I’m generally not a fan of documentaries that incorporate dramatic re-enactments into the mix. However, I applaud filmmaker María Agui Carter—Rockefeller fellow and native of Ecuador—who includes some quite lovely and effective dramatic moments in her new hour-long film, Rebel, premiering on PBS on Memorial Day weekend (Check local listings for repeat airdates and times).
Rebel, a presentation of the Latino Public Broadcasting series VOCES on PBS, encapsulates the remarkable life story of Loreta Janeta Velazquez—Cuban immigrant, Confederate soldier and Union spy.
Combining archival photos, articulate commentary from Latinx and American Civil War historians, and narrative from Loreta’s autobiography in voice over with dramatic re-enactments featuring actress Romi Dias (El Cantante) as Loreta, Rebel sheds overdue light on one of the “estimated 1,000 women who secretly served as soldiers” during the American Civil War.
The film is a real eye-opener, even more so because it honors a dedicated immigrant soldier, a Latina, born to a privileged Cuban family who, as a young girl, was shipped off to New Orleans to be educated, refined and assimilated into the cultural elite. Snubbing her nose at an arranged marriage, she married a young Texan soldier for love and bore his three children.
After the tragic loss of her children and husband, Loreta reinvented herself to support the war effort in her adopted land. She disguised herself as a man and, under the name of Harry T. Buford, served first as a soldier in the Confederate Army (during which time she travelled with a slave) and later as a Union spy. Loreta’s subsequent 600-page memoir, The Woman in Battle (originally published in 1876), in which she again defied convention by documenting the ravages of war, subjected her to condemnation as a liar and prostitute. Her actual existence was questioned as well, but has subsequently been documented by scholars.
“Loreta Velazquez was a rebel who flouted all the rules to become a part of American history,” underscores writer/producer/director María Agui Carter.
I encourage you to watch Rebel and spread the word. Loreta’s memoir remains in print (University of Wisconsin Press) and should make for fascinating reading as well and provide a springboard for discussion with young people and women’s groups. Her story has all the earmarks of a riveting novel and cries out for a larger canvas, a definitive dramatic feature film for sure.
There have been no shortage of dedicated nurses serving on the battlefield throughout our history, but I can’t remember any mention of female (cross-dressing) soldiers in the Civil War in my textbooks or anywhere else for that matter. Memorial Day, originally called Decoration Day, was rooted in the Civil War circa 1868, so VOCES on PBS should be commended for premiering Rebel during Memorial Day weekend…it’s perfectly timed to set the record straight and begin the dialogue. (Check local listings for airdates and times.)—Judith Trojan