Most Scandalous Woman

Most Scandalous Woman

by Myrna Ivonne Wallace Fuentes


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In 1926 a young Peruvian woman picked up a gun, wrested her infant daughter from her husband, and liberated herself from the constraints of a patriarchal society. Magda Portal, a poet and journalist, would become one of Latin America’s most successful and controversial politicians. In this richly nuanced portrayal of Portal, historian Myrna Ivonne Wallace Fuentes chronicles the dramatic rise and fall of this prominent twentieth-century revolutionary within the broader history of leftist movements, gender politics, and literary modernism in Latin America.

An early member of bohemian circles in Lima, La Paz, and Mexico City, Portal distinguished herself as the sole female founder of the American Popular Revolutionary Alliance (APRA). A leftist but non-Communist movement, APRA would dominate Peru’s politics for five decades. Through close analysis of primary sources, including Portal’s own poetry, correspondence, and other writings, Most Scandalous Woman illuminates Portal’s pivotal work in creating and leading APRA during its first twenty years, as well as her efforts to mobilize women as active participants in political and social change. Despite her successes, Portal broke with APRA in 1950 under bitter circumstances. Wallace Fuentes analyzes how sexism in politics interfered with Portal’s political ambitions, explores her relationships with family members and male peers, and discusses the ramifications of her scandalous love life.

In charting the complex trajectory of Portal’s life and career, Most Scandalous Woman reveals what moves people to become revolutionaries, and the gendered limitations of their revolutionary alliances, in an engrossing narrative that brings to life Latin American revolutionary politics.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780806157474
Publisher: University of Oklahoma Press
Publication date: 10/19/2017
Pages: 376
Product dimensions: 6.30(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.40(d)

About the Author

Myrna Ivonne Wallace Fuentes, born in Guatemala, is an Associate Professor of History at Roanoke College in Salem, Virginia.

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Scandalous Debuts

ON WEDNESDAY, MAY 23, 1923, five thousand university students and workers charged out from San Marcos University into the streets of Lima, protesting against President Augusto B. Leguía. Even though Peru's constitution barred him from a second term, Leguía was courting conservative and clerical support for reelection by coordinating with the Catholic Church to consecrate Peru to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. As the crowd surged to the city center, mounted police drew their swords, charged, and fired guns into the crowd, killing a student and a worker. When the protesters finally reached the Plaza Mayor, a tall, charismatic university student with an aquiline nose and a ready smile that revealed a riot of teeth rose before them and voiced their rage, pointing at the presidential palace, thundering, "The real villain is the tyrant hiding there!"

The following day, the same student led protesters in "rescuing" their fallen comrades' cadavers from the morgue and carrying them back to the university. They hunkered down, waiting for the government attack to reclaim the bodies. But Leguía backed down, and no attack came. The next day, when six times as many people, perhaps thirty thousand, gathered for the funeral, the student leader's commanding oratorical powers moved the immense crowd all over again, circling back again and again to the Fifth Commandment, ritually and furiously repeating, "Murderers, the Fifth means thou shalt not kill!" That very same day, Lima's archbishop called off the consecration.

Leguía, a veteran politician, had actually enjoyed tremendous student support when he ran for president four years earlier in 1919, in no small measure because he backed the students' demands for University Reformmodeled on a reform movement that had exploded in the sleepy Argentine provincial city of Córdoba a year earlier in 1918. In Argentina, this Reforma Universitaria had started with a student strike demanding internal administrative reforms at the highly traditional University of Córdoba and only became a national issue when the president, Hipólito Yrigoyen, intervened. But once ignited, La Reforma soon burst into a continental student demand, what an entire generation took to be "their" Reformista revolution. In this iconoclastic, heroic, and patricidal narrative, a generation of young progressive male students confronted the abuses of a fiercely reactionary institution refusing to embrace modernity, finally vanquishing the remnants of Spanish colonialism. This Reforma Universitaria became a potent strain in a rich landscape of new, seductive, and exhilarating iconoclastic ideas in politics and culture, including anarchism, anarcho-syndicalism, the Russian Revolution, and the artistic upheavals of postwar Paris.

Much as Argentine students viewed Yrigoyen, Peruvian students believed they had found an ally in their president. However, after just a year in office, to the students' shock, dismay, and anger, Leguía turned on the university and shut it down in 1922. These Sacred Heart protests were the most visible national manifestation of the growing student opposition against him, the most spectacular protests against Leguía's reelection efforts. They made the young student leader, already impossible to miss at the university and in the leadership circles of proletariat Lima, a national hero. His canny organizing and leadership of the protests, coupled with his spectacular success as a powerfully evocative, emotional, and mobilizing public speaker, made him into a household name. The front cover of Mundial, one of Lima's most popular magazines, lampooned Leguía's lumbering, clumsy attack in Peru's "football match of the moment," easily thwarted by a youthful San Marcos goalkeeper: Víctor Raúl Haya de la Torre.

Haya had come to prominence in labor circles four years earlier in January 1919, during a strike for an eight-hour day in Lima's small but important textile industry. Haya had advocated for a "popular university" where university students would educate laborers after hours. Sensing an ideological ally within the elite, labor leaders approached him, hoping he could organize support in the university to help sway the government. As the strike broadened to a general strike and the government agreed to negotiations, the workers sent Haya in as chief negotiator, hoping his shared class background with government negotiators would pay dividends. The government capitulated and the eight-hour day was won, catapulting Haya to the highest echelons of leadership and prestige in Lima's working class.

Since childhood, Haya had been interested in politics. The son of two downwardly mobile aristocratic families in the northern coastal province of Trujillo, he had been a voracious reader from an early age, a lover of sport, and a child possessed of what he later called a well-developed "political imagination" who spent hours creating elaborate republics, with presidents, cabinets, and ministers. Dragging his brothers into his play, they ignored their other toys and instead "directed political campaigns." From the first, everyone could tell he was rushing, with bottomless ambition, toward the largest stages. Haya's school buddies in Trujillo called him the "Prince of the Grand Venture."

Haya left Trujillo in 1917 to pursue law at San Marcos, where he met many of the men who would form the nucleus of the future Aprista leadership, principal among them Manuel Seoane. Seoane was from an aristocratic Limeñan family — his father was a jurist and a literature professor, and his mother descended from an independence hero. Seoane had entered San Marcos to study law, like his older brother, father, and grandfather before him. The tall, good-humored, and good-looking ladies' man befriended Haya, with whom he shared a mutual love of books and sports. Their nicknames — Seoane was "El Cachorro," the puppy, to Haya's "El Viejo," the old man — names they would keep through the decades of their long friendship and political collaboration, were terms of endearment that already performed the power relations emerging between them.

In 1921, Haya brought his dream of the popular university to life. The González Prada Popular University (Universidad Popular González Prada; UPGP) brought together dozens of university students with hundreds from the capital's emerging proletariat for evening classes on everything from geography and hygiene to philosophy. The UPGPs quickly grew into "community organizations" addressing not just educational deficits but also workers' "personal, social, and cultural problems" with recreational opportunities like sports events, social opportunities like dances for workers and their families, and material benefits such as medical clinics.

The Sacred Heart protests in May 1923, then, were the spectacular national debut of Haya as both an iconoclast and a political force to be reckoned with: a student leader commanding the respect of his class peers who was also a hero to Lima's proletariat, the organizer blessed with both a leader's natural charisma and powerful oratorical gifts. Derailing the consecration was both a personal victory for Haya and a collective victory for the growing resistance against Leguía and his reelection plans. In the long run, these Sacred Heart protests fused together the bonds between university students and workers that became the foundation of APRA as a political movement. For Haya, these two days were "Apra's baptism of fire," and José Carlos Mariátegui echoed his sentiment, calling them "the historical baptism of the new generation." But in the months following the protests, the fruits of the victory were uncertain. Would the heady days of May prove a "hollow victory," as Leguía now turned his full attention to the growing student opposition and their unmistakable leader?

Even though the Church had backed off, Leguía could also claim victory, since repressing the protests had effectively silenced the most vocal university students. In July, he further punished the rebellious students when police violently attacked the inauguration of a UPGP branch. Increasingly exasperated with his young opponent, Leguía had tried enticing Haya with a lucrative offer to study in Europe; when Haya refused, the president moved to sterner measures and started hunting him down. By August of 1923, three months after the dramatic May protests, Leguía still sat comfortably in Peru's Presidential Palace and Haya was in hiding.

A dapper, charismatic figure, Leguía embodied Peru's ascendant middle class. A provincial bereft of any aristocratic last names, Leguía, like Haya, was born in the northern sugar-producing zones. After studying business and commerce, he worked as an empleado, a white-collar employee, for several foreign concerns, including the New York Life Insurance Company. A fixture of Lima's social life — Leguía never missed the Sunday horse races — he also avidly courted publicity. The magazines and newspapers that featured the president daily were happy to oblige; their emerging urban readership "deified" the elegantly dressed president and reveled in his revival of "the courtesan traditions" of the ancient colonial capital; journalists were frustrated "if the President didn't appear in the photos of a party." Flashing cameras followed him everywhere, including the endless receptions honoring him for the public works transforming Lima from a colonial capital to a bustling twentieth-century city, a visible manifestation of how, as the "Giant of the Pacific," he was transforming Peru, ever-rising proof of his rule as a force of progress and modernity.

On August 25, 1923, a Saturday night, Leguía attended the elite Teatro Forero, the kind of place where lavish banquet tables were set with gold and silver menus, for yet another opportunity to elegantly present himself before his adoring press. His daughter had been invited to award the prize at the Juegos Florales, a university poetry contest. It promised to be a night to remember, in the lavish praise of Mundial: a carefully orchestrated "exquisite evening party of everlasting memory" captured in its full-page photographs displaying the president's daughter as "queen" of the games in front of a "court" of ten young Limeñan beauties and four children. After quelling student opposition in the May and July crackdowns, the president must not have had unruly students on his mind. The students, however, had other plans. They had orchestrated an ambush for that night, this time a symbolic tussle on a flower-strewn stage where the ammunition was humiliation and loss of face instead of the live fire on Lima's bloodied streets, where weeks before Haya had debuted as an iconoclastic political leader leading the Sacred Heart protests. Now, on this stage, the action and the spotlight would focus on another young iconoclast — a beautiful twenty-three-year-old woman.


A young woman who has just won a prestigious prize conferring national attention waits nervously backstage. At the appointed time, she should step forward into the spotlight to triumphantly declaim her winning poems before the gathered students and the city's elite. The audience only knows she has won; they have not yet heard or read the poems she submitted under a new pseudonym she chose just for this occasion: Loreley. An imposing rock on the Rhine, in the minds of German poets, Loreley was a woman so beautiful she bewitched any man who looked in her eyes and who, vainly searching for her beloved, met her death falling from the precipice into the river; a bewitching siren who combed her long blond hair on the rocks that killed unfortunate mariners. Peruvians, more likely to read French than German, were most familiar with the Loreley story as immortalized by Guillaume Apollinaire in his 1904 poem "La Loreley." Choosing this pseudonym signaled the young woman's identification with poetry, certainly, and more generally with Europe. It also gives us a glimpse of who this young woman, also beautiful, thought she might be: a Limeñan siren, a tragic figure but also a powerful danger to men, with eyes, like in Apollinaire's poem, flashing, fiery, trembling, and shining like precious stones, the color of the Rhine.

That night in that theater where Loreley waited backstage was like any of the other innumerable glittering nights of Limeñan high society: an opportunity for the wealthy to gather and document their shared glamour. But on the Juegos Florales stage that night, two worlds with sharply different artistic and political values collided. The upstart world of bohemian Lima erupted onto the scene of a traditional but dying Lima of elite sensibilities, a traditional world of academic knowledge and prestige revolving around the university and gentlemen poets (poetas gran señores), a world of cloistered domestic spaces and careful, watchful patriarchal authority. Besieged in the classroom by students using the Reforma Universitaria to challenge authority, traditional Limeñan elites and intellectuals faced an equally dangerous challenge from a new bohemian Lima, a world driven by an effervescent street life focused on cafés like the Parisian-inspired Palais Concert. In their new public sphere, young intellectuals created tightly intimate groups and collective identities, potent alternatives to the traditional patronage relationships that demanded they serve as ornaments in the public lives of their betters. This second bohemian world, the "ephemeral belle epoque of the Leguía-allied middle sectors," nurtured networks of students and workers that would eventually form both APRA and the Peruvian Communist Party, and produced some of the most important intellectual works of twentieth-century Peru, including Mariátegui's Seven Interpretive Essays on Peruvian Reality (1928) and his pivotal literary magazine Amauta (1926–1930).

When San Marcos students reinstated the Juegos Florales poetry competition after a five-year hiatus, it seemed another step in the return to normalcy after Leguía's traumatic closing of the university the year before. Though the contest was organized by students, the judges and sponsors were established and respected men of letters led by José Gálvez, a noted poet and San Marcos literature professor, the host of the awards ceremony that Saturday night. Gálvez was a "poeta gran señor," a traditional Limeñan intellectual, a larger-than-life personality who walked Lima's streets certain that others recognized, acknowledged, and admired him and his literary gifts and whose wealth and prestige allowed him — invariably him — to host salons in his impressively grand private library. But if Gálvez epitomized traditional elite and academic authority, he was also a leader in the political opposition who visibly challenged the president's reelection efforts, even resigning a diplomatic post in 1921.

There was little suspense that Saturday night, as the winning poets had been announced a few days before. A young poet from Arequipa, Alberto Guillén, a close friend of Haya's, won the first prize in the lyrical poem category. Haya had "discovered" Guillén en route to a student congress in Cuzco that Haya had convened in March of 1920. Guillén joined the Reformistas, and with the financial help of his new San Marcos friends, the young poet traveled back with them to Lima, carrying only a few poetry books and a toothbrush. In the capital, he joined Haya's small circle of friends. Luis Alberto Sánchez, who would establish enduring and unassailable personal and political ties with Haya spanning the twentieth century, and would rise to be a high-ranking general in APRA, second only to Manuel Seoane, fondly remembered how his own friendship with the future APRA leader blossomed in that circle. Sánchez and Haya drew closer together because, he recalls, they shared a mutual appreciation for culture and sports and a "common enthusiasm for the recently discovered poet Alberto Guillén."

That Saturday night, then, the anti-Leguía students attending this university literary and social function were coming to applaud one of their own, just three months after the Sacred Heart protests and a few weeks after Leguía's attack on their beloved UPGP. For the students struggling to form a viable opposition to a regime that seemed only to grow stronger with each passing day, this night presented an opportunity for a symbolic victory allowing them one glorious night to challenge the president and to matter politically.

Leguía's daughter was to award the prizes, and to ensure Leguía himself would attend, Guillén asked Gálvez to invite the president. Since Guillén was one of the president's young clients, this was a reasonable request. Three years earlier, Leguía had paid for Guillén to travel to Madrid, where he interviewed no fewer than thirty-eight men of letters. He published these interviews, stressing only the worst character traits of each, goading the authors to gossip, and highlighting the petty envies and egotisms among them. Back in Lima, Guillén had just republished these salacious and scandalous interviews along with a highly laudatory dedication to Leguía, establishing Guillén as Leguía's client and cementing the young poet's reputation for creating attention-getting scandals. In the commonly understood logic of the patronage ties binding young intellectuals to older, more powerful men, it would not have surprised Leguía that Guillén, in an effort to further his career, wanted the most important poets and politicians to witness his literary triumph as the Juegos Florales first prize winner. Leguía's acceptance of such an invitation from a young and promising — albeit mischievous — client tied the younger man ever closer to him, while allowing Guillén to further acknowledge Leguía's status.


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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations ix

Acknowledgments xi

Introduction 3

Part I Becoming Magda Portal

1 Scandalous Debuts 23

2 Crazy, Boundless Heart 48

3 Family Affairs 72

Part II The Dream of Revolution

4 Red Paths 93

5 Woman with a Gun 120

6 Dream of a New Woman 153

Part III Demolitions

7 Almost within Grasp 197

8 Exits 231

9 Personality Politics 259

Conclusion 296

Notes 311

Bibliography 339

Index 349

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