SMITHSONIAN CENTER FOR FOLKLIFE & CULTURAL HERITAGE
A Glimpse Into New Mexico’s Suffrage Movement
More than one hundred years ago, women across New Mexico mobilized to fight for the right to vote. Today, we highlight this noteworthy activism in celebration of National Hispanic Heritage Month.
One hundred years ago in 1919, women across New Mexico mobilized to fight for the right to vote. Influential Nuevo Mexicanas such as Nina Otero-Warren and Soledad Chávez Chacón cajoled and shamed their cousins in the all-male legislature to approve the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
We can only guess how hundreds of nameless women convinced skeptical male relatives to support its passage. Their spirit endures every time we mark our ballots. We honor them in this centennial of the suffrage movement and of suffrage itself, granted in 1920, a crossroads for women’s rights in New Mexico.
Their voices can be heard through an alternate form of narrative: the corrido. A derivative of the Spanish verb correr—“to run”—corridos are rhetorically powerful and poetic ballads used to disperse the compelling stories and questions of the day. From the cries of fighting police brutality against Las Gorras Negras during the civil rights movement of New Mexico in “El Corrido de Córdova y Canales”to the battle for reclaiming land rights in “El Corrido de Rio Arriba” by the late composer and singer Roberto Martínez, threads of injustice and the fight for equality are not uncommon in corridos of New Mexico.
“El corrido de la votación” (“The Ballad of the Vote”) combines a strangely serious melody with humorous, satirical lyrics. Listeners travel to a time when traditional roles of women had not yet been openly challenged. Yet through methodical and vigorous action, women came together to facilitate change in their communities and in their state. This ballad is their soundtrack.
Corridos bristle with male energy and are mostly sung by men. Here, a woman singer takes a stand and spreads the news. Women’s clubs gather to discuss politics and maybe even sing. We continue to come together by learning, sharing, and celebrating our rich cultural heritage. The social power of music provides a window into the life and times of our foremothers. Like much local history in the Southwest, New Mexico’s suffrage movement is often disregarded in schools and public learning spaces. Corridos like “La votación” help to recover this forgotten chapter of communities of women gathering to create social change.
Passed down through oral tradition and family, “La votación” has no known composer. Activist Jenny Vincent made the first known recording in the early 1960s, featuring singer Isabel Córdova. Four decades later, longtime Smithsonian Folklife associate and folklorist Enrique Lamadrid recorded a version by Córdova’s granddaughter, Quirina Córdova de Medina of San Cristóbal, New Mexico. This recording is included in the collection Nuevo México, ¿Hasta Cuándo? An Anthology of New Mexico Ballads, produced by the Smithsonian as a component of the 2004 traveling exhibit, Corridos sin Fronteras: A New World Ballad Tradition.
In what follows, you will find contextual analysis of the lyrics, comparison to other musical traditions in New Mexico, and an examination of the contemporary relevance of “La votación” to this centennial movement of suffrage in New Mexico.
The Corrido in Context
At the beginning of the ballad, “La votación” references 1844 as the year women were granted the right to vote, even though the Nineteenth Amendment was passed in 1920.
Año de mil ochocientos
cuarenta y cuatro al entrar,
se concede a las mujeres
el derecho de votar.
In the year of eighteen hundred
forty-four, just beginning,
the right to vote
is conceded to women.
The 1844 lyric remains a mystery. Was it a simple mistake by the composer? Or was it a memory of better times for women before the U.S. takeover of the Southwest? When New Mexico was a state in the Republic of Mexico from 1821 to 1846, Nuevo Mexicanas had many more rights than American women did. Historian Janet Lecompte notes that in the Spanish and Mexican legal tradition, women enjoyed the status of “persons” under the law. They had rights to inherit and own land and property, to work and earn money, and to fight in court. They also kept their maiden names after they were married. Once New Mexico became a U.S. territory, the tables were turned.
One influential Nuevo Mexicana during the 1840s was known as La Tules, or Doña Gertrudis Barceló (1800-1850). As French diplomat Alexis Tocqueville described in Democracy in America:
In Mexico a woman lost nothing through marriage; in fact, it freed her from the watchful eye of her dueña or mother and enabled her to enjoy a legal and social independence unknown in other countries. After her marriage, La Tules kept her maiden name, her property, and her right to make contracts and to institute legal proceedings. This most independent of women also claimed the rather unusual privileges of entertaining whatever friends she pleased, male or female, in whatever degree of intimacy she chose, and of conducting her business any time and any place that suited her.
So, although the date of 1844 does not match up, it provides ironic insight into a time when women had an abundance of rights. As U.S. citizens, women had to work to regain their rights, including the new right to vote.
Another verse mentions the new women’s clubs that appeared all over the state. (Note that lyrics have been transcribed reflecting the northern New Mexico varietal form of the singer.)
Ya se juntan las mujeres
hacen un club de señoras,
cambean sus candidatas
también pa’ gobernadora.
The women already gather
to make a women’s club.
They change their candidates
even for a woman governor.
Nuevo Mexicanas formed chapters of the National American Woman Suffrage Association and the Congressional Union. Adelina (Nina) Otero-Warren chaired the Women’s Division of Republican State Committee of New Mexico. She emerged as the refined yet prominent mover and shaker of the suffrage movement.
Although Otero-Warren never ran for governor, she did run for Congress and the U.S. House of Representatives, the first woman in New Mexico to do so. As noted in The Contested Homelands, Otero-Warren was “in a key position within the dominant party to lobby for the impending struggle for ratification of the Susan B. Anthony Amendment in the New Mexico legislature.”
Soledad Chávez de Chacón, another influential leader, was the first woman to hold an elected position in the state, serving as secretary of state from 1922 to 1927. In 1924, she also served briefly as the first Hispanic woman governor in the country. These Nuevo Mexicana women merit mention, as evidenced in “La votación.”
Reciban sus oficinas
secretarias, juez de paz,
cambeen sus candidatas
y suspiran para demás.
Take up your office,
secretaries, and justices of the peace,
change your women candidates
and sigh for everyone else.
Soon the realities of equal status sink in, and the verses swerve toward the satirical.
Ya quieren manejar los trenes
y también las ofecinas,
y que se quede el marido
gobernando la cocina.
El gobierno del estado
trabajó una nueva ley,
de quedarse gobernado
cada hombre por su mujer.
Y acaso van a la guerra
formadas en batallón,
pa qué quieren maderita
que gancho de pantalón.
They already want to drive trains
and manage offices,
so their husbands can stay behind
in charge of the kitchen.
The government of the state
worked for a new law,
so each man may be governed
by his woman.
And if they go to war
lined up in battalions,
why would they want this gossip
instead of real trousers ?
If you read the text and focus solely on the lyrics, you’ll find boisterous themes of empowered women. But underneath the satire, they confront social change as the drive for equal rights moves forward.
If you don’t understand Spanish and hear only the melody of the corrido, you may notice a more melancholic and lamenting tone emerge, due in large part to the minor key. As NPR producer Alix Spiegel explains, “if you use a minor key… you can make even something with a positive message and fast tempo sound emotionally complicated.”
Melodic irony combined with satire alerts listeners to the ongoing struggles of women and that la lucha sigue—the battle continues.
As we begin to understand the origins of “La votación,” the question arises: was the corrido written by a woman? Let’s look at some clues:
Comadrita de mi vida
Amigas que me reflejan
todos los que están casados
Sister of my life
Friends who share their thoughts
about all those married men.
Here, the first-person voice demonstrates a relationship between the composer and the person to whom she refers, suggesting the likelihood of a female composer. The term of endearment comadrita, usually defined as a godparent, more likely refers to a special female friend. The narrator captures the comment from a women’s meeting she attends. Amigas indicate a female narrative voice as she describes her relationship with a group of female friends.
While corridos are predominantly written and sung by men, there is a long history in New Mexico of women voicing their perspectives in what are known as indita ballads. Known to have been sung by and about women cautivas (captive and enslaved women) of Indo-Hispano New Mexico, inditas are sung in a syncopated rhythm while also incorporating Native chants. While “La votación” doesn’t include a chant, this history of strong female perspectives and compositions suggests that the ballad was very possibly written by a female corridista.
We honor the Nuevo Mexicanas who made their names known during the suffrage movement as well as those who joined them who remain unnamed. It is these women who, in their own empowering ways, enabled us to ensure their efforts and their memories remain.
In recent years, a growing number of events, exhibits, and interpretive roadside markers have begun to recognize and celebrate such women. Performances such as ¡Mujeres Presente! New Mexico Women Who Rocked the Vote, the Historical Women Marker Initiative, Women’s Equality Day (August 26), and popup versions of the National Archives exhibit Rightfully Hers: American Women and the Vote all celebrate New Mexico suffragists. Until 2006, New Mexico had 600 historic roadside markers without a single one commemorating a woman; now, there are at least 66 dedicated to notable women.
These women’s voices must be recovered to tell their stories. “El corrido de la votación” reminds us of the social power of women’s music and reinforces the message that not all history is lost. It is for us to discover, share, honor, and celebrate.
Carmella Scorcia Pacheco is a doctoral student in border studies at the University of Arizona and a 2019 Latino Museum Studies Fellow at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. Her work focuses on the art of storytelling, community engagement and ethnography, and cultural expressions in Southwest Hispanic communities when faced with injustices.
The ballad lyrics and translations were printed in Nuevo México, ¿Hasta Cuándo? An Anthology of New Mexico Ballads (National Hispanic Cultural Center, 2004).
Lecompte, J (1986). The Independent Women of Hispanic New Mexico 1821-1846*. In J.M. Jensen & D.A. Miller (Eds.), New Mexico Women: Intercultural Perspectives (pp.71-93). Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, c1986.
Maciel, et al. The Contested Homeland: a Chicano History of New Mexico. 1st ed., University of New Mexico Press, 2000.
Tocqueville, A., & Heffner, R. D. (1956). Democracy in America, specially edited and abridged for the modern reader by Richard D. Heffner. [New York] New American Library .