Argentine feminist anarchist poet Salvadora Carmen Medina Onrubia was born in La Plata city in Buenos Aires province on 23 March 1894, the daughter of Ildefonso Medina and Teresa Onrubia, both Spaniards. She was still just a girl when her father died and she then moved with her mother and sister to Gualeguay in Entre Ríos, although for a time she attended the American College in Buenos Aires. In Gualeguay her mother secured a position as a rural schoolmistress in the Carbó district and Salvadora would also work as a teacher in her early youth. Her writing began when she was an adolescent and she contributed to the local newspaper and sent articles off to the reviews Fray Mocho and P.B.T. and these were published. She was still very young when she moved to the city of Rosario where she struck up a connection with anarchist activism and amateur dramatic groups, in which she was involved. In Rosario she worked as secretary to the lawyer Pérez Colman with whom she had an affair, leading to her giving birth to her first child as a single mother. She then broke off their relationship and moved away to Buenos Aires with her young son to live in a boarding house.
By 1913 she was ensconced in Buenos Aires working as a permanent staffer with the anarchist daily La Protesta, for which she was paid 150 pesos per month. She was also published in La Antorcha and Caras y Caretas. On 1 February 1914, Salvadora spoke at a street meeting calling for the release of Simón Radowitzky, the libertarian icon who she protected all her life. A snapshot survives of her addressing the meeting on the corner of the Engineering Faculty in Buenos Aires with the Calle Montes de Oca; it has become famous and represents Salvadora’s first public image. In 1915 the very beautiful young redheaded fire-cracker met the Uruguayan journalist Natalio Félix Botana and they became a couple; from then on her life changed at a dizzying rate, although she was never to abandon her libertarian beliefs. She and Botana were very soon living together and Natalio adopted Carlos (Pitón), Salvadora’s first-born and together they would have another three children: Helvio, Jaime and Georgina.
In 1915 Botana was beginning to dabble in business with an ambitious journalistic project, the daily newspaper Crítica that was to achieve a large print-run and attract a wide spectrum of readers. His talent and commitment made a success of it, but at the start he faced a few tough years of day by day struggle and Salvadora was equally involved. Crítica was Argentina’s most popular daily paper up until the 1950s, an oddity, being sensationalist yet boasting a cultural supplement for the elite, with contributions from Borges, Roberto Arlt and the Gonzâlez Tuñons. In its heyday it was selling upwards of 700,000 copies a day. Critica‘s clout in national politics was unquestionable and it was even capable of toppling a government, for which reason Botana was appreciated as much as he was cursed and comparisons were drawn with the US media mogul William Randolph Hearst. Actually, Botana stored up not just power but also a huge fortune that allowed his family and Salvadora to live in the lap of luxury. Salvadora used such privilege to build up an out and out solidarity network for the libertarian comrades who used to refer to her as “hermanita/little sister”. A number of unemployed comrades were found jobs at Crítica, securing their release as political prisoners and a number of needy women would receive sewing machines from Salavora’s own hands; she used to deliver them in her de luxe Rolls Royce in a practice replicated later by Evita.
Salvadora helped out with the running of the paper and even took issue with her husband, such as the time she vetoed Crítica‘s being used as a platform for the Communist Party. She could always find some space to squeeze in an article by an anarchist and was particularly careful to find room for feminist items. Even though they came from differing political viewpoints, Alfonsina Storni, Alicia Moreau de Justo, Herminia Brumana and Juana Rouco were all contributors to Crítica. Among her more celebrated feats was her involvement in the liberation of Simón Radowitzky; on two separate occasions, Salvadora dispatched employees of the paper to orchestrate his escape from Ushuaia penitentiary, but those ventures were discovered and Simon was left to languish behind bars. In the end, thanks to the power she wielded, Salvadora succeeded in 1929 in securing an order from the already weakened President Yrigoyen allowing Radowitzky’s release and departure into exile in Uruguay. On arrival in Montevideo, the renowned anarchist hero was helped and welcomed by a relative of Botana’s.
During the Spanish Civil War, the Botanas fought Francoism and helped out exiles arriving in Argentina. Botana personally was down in the docks arranging leave for Spanish exiles in transit to come ashore in Buenos Aires, sent money for the orphaned children of republican soldiers and welcomed writers like Rafael Alberti and María Teresa León to her estate in Don Torcuato and lent a helping hand to Margarita Xirgu and other Spanish artistes.
But for all her multiple family and intellectual commitments, Salvadora never ceased to be the active militant. In 1919 she was just another activist in the Tragic Week mobilisation, pregnant and holding her oldest son by the hand. On 7 January she spoke in La Chacarita cemetery at the burial of two of the martyrs of that week, clambering on to the coffins for a rally that ended in a tough crackdown. One of the many steps taken in the wake of the Tragic Weeks events was the closure of the libertarian daily paper La Protesta, with its employees being thrown out of work; thanks to Salvadora’s solidarity, they were hired by Crítica.
In 1931, one year on from General Uriburu’s coup d’etat, Crítica was shut down and Botana and Salvadora were both jailed by Inspector Polo Lugones (son of the writer Leopoldo Lugones) because of their political differences with the regime, even though Critica had initially supported the coup. From the Buen Pastor women’s prison, Salvadora sent the dictator, Uriburu, a famous letter which ended with these words: “From this corner of wretchedness, I slap your face with my complete contempt.” Following this, the Botanas had to move away to Montevideo, from where they opened a sub-office of the paper which survived despite all the difficulties and later they set off on a lengthy tour of Europe. Those were tough times for Salvadora and Natalio. In addition to the political problems of the time and the shutting down of their paper Salvadora’s oldest son, Pitón, died in 1929 in unclear circumstances. It was classed as an accident since he had shot himself while chatting with his sisters, but it was also said that the lad had taken his own life on learning from Salvadora that his father was not Botana but someone else. Salvadora never got over the tragedy and the trip to Europe was a pilgrimage in search of some ease, but the couple were eventually to part company.
Alongside her family, political and business roles, Salvadora turned to writing and was a prolific writer of poetry, narrative and plays. Her very first play was Almafuerte (1914) and it was to be staged that same year at the Apolo Theatre. It was followed by La solución (1921) Lo que estaba escrito (1928), Las descentradas (1929) and Un hombre y su vida (1936). She also wrote plays for children. But she really hit the mark with Las descentradas which was performed at the Ideal Theatre with Gloria Ferrandiz in the lead. It was a stirring piece that found Salvadora at the height of her powers. Las descentradas represented a critique of woman’s subjection to patriarchal rules and put forward the case for women’s autonomy on foot of anarcho-feminist principles. The play carried a significant message denouncing the role in which men had cast woman; Salvadora urged women not to put up with any repression and just be themselves. In terms of a discussion of gender identity, Las descentradas is a bona fide avant-garde production several decades ahead of its time. And as a playwright, Salvador became the first woman member of Argentores (Argentinean Playwrights’ Society).
She translated plays from the French and English, especially the plays of Noel Coward, and staged productions of Perrault’s tales for children.
Another curious item from Salvadora’s pen was her novel Akasha. Based on certain notion in the theosophy of Krishnamurti and the theory of reincarnation, the romantic novel is set among the upper classes of the Buenos Aires of the author’s own day and provides the backdrop for a feminist critique. In the day to day publication of Crítica, Salvadora’s closet colleagues were the journalist Sebastian Marotta and Roberto Arlt. Along with Arlt, Salvadora took off on esoteric tours of greater Buenos Aires in search of rather theatrical spiritualist experiences that the author of Los siete locos (Arlt) was later to send up in his book. Salvadora was also a great friend of the poetess Alfonsina Storni with whom she associated and whom she had as her house-guest up until Storni committed suicide.
The scathing, humorous political vignettes published by Salvadora are indicative of her powerfully incisive style, as in the case of the article called “El gato anarquista” (The Anarchist Cat) about a cat that happens to fall on to the apron of the Colon Theatre, striking terror into the audience which mistakes the noise for the explosion of a bomb. As for her poetry, she penned melancholic poems along modernist lines with the oriental references typical of the earliest decades of the 20th century. And she published the poetry anthologies El vaso intacto, La rueca milagrosa and El misal de mi yoga.
In Critica y su verdad (1958) Salvadora Medina tackled a number of genres, for one finds alongside objective narrative testimony, essays, booklets and pamphlets, creating a hybrid feel. That book not only lifts the lid on some aspects of the author’s life but also on her (unsuccessful) battles to recover her newspaper after it was seized by the Peronists. From 1946 to 1951, following Botana’s death in a car accident in Jujuy province, Salvadora was the managing editor of Crítica. By the time Peronism came to power, the Botana family had been greatly weakened by Natalio’s death. Salvadora and Eva Peron did not get on together, although initially they were on friendly and cooperative terms. In a “Letter to Evita” which the government had pressed the director of Crítica to write by way of a homage, Salvadora was naïve enough to place herself on a par with Eva, both of them being battlers, but this did not go down well. When women were granted the vote in 1947, Salvadora had no hesitation in talking exception to that right, so long campaigned for by women, being credited exclusively to Eva Peron and she insisted that the parts played by Cecilia Grierson, Julieta Lanteri, Elvira Rawson de Dellepiane, Alicia Moreau, Carolina Muzzilli and Juana Repetto, historical suffragist activists, also deserved recognition.
Salvadora Medina Onrubia was forever surrounded by rumours and she acquired an almost legendary status, being dubbed “The Red Venus”, “The Red Lady” or the “Argentinean Pasionaria”, and she was also regarded as an extravagant woman hard to pigeon-hole. In actual fact, those who knew her well said that she was an impassioned, selfless anarchist, albeit more by temperament than doctrine and Luce Fabbri described her as a romantic. There was a consistency to her feminist activism, in her private life as well as in her work; she had resisted marriage until Botana persuaded her of the need to legalise their connection following the birth of her last child, her daughter. She backed the suffragists even though the ballot box is looked at askance in anarchist dogma. She worked alongside men, became addicted to ether, was very poor and then very wealthy and welcomed international intellectuals to her famous estate in Don Torcuato where Siqueiros painted a famous mural and then fled it to live in a tiny apartment. She had a large family, looked out for everybody and finished up very much alone. When she died in Buenos Aires city in 1972 she had barely a couple of female friends to follow her coffin. She slipped out of memory until slowly she was brought to prominence again in recent years and her anarcho-feminist record and the eclectic power of her literary efforts were brought to light.
From: Libertarias en America del Sur, pp. 92-97. Translated by: Paul Sharkey.
With thanks to comrades at Kate Sharpley Library