Elena Arizmendi Mejia (18 January 1884 – 1949) was a Mexican woman who established the Neutral White Cross organization during the Mexican Revolution. She was a feminist in the first wave of Mexican feminism and established the "Mujeres de la raza" (Women of the [Hispanic] Race) and the International League of Iberian and Latin American Women in cooperation with G. Sofia Villa de Buentello.
Elena Arizmendi Mejia was born 18 January 1884 in Mexico City to Jesus Arizmendi and Isabel Mejia, a family of privilege. She was the granddaughter of Ignacio Mejia who served as Secretary of War, and was a Division General under the regime of President Benito Juarez. Her great-grandfather was Lieutenant Colonel Manuel Cristobal Mejia, who fought in the Mexican War of Independence in the army of Agustin de Iturbide. Arizmendi spent some of her early years with her grandfather in Oaxaca and then returned to Mexico City at about the age of 8. She was schooled in Mexico City, possibly at San Ignacio de Loyola, but when her mother died in 1898, Arizmendi took control of her five brothers and the household. When her he father remarried in 1900, Arizmendi hastily entered marriage with Francisco Carreto, but the union quickly crumbled and she decided to study nursing.
Her family had close ties with Francisco I. Madero and the school in which Arizmendi was enrolled was next door to Madero's Texas retreat. In 1910, she was studying at the School of Nursing of the Santa Rosa Hospital (now the School of Nursing at the University of the Incarnate Word) in San Antonio, Texas when the war broke out. On 17 April 1911, a few weeks prior to her graduation, Arizmendi returned via train to Mexico City to help with wounded combatants, as the Mexican Red Cross refused to provide aid to insurgents. Arizmendi arranged a personal meeting with the head of the Red Cross, who reiterated the refusal to support revolutionaries. Determined to help her countrymen, Arizmendi founded an organization to help and with her brother Carlos rallied medical students and nurses to organize the Cruz Blanca Neutral (Neutral White Cross).
They formed an association under the guidelines of the Geneva Conventions and she became the fundraiser, enlisting the help of celebrities like Maria Conesa, Virginia Fabregas, and Leopoldo Beristain. After numerous fundraisers, they collected sufficient funds for a field hospital and on 11 May 1911, set off for Ciudad Juarez. Arizmendi and Carlos, formed the first brigade with Dr. Ignacio Barrios and Dr. Antonio Marquez and nurses Maria Avon, Juana Flores Gallardo, Atilana Garcia, Elena de Lange, and Tomasa Villareal. The second brigade, led by Dr. Francisco, left the following day and on the 14th a third brigade, headed by Dr. Lorenzo and ten nurses including Innocenta Diaz, Concepcion Ibanez, Jovita Muniz, Concepcion Sanchez, Maria Sanchez, Basilia Velez, Maria Velez and Antonia Zorilla. Arriving in Juarez, they found devastation and again Arizmendi had to rally for funds. By the end of 1911, the Neutral White Cross had established 25 brigades across Mexico. Arzimendi was elected as the first woman partner of the Sociedad Mexicana de Geografia y Estadistica, but she rejected the honor. She did accept a gold medal presented to her for dedication with helping the wounded by the Gran Liga Obrera (Grand Worker League).
Arizmundi was both revered for her philanthropy and disliked for her leadership, at a time when women were expected to be docile and submissive. There were attacks to her leadership of the White Cross, such as when she had a photograph taken as a joke with the revolutionary crossed cartridge belts of male soldiers and soldaderas and was accused of violating the neutrality of the health organization.
During the revolutionary era, she had a long-term affair with Jose Vasconcelos, who was married with two children; she has been described as "the first of many lovers in his life but certainly his most intense and madly beloved liaison." Arizmundi fled Mexico in 1915 for the United States, briefly taking refuge in a convent in Victoria, Texas to hide from the public scandal of her relationship with Vasconcelos. She soon made her way to New York, where the relationship ended. According to one scholar, Arizmendi accompanied Vasconcelos to Lima, Peru and she broke off the relationship as he prepared to return to Mexico. He wrote about her in his autobiography, La Tormenta, giving her the pseudonym "Adriana." According to historian Enrique Krauze, Vasconcelos's description of the relationship "is the most famous depiction of 'mad love' in Mexican literature." When Arizmendi was in New York, Vasconcelos attempted an unsuccessful reconciliation with her.
Surrounded by feminists in New York, she recognized the Anglo-oriented perspective of European and US feminists. Wishing to give a voice to Latina women, she founded a feminist magazine, Feminismo Internacional (International Feminist) and began publishing articles reflecting Hispanic versions of feminism. She also co-founded with G. Sofia Villa de Buentello a cooperative union "Mujeres de la raza" (Women of the [Hispanic] Race) in 1923 with aims of uniting Latina women in the struggle for rights. At the time, Latin America was seen as the next "staging ground", as suffrage had been gained in Europe and the US. Arizmendi, after her attendance at the 1922 Pan-American Conference of Women, understood Europeans and Americans did not grasp the cultural realities of Hispanic women. Villa and Arizmendi both saw matrimony and motherhood, an integral part of Latina identity, as making the experience of women "complete". Arizmendi also saw the anti-clerical movement of the post-Revolutionary governments as an attack on a central part of her Mexican identity.
Arizmendi and Villa planned a conference for the Mujeres de la raza funded by the International League of Iberian and Latin American Women. Arizmendi used her press contracts and secured coverage in The New York Times to promote the event. On 2 March 1924, an extensive article about the feminist movement in Mexico entitled "New Women of Mexico Striving for Equality" carried an interview with Villa de Buentello giving an overview of their goals. The meeting occurred in July, 1925 in Mexico City with Villa as President of the conference. Arizmendi served as Secretary General, but did not attend due to a difference of opinion with Villa.
In 1927, Arizmendi published an autobiography with the purpose of airing her side of the affair and silencing rumors about her public life. Since Vasconcelos had published two works, Ulises Criollo and La Tormenta vilifying Arizmendi, though as a fictionalized character, Arizmendi's autobiography is a reflection upon the "double standard" women encountered.
For the 25th commemoration of the organization of the White Cross in 1936 and partly because President Venustiano Carranza supported suffrage, Arizmendi returned briefly to Mexico. She returned to New York, but moved permanently back to Mexico City in 1938, where she died in 1949.
Vida incompleta; ligeros apuntes sobre mujeres en la vida real M.D. Danon and Company, New York (1927) (In Spanish)