A Review of La Güera Rodríguez

 

by | Oct 18, 2021

La Güera Rodríguez: The Life and Legends of a Mexican Independence Heroine by Sylvia Arrom (University of California Press, 2021)

By now, history has added a layer to the many ironies that Brandeis historian Silvia Arrom highlights in her spirited book about a controversial historical figure. The recent irony is in the protagonist’s nickname. La Güera Rodríguez: The Life and Legends of a Mexican Independence Heroine reviews the life and the often fanciful works written about María Ignacia Rodríguez (1778-1850).  Today, a blond (güera) socialite would hardly do as symbol of Mexican heroism, even if she had been the darling of Mexican feminist film and of salacious comic books during the decades that marked the turn of this current century.

A recent tussle over public art is telling. The controversy began when the Mexico City mayor decided to replace a statue of Christopher Columbus—who had presided over the Paseo de la Reforma for a century and a half—with the monumental, sculpted head of an indigenous woman. The substitution raised passionate objections. Demands for ethnic and gender equity faced off with aesthetic criteria. Rather than achieve the City’s goal to celebrate autochthonous identity, the replacement of Columbus with “Tlali” was scandalous, because the artist who got the commission to create the new statue was neither indigenous nor female. Identity has become the name of ideology, for many Mexicans and for many others.  Clearly, the conflict has put blondes in their place, meaning at the margins of Mexican history. Today, a historical “güera” is at best tolerated as a possible agent of national liberation, not consecrated as an emblem of homegrown independence.

Convenient decoy could well have been the political role that La Güera Rodríguez played in the early decades of the 19th century, while Mexico moved toward independence by fits and starts. Maybe María Ignacia Rodríguez’s historical role was to charm and distract conservative actors with clever conversation and European good looks. Given the spotty documentation and the conflicting versions of her life, it is difficult to know what side she was on in the independence movement, or when.

In either case, whether the documents are read to show her hesitation to give full support to the rebels—since they occupied her ranches and ravished her resources—or whether she was subtle enough in the courts to get away with her sympathies for them, the scanty evidence in the archives doesn’t paint a passionate patriot. Always cautious, sometimes petulant, la Güera survived two husbands, finally settled down with a third, and earned admiration for her wit and her beauty from distinguished travelers, including noble travel writer Fanny Calderón de la Barca. She “gushed” with enthusiasm after meeting Maria Ignacia and hearing about her friendship with the German naturalist Alexander von Humboldt. The enthusiasm comes through in Calderón de la Barca’s 1840 letter published as part of her widely read Life in Mexico.

The many narrative paradoxes that Arrom develops emerge from colliding desires among those who produce and consume versions of the story: On the one hand, there is a taste for salacious scandal to satisfy male desire, and on the other hand a feminist demand for sexual freedom and female agency. Either way that one reads la Güera, the narrative’s gaps and hints spike the archival documents with speculation and leave room for fantasy to fill in the apparently cautious and precarious life of a socialite who managed to be vivacious and alluring despite delicate health, precarious income and treacherous family members.

Arrom prepares the reader for the paradoxes with her meticulous review of the scant surviving documentation.  Before we are swept away with embroidered tales of uncontrollable sensuality, political heroism, adultery and the design of Mexico’s future, we “know” that la Güera was rational, that she hedged her bets about politics, and that—for example—the alleged affair with Bolívar must be false because he was never in Mexico to meet her. Nevertheless, and despite Arrom’s regular reminders that the romance of la Güera is false, the temptation to believe it proves irresistible. The freedoms that she could not have allowed herself, but that appear in posthumous versions of her biography, produce an aura for the character and a desire in the reader to invest her with impossible prowess. Clearly, the facts are that she lost a fortune in the uprisings incited by Hidalgo and that she was in no position to object, lest the rebels do her more damage.  But, did she perhaps support the rebels anyway? Of course, she could not have designed the Programa de Iguala, though it is hard to forego the popular and repeated speculation about her drafts which may not be entirely out of the question. Humboldt was clearly more interested in the natural wonders of Mexico than in any one woman. But maybe he was helplessly distracted by her too, as later “biographers” assert.

The charm and the impact of this brilliant study owe, in part, to the reader’s cool distance from the fiery fiction of writers who stoked embers in the dry archives of la Güera’s life. We know more than they did. But along with knowing, we experience another level of enjoyment in Arrom’s book. It is the exposure to fiction and fantasy. Silvia Arrom manages to give us both pleasures, the hot and the cold.

Doris Sommer is the Ira and Jewell Williams Professor of Romance Languages and Literatures. She is the author of Foundational Fictions: the National Romances of Latin America, among numerous other books and articles.

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