August 2020 marks the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment in the United States, which gave suffrage to women. While it was a landmark shift in politics, the amendment did not benefit all women equally. Many Native American and African American women would have to wait several more decades for the right to vote. In New Mexico, women were often viewed as inconsequential minorities in the eyes of eastern politicians, yet they found ways to influence society by creating women’s clubs, advocating for bilingual measures, running for office, and even uniting through the social media of their day—the corrido.
Corridos, story-ballads that tell of specific historical events, have historically been sung by men, and—as noted by Maria Herrera-Sobeck in The Mexican Corrido: A Feminist Analysis, and by Celestino Fernández here recently—often only referenced women as objects of love, anger or scorn. As folklorist José Limón writes in Mexican Ballads, Chicano Poems, “Woman is almost wholly excluded or repressed in the male world of the corrido, in the ballad’s predominant imagery and subject and equally so in its principally male-defined performative context.”
In New Mexico, however, a not so distant cousin of the corrido has long centered women’s experience—the “indita.” This form of ballad, ethnomusicologist Brenda Romero notes, derives from the diminutive “india,” meaning both “indigenous” and “feminine,” words that also describe the genre. Inditas conform to an early corrido format, providing the date, place, event, development, and a farewell or despedida.
These ballads were sung primarily by enslaved women of Indo-Hispano New Mexico, which suggests that women may have played a more significant role in composing and singing corridos than they’re usually credited. One corrido that has been kept alive by women corridistas is “El Corrido de la Votación,” which chronicles the story of Nuevo Mexicanas who mobilized and fought for the right to vote.
The first known documented version of “La Votación,” dates back to 1937, sung by a woman named Alcarita Medina of the Taos area. It was transcribed by Reyes Martínez, brother of folklorist Cleofas Jaramillo, as part of the Federal Writers’ Project, a New Deal program that employed cultural workers to seek out and document cultural artifacts including stories, art, songs and music. Only recently was this first-known version recovered from the archives at the New Mexico History Library in Santa Fe.
As an oral art form, the ballad was transmitted from Alcarita to her niece, Isabel Córdova who then transmitted it to her granddaughter, Quirina Córdova de Medina. Had it not been for Quirina, “La Votación” might have been lost to the quiet halls of the archive.
Quirina learned the song when she was about nine years old when her grandma Isabel, also known as Grandma Chavela, who went blind at age 27, would sing it to her in the kitchen. As an adult, in 2004, she was recorded singing “La Votacíon” as part of the Smithsonian’s traveling exhibit, Corridos sin Fronteras: A New World Ballad Tradition. Her version is also included in the collection, Nuevo Mexico, ¿Hasta Cuándo? An Anthology of New Mexico Ballads.
The lyrics of the corrido speak about women abandoning their chores, holding office, driving trains, and forming women’s clubs, while the husband “stays home, governing the kitchen.”
El Corrido de la Votación Año de mil ochocientos In the year of eighteen hundred cuarenta y cuatro al entrar, forty-four, just beginning, se concede a las mujeres the right to vote el derecho de votar. is conceded to women. El gobierno americano The American government, por tener sabiduría, in all its wisdom, les concede a las mujeres has conceded to women derecho a cuidananía. the right to citizenship. Ya se juntan las mujeres The women already gather se ponen a platicar, and start to talk, -Comadrita de mi vida, “Sister of my life, la elección se va a aprobar. the election will be won.” Ya se juntan las mujeres The women already gather hacen un club de señoras, to make a women’s club. cambean sus candidatas They change their candidates, también pa’ gobernadora. even for a woman governor. Ya se juntan las mujeres The women already gather se ponen a platicar, and start to talk. ya abandonan sus quehaceres They abandon their chores y ellas se van a votar. and go to vote. Amigas que me reflejan Friends have shared their thoughts todos los que están casados, about all those married men, y ahora ya ni se quejan who are not complaining anymore al gobierno de los Estados. to the government of the States. El día de las elecciones The day of elections, todos los hombres se unieron, all the men gathered together de ver votar las mujeres to see the women vote, que llamaban la atención. it was worthy of note. Ya quieren manejar los trenes They already want to drive trains y también las ofecinas, and manage offices, y que se quede el marido so their husbands can stay behind gobernando la cocina. in charge of the kitchen. El gobierno del estado The government of the state trabajó una nueva ley, worked for a new law, de quedarse gobernado so each man may be governed cada hombre por su mujer. by his woman. Reciban sus ofecinas Take up your office, secretarias, juez de paz, secretaries, and justices of the peace, cambeen sus candidatas change your women candidates y suspiran para demás. and sigh for everyone else. Y acaso van a la guerra And if they go to war formadas en batallón, lined up in battalions, para qué quieren maderita why would they want this gossip que de gancho de pantalón. instead of real trousers?
Peering into the past allows us to validate these statements. “Women’s clubs” may have referred to the Congressional Union (later the National Women’s Party), led by prominent suffragist Nina Otero-Warren. Prior to ratification of the 19th Amendment, Otero-Warren and Aurora Lucero, for example, advocated for bilingual measures. Otero-Warren was also the first woman in New Mexico to run for Congress.
Textual clues within the ballad likely denote its authorship as a woman. “Comadrita” and “amigas” refer to the first-person relationship the narrator has with feminine sisters and friends. Other clues to woman authorship include the transgenerational sharing of the ballad among women and the long history of ballads composed by women in New Mexico.
In commemoration of the fight for suffrage, I interviewed both Quirina and a contemporary New Mexican singer Lara Manzanares, who is helping to keep “El Corrido de la Votación” alive. Both singers share not only a passion for corridos, but also a deep connection with the generation that preceded them. Their stories of intergenerational knowledge, rooted in music, family, culture, and justice in the borderlands of New Mexico, reveal how women’s struggles successes are carried from the past into the present and beyond.
Quirina Córdova de Medina
Quirina Córdova de Medina, 70, lives in the sierra of Taos, New Mexico. Growing up, her maternal grandmother, Isabel [Chavela] Córdova, sang “La Votación” to remember how women in her family had always advocated for women’s work to be shared “fifty-fifty” with men in the household, workplace, and beyond.
Quirina: “La Votación” talks about how women organized, how women were encouraging each other to come together and make it a realization that it was time for the movement to become a reality. It breaks it down to show how women can be included for higher positions, to change candidates to female positions, such as governor, judges, and more. Women are inspired—they’re talking about how it’s time to abandon their housework and for them to go out and vote. They’re all hyped up, and the men are looking at them thinking, Are they actually going to organize? It says, it is now time for women to start managing offices, “manejan las ofecinas,” and at the end they kind of laugh at it and they say, Now it’s time for women to change things. Now they can govern their husbands. Their husbands can no longer govern them.
The women on my mother’s side of the family and my grandma Chavela’s side stood up for themselves. They were strong. They held their own. They were really feisty women. They worked hand in hand with men. They wanted a life of equality. They never believed in the macho spirit. They always believed in fifty-fifty. I believe that too. I believe a man should give a fifty and a woman should give a fifty. I don’t think a man should be the one to take care of a woman, but they need to take care of each other.
My grandma Chavela was a fighter for women’s rights. She really inspired me. Just her singing “La Votación” enabled me to go out and face the world on my own, knowing that I was capable of doing anything that I wanted. But also knowing that I came from a place where machismo was so prevalent was something I had to fight; I had to be real smart about it. I had to do that even within my own family, with my own father. My dad would tell me all the time, “¿Qué estás hablando de women’s rights y qué saben tanto?” (What are you talking about women’s rights and they know so much?)
My grandma’s husband came from a family of eleven men. They didn’t have an understanding of women or how women should be treated. They didn’t treat women with the same values. But my grandma always believed in equality. She taught me that as women, we should never fully depend on men. We should depend on ourselves. And that we can go out and do a man’s job if we want and we can take a man’s job.
My work experience centered mostly around equality in jobs and in employment—where men and women should be able to uphold jobs and offices that men normally have. I got my start with Senator Joseph Montoya in Washington D.C. and later with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. I investigated corporate cases of discrimination and class action suits against minorities. From there I worked for the Cabinet Committee for Spanish-speaking people, where we promoted a model for housing, education, and more. I also worked as a recruiter for the government and recruited Hispanics from my community. I traveled to empacadoras, canning facilities in California, and other corporations, and advocated for equal employment conditions.
My learning never came from books, but through experience—and a vision. That vision has been about creating a world where women help one another. I never believe in putting other women down. When we put other women down, we put ourselves down. We need to lift each-other up. We have to be sisters. We all have to support each other. As my grandma, Chavela always said, “Las mujeres pueden, no nomás los hombres. And women can do it even better than men. ‘Ora sí, pueden las mujeres. ‘Ora sí.” (Women can, not just men. And women can do it even better than men. Yes, now women can. Yes, now.)
Lara Manzanares, a Nuevo Mexicana singer and songwriter of Mexican rancheras, boleros, and corridos, sings a rendition of “La Votación” with the group Lone Piñon. Led by Jordan Wax, this Santa Fe-based group draws on old songs gathered from local manitos (Nuevo Mexicanos) or found in the Library of Congress archives. They recently performed “La votación” for the PBS podcast series, New Mexico and the Vote. Lara also performs as a soloist at cultural events, local fiestas, festivals, libraries, and schools.
Lara: My great-grandfather Eleuterio Martínez played the piano and even though he died when I was young, this was my first experience with live music. All the kids would gather around him as he played, and my grandparents taught us to dance the varsoviana. It was also in that household that I heard Spanish spoken a lot, all the time, as a kid.
The other side of the family though, my mom’s side, hadn’t been here as long. They are New Mexican, they just arrived a little later. Their ancestry was European, coming in through Ellis Island—Irish, English, Scottish, Swiss-Italian—very much an American immigrant story from the turn of the century. They had a big influence on my music as well—country western and blue grass, but also, interestingly, corridos. That sometimes surprises people—I actually started playing the music and learning corridos with my Grandpa Richard Boyd, who grew up in New Mexico and later spent time and lived in Mexico.
When I lived outside of the state, in California or in the Midwest, I noticed the term “white people” or “gringos” doesn’t quite come across the same way as it does in New Mexico. My grandpa was of Scottish ancestry, but he grew up here and he may have looked güero, but he was New Mexican. He spoke Spanish, he spoke Castellano. People who aren’t from New Mexico or aren’t from border places may not understand that dynamic.
I’ve actually gotten that too. When I was in California, I would sing on the street these old corridos that I learned with my grandpa Richard Boyd. I’m tall and fair skinned. In New Mexico that’s not a big deal. But in California they would say, “How do you speak Spanish?” Or “Where did you learn Spanish? How do you know these songs?” I was like, “These are songs that my grandpa would sing.” They’d continue, “But how do you know these songs, you’re a güera, you’re an americana, you’re all these things.” I would say, “No, I’m New Mexican.” I encountered people that were puzzled by how I knew and sang these ballads with different inflections and emotion that conjoin the corrido. So that was interesting.
One of the first songs I sang was “Tú Solo Tú.” When my grandpa was living in Mexico, this song was very popular, and so we would sing it together. I also learned the corrido, “El Hijo Desobediente.”I learned everything from the first two CDs I had—one by Linda Ronstadt and the other by Sparx.
I also include “La Entalladita” in my repertoire. This corrido is about a woman who wears tight dresses and sexy clothes. She’s supposed to marry the mayor, who tells her to stop dressing in such a way. She pretty much says, “I’ll dress the way I want.” The mayor gets mad, takes out his gun and threatens her with it. She wrestles the gun away from him, shoots him instead, then flees. They catch her and she goes to court and is released “porque era bonita,” because she was pretty. Although it ends the way it does, it does speak about a woman who felt liberated of conforming in such a way.
When it comes to women and corridos, honestly, I get a little bit surprised sometimes when people say, ‘Oh, you’re the only one doing this,’ and I think, no, I’m definitely not. There are many women out there performing and composing corridos.
Carmella Scorcia Pacheco, a native of New Mexico, is a PhD student in Border Studies at the University of Arizona. She works with the Spanish as a Heritage Language Program and enjoys researching oral narratives and literature, popular culture, music as a form of language maintenance, and social change in the Southwest borderlands.
Cover image: Detail from painting “Natural Music” by Jade Leyva Frouge, Placitas/Albuquerque-based artist
Romero, Brenda. “La Indita of New Mexico: Gender and Cultural Identification,” in Chicana Traditions,Continuity and Change, edited by Olga Najera-Ramirez and Norma Cantú. Chicago: University of Illinois Press 2002, 56-80.
For more on La Votación, see Pacheco’s article in the Smithsonian Folkways Magazine, “A Centenntial Glimpse into the Suffrage Movement of New Mexico through ‘El corrido de la votación’.”
For more information on New Mexico’s suffrage movement, see “New Mexico and the Vote,” NM PBS, Episode 2
Lara Manzanares plays at this year’s Santa Fe Traditional Music Festival on August 29, including a version of “La Votación.”