María Remedios del Valle was a war heroine whose identity was erased from history until recently. She was present in many battles, but in very few history books. Known as the “Madre de la Patria” (Mother of the Homeland), the Afro-Argentine camp follower turned soldier participated in the Argentine War of Independence.
She did not only lose her entire family during the war, but was wounded, captured, and imprisoned. She even escaped being executed seven times during the war. But when she returned home to Buenos Aires after the war, she was shunned and had to beg for alms to survive until one of the generals under whom she had fought came to her aid.
This is her story
Born in Buenos Aires around 1768, María was one of the few women who fought in the wars of Independence. With her husband and two sons, she accompanied the Army of the North, which had been deployed by the United Provinces of the Río de la Plata to free the Argentine Northwest and the Upper Peru (present-day Bolivia) from Spain. María was among other women or camp followers, who were recruited to follow the troops and provide food and nursing services, carry arms and gather intelligence.
María would end up doing more than that as she participated in several battles. She was present in the battles of “Huaqui (20 June 1811) and the army’s subsequent retreat to Jujuy, the exodus from Jujuy (23 August 1812), the victories at Tucumán (24 September 1812) and Salta (20 February 1813), and the defeats at Vilcapugio (1 October 1813) and Ayohuma (14 November 1813)”, records show.
Before the Battle of Tucumán, she asked General Manuel Belgrano if she could “tend the troops” who had fallen in the front lines but Belgrano refused, saying that women were not supposed to work at the front. María went ahead to do what she had been asked not to. Belgrano, who was moved by her commitment and loyalty, later recognized her with the rank of captain in the army.
She was not lucky in the Battle of Ayohuma where she was shot and taken prisoner by the Spanish forces. While in captivity, she helped scores of prisoners escape, and when the Spanish forces realized this, she was sentenced to be publicly flogged for nine consecutive days. But Maria escaped and came back to the army to help treat the wounded. She was with the army until the end of the conflict in 1818.
Not much was known about her after the conflict until 1826 when she applied for compensation for services her family offered during the Argentine War of Independence. Authorities denied her claim. Weak and not in good health to work, María resorted to begging for alms in the streets of the City of Buenos Aires. Her situation changed in August 1827 when Argentine military officer Juan José Viamonte recognized her in the streets and petitioned the legislature on her behalf to provide her with a pension. Other generals testified that Maria had indeed served as a guerrilla fighter who first treated the wounded before getting shot and imprisoned in battle.
Later, her recognition as an infantry captain as well as the corresponding pension was unanimously approved by the legislature. She would later be compensated as a sergeant major of the cavalry before being placed in inactive status, with full salary that matched her rank in 1830, reports said. María went ahead to receive a pension until she passed away in 1847.
In 1944, Buenos Aires named a street in her honor but María’s bravery, patriotism, and selfless spirit of service were soon forgotten by almost every Argentine until recently when scholars and activists began to recognize the tremendous roles of people who had been ignored in the founding of the country because of their race or gender. November 8 has been celebrated in her honor since 2013 as the National Day of Afro-Argentines and African Culture.