October 14, 2022 ~ By Shari Rose
During the Mexican Revolution, Amelio Robles Ávila began his military career as a guerrilla fighter and ended it as a colonel with more than 300 men in his command. But that was not the only revolution he fought in. As a transgender man, Robles also fought to achieve acceptance for his gender identity at a time when Mexican society was overwhelming binary.
Amelio Robles Ávila’s Early Life
Robles was born in Xochipala, Guerrero, Mexico on November 3, 1889. The third child in a family of ranchers living in a rural area of southwestern Mexico, he was assigned female at birth and given the name, Amelia Robles Ávila.
From a young age, Robles gravitated toward the activities and skills that other boys in his town participated in. While being raised as a girl by his family, he also learned how to handle weapons, ride horses, and fight. Growing up, Robles attended a local Catholic girls’ school called Society of the Daughters of Mary of the Miraculous Medal. By age 12, he was well-trained in performing all the expected tasks and duties of young Catholic girls.
Nonetheless, Robles continued to pursue interests and goals that contradicted this strict, binary upbringing. As he grew into an adult, he became an excellent marksman and horseman, with dreams of becoming a soldier. That dream would become a reality as the Mexican Revolution burst onto the scene.
Robles’ Involvement In The Zapatista Movement
When talk of social and political revolution reached his home in Guerrero, Robles excitedly took up arms and enlisted in the fight. By this point in his life, he fully identified as a transgender man, dresssing and behaving like any other Mexican male at the turn of the 20th century. He chose the name, Amelio, and was known by everyone as such until he died.
In 1912, Robles joined the Zapatista Movement as a 23-year-old guerrilla fighter, and discovered he loved the lifestyle of a soldier. During this experience, he wrote that being a guerrilla fighter allowed him the “sensation of being completely free.”
The Mexican Revolution was a period of intense social and political transformation for all generations of Mexicans. Nationalism swept the country, and the notion of masculinity became inextricably intertwined with patriotism.
These social changes actually worked in favor of Robles’ acceptance as a transgender man. His embrace of masculinity as well as his impressive fighting skills on the battlefield convinced many of those around him to tolerate and even accept his gender identity. As a trans man, Amelio Robles Ávila embodied many of the values and ideals that were associated with what it meant to be a true patriot during the Mexican Revolution.
When Robles’ story became known to a journalist named Miguel Gil in Mexico City, he sought to meet the guerrilla fighter. Robles was interviewed, photographed, and placed on the front page of El Universal, one of Mexico’s largest newspapers. In the now-famous photograph, Robles proudly poses while holding his personal pistol and a cigarette. This brush with fame, though brief it may be, gave him the opportunity to portray himself as he wanted to be understood by the rest of the world.
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Robles Embraces Machismo In The Mexican Revolution
It should be noted that during the Mexican Revolution, many women served alongside their male counterparts on the battlefield. Often dressing in masculine clothing, these women were known as soldaderas. They typically tended to the wounded, cooked meals, performed maintenance on weaponry, and more.
However, soldaderas presented themselves as male to protect themselves from sexual violence and break free from the gender restrictions that prevented them from participating in much of Mexican society. Though he likely interacted with many soldaderas throughout his service during the revolution, Amelio Robles Ávila was a transgender man, not a soldadera.
As part of his transition, Robles leaned into the notion of machismo, an exaggerated and often aggressive form of masculine pride. In a way, his adoption of these ideals fortified the strict patriarchal barriers that sought to forbid lifestyles like his own. Historian Gabriela Cano wrote about this seemingly contradictory choice in Robles’ life, saying in part:
“The paradox was Robles’ successful gender transition simultaneously subverted and reinforced normative heterosexuality and stereotypical masculinity it re-created.”
Military Service After The Mexican Revolution
Robles remained a guerrilla fighter in the Zapatista Movement until about 1918. During that period, he rose through the ranks to become a colonel, or coronel, with more than 300 men in his command. It’s believed he was shot six times throughout his service. After the assassination of Emiliano Zapata, Robles joined the Mexican Army. He continued to love the lifestyle that the military offered him, and he fought under the command of Adrian Castrejón.
From 1923 to 1924, Robles joined Alvaro Obregón’s forces and fought at the Agua Prieta Revolt. While serving in Hidalgo, he was shot and discharged from the Mexican Army.
Due to his strategic mind and courage on the battlefield, he made powerful friends in the military, many of whom went into politics after the revolution. These allies helped legitimize Robles’ transgender identity in broader Mexican society.
Still, Robles endured much discrimination and violence as a transgender man. After the Mexican Revolution, he was initially unable to settle down in his hometown of Xochipala because he received death threats and was nearly killed by other soldiers when he visited. He moved to Iguala for a time before eventually returning home in southwestern Mexico.
Amelio Robles Ávila’s Later Years
Robles pursued romantic relationships with women, and married a woman named Ángela Torres in the 1930s. He did not perform the domestic chores he had learned as a child, but rather took on the roles and responsibilities of a typical Mexican man of the era.
Robles’ family largely accepted his gender identity, and he was known as a tío (uncle) and primo (male cousin) to his extended family. In fact, many of his nieces and nephews did not know he was trans until they became adults themselves.
According to one neighbor who knew Robles, it was downright dangerous to misgender the former colonel: “I never addressed him as señora or madam, I also used Mr. Robles, because he would take out his pistol if anyone called him a woman or lady.”
In 1970, the Mexican Secretary of National Defense recognized Robles as a veterano, or male veteran, of the Mexican Revolution. This designation makes Robles the first known transgender soldier in Mexican history.
Nearly 15 years after the official recognition, Amelio Robles Ávila died on December 9, 1984, at the age of 95.
Despite the national acknowledgement and respect for his transgender identity, a movement grew to misgender Robles in the years after his death. This push likely stemmed from an effort to memorialize the women who served during the Mexican Revolution, but transphobia undoubtedly played a role in Robles’ erasure. About five years after he died, the “Amelia Robles Museum House” opened its doors. It erased his transgender identity entirely and instead counted him among the many women who fought in the revolution.
However, some commemorations of Robles’ life remain true to his life today. In his hometown of Xochipala, Guerrero, stands the Colonel Robles School (Escuela Primaria Urbana Federal Coronel Robles). This elementary school’s name correctly uses the masculine pronouns that Robles lived by for the vast majority of his long life.
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