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Chinacos were mounted guerrillas of the War of the Reform and the French Intervention (1857–1860, 1862–1867) who fought on the liberal republican side, operated out of central Mexican regions, and were known for their wide-brimmed sombreros and battle lances. What is known about them is largely the product of popular perception shaped by print depictions, some of which were created long afterward. They first appeared in the press when the War of the Reform was winding down and the victorious Juárez government, in carriage and on horseback, prepared to enter Mexico City in January of 1861. Before the French invasion that began in October of 1861 with the naval landing at Veracruz, the “chinaco” designation applied to irregular fighters. The newspaper and propaganda organ La Chinaca gave such fighters an image and narrative that endures to the present day. Still known among many Mexicans, their appearance in print media resulted from times of crisis as Mexico, after a military defeat by the United States and a major loss of territory, encountered the French Intervention in the 1860s. Chinacos as symbolic figures on horseback exemplify a historic pattern of guerrilla warfare in Mexico, dating at least to the US-Mexican War. There are different versions of the label chinaco, although there is strong evidence that it has roots in the chino designation assigned to Afro-Mexicans during the colonial era. It is also linked to “china,” or rural women known for their distinctive attire as depicted in popular reading.

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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.