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The Extraordinary Career of Juana C. Romero, Cacica of Tehuantepec

Summary and Keywords

In the 1850s, Juana Catarina Romero, known popularly as Juana Cata, peddled her cigarettes on the streets of Tehuantepec in the state of Oaxaca, Mexico, an activity that enabled her to serve as a spy for the liberals under the command of Captain Porfirio Díaz during the War of the Reform (1858–1860). By 1890, Romero (1837–1915) had emerged as an international merchant, sugar cane producer and refiner, philanthropist, and “modernizing” cacica of the city of Tehuantepec. As powerful women rarely receive credit for their achievements, popular myth attributes her success to the men in her life, a supposed youthful love affair with Díaz or a later lover, Colonel Remigio Toledo. In contrast, a study of her career helps to shed light on how women could attain and exercise power in the 19th century and the ways in which they participated in the construction of the nation-state and a capitalist economy. Her trajectory shows that when allied with these forces of modernization, women could take on a more public role in society. It also reveals that it is through the lens of local and regional history that women’s contributions and accomplishments, so often erased in national histories, can be made visible.

Keywords: women, gender, cacica, myth, nation-state, local and regional history, capitalism, modernization, War of the Reform, War of French Intervention, Porfiriato, Revolution, viajera, traje of the Tehuana, mayordomo, Tehuantepec

Early Life

The registry in the cathedral of Tehuantepec notes the baptism of a ladina infant, “Juana Catarina,” born on November 24, 1837, in the poor barrio of Jalisco. It also states that she was of “unknown parentage,” probably to protect the reputation of her mother, María Clara Josefa Romero, whose grandfather had been a Spanish lieutenant from Castile. To this day, the name of the baby’s father remains a mystery, most likely because he was a married man. We know very little about her early childhood, only that her family made a living by rolling maize husk cigarettes at home. As a young woman, dressed in a traditional cotton huipil (short, cap-sleeved blouse) and homespun enagua de enredo (a piece of cloth wrapped snuggly around the body as a skirt), Juana Cata would walk down the steep hill of Jalisco and across the cobblestone streets of the Laborío barrio, where the wealthier mestizos and criollos lived, and on to the main plaza. Speaking both Spanish and Zapotec, she sold her cigarettes along the way and in the barracks of her city. Of short stature, her vibrant personality and graceful bearing impressed those who observed her.1 Nevertheless, as she carried the stain of illegitimacy, she became determined to gain respectability, to be counted among the gente decente of her city.

In the mid-19th century, Tehuantepec, an administrative and commercial hub on the Pacific plains of southeastern Mexico, had approximately nine thousand inhabitants. The history of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec in the 19th and early 20th century is inseparable from the competition between the United States and European nations to construct an interoceanic connection between the Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific Ocean. It was one of three viable locations to create this route, along with the Isthmus of Panama and the lake region of Nicaragua. Consequently, the isthmus, although isolated from the nation’s capital, emerged as a strategic strip of land with a unique role in international relations and commerce, which explains the presence of numerous foreigners and what one German traveler considered a “brisk commerce.” The distinctiveness of the indigenous Zapotecs, especially the women, attracted the attention of these foreigners. Italian engineer Gaetano Moro considered the “level of civilization of the indigenous people of Tehuantepec incomparably superior” to other Mexican natives, and the only one to have truly beautiful women. The Tehuanas also captivated John McLeod Murphy, superintendent of the Louisiana Tehuantepec Company, which built the first road across the isthmus. He found them “delicately made, mercurial, voluptuous, and full of vivacity. They are particularly remarkable for the exquisite grace of their carriage . . .” However, he also noted that “In morals they are loose, and full of intrigue, but in habits they are temperate and industrious . . .”2 Famed as traders and market vendors since the pre-Hispanic period, women of all social classes participated directly in commerce, the lifeblood of the isthmus, and dominated the stalls in the public market. They were constantly visible in public spaces, which seemed to unnerve these foreign travelers.

The War Years

In April 1858, in the opening months of the War of the Reform (also known as the Three Years War), twenty-seven-year-old Porfirio Díaz was appointed “Governor and Military Commander of the Department of Tehuantepec” under orders to combat the patricios, as the conservatives were known in the region.3 The people of Tehuantepec were devoutly Catholic and conservative. Only a small nucleus of liberals in the city supported Díaz, among them the priest, Mauricio López, and Juan Avendaño, a rich merchant. These two men along with Juana Cata formed part of Díaz’s “secret police.”4 Lively and independent, she was popular with the troops on both sides with whom she is said to have played billiards, dice, and cards. Thanks to her contacts, she obtained valuable information for the liberals.

At the war’s end in late 1860, the liberals gave Juana Cata a small monetary reward for risking her life for the cause. This enabled her to establish her first store behind the central market. Although little is known about her life in the 1860s, she did have a love affair with a local military leader, Colonel Remigio Toledo, who had first fought with the patricios and who then joined the liberals and was taken prisoner by the French at the defeat of Puebla in 1863. But once released and back home, he declared for the empire in 1864 and Maximilian appointed him imperial prefect and later imperial commander in Tehuantepec. His reputation for deviousness had earned him the nickname of Gubizi (“rattlesnake” in Zapotec), and he ruled as a despot, enriching himself at the expense of the population. Miguel Ríos, a local historian and admirer of Toledo, described him as a man of “erect stature, with a cunning gaze,” who was given to “rapid and nervous movements” when he would “promenade through the streets with his lover Juana Cata on his arm.” No fan of Juana Cata, Ríos portrayed her as “short, with small eyes, with the look of a lynx, not quite beautiful and a hoarse voice which she artificially sweetened, ably attracting her prey in her youthful years of pleasure.”5 Fortunately, Toledo’s rule was short-lived. Once Porfirio Díaz had recaptured the city of Oaxaca from the French in late 1866, he headed south to the isthmus to pursue Toledo, who had escaped to Guatemala. When the police called Juana Cata in to testify, she admitted having had “amorous relations” with Toledo, but said she had no idea of his whereabouts since the relationship had ended a year ago.6 Remigio lost his life in 1871 during the La Noria Rebellion under mysterious circumstances, although it is rumored that Félix Díaz, Porfirio’s brother, engineered his demise.


In 1871, Juana Cata was thirty-three years old, single, and alone. It appears that she did not suffer as a consequence of her relationship with the traitor Toledo, because people still referred to her as “doña.” She now directed her prodigious energies to the expansion of her business interests. There is much speculation as to the source of her capital: some believe Porfirio Díaz gave her money while others affirm that Remigio Toledo told her where he had buried his ill-gotten gains in return for taking charge of his three sons. Since she had considerable capital by 1870 (she purchased a house for a thousand pesos in 1874), and raised at least his youngest son Aurelio and brought him into her business, it is likely that she did receive some money from Toledo. Nevertheless, it was only after his death, when she was no longer associated with any male companion, that she developed her enterprises.

Since she was unmarried and of legal age, she was not subject to the tutelage of any man, as were many single and married women (a wife was required by law to obtain a “marital license” from her husband processed by a judge in order to carry out economic transactions). For example, in 1889, when she purchased a parcel of land from Laureana Fuente Villa, the bill of sale identified the seller as a widow (not requiring a marital license) “dedicated to occupations analogous to her sex,” while it characterized Juana Cata as “free and a merchant, with the legal right to make contracts.”7 While the women of the isthmus are famed for their commercial prowess, they have mainly engaged in small-scale local commerce. A few are known as viajeras, women who travel long distances to engage in trade. Juana Cata was one such viajera and would buy indigo and cocoa beans on the isthmus and transport them by mule to the city of Oaxaca, a trip that took eight to ten days under dangerous conditions. Rumor has it that she carried a pistol hidden in her skirt, as banditry was rife. These products would then be sent to the port of Veracruz to be sold to German export concerns. She would return to Tehuantepec with her mules loaded with a variety of products to sell in her store. She also traveled to the city of Oaxaca on horseback or by carriage to Mexico City before the coming of the railroads to further her business interests. Consequently, she built a network of contacts in the main cities of central Mexico.8

Ten years of civil war had been devastating for Mexico. However, the expansion of international commerce, with the growing demand for new markets and primary materials by the industrialized countries in the late 1870s, acted as a stimulus to the Mexican economy. While there were only 398 miles of railroad when Porfirio Díaz assumed power in 1876, his regime would witness a veritable frenzy of construction: by 1910, 11,806 miles of rail traversed the rugged landscape of Mexico. The building of a canal or railroad across the isthmus emerged as a major priority because Porfirians believed that the isthmus of Tehuantepec would become a “bridge of international commerce.” Finally in 1894, after various failed attempts, railroad service began across the isthmus, yet it turned out to be poorly built and the designers had neglected to construct modern ports at each terminus. In 1896, Díaz resorted to his friend, British engineer Weetman Pearson, Lord Cowdray, who drove a hard bargain to reconstruct the Tehuantepec National Railroad.

By the 1870s, a small group of Spaniards, Germans, and a Canadian dominated international trade in Tehuantepec. Over time, Juana Cata’s business interests began to challenge these more established merchants. In order to generate a clientele, she granted credit to those people rejected by her competition. She did quite well, especially after the economy gained momentum in the 1880s. She imported foreign merchandise such as wine, crystal, glassware, and textiles. She also brought in cloth from the textile factories in Veracruz. She realized that in a region where the women were particularly exacting about their dress—fond of “gay costumes,” in Murphy’s words—she was well-suited vis-à-vis her rivals to specialize in textiles and adornments for what would become celebrated traje (attire) of the Tehuana. In order to bring herself up to date on the latest fashions, she traveled to Mexico City, and then to the United States, England, France, Germany, Austria, and Italy. Although according to her great-grandniece, she made her first trip to the United States dressed in traditional traje, she soon donned Western dress.9

By the 1890s, “doña Juana Catarina Romero, of the commerce of Tehuantepec” figured among the most prominent merchants of the state of Oaxaca, according to the state bulletin. That same year, the Bureau of American Republics published an analysis of the Mexican economy, which included a list of the major merchants by state. Juana Cata was the only woman on the list for Oaxaca, but by error or because the editor could not believe a woman would direct a major company, she was listed as a man, “Juan C. Romero.”10 Juana Cata never married nor did she have children of her own. She adopted the son of a cousin who had passed away and gave him her surname (Mariano Romero). As noted above, she also brought up the youngest son of Remigio, Aurelio Toledo. She trained both of them in commerce and integrated them into her enterprises as they held power of attorney to act in the name of Juana C. Romero y Cía.11 To face up to the clique of foreign merchants, she headed her own group, mainly Mexican businessmen, including her merchant cousin Camilo Romero and Javier Echeverría, owner of many of the isthmian salt flats.

From commerce, she expanded into commercial agriculture. She began to buy up parcels of land in the neighboring town of Mixtequilla to form a finca, named “Santa Teresa” for her favorite saint, where she cultivated sugar cane. At first she produced piloncillo (molasses in hard cakes), but over time she focused more on sugar refining and the production of aguardiente (hers was said to be the finest in the region). Despite never having had a formal education, modern technology fascinated Juana Cata. Just as she would tour the textile factories of Manchester, England, in order to become familiar with the process of cloth production, she traveled to Cuba to learn the fine points of sugar cane cultivation, bringing home samples of their prized “Habanera” cane shoots for planting. She also imported the latest machinery from Germany and the United States. Such was her success in commercial agriculture that Santa Teresa won both a silver medal and a Grand Prize at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in Saint Louis, Missouri, in 1904, and first prize in the sugar competition at the Crystal Palace in London in 1908.12

Her trips to the nation’s capital and to the grand cities of the United States and Europe spawned a vivid interest in all things modern. She became determined to modernize her city and its inhabitants. This was an interest she shared with two of her highly influential friends: president Porfirio Díaz and his policies of “order and progress,” and the social Catholicism of the progressive Archbishop of Oaxaca, Eulogio Gillow. Her friendship with Gillow had begun on her trips to the state capital. His brand of capitalist development combined with Catholic social engineering clearly coincided, and perhaps influenced, her priorities. Juana Cata’s splendid generosity to the Church encouraged Gillow to elevate Tehuantepec to a bishopric.13 This friendship legitimated her moral leadership in the city, obscuring her dubious past and endorsing that respectability that had eluded her as a child.

Fortunately for Juana Cata, Tehuantepec was ideally situated, literally in the path of modernization, given the interest in building an interoceanic route. The reconstructed Tehuantepec National Railroad, and its modern ports in Salina Cruz on the Pacific and Puerto México (Coatzacoalcos) on the Gulf of Mexico, were finally inaugurated on January 23, 1907. Porfirio Díaz and his wife, Carmen Romero Rubio, along with his cabinet and foreign dignitaries, traveled to Tehuantepec for the ceremony. The Mexico City newspaper, El Imparcial, reported that “on his arrival, the president along with his wife, visited with one of the richest ladies of the city, doña Juana C. Romero.”14

Later that year, in November, Juana Cata celebrated the opening of her brand new and modern store, La Istmeña, on Avenida Ferrocarril, behind the main market. Tehuantepec had become a bustling center of commerce and culture with the arrival of the railroad. North Americans, Spaniards, Frenchmen, Englishmen, and immigrants from the declining Ottoman Empire (called turcos by Mexicans) came to seek their fortune. Some Chinese who had been recruited to build the railroad also were able to set up shops. In 1909, a young José Vasconcelos, in the region to organize Maderista clubs, marveled at how cosmopolitan the isthmus had become:

At all hours of the day and night, in restaurants and cantinas at little tables along the sidewalk, clients drank beer from Monterrey or from Germany. . . . The squandering of money taking place provoked wild sensual appetites. Food was available from everywhere: from the grapes of Málaga and apples of California to the most divine tropical fruits. . . . canned tuna fish and asparagus from Bordeaux, and red peppers from Spain. Roulette, contraband, and commerce spawned improvised fortunes that drowned overnight in champagne; those with some money spent it carelessly, confident that the following day would be even better. Well, wasn’t the prosperity of that route where the world’s traffic was converging just getting started?15

By that same year, Juana C. Romero y Cía. was the only female-run company in Mexico to act as the representative of the National Bank of Mexico, serving the cities of Tehuantepec and Salina Cruz.16


Juana Cata’s increasing economic and social power enabled her to push for more political control in Tehuantepec. While by the mid-19th century, the women of Tehuantepec had a reputation for beauty, economic prowess, independence, and free sexuality, this did not extend to political influence. This desire for political authority brought Juana Cata into conflict with the clique of foreign merchants who were used to pulling the strings in the region and who also had important political connections. Their preferred lawyer, Apolinar Márquez (known popularly as “don Puli”), became her nemesis as he sought to obstruct her endeavors at every turn. His fellow masons published the only newspaper in the city, the anti-clerical El Eco del Istmo. It frequently highlighted articles emphasizing the domestic role of women as wives and “guardians of the home” and “intelligent and caring mothers.” The editors either ignored Juana Cata and her good works in the city or criticized her influence. An 1892 article signed by “Pif-Paf” likened her to a “despot” who acted liked a “monarch.”17

The fact that everyone knew she had the ear of the president certainly served her well, but Juana Cata rarely turned to her friendship with Porfirio Díaz for help. When she did, it usually had to do with some instance of don Puli’s harassment. For example, in 1884, Juana Cata had ordered a shipment of marble tiles from Carrara, Italy, for the cathedral flooring. Since don Puli was director of customs in the port of Salina Cruz at the time, he kept stalling on letting them out of the customs house, insisting she pay more taxes. She wrote Díaz to complain and the president responded that he was always there to be of assistance to her. Eventually, don Puli had to let her have the tiles. This was only one of various incidents, and Juana Cata would comment on the need to have Márquez ousted from Tehuantepec. On another occasion, she informed the president that “not content with ruining her commerce” as customs director, Márquez was committing “injustices” and being completely “arbitrary” in order to obstruct the irrigation on her land.18 Finally in 1895, she got her wish when he was appointed jefe político of the neighboring coffee district of Pochutla, a lucrative position, but one that removed Márquez from the isthmus. This was the high point of her influence.

Despite the myth that Tehuanas have ruled through a matriarchy, Juana Cata is the only woman who has actually been called a cacica on the isthmus during these years, although there were a few traditional cacicas in the Mixteca region of Oaxaca in the 19th century.19 Samuel Villalobos, who knew her in his youth, considered her an “exceptional cacique” and attributed her direction of political affairs of the district to her “clear intelligence, her marvelous and inexhaustible energy, and her dedication to the improvement of Tehuantepec.” But not everyone was of the same opinion. One German traveler who was fêted by her opponents observed: “The greatest power in the town was a certain old woman, who ruled the place by means of her shrewdness and wealth, and through money lending had got many of the people into her hands. Every important transaction required her sanction, lest it should go awry.”20


The philanthropic, educational, cultural, health, and urban reforms that Juana Cata sponsored, aligned with Díaz’s goals of “order and progress” and the ideals of social Catholicism, were intended to modernize not only the physical space of the city but also the minds and bodies of its people. Nonetheless, cognizant of the devotion of Tehuanos to the Catholic Church and to their Zapotec customs and traditions, and anticipating their resistance to secular and racist modernizing projects espoused by liberals, Romero formulated her own modified version of Catholic modernization. Since she only learned to read and write at age thirty, education was a priority for her. She founded two free schools, one for girls (taught by nuns) and one for boys (taught by Marist brothers). She covered not only the salaries but also the room and board of all the teachers. She had a dormitory constructed to board students when they began to arrive from neighboring towns and even Puerto México in Veracruz. She funded the best students to continue their education in the cities of Oaxaca, Puebla, or Mexico. Always au courant on the latest innovations, she added a sixth year for elementary education, even before the official state schools had instituted this reform. As sports gained in popularity, integral to Porfirian social engineering that sought to curb the passions of the working classes, she had new buildings and sports fields erected for her boys’ school (but not for the girls’ education).

Oaxaca is famous for its town bands and the competition between them. Juana Cata supported the celebrated musical traditions of the isthmus and she even paid for Amado Chiñas’s studies at the National Conservatory of Music in Mexico City. When he returned to lead the band, it played every Sunday afternoon and on holidays in the main plaza. For the musical events planned for the 1907 inauguration of the railroad, she bought him the finest clarinet in Mexico as well as brand new instruments for his musicians. She wanted Tehuantepec’s band to rival the “magnificent band of the state capital that was also expected to play at the festivities.”21

Juana Cata funded the construction of various public edifices. She had an annex designed and built to enlarge the central market, which was conveniently located across the street from her store. Work on a municipal palace had begun in the 1860s, and she later subsidized various stages of its construction. Of course, she subsidized various church restorations. Besides importing marble from Carrara, Italy, to replace the flooring of the cathedral after it had been damaged in an earthquake, she had the “Refugio” Cemetery walled in and an elaborate wrought-iron gate built for the entrance. She also oversaw the refurbishing of gardens and parks, including the main plaza. She understood, as Mauricio Tenorio-Trillo noted, that the modern city “contained the proofs of the nation’s pedigree: economic progress and cultural greatness, but also which was sanitary, comfortable, and beautiful.”22

As she managed the modernization and beautification of her city, so she turned her sights on the Tehuanos. Improvements in public health and personal hygiene were also on the Porfirian agenda, since modernization demanded a relatively healthy labor force. Nonetheless, the state of Oaxaca was poor, and resources targeted for public health remained limited. Tuberculosis, typhus, typhoid, yellow fever, and smallpox were endemic throughout the countryside. Consequently, when an epidemic of smallpox reached the isthmus in 1903 and 1904, Juana Cata funded emergency services; she not only brought in medical personnel but also covered their expenses and the cost of needed medical supplies.23

Her modernizing project also impacted the celebrated dress and customs of the people of the isthmus. As noted above, the beauty, demeanor, and dress of the Tehuanas had attracted much attention from visitors to the region. In January 1907, El Imparcial, Mexico City’s major newspaper, reported that a party of “beautiful Tehuanas in extremely expensive and artistic trajes” welcomed president Porfirio Díaz when he arrived in the region to inaugurate the Tehuantepec National Railway. The next night the city offered a ball in Díaz’s honor that was attended by “young women of the best families who shined in their luxurious typical trajes of fine silk and sumptuous necklaces made of gold coins.” The National Organizing Committee of Mexico’s Centennial also requested that Tehuantepec send a contingent of Tehuanas, in their exquisite trajes and gold filigree jewelry, to the celebrations in September 1910.24

Although foreigners as well as urban Mexicans in the 20th century, including Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, Miguel Covarrubias, and Sergei Eisenstein, imagined the traje of the Tehuana as the exotic attire of what they believed to be sensuous matriarchs inhabiting a primitive jungle, by the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and prior to the 1910 revolution, the image of the Tehuana had already emerged as a popular icon of Mexico’s ethnic heritage. It is ironic that at the same time this dress was fêted as a symbol of indigenous Mexico, it had undergone a major transformation as a result of the expansion of capitalism and consumer society on the isthmus.25

Juana C. Romero was one of the prime movers behind this transformation. Thanks to her knowledge of Western fashion, gained on her trips abroad, Juana Cata introduced new textiles and adornments into the traje—for example, the use velvet, the heavy fringe of pure gold, and the coquettish scarf that hangs from the pocket of the skirts. Huipiles, once transparent gauze, were now embroidered with colorful flowers, imitating shawls brought in from China, or adorned with geometric designs that the skillful Tehuanas invented on Singer sewing machines, which began to appear on the isthmus in the closing years of the 19th century. The enaguas de enredo became less visible on the street (although women continued to wear them at home) except among poorer or older women, as skirts followed Victorian fashion and became wider and wider, covering white cotton petticoats. The “exotic indigenous” traje had actually been transformed with these new fashions, a product of the encounter of modern innovations with the creativity of Zapotec women.

Wearing a traje is required in order to attend the famous velas, the public fiestas of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec that celebrate the patron saint of a barrio or a particular group of artisans. Each vela is organized by a mayordomo, a prestigious but expensive honor. One of the highlights of a vela is the passing of the vara de mando (the staff of authority) on to the next year’s mayordomo or mayordoma. Despite her influence, Juana Cata never received this honor, possibly because the xuanas (elders) of her barrio did not fancy recognizing her authority in such a public ceremony. In response, Juana Cata organized and funded her own very luxurious vela, the Vela Binni, for all the people of the city, not just one barrio.26

Juana Cata also updated and modernized herself. By the 1870s, she wore Western dress and saved her best trajes for fiestas and religious holidays. In 1911, construction began on her large French chalet next to her store on Avenida Ferrocarril. Designed by a German architect, it has six bedrooms and a sitting room upstairs. Downstairs, the living room has Louis XV furniture and a baby grand piano, with ceiling tiles imported from Belgium. The dining room seats at least twenty, and features Chippendale cabinets holding exquisite Murano stemware (with her initials embossed in gold) that she purchased in Venice. Her personal chapel houses various statues of saints she brought back from Spain. The only European-style edifice in a city of white- washed adobe and terracotta tiles, the chalet sticks out like a sore thumb, a monument to her prosperity and fondness for things European. Miguel Covarrubias observed that she had built it in “her effort to establish her superiority to the rest of the townspeople.”27

The Mexican Revolution reached Tehuantepec quite late. It was only on the day that Porfirio Díaz resigned that the people of the city rose up. That night, May 25, 1911, the revolutionaries sacked the stores of the rich Porfirian merchants, including Juana Cata’s La Istmeña and her cousin Camilo Romero’s El Centro Mercantil. Always politically astute, Juana Cata knew how to bend with the wind. When the new revolutionary governor, Benito Juárez Maza (only son of the great liberal president) came to the isthmus, he stayed at her house. When the Carrancistas established their headquarters in the nearby port of Salina Cruz in 1915 in their preparations to advance on the state capital, she sold them needed supplies, food, and clothing. For Juana Cata, “business was business.” However, many did not forgive or forget her past loyalty to Díaz, now considered the archvillain of Mexican history. One revolutionary report sent to Venustiano Carranza labeled her:

. . . the barracks concubine of general Díaz in times of the Holy War of the Reform (1858) when he operated on the isthmus, whose ideals she later betrayed, as lover of the sadly celebrated imperialist and traitor, Remigio Toledo of Tehuantepec, . . . These two turncoats used bayonets to enrich her with money made from others’ sweat and tears. During Díaz’ reign, she was showered with honors and no one dared to speak up to her. She also had intimate ties with the Church and its clerics, and year after year she sends good tidings to the Pope on his birthday.28

Nevertheless, she evidently had made peace with the Constitutionalists by the time of her death. On her way to get medical attention in Mexico City in October 1915, she became gravely ill when the train reached the Carrancista stronghold of Orizaba, Veracruz. Her family had to disembark and she died there. Her body was transported back to Tehuantepec with a safe conduct ordered by the Constitutionalist Army.29 When her will went into probate, it turned out that her fortune amounted to $467,000 in cash, real estate, and merchandise. This was an astounding sum for the time, especially for a woman who had already invested considerable wealth in philanthropic enterprises and who had begun her days as a humble cigarette peddler.


The career of Juana C. Romero was truly extraordinary for a woman in 19th-century Mexico. At the same time, her life and its accomplishments reveal the many ways in which women could act both directly and indirectly in society. Her career embodied commercial, industrial, agricultural, and cultural modernization—the very policies at the heart of Porfirian “order and progress.” Her transformation from illiterate cigarette vendor in traditional traje to international merchant, sugar refiner, philanthropist, and behind-the-scenes political boss was emblematic of the transformation of the Mexican economy and national identity from a colonial and criollo-dominated nation toward a modern mestizo one.30 Nevertheless, it is only thanks to the magnifying glass of regional history that the multiple roles of women like Juana Cata, their innovations and contributions to nation-building, hidden and obscured for so long, come into view.

In the 1940s, the municipal government of Tehuantepec erected a statue of Juana Cata on the main plaza. She appears as a mature woman in Western dress, a schoolmarm with a book in her lap, underlining her efforts to bring education to her people. The statue of this powerful woman, who pulled the political strings in Tehuantepec, is seated with its back to the Municipal Palace, the very seat of politics in which she was so deeply involved, whose construction she paid for out of her own funds. Clearly, for posterity, this is a less threatening image, a more comfortable way to remember her influence than to underline her economic and political power as the cacica of Tehuantepec.

Discussion of the Literature

Juana Catarina Romero’s remarkable trajectory is the stuff of novels, and so far, two have been written by local writers. However, Romero’s significant role in Mexican history and her modernizing influence on isthmian society have been obliterated by the romantic myth of a supposed love affair with the young Porfirio Díaz. Transformed into an exotic dalliance of Mexico’s longest-serving dictator, her accomplishments have been attributed to Díaz or her relationship with Remigio Toledo, and not to her own initiative or resourcefulness. Her role in history has been reduced to a number of oft-repeated myths and anecdotes in history books, novels, and popular memory. Most of these relieve Juana Cata of any agency. For example, it is said that Juana Cata was the one true love of Díaz’s life,31 that he supplied her with money, built her the chalet, had the railroad track pass directly in front of her house for his convenience, and still called for her on his deathbed. Others insist that Remigio Toledo left her his buried treasure, which was the source of her wealth. Another myth affirms that one day when escaping from the patricios, Porfirio ran into Juana Cata’s store and hid under her skirts. Circulated by opponents of Díaz, this metaphorical attack on his courage and masculinity infantilizes him. Of course, at the time, she did not yet have a store and she still wore enaguas de enredo, which left no room for any soldier to hide, much less the muscular gymnast Díaz. Fact and serious research have absolutely no impact on these anecdotes: taxi drivers, Tehuana market vendors, local intellectuals, and politicians are all eager to tell tourists these “true” stories of this famous daughter of Tehuantepec. There is, however, a clear popular preference to expunge the problematic parts of her history (her illegitimacy, unknown father, abuse of power) and sanitize her background to present a more respectable benefactress who rose from a “decent” family with a father and mother.

Yet to date there is not even one full-length biography of Juana C. Romero. Local historians and novelists have been most interested in exploring her career: César Rojas Pétriz, who had access to family papers, dedicated a whole issue of his local cultural magazine, Da’ani Béedxe Cerro del Tigre, to her life. María de los Angeles Cajigas’s La Didjazá La Zapoteca is a novelized biography of Juana Cata that is very well documented, since the author was a descendant of friends of Juana Cata and clearly had access to family archives not in the public domain. Both Cajigas and Javier Meneses de Gyves’s novel, La Sandunga, focus heavily on supposed love affairs. In his classic study of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, Mexico South, Miguel Covarrubias repeated almost every one of these popular myths and even embellished them further.

As a powerful woman seven decades before women got the vote, Juana Cata evokes highly polarized attitudes: either she was an “exceptional cacica,” a beautiful sorceress, or a conniving old crone. The sorceress/femme fatale myth arose from the French abbot Charles Brasseur’s portrayal of a young woman, “slender, elegant and so beautiful that she charmed the hearts of all the whites,” who had “mysterious powers” and could “read the future.” Brasseur visited Tehuantepec in 1859 (Viaje por el Istmo de Tehuantepec). Thought to be a characterization of the young Juana Cata, this cigar-smoking Zapotec was also adept at billiards, the only woman who dared to enter the gaming hall, precisely the place where the liberals would congregate. Consequently, according to the myths, a woman with power must receive it from a man or from a supernatural source. In Televisa’s telenovela biography of Porfirio Díaz, El vuelo del águila, which ran between 1994 and 1995, Salma Hayek portrayed Juana Cata as a sexy Zapotec enchantress who seduces Porfirio. At the same time, it trivialized her daring activities as a spy, turning her into a market gossip and ribbon vendor. As Stacy Schiff pointed out in her study, Cleopatra, it is always preferable to attribute a woman’s success to her beauty and sexuality than to her brain: “The personal inevitably trumps the political, and the erotic trumps all.”32 This is the cautionary tale for powerful women.

Although Enrique Krauze repeats many of the myths mentioned above as well as the sorceress myth (“respected for her profound knowledge of herbs, sorcery, and potions”), he identifies Juana Cata as the “undisputed authority on the Isthmus,” an “interpreter” of Díaz’s modernizing project, dubbing her the “authentic doña Porfiria.”33 The most recent archival-based research on Juana C. Romero has been carried out by the author of the present study and is cited below in the section on “Further Reading.” At present, she is finishing a full-length biography of Romero.

Primary Sources

There is no central archive of the papers of Juana C. Romero. Some of her descendants hold documents and photos that have not been catalogued and only a few of her letters to Porfirio Díaz are found in the Colección Porfirio Díaz, housed in the Biblioteca Francisco Javier Clavijero of the Universidad Iberoamericana in Mexico City. This unfortunate absence of her personal voice allows no window into the subjectivity of this woman, her vision of herself and her society. The richest archive for her economic transactions is the Archivo Histórico de Notarías de Oaxaca in the Biblioteca Francisco Burgoa of the Universidad Autónoma “Benito Juárez” de Oaxaca. Other documents are located in the Archivo Histórico Judicial de Oaxaca and the Archivo General del Poder Ejecutivo del Estado de Oaxaca. These three archives are located in the city of Oaxaca.

The Burgoa Library has a periodical collection, which contains numerous 19th-century newspapers and magazines, including El Eco del Istmo and the Periódico oficial del estado de Oaxaca (also available on microfilm). The Hemeroteca Nacional in Mexico City holds a large periodical collection including El Imparcial and Istmo. The bilingual (Spanish-Zapotec) cultural magazine that appeared in Oaxaca for a number of years, Guchachi’ Reza, reproduced valuable documents on the history of the isthmus. Both the Biblioteca Nacional in Mexico City and the Biblioteca Burgoa in the city of Oaxaca have copies of 19th- and early 20th-century books, articles, and travelogues that describe conditions in Tehuantepec—for example, Brasseur, Garay, Charnay, Gadow, Bustillo Bernal, Ríos, and Vasconcelos. National Geographic reported on the wonders of the Isthmus and its people in two articles: Helen Olsson-Seffer, “The Isthmus of Tehuantepec: ‘The Bride of the World’s Commerce’” and Herbert Corey, “The Isthmus of Tehuantepec.”34

Various interviews with descendants of the Romero family and their friends, local historians, and genealogists in Tehuantepec, the city of Oaxaca, and Mexico City have been invaluable for research on the life of Juana C. Romero.

Further Reading

Brasseur, Charles. Viaje por el Istmo de Tehuantepec: 1859–1860. Mexico City: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1984.Find this resource:

    Bustillo Bernal, Angel. La Revolución Mexicana en el Itsmo [sic] de Tehuantepec. Mexico City: Editora Mexicana de Periódicos y Revistas, 1968.Find this resource:

      Cajigas Rosaldo, María de los Ángeles. La Didjazá La Zapoteca. Mexico City: Fotolitográfica Hernández, 1994.Find this resource:

        Campbell, Howard and Susanne Green. “A History of Representations of Isthmus Zapotec Women.” Identities 3.1–2 (1996): 155–182.Find this resource:

          Charnay, Désiré. Ciudades y ruinas americanas: México, 1858–1861 Recuerdos e impresiones de viaje. Mexico City: Banco de Mexico, 1994 [1863].Find this resource:

            Chassen–López, Francie. From Liberal to Revolutionary Oaxaca: The View from the South, Mexico 1867–1911. University Park: Penn State University Press, 2004.Find this resource:

              Chassen–López, Francie. “Distorting the Picture: Gender, Ethnicity, and Desire in a Mexican Telenovela (El vuelo del águila).” Journal of Women’s History 20.2 (2008): 106–129.Find this resource:

                Chassen–López, Francie. “Patron of Progress: Juana Catarina Romero, Cacica of Tehuantepec.” Hispanic American Historical Review 88.3 (2008): 393–426.Find this resource:

                  Chassen–López, Francie. “The Traje of the Tehuana as National Icon: Gender, Ethnicity, and Fashion in Mexico.” The Americas 71.2 (October 2014): 281–314.Find this resource:

                    Covarrubias, Miguel. Mexico South: The Isthmus of Tehuantepec. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1946.Find this resource:

                      Krauze, Enrique. Porfirio Díaz, Místico de la autoridad. Mexico City: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 2005.Find this resource:

                        Meneses de Gyves, Javier. La Sandunga. Mexico City: Instituto Politécnico Nacional, 1995.Find this resource:

                          Reina, Leticia. Historia del Istmo de Tehuantepec: Dinámica del Cambio Sociocultural, siglo XIX. Mexico City: INAH, 2013.Find this resource:

                            Ríos, Miguel. Tehuantepec (Historia, Tradición y Leyenda). Mexico City, 1948.Find this resource:

                              Rojas Pétriz, César. Da’ani Béedxe Cerro del Tigre 7 (September–October 1993). The whole issue is dedicated to Juana C. Romero.Find this resource:

                                Ruiz Cervantes, Francisco José. “Promesas y saldos de un proyecto hecho realidad (1907–1940).” In Economía contra sociedad: El Istmo de Tehuantepec 1907–1986. Edited by Leticia Reina, 27–57. Mexico City: Nueva Imagen, 1994.Find this resource:

                                  Sosa Mimiaga, Rosa. “María Clara.” El Zapoteco 5 (September–November 2005): 5, 8.Find this resource:

                                    Villalobos, Samuel. “Doña Juana C. Romero.” Istmo (June 1, 1941): 3, and (July 15, 1941): 3, 5.Find this resource:


                                      (1.) In 1830s Tehuantepec, ladina denoted a mestiza or a Hispanicized indigenous person. The author is grateful to César Rojas Pétriz for a photocopy of the page in the baptismal registry where the entry for Juana Cata is located. See César Rojas Pétriz, “Juana C. Romero, humildad y splendor,” Da’ani Béedxe 7 (September–October 1993): 10 and Rosa Sosa Mimiaga, “María Clara,” El Zapoteco 5 (September–November 2005): 5, 8.

                                      (2.) M. G. Hermesdorf, “On the Isthmus of Tehuantepec,” Journal of the Royal Geographical Society of London 32 (1862): 544, 553; Moro in José de Garay, Reconocimiento del Istmo de Tehuantepec practicado en los años 1842 y 1843 con el objeto de una comunicación oceánica por la Comisión Científica que nombró al efecto el empresario José de Garay (London: Ackermann, 1844), 91–92; and John McLeod Murphy, “The Isthmus of Tehuantepec. Its Inhabitants and Resources,” Journal of the American Geographical Society 1.6 (June 1859): 177. On the isthmus Zapotecs as native other, especially the women, see Howard Campbell and Susanne Green, “A History of Representations of Isthmus Zapotec Women,” Identities 3.1–2 (1996): 155–182. Interestingly, no mention of the isthmus homosexuals, the muxe, has appeared in 19th- and early-20th-century sources.

                                      (3.) The Tehuantepec soldiers took this name in honor of the San Patricio Batallion (Irish soldiers who had deserted the U.S. Army to join the Catholic Mexicans in the Mexican-American War) since they had fought alongside them at the Battle of Molino del Rey.

                                      (4.) No document has appeared to corroborate or disprove a romantic relationship. Carlos Tello Díaz agrees that “it is not possible to know for certain if they were lovers.” Quoted in Porfirio Díaz, Su vida y su tiempo La Guerra 1830–1867 (Mexico: CONACULTA and Penguin Random House, 2015), 188–189. Porfirio Díaz does not mention Juana Cata in his memoirs, but he does refer to his “secret police.” See Memorias, vol. 1 (Mexico City: Colección Testimonio, 1983), 77–85. They were lifelong friends. A note from Porfirio Díaz to Juana C. Romero, dated October 2, 1912, thanking her for remembering his birthday is reproduced in César Rojas Pétriz, Da’ani Béedxe Cerro del Tigre 7 (September–October 1993): 11. On October 19, 2015, on the centennial of her death, the entire state legislature of Oaxaca convened in Tehuantepec and declared Juana C. Romero “benefactress” of the city.

                                      (5.) Miguel Ríos, Tehuantepec (Historia, Tradición y Leyenda) (Mexico City, 1948), 98–99. These descriptions should be taken with a grain of salt, since this author was born in 1879 (eight years after Remigio’s death) and only knew Juana Cata when she was older.

                                      (6.) Arcadio G. Molina, Historia de Tehuantepec, San Blas, Shihui y Juchitán en la Intervención Francesa en 1864 (Oaxaca: San-Germán Hermanos, 1911), 5–7; “Búsqueda y declaración de Juana Romero,” in “Criminal contra Remigio Toledo y socios por conspiración,” Archivo General del Poder Ejecutivo del Estado de Oaxaca, Juzgado del Distrito, 1868, Leg. 30, Exp. 19 in “Tras las huellas de Remigio Toledo ‘El traidor,’” Guchachi’ Reza 52 (May–June 1996): 27–30.

                                      (7.) In 1870, the age of majority was changed from twenty-five to twenty-one years. Archivo Histórico de Notarías de Oaxaca, Jueces Receptores [AHNO-JR hereafter], Tehuantepec, vol. 1, 1875–1890. “Free” meant unfettered by any male tutelage.

                                      (8.) Juana Moreno Romero (great-grandniece of Juana Cata), interview by Francie Chassen-López, July 20, 1996, Tehuantepec, Oaxaca; Samuel Villalobos, “Doña Juana C. Romero,” Istmo, June 1, 1941, 3.

                                      (9.) Juana Moreno Romero, interview, July 20, 1996. See Francie Chassen–López, “The Traje of the Tehuana as National Icon: Gender, Ethnicity, and Fashion in Mexico,” The Americas 71.2 (October 2014): 281–314. The inventory of the merchandise in her store taken on her death attests to the enormous variety of textiles that she sold, see Archivo Histórico Judicial de Oaxaca [AHJO hereafter], Sección Tehuantepec, Serie Civil, 1909–17, Expediente 8/1917.

                                      (10.) Periódico oficial del estado de Oaxaca, November 2, 1891; Bureau of the American Republics Bulletin No. 9 “Mexico,” prepared by Arthur W. Ferguson (July 1891), 289–290, 313.

                                      (11.) AHNO-JR, Tehuantepec, vol. 1, 1875–1890; vol. 7, August 6, 1900; and vol. 10, July 29, 1904. On the death of Mariano in 1900, she brought his widow, Josefina Garfias Salinas, into the firm and gave her power of attorney along with Aurelio.

                                      (12.) Doña Juana Moreno Romero showed the author these medals during the interview on July 20, 1996. José Manuel Villalobos (descendant of Aurelio Toledo’s wife), interview by Francie Chassen-López, May 29, 2009, Tehuantepec.

                                      (13.) Both Gillow and Díaz were proponents of modern agriculture: Gillow on his hacienda Chautla, Puebla, and Díaz on his coffee finca in Cuicatlán, Oaxaca.

                                      (14.) “El viaje presidencial,” El Imparcial, January 25, 1907, 1. This article is the only public recognition of Juana Cata’s service to the liberals in wartime. Unfortunately, the reporter cited the wrong war, writing that Romero had served under General Díaz during the War of French Intervention. Ironically, during that war she was involved with Toledo, an official of Maximilian’s government.

                                      (15.) José Vasconcelos, Ulises Criollo (Mexico City: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1982), 319–321. Unfortunately, the railroad’s prosperity was short-lived: it was eclipsed as soon as the Panama Canal opened in 1914.

                                      (16.) Directorio oficial bancario de México (Mexico City: Cía. Directorio Oficial Bancario de México, 1909), 251. A branch of the Banco de Oaxaca also existed in Tehuantepec and probably represented the interests of her rivals. On the economy of the isthmus during the late Porfiriato, see Francisco José Ruiz Cervantes, “Promesas y saldos de un proyecto hecho realidad (1907–1940)” in Economía contra sociedad: El Istmo de Tehuantepec 1907–1986, ed. Leticia Reina (Mexico City: Nueva Imagen, 1994), 27–57; and Francie Chassen-López, From Liberal to Revolutionary Oaxaca: The View from the South, Mexico 1867–1911 (University Park: Penn State University Press, 2004).

                                      (17.) “La madre en la familia,” El Eco de Istmo, February 15, 1891, 2; June 22, 1892, 3–4

                                      (18.) Colección Porfirio Díaz, Cartas, Leg. 11, C. 5 and C. 3. The author is grateful to the Universidad Iberoamericana for permitting citations from this collection.

                                      (19.) These cacicazgos were land-based and derived their legitimacy from colonial and pre-colonial lineages. It is not clear if Mixtecan cacicas had any political influence. See Ronald Spores, “Mixteca Cacicas: Status, Wealth, and the Political Accommodation of Native Elite Women in Early Colonial Oaxaca” in Indian Women of Early Mexico, eds. Susan Schroeder, Stephanie Wood, and Robert Haskett (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1997), 85–97; and Margarita Menegus Bornemann, La Mixteca Baja entre la Revolución y la Reforma: Cacicazgo, Territorialidad y Gobierno Siglos XVII–XIX (Oaxaca: UABJO-UAM Iztapalapa, 2009).

                                      (20.) Hans Gadow, Through Southern Mexico: Being the Account of the Travels of a Naturalist (London: Witherby, 1908), 156–157.

                                      (21.) Angel Bustillo Bernal, La Revolución Mexicana en el Itsmo [sic] de Tehuantepec (Mexico City: Editora Mexicana de Periódicos y Revistas, 1968), 14; Villalobos, “Doña Juana C. Romero,” July 15, 1941, 5; “El viaje presidencial,” El Imparcial, January 25, 1907. On bands in Oaxaca, see Charles V. Heath, The Inevitable Bandstand: The State Band of Oaxaca and the Politics of Sound (The Mexican Experience) (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2015).

                                      (22.) Rojas Pétriz, “Doña Juana y su obra social,” Da’ani Béedxe 7 (September–October 1993): 17; Miguel Covarrubias, Mexico South (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1946), 232–234. The city of Tehuantepec has left the building just as it was on her death in her honor. Mauricio Tenorio-Trillo, “1910 Mexico City: Space and Nation in the City of the Centenario,” Journal of Latin American Studies 28.1 (1996): 75–104.

                                      (23.) Memoria Administrativa presentada por el gobernador interino, Lic. Miguel Bolaños Cacho al H. Congreso del Estado (Oaxaca: Imprenta del Comercio, 1902), 14; Villalobos, “Doña Juana C. Romero,” June 1, 1941, 3, and July 15, 1941, 3; and Rojas Pétriz, “Doña Juana y su obra social,” 17, and “La viruela ‘negra’ y las ‘Siervas de María’” in Da’ani Béedxe 14 (November–December 1994), 15.

                                      (24.) “La gran excursión al Istmo de Tehuantepec” and “El Istmo de Tehuantepec,” El Imparcial, January 22 and 23, 1907; Bustillo Bernal, La Revolución Mexicana, 15.

                                      (25.) As shown here, Frida Kahlo was not responsible for popularizing the Tehuana dress, as many believe.

                                      (26.) Binni means “people” in Zapotec. Her great-grandniece explained this omission because Juana Cata’s house extended into two barrios, Laborío and San Sebastián. Juana Moreno Romero, interview, July 20. 1996. Xuana disapproval of her political clout provides a more cogent explanation, because women in other barrios were serving as mayordomos.

                                      (27.) Covarrubias, Mexico South, 234.

                                      (28.) J. P. del Pino, “Una carta contra los porfiristas sobrevivientes,” in Guchachi’ Reza 42 (1993), 23. On the revolution in Oaxaca, see Arellanes, Chassen et al., La Revolución en Oaxaca 1900–1930, 3d ed. (Mexico City: INEHRM, 2000). Juana Cata actually did visit the Vatican and the Holy Land in 1913 at the age of seventy-five.

                                      (29.) “Salvoconducto del Gobierno Constitucionalista” reproduced in Da’ani Béedxe 7, 16.

                                      (30.) It is generally understood that the presidencies of Benito Juárez and Porfirio Díaz represented this transfer of power from the criollo elite to a new mestizo generation in the second half of the 19th century. See Enrique Krauze, Siglo de Caudillos: Biografía política de México (1810–1910) (Mexico City: Tusquets, 1994).

                                      (31.) Díaz’s favorite daughter, Amada, was born of a relationship he had with a soldadera, Rafaela Quiñones, in Guerrero in 1866. Although he treated his second wife, Carmen Romero Rubio, with great respect, it is most likely that the great love of his life was his first wife (who was also his niece) Delfina Ortega, whom he married in 1867. See Tello Díaz, Porfirio Díaz, 369, 409–416. It is also rumored that Díaz had a love affiar with Petrona Esteva in Juchitán, famous for her bravery in the War of French Intervention.

                                      (32.) Stacy Schiff, Cleopatra: A Life (New York: Little, Brown, 2010), 320–321.

                                      (33.) Enrique Krauze, Porfirio Díaz, Místico de la autoridad (Mexico City: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 2005), 68–70, and Siglo de Caudillos, 297.

                                      (34.) Helen Olsson-Seffer, “The Isthmus of Tehuantepec: ‘The Bride of the World’s Commerce’” National Geographic 21.12 (December 1910): 991–1002; and Herbert Corey, “The Isthmus of Tehuantepec,” National Geographic 45.5 (May 1924): 549–578.