The U.S. military may have recently lifted the ban on women in combat, but Loreta Velazquez, a wealthy Cuban planter’s daughter who immigrated to New Orleans in 1849, secretly fought in the U.S. Civil War 150 years ago — first as a soldier in the Confederate Army, and later as a Union Army spy.
Velazquez was one of the estimated 1,000 women who disguised themselves as men to serve as soldiers during the American Civil War, but she, and the other female heroes, are not even mentioned in school textbooks. Award-winning filmmaker and director María Agui Carter spent the last 12 years researching archives about Velazquez and documenting her life so that she will no longer be erased from history, but instead live eternally on film.
Agui Carter’s film, “Rebel,” based on Velazquez’ 600-page memoir called “A Woman in Battle” (published in 1876), will premiere nationally this Friday, May 24, on PBS.
“I get invited to present [my documentary] at colleges, and at the very end, there’s always one young woman at the end with tears in her eyes saying, ‘Why didn’t I know about this history?’ and that’s why I make these films,” says Agui Carter, who has made numerous documentaries for PBS — “Rebel” is her first independently-funded one.
Born in Guayaquil, Ecuador, Agui Carter immigrated to New York City with her mother at age 7. Although not born into a wealthy family like Velazquez, she says she identifies with her refusal to fit in the boxes prescribed to her as a woman and a Latina, with her daring to go beyond expectations, and for not just working for herself but communities.
“When I arrived with my mom, we were undocumented,” says Agui Carter, who didn’t know what it was like having a television until she was 7. “It was hard. She was a seamstress working in factories. My saving grace was that I loved to read. I learned English by waiting to be picked up at the school library.”
Although she never had the privilege of going to the theater when she was younger, Agui Carter says she devoured literature and tested very well, so she was given a scholarship to one of the elite boarding schools in the country.
“From being beat up at public schools, I began to think critically and celebrate my intellectual side,” says Agui Carter. “No one knew I was undocumented.”
When her guidance counselor asked her which college she wanted to go to, she says she didn’t know anything about colleges except the name Harvard.
“I didn’t know anything else…I only applied there and I was lucky to get in,” says Agui Carter, who despite no encouragement from her guidance counselor, graduated from Harvard in 1986 and even got a scholarship for a year of study to travel around the world with the world’s greatest filmmakers.
Velazquez also didn’t let social expectations guide her.
“She criticized wartime society and the confederacy,” says Agui Carter. “She advocated for Cuban independence after the Civil War. She spoke out against slavery to Congress. What is amazing to me is the maverick spirit she had which is quintessentially American.”
In 19th century America, Agui Carter explains there were thousands of Latinos fighting both sides of the Civil War, and some only spoke Spanish.
“We were there but so often forgotten,” she says. “Our histories have not been considered worthy of collecting in archives or retelling in mainstream media. I use art – in this case animation and scripted scenes, recreated archival stills and footage juxtaposed with Civil War photography to bring our Latino historical experience to life.”
A lot of the scenes were shot in New Orleans, in historic homes and plantations, Virginia and some in Massachusetts — all over America. Although these sites have changed physically with time, societies at war — which Velazquez ended up criticizing — have not.
“Oftentimes, our leaders bring us into war with these nation-building ideals…but war in actuality is never those big ideals,” says the filmmaker. “There’s profit to be made. There is the inevitable destruction and death that war wreaks. We might enter these wars with great ideals, but the reality is that everyone loses. I think that is what Loreta experiences and feels at the end of her experience.”
Also working as the National Chair of the National Association of Latino Independent Producers (NALIP), she continues to say there are still so many obstacles to overcome, but it’s important we support each other as Latinos.
“It is the images and stories we see in media that will help us as Latinos transform our experience in this great nation,” says Agui Carter. “Until our diverse and amazing experiences become narratives in our country, we’ll always be strangers in our own land.”