Filmmaker María Agui Carter discusses the Women & Girls Lead film Rebel, race, and the exclusion of women in national history. Rebel is the story of Loreta Velazquez, a Confederate soldier turned Union spy. She was dismissed as a hoax for a hundred and fifty years, but new evidence shows Loreta, a Cuban immigrant from New Orleans, was one of an estimated 1000 secret women soldiers of the American Civil War. The documentary premieres on the PBS series Voces on May 24, 2013 (check local listings).
Loreta Velazquez, a Confederate Soldier turned Union spy, did not change the course of the American Civil War. Why would this one woman’s story, out of the three million Americans who fought in the Civil War, matter today? She was one of hundreds of women and thousands of Latino Civil War soldiers whose stories remain outside of the national narrative of history. While the US only recently lifted the ban on women in combat, she was fighting 150 years ago.
Latinos have emerged as the nation’s largest ethnic group, while, according to a Hill and Knowlton study, 1/3 of Americans believe Hispanics are recent immigrants who have come here illegally. Few know that over 10,000 Mexicans fought in the Civil War, entire regiments who spoke only Spanish joined in battle, and that Spanish surnamed soldiers, from South Carolina to New York, joined the ranks. Loreta’s rebellious and daring character, the tragedies of her life – and her refusal to be defeated by them – made her a riveting film subject, but it was the fact that she had been erased that propelled me to make Rebel.
As Walter Benjamin has said, history decays into images. But our society has not always deemed women and minority history worthy of documentation, I had only one, not even authenticated, photo of Loreta. But her memoir and a trove of recently discovered archival documentation about her allowed me to bring her to life, using voiceovers, recreations, animation, and contemporary storytellers.
I am interested in the tension between national narratives and community histories and in the politics of gender and race in the creation of stories about the American past. In Loreta’s lifetime, proponents of the Lost Cause rejected Velazquez for her frank criticisms of the South, and for the fact that, as a Hispanic and as a woman soldier, she disturbed their carefully crafted portrayal of the Southern soldier in the Confederacy.
Today, some Hispanics may disavow her as an historical embarrassment for her loyalty to the Confederacy, while others celebrate her ability to transcend the ethnic barriers of her time. Feminists embrace her for the way she subverted gender restrictions, neo-Confederates are poised to adopt her as an apologist for the Southern cause, and historians debate whether she even existed. Velazquez elicits passionate reactions from so many groups because she disturbs assumptions about gender and ethnicity during the 19th Century. Hispanic populations in the South have exploded in the past decade, and the “race question” must now be framed in a context beyond simply black and white. Velazquez is a window into a more nuanced understanding of the South during an era that ripped apart Southern institutions and social codes.
Today, the American South continues to imagine a Civil War history that is part nostalgia, part myth. Popular histories of the Civil War often emphasize the heroism of the soldiers, at the expense of pondering the social, political, and complex racial divisions implicit in that bloodstained struggle. Yet the history of the Civil War haunts the South still, with its never-fully-answered questions about the “race problem,” as it haunts this nation. The public response to Loreta’s memoir during her lifetime, and beyond, reveals a South deeply divided over the characterization of its own losses and legacies. Her continuing absence in the national narrative raises questions about who owns history and how we define a national identity in a heterogeneous society.
What happens when a people are excluded from national history? George Orwell put it powerfully when he said, “Those who control the present, control the past. Those who control the past, control the future.”