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El Corrido de las Bandidas (The Ballad of the Bandidas)

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“Bandit corridos are not accurate chronicles. They embody memory and opinion and tell tales that suit the subjectivity of the author.” (Frazer, 2006, p. 132)

“There is no doubt that history is written by the victors. But it is also true that legends are written by the people.” - Speech at Pancho Villa’s grave, from Oscar W. Ching Vega, La última cabalgata de Pancho Villa, 1977

 

*** 

 

Señoras, con su permiso,                                            Ladies, with your permission,

prestándome su atención,                                           Lend me your attention,

Voy a contar el corrido                                                I am going to sing a ballad

de las tal Bandidas.                                                     About the so-called Bandidas.

 

Bandits and outlaws such as Francisco (Pancho) Villa, Jesús Arriaga (Chucho el Roto), Santana Rodríguez Palafox (Santanón), and Heraclio Bernal (The Thunderbolt of Sinaloa) are renowned in story and song, but less discussed, though quite famous in their time, are the Bandidas. The narrative changes depending on the source; however, what is certain is that Sara Sandoval and María Alvarez, known colloquially as Las Bandidas, were two of the best known bandit women in Mexico prior to Leonarda Emilia (La Carambada). By all accounts, they lived relatively ordinary lives for the time as daughters of a poor peasant farmer and a banker until the alleged assault on their fathers and re-possession of their land by the Capitol Bank and Trust of New York. Their subsequent bank robberies are a matter of record, beginning with their initial holdup of Banco Santa Rita to the final recovery of Mexico’s gold reserve from an errant bank employee, with the assistance of an American detective.

There are a number of corridos discussing their exploits both singly and together, which have been little studied until now. These ballads, as do many in the genre, exculpate the women’s deeds (theft, assault, blackmail, kidnapping, and murder) by asserting that their fathers were assaulted and killed with no provocation and that their and their neighbors’ land was unjustly stolen by an imperialist American bank. They paint the pair as Robin Hood-like figures standing up to evil colonialist powers and fighting for justice and la patría. These themes would be especially resonant with Mexican audiences given the contentious end of the Mexican-American War and just-concluded Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848, which ceded Mexico’s territory to the United States, including most of what is known today as California, Utah, Nevada, Arizona and New Mexico. However, the corridos only partly tell the story, and, as with all popular narratives, there is much that's obscured or in doubt.

 

***

 

Marginal notes found in text above:

Las Bandidas and La Carambada 4 lyfe!!1!

Ordinary lives? How many women are fierce-ass sharpshooters with trained horses or hella smart athletes who can skate, swim, ride, and throw knives and shoot arrows even before they become world famous bandits?

Errant bank employee!?!! How about total murdering, thieving asshole? F*ck Jackson!

Yeah stick it to those motherfucking colonialist dicks!!!

 

***

 

No hubo un hombre jamás a quien quisiera,                                            There never was a man she could love.

de entre la tropa ninguno le cuadró,                                                        From among the troops she liked none,

sólo a su padre le fue fiel soldadera                                                         Only to her father was she a faithful soldier

y al pobrecito una bala lo quebró.                                                            And the poor man was killed by a bullet.

 

Yo vi a su padre morir entre sus brazos                                                    I saw her father die in her arms.

y vi también al traidor que lo mató,                                                          And I also saw the traitor who killed him.

al muy canalla le dio cuatro balazos,                                                        The scoundrel pumped four bullets in him

como cedazo dejó su corazón.                                                                 Like a sieve he left his heart.

 

Desde aquel dí ya no fue soldadera,                                                         From that day on she was no longer a common soldier

con su canana repleta y su fusil                                                                With her cartridge belt full and her rifle

en las batallas fue siempre la primera,                                                      In battles she was always the first,

las balaceras nomás la hacían reír.                                                           The bullets only made her laugh.

 

Wait wait wait stop the music! There’s poetic license and then there’s just outright lies!  Whose song is this? Sara’s? First of all, she wasn’t a soldier and, second, her father was poisoned not shot. As for guns, she couldn’t even load or shoot straight when she started out, and was so nervous she got the hiccups. And if this is about María? Well, her father got shot but he survived, healthy as a horse. Honestly, never trust a songwriter to do a historian’s job, even though they can make a pretty tale out of anything. Lying liars, all of them. . .

By the end of their careers though, they certainly weren’t common or anything less than fierce in a fight. And they were kind of soldiers for a bit there, and faithful to their fathers, who were indeed attacked by the dastardly Mr. Jackson and his henchmen from the Capitol Bank and Trust. And though their relationship was only hinted at--well OK, and sung at the top of some troubadours’ lungs in the bawdier corridos--there’s at least no record that any man (after that gringo Quentin) came between them. But that’s another story. . .

 

***

 

En Durango comenzó                                                                                 In Durango she started

su carrera de bandida                                                                                her career as a bandit

en cada golpe que daba                                                                             and after every assault

se hacía ella desaparecido                                                                         she seemed to disappear.

***

La Carambada decía:                                                                                  La Carambada once said

—Soy el terror de la zona;                                                                           I am the terror of this zone

ya no tiembles, vida mía,                                                                            Have no fear for my life,

yo te pondré tu corona.                                                                              for you have made me a queen.

 

Con sus pistolas al cinto,                                                                           With pistols in her holster

con su puñal afilado,                                                                                  and a well-sharpened dagger

la valiente Carambada                                                                                Brave Carambada

atacó hasta la Acordada.                                                                            fought even the Acordada.

 

Ah, that’s a bit better (barring a few details and the fact that there were two of them). But honestly, history is in the eye of the beholder (or the tale teller); is written by the victors; is a shifting kaleidoscope of perspectives. There are all the things we can’t see, that we can only speculate on and and sometimes in speculating arrive at a truth, if not the Truth. There are other concerns besides strict historical documentation here and there’s only so much time, so let’s fast forward a bit. So, fathers assaulted by greedy mustache-twirling American bank proxy, swearing of revenge, contentious meet cute over bank robbery and adorable kerchiefs, fights in church and everywhere else, hilarious training montage with gruff older mentor guy. . . annnnd here we are. The good parts version. 

 

***

 

—¡Ay!—decía doña Sara                                                                             "Oh!" said Doña Sara

con sus armas en la mano:                                                                          With her weapons in her hand:

—yo me voy con esta señora                                                                       "I am going with this lady

para el cerro Durango.                                                                                To the Durangan Hills."

 

Aww, head to the hills with your girl! And I bet it went a little something like this:

Sara was glad of a moment of quiet while María slept, though María was never truly silent, grumbling even in her sleep. The desert night was filled with the rustle of small animals and the crackling of the fire, which threw just enough light to see their small campsite and María, sprawled across their bedrolls, having undone her blankets. Sara, sitting on her rocky perch, gazed fondly at her. She was so abandoned, even in sleep, going everywhere and taking up as much space as possible. Sara envied her that ease.

She went over to cover her up gently against the chill night air as she slept like a child. But no child could inspire in her this mix of exasperation and camaraderie, tenderness and confusion. Sara lay down next to her to get some sleep, and María immediately snuffled, rolled over and covered her like an extra blanket. Sara stared up at the stars in bemusement, arms at her sides, unaccountably warmed by the contact, and resisted the desire to curl up closer in her arms.

 

*** 

 

Opinion and historical accounts vary on the role that Quentin Ross, detective and early forensic science pioneer, played in the exploits of the Bandidas. Telegrams from the time seem to indicate that he was taken against his will by the robbers; however, recent discoveries in his previously uncatalogued archives have uncovered photos that indicate a much more intimate relationship between the parties. However, Quentin later married Clarissa Ashe, the daughter of the head of Capitol Bank and Trust Company, and eyewitness accounts from the time indicate that the Bandidas formed a partnership that lasted the rest of their lives. Neither ever married.

 

***

 

La Carambada ya viene,                                                                            Here comes La Carambada,

la Carambada ya va:                                                                                  La Carambada’s already here

¡válgame san Apapucio,                                                                             Saint Apapucho protect us,

nos va a llevar la fregada!                                                                          she’s going to make us blush

 

La Carambada fue airada                                                                           La Carambada was wild,

a pelear a todo vuelo,                                                                                too wild to wear a skirt

y, percherona bragada,                                                                              When she revealed her sex,

nos dejó mirando el cielo.                                                                          we lifted our eyes to the sky.

 

Kissing, like most things were with Sara, turned out to be much more complicated than it seemed at first glance. It was all fun and games when they dressed up like ladies of the night, tied a naked Quentin to the bed, and took racy staged photos to blackmail him into telling them about Sara’s father’s death. But after the immediate business was done, María grew uncomfortably aware again that Quentin was naked but for a hat, and watching Sara sit astride him like he was her horse, tied to a hitching post and obedient to her command, made uncomfortable flutters start up in María’s stomach. It was bad enough then, but when Sara kept teasing her about being a virgin, it was more than María could stand. Being a farm girl, she was in no way unaware of male anatomy; she’d seen cocks! Just not in the light with actual people attached and never had any barnyard activities given her the feeling she got when she saw Sara on top of Quentin. It was just a little mesmerizing, that was all--Sara in shiny satin, her waist cinched tight and breasts heaving even more than usual, talking about how to properly kiss someone.

“If you kiss a man right he will never forget you. If you kiss him wrong, he will never remember you. If you have made love to a man, you know this. if you haven’t, you don’t. So that’s the proof. Kiss him!”

Of course María had never made love to a man. They were always too pushy or boring or she was waiting until marriage (she told her father and herself, though marrying was hard to imagine). She frankly had better things to do than put up with pawing, like ride her horse. But she wasn’t about to admit that to Sara now. This was a challenge to her honor! She puckered up and pecked, over Quentin’s objections. Annnd felt nothing, nada. Stupid Sara, what did she know?

Sara scoffed, superior as always. “Well, if you kiss a man like that, you will be forgotten before you even leave the room! Is that what you want?”

María looked away mulishly. “No.” It was one thing not to want to kiss a man, but to do it and be bad at it, worse than Sara? Insoportable!

 “Watch,” said Sara and moved in on Quentin. Despite herself María was drawn in. It was just natural to lean in closer. Sara was offering instruction as she did in everything, always knowing best (and María was perhaps a little less loathe than usual to listen to her). Up close, she could see the way Sara’s rouged lips parted and enticed Quentin’s mouth open, the little flashes of her tongue. Quentin’s lips had felt like nothing on hers, just dry skin and muffled protests. But Sara’s kiss looked wet, lush, like something you could sink into, and María felt nearly as dazed as Quentin looked when they broke apart. “Now that’s a kiss,” said Sara, and María was forced to agee. If kissing was like that--well then it seemed like a much more fun thing to do.

“Now you try it. Come on!”

María hesitated then leaned in.

“Think of the sweetest summer fruit,” came Sara’s instruction, and María closed her eyes against the suddenly overwhelming sight of Sara on Quentin’s other side, her eyes hot and intent on them. But she couldn’t help imagining Sara in her mind and the way her lips had moved. The touch of Sara’s encouraging hand on her head and breathless “Come on,” wasn’t helping. Or maybe it was. That certainly set off the fizzing in her stomach again, even though Quentin’s lips were just as skinny as before.

“Mmmm!” María ended the kiss and collapsed into giggles; she felt a little like what she imagined drinking champagne might be like, all bubbly and light. “How was that?”

“Better,” Sara confirmed, looking almost as satisfied.

“I thought that was pretty good.”

“Yes, technically. But now you have to capture the nuance.” And she moved in for the kill.

María stared, transfixed. Her kiss was still amateur compared to this, Sara swaying like a snake above Quentin, her mouth the very definition of sin as she licked her lips and then simply devoured his mouth. María longed to loosen her corset. It surely was cinched too tight; her breath was short and coming fast. 

In a flash, she imagined saying, “I’m not sure I got it. Show me yourself,” and having Sara turn, raise a hand to María’s face and lean closer. “Now pay attention,” Sara would whisper, her breath feathering over María’s lips, and devour her as she had Quentin, teaching by example. They could trade kisses until María had mastered the ways of desire, until they had followed the butterflies in her stomach to a conclusion she could barely glimpse. If they liked, they could take turns practicing on Quentin, his hands still tied as he strained upward, not allowed to kiss them but only to watch and be used. But Sara’s mouth would always return to hers and maybe move down her neck to the front of her corset, María thought, remembering Sara’s quick correction when María fiddled at her bosom. María felt like trying to loosen it again now, imagining Sara’s stinging slap but this time followed but the wet heat of her mouth. It was too close, too overwhelming. María leapt off the bed and turned her mind and eventually Sara’s back to the safer topic of bank robbery.

 

***

 

Ay María, por Díos te lo ruego,                                                                    Oh María, in God's name I beg you

calma el fuego de esta mi pasión,                                                               Calm the fire of my passion

porque te amo y te quiero rendido                                                              Because I love and want you completely

y por ti sufre mi fiel corazón.                                                                      And my faithful heart suffers for you so.

 

Sara would never say that! But perhaps it might happen like this:

María had insisted on going to the church to light candles before heading out at first light to rob the gold reserve train. Sara thought prayers for a successful robbery were not the likeliest pleas to be answered but figured it certainly couldn’t hurt. And no matter that she could think of other, more pleasant ways to spend what could be their final hours; whatever they did, even spending it in the hushed quiet of the abandoned church, she would savor this night. Quiet was rare with María, who was always talking, arguing, scoffing. Sara didn’t know how she’d lived without that constant flood of words, not pretty or decorous but direct and straight to the heart, and didn’t want to think about a future without them, without her. Everything she’d been holding back suddenly seemed futile in light of this fleeting moment. It was impossible to tell María what she meant to her and impossible not to at least try. 

“You know, this might be the last time we get to talk.” A grim beginning; all her fancy education and words were failing her.

But María made everything better, as usual. “Don’t say that. It’s bad luck. I’m a superstitious peasant remember,” she laughed.

“No, you’re a lot more than that. You always know what you want, and you always know what you feel.” Sara had never been sure what she wanted, except to be the best she could be, and had never felt anything deeply besides her love for her father. She had always been a bit out of place, dissatisfied, searching for something. Until María.

“I admire you, María.” This was only a fraction of what she held in her heart, but she put the weight of all her feeling in the words, hoping that María would hear everything she meant.

María looked like Sara had called her the queen of Spain. “You admire me? How can you admire me? All I know about is horses and chickens.” She suddenly grinned, always with that flash of quicksilver teasing. “Well, now I really know how to give a good kiss.”

Sara laughed and focused on the tip-tilted corner of her mouth, longing to make her demonstrate all that she’d learned and teach her so much more besides. But María, perhaps catching that same awareness of last moments as Sara, turned to her and grew uncharacteristically solemn. “It’s been good to have you as a partner.” 

Sara held out her hand. “It’s been good to have you as a friend. You’ve taught me a lot about how to care about people.” How to really love, she thought, and despite herself she let the handshake linger, turn into holding hands. María looked like the angel she wasn’t in the candlelight, and Sara had to turn away, overcome, before she spilled out her heart on the altar. No one had ever made her feel the way María did--free and fearless, in sync, always met with equal passion even in disagreement, and unstoppable when in accord.

“And you were a beautiful widow.” Was that the same hesitation and hope in María’s voice? Possibly but how could she be sure?

“Well, black is always a flattering color.” Sara brushed off the compliment, and then silently yelled at herself. She was letting her chance slip away! “There’s one more thing I’d like to get off my chest.” And she, courageous bandit and bank robber, turned away again. “This bloody corset. It’s been squeezing my gut my whole life.” She handed María her knife and turned her back, cursing herself for a coward. She wasn’t entirely lying; certainly something had been squeezing her all her life. 

María cut the laces with a deft flick of her wrist, and Sara exhaled a relieved “Ahh!” and tossed the corset into the dark of the church. But it seemed that she wasn’t the only one with something to get off her chest. María’s hand stayed on her, sliding from her back to her front as Sara turned back to her.

“Better?” she asked, her eyes uncharacteristically serious.

There was no way that she was going to let María be braver than her, in this of all things where she had more experience. She moved closer, until Sara’s hand was trapped between them and all she could see was her dark, luminous eyes.

“Almost,” she breathed, licking her lips and gratified to see María’s eyes grow even wider. She closed the distance and used every trick she knew to make sure that this was a kiss that María would never forget. But María had definitely learned her lesson, since she gave back as good as she got, as always perfectly matched in this as well.

They broke apart, Sara’s breath short from something other than the corset for once. María ducked her head, her blush nearly undetectable in the flickering candlelight, but glanced back up with that familiar twinkle in her eye. “So, teacher, how was my kiss?”

Sara laughed, nothing weighing her down. “It was perfect.”

 

*** 

 

Of course, they succeeded and rode off into the sunset together and eventually robbed banks in Cádiz and the rest of Spain and retired together as rich women. But that’s a story for another time. Did things really happen this way? Who knows?! I leave that to the historians. As for me, I choose to believe they lived together happily ever after. After all, history is written by the victors.

 

Ya con esta me despido                                                                              With this I bid you farewell

parándome en una esquina,                                                                        Standing by a corner,

aquí termina el corrido                                                                                This is where the corrido ends

de las tal Bandidas.                                                                                     The corrido of the so-called Bandidas.