Waters: The founding of the Mariana Grajales Womens Platoon marked a milestone in the Cuban Revolution. It demonstrated in practice the social course a victorious Rebel Army would fight for. As Karl Marx put it, you can judge any society by the status of women.
What led to the units formation?
Puebla: In May 1958, as the dictatorships military offensive began, the army stepped up its repression against the population of the Sierra Maestra. Wherever the army went, women were raped, children were killed, entire villages were bombed and burned down. Peasants had to leave the Sierra. Sánchez Mosquera was one of the most infamous of Batistas commanders, but there were others.
They would announce theyd killed a lot of Rebel Army soldiers. But that wasnt true; the people killed were peasants. They were dragged out of their huts at gunpoint. They used to tie the men to poles while raping the women. Then theyd kill everyone. Whole families would be wiped out.
They were bombing villages, too. One of these was Cayo Espino, which was of no military value. Our commander [Fidel Castro] has spoken about this, but for those of us who were there these crimes affected us deeply, they outraged everybody.
There was a five-year-old boy named Orestes Gutiérrez in Cayo Espino. His legs were blown off by one of the bombs, and other members of his family were wounded. Everyone in the Sierra knew the story of this little boy, who told his grandmother, holding her hand: Grandmother, I wont be able to love you anymore because Im going to die. His grandfather died too. His two sisters were wounded, but they are alive today thanks to the Rebel Army doctors who gave them immediate attention. And the bombing was done in an area where there were no rebel troops.
Throughout the region of Oro de Guisa, peasant houses were set afire. The peasants who fled the flames were seized, and then raped or killed. All these crimes filled us with courage and determination. Even though we were doing many essential things, we felt frustrated that we could not fight arms in hand. Theyve got to let us fight, we said.
We had already proved that women could do just about everything. We withstood the bombings, delivered weapons, and were in the places where fighting was taking place. But we were still not allowed to fight.
If women have to take part in all the duties of the revolution, we said, why cant we fight for the revolution in the same way as our men fight?
After the armys offensive had been defeated, we asked our commander in chief to allow us to fight arms in hand. He agreed. Fidel said yes, women had won the right to fight with a rifle face to face with the enemy.
On September 4, 1958, a meeting took place, a sort of roundtable. Fidel assembled his general staff at the time, those who were left in the Sierra Maestra. The invasion troopsColumns 2 and 8 under the command of Camilo Cienfuegos and Ernesto Che Guevarahad already left. And a Second and a Third Front had already been established in Oriente.
There was a discussion at this roundtable meeting that lasted more than seven hours. Fidel had a very big argument there. There were still not enough weapons for everyone, and the men were saying, How can we give rifles to women when there are so many men who are unarmed?
Fidel answered: Because theyre better soldiers than you are. Theyre more disciplined.
In any event, he said, Im going to put together the squad, and Im going to teach them how to shoot.
So on September 4, the Mariana Grajales Womens Platoon was formed. As I explained, Isabel Rielo became the commanding officer. I was named second in command. The squad came to have thirteen combatants in it. The commander in chief chose the name as a tribute to Mariana Grajales, a heroine of our war of independence and the mother of Antonio Maceo, the legendary general who fought heroically in Cubas wars of independence for over thirty years.
Fidel was the one who taught us to shoot. We had to hit a quarteror a 20-centavo coin20 to 30 meters away, depending on how he wanted to test our aim. And he drilled us. We had to split that coin.
In fact, Isabel Rielo was named the commanding officer as a result of target practice. Because she was a better shot than I was. Fidel had said that whoever was the best shot would be named head of the platoon.
It was decided that the M-1 was to be our weapon, because it was lighter. Fidel ordered that everyone in our squad be supplied with that rifle. Nevertheless he didnt drill us with the M-1; he made us practice with the Garand and other, heavier guns. Hed say that the M-1 was easier to use, but that we needed to be able to fire any kind of rifle. Once we had learned to shoot, the last thing we practiced with was the M-1.
Then Fidel informed us: Youre now going to be my personal security detail.
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