Las Marianas: The Revolution within the Revolution

Female soldiers marching in Cuba, May 1960 (Alberto Korda)

Female soldiers marching in Cuba, May 1960 (Alberto Korda)

They never retreated or even hesitated. They always rushed toward the enemy.

That’s what has been said of Las Marianas, the all-female platoon of guerrillas who helped secure the liberation of Cuba from the U.S.-backed dictatorship. Celia Sánchez, one of the early organizers of the revolution before the Granma even landed and the first female combatant, had been urging her close friend Fidel for months to organize the female fighters under their own platoon. Finally, on September 4, 1958, Fidel brought his commanders together to discuss the issue. In a debate lasting over seven hours, many of the revolutionaries expressed their beliefs that women weren’t physically or emotionally strong enough for combat, while others argued that the women would best serve the revolution as nurses and cooks. Insisting that the ladies were braver and more disciplined than the men, Fidel decided to train the new platoon himself. He named it after Mariana Grajales, the 19th-century heroine of Cuban independence.

Consisting of only 13 women, and led by Isabel Rielo Rodríguez and Teté Puebla, the Marianas would show their mettle in less than a month, holding the line against heavy enemy fire in a battle in the Sierra Maestra. This led to their participating in an attack on a Bautista garrison near Holguín alongside a larger unit commanded by Eddy Suñol, who at first had refused to coordinate with the Marianas until Fidel told him that he could either fight with the women or not fight at all. He would later write to Fidel of the Marianas’ bravery on the battlefield:

I have to tell you that after having been one of the main opponents of women’s integration, I’m now completely satisfied. I congratulate you once again because you are never wrong. Beforehand I believed that this time you were mistaken. I wish you could see — even if it were a movie, so you could smile with joy — the actions of Teté in particular, as well as the other compañeras. When the order was given to advance, some of the men stayed behind, but the women went ahead in the vanguard. Their courage and calmness merits the respect and admiration of all the rebels and everyone else.

In a display of supreme confidence in the women, Fidel made the platoon his personal security detail. Whenever townspeople saw the Marianas approaching, they knew the comandante wasn’t far behind. The women would take part in a 10-day battle at the end of November and then stay with Fidel as he took control of Santiago, while Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos defeated the last of General Bautista’s forces at Santa Clara, clinching the ultimate triumph of the revolution.

On January 3, 1959, in his first address as the leader of Cuba, Fidel told the people of Santiago of the courageous acts committed by the female guerrillas:

It has been proven that it is not only the men who fight but that in Cuba the women also fight. The best evidence of this is the Mariana Grajales platoon, which made such an outstanding showing in numerous encounters. The women are as good soldiers as our best military men and I wanted to prove that women can be good soldiers. … Women must be rescued because they are still the victims of discrimination insofar as labor is concerned and in other aspects of their lives. So we organized the women’s units and these proved that women could fight, and when the men fight in a village and the women can fight alongside them, such villages are impregnable.

Remembering the Marianas is how we celebrate our heritage.