Centuries to vindicate the rabonas’ contributions to the nation during the War of the Pacific. Similar to Gorriti and Anzoátegui, García y García states that the rabonas were examples of ferocity in combat but calm in the home.[8] For her, Indigenous women were “never a hindrance” but a great support to the army.[9] In times when women more openly debated the expansion of their rights, it is interesting to note the feminist recapture of indigenous mothers by García and García. In the 1960s and 1970s, the rabonas regained visibility under populist and nationalist discourses that aimed to offer not a gendered revision of war, but an ethnic icon that could reflect a collective and popular national identity.

A woman gives food to a group of children, while her own child grasps her skirts
Cabichuí, Year 1, No. 45, October 10, 1867. (National Library of Paraguay)


As these examples show, motherhood at war has been a double-edged sword in Latin America. On the one hand, it has served as an image that reaffirms the domestic role of women at home and at war. However, it has also been a strategy for women writers who, through motherhood, recovered the political value of women’s domestic and reproductive functions. The state’s discourses, on the other hand, have used motherhood strategically to idealize a collective deed in times of war without necessarily expanding rights to mothers, especially those belonging to marginalized racial groups, which paradoxically represent a large percentage of the population in countries such as Bolivia and Peru. War is, ultimately, a conservative force with a universal rhetoric that elevates maternity but, in doing so, reinforces women’s domestic role. At a moment in which we are facing a new war with epic narratives of mothers and their sacrifices, let’s not forget this. Other war mothers’ images around the world serve as a reminder.


  1. Criollo: Spanish descent born in Spanish America.
  2. Letter from Antonio Beruti to General Manuel Belgrano, August 13, 1816. In Joaquín Gantier, Doña Juana Azurduy de Padilla (La Paz: 1980), 199.
  3. Juana Manuela Gorriti, “Juana Azurduy de Padilla,” Obras Completas (Salta, Fundación del Banco del Noroeste, 6 vols., 1992), 101.
  4. Lindaura Anzoátegui, Huallparrimachi (1892), En el año 1815 (1895), and Don Manuel Asencio Padilla (1909).
  5. For twentieth-century references to Azurduy, see Heather Hennes, “Corrientes culturales en la leyenda de Juana Azurduy de Padilla,”Cuadernos Americanos: Nueva Época, vol. 2, no. 132 (2010): 93–115.
  6. Gabriel Cid, ““Amazons” in the Pantheon? Women Warriors, Nationalism, and Hero Cults in Nineteenth- and Twentieth-Century Chile and Peru.” Women Warriors and National Heroes: Global Histories (Bloomsbury Academic, 2020), 205.
  7. Flora Tristan, Peregrinations of a Pariah (Folio Society, 1986), 367.
  8. Elvira García y García, La mujer peruana a través de los siglos (Lima: Imprenta Americana, 1924), 562.
  9. García y García, La mujer peruana, 537.

Featured image caption: Ramón Muñiz, El repase, 1888. (Courtesy Military Historical Museum Museo, Callao, Peru via Wikimedia Commons)

Vanesa Miseres is Associate Professor of Latin American Literatures and Cultures at the University of Notre Dame. She specializes in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Latin American literature, with an emphasis on travel writing, war literature, women writers, gender, cultural, and food studies. She is the author of "Mujeres en tránsito: viaje, identidad y escritura en Sudamérica (1830-1910)" (2017). Miseres is currently finishing a manuscript on Latin American women’s war writing and feminism and prepares a study on gender and scientific knowledge in the nineteenth century.