Book Review: Most Scandalous Woman – Magda Portal & the Dream of Revolution in Peru

Learn about Magda Portal, a pioneering Latin American activist. Stanley Rutland Professor of American History Andrew Wood reviews Myrna Ivonne Wallace Fuentes’ new book, Most Scandalous Woman: Magda Portal and the Dream of Revolution in Peru published by The University of Oklahoma Press. 

Since first being observed in 1909 by women attending a Socialist Party of America conference in New York City, International Women’s Day gradually became an official day of global commemoration to be recognized by the United Nations in 1975. Today, March 8 is celebrated each year by millions seeking gender parity, increased opportunity and an end to violence.

In many ways, the life of twentieth-century Peruvian writer and activist Magda Portal (1900-1989) embodies the ambitions and, conversely, the many enduring frustrations of those who celebrate International Women’s Day.

A pioneering advocate for women’s equality not just in Peru but across the Americas during the course of the twentieth century, Portal bravely gave voice to a range of bold, often controversial, new ideas during her career as a writer and activist. At the same time, she suffered the persistent sexism of her male colleagues while enduring a number of bitter disappointments in both her professional and personal life.

Born in the Barranco district of Lima, Peru, Portal’s early life proved difficult. Her father had died when she was only five years old. At sixteen she went to work to help support her mother and siblings. Shortly thereafter, her stepfather passed away again leaving the family to struggle financially.

Developing an early talent for writing, Portal took to journalistic reporting and verse. When it was announced that Portal had won prestigious honors at the Juegos Florales poetry competition in 1923, Magda, then six months pregnant and unwed, declined at the last minute to read her work during the public ceremony.  As biographer Myrna Ivonne Wallace Fuentes observes in her compelling biography of Portal, the young woman’s refusal proved both a “scandalous début” as well as a signature event that would serve as “the foundational motivation for a life oriented around challenging limits to her freedom” (47).

Portal’s revolutionary thinking advanced quickly.  She married and gave birth to a daughter she named Gloria. Already uncomfortable with prescribed gender and social expectations, family life did not suit her.  In 1925, Magda left her husband Federico and made her way to Bolivia with Federico’s younger brother Serafín Delmar.  Portal and Sarafín soon collaborated on a collection of short stories titled El derecho de matar (The right to kill).   Largely propagandistic in character, their writing cast exploited workers, slaves and other common people as revolutionaries inspired by a mix of ideas drawn from the Russian Revolution and New Testament.

Before long, Magda returned to Lima where she continued to write, publish and agitate for political change.  Portal became close friends with leading Peruvian intellectual José Carlos Mariátegui and the two collaborated on left-leaning publications such as Labor and Amauta.  These and other activities drew unwanted attention and in early June 1927, however, when President Leguía had Portal (one of two women) and several dozen others associated with the Amauta journal arrested and deported to Cuba.

From Cuba Magda soon took refuge in Mexico where she, Serafín and Gloria came in contact with a vibrant group of Peruvian exiles including activist Raúl Haya de la Torre.  Together, they drafted an action plan for what would become the Alianza Popular Revolucionaria Americana (APRA) party.  Initially envisioned as a continental movement against imperialism, APRA would grow to become an integral political force in Peruvian politics.

Over the next two decades, Portal dedicated herself to the party—believing it represented Peru’s best option for radical social change. Her leadership of the APRA Women’s Section demanded practical goals aimed at improving the lives of women including civil divorce, suffrage, affordable housing and a wide range of other social reforms. The high point of Portal’s APRA career took shape during the late 1930s and early 1940s when left-leaning politics took center stage in the Americas.

Magda’s strength would regularly be tested. Remarkably, she lived through many difficult situations and events. For a period in 1932 she and Serafín were implicated in a plot to assassinate the president.

As a result, he was jailed and Magda was forced to live in exile before being apprehended and imprisoned herself.  

Personal misfortune soon also took a devastating toll. By the mid-1940s, Portal had separated from her long-time companion Sarafín. Then, in early 1947, Magda’s daughter committed suicide. A military takeover by General Manuel A. Odría in late October 1948 followed by a brutal wave of repression again caused Portal to go underground for a time.

Following a series of trials overseen by the dictator, Magda denounced the party. Shocked by her apparent betrayal, some believed she had struck a deal with the government. Magda, in contrast, published ¿Quiénes traicionaron al pueblo? (Who betrayed the people?) in 1950. In no uncertain terms, the work sharply criticized APRA leadership and claimed that the party had fundamentally compromised its original principles.

Leaving Lima, Portal traveled in 1951 to Buenos Aires to dedicate herself to her writing.  Once arrived, however, she was informed that her luggage—including the manuscripts she was working on—had been lost.

Once again, the pioneering Peruvian revolutionary had to begin anew. Magda soon wrote a powerful 1954 memoir titled La trampa (The trap) in which she revealed her most personal feelings about her political career and some of her male colleagues in particular. Wallace Fuentes characterizes this work as one of “desolate loneliness” as Magda shares her experience of causing “discomfort” in meetings and then being left out of “meetings of high politics” (269).   As painfully revealed in La trampa, “Portal’s experience in her twenty years of APRA militancy was profoundly marked by patriarchal assumptions and gender discrimination” (286).   Not surprisingly, her “publicly exposing [the] seamy underside” of her political career stirred yet another “scandal” while at the same time calling into question some of the most basic expectations regarding gender ideology, power and male privilege. 

Today, Magda Portal’s name can be found among the many women throughout history who comprisethe “Heritage Floor” component of American artist Judy Chicago’s iconic 1970s installation The Dinner Party at the Brooklyn Museum’s Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art.

Most Scandalous Woman was required reading for students in Wood’s Spring 2018 history graduate research seminar in comparative political, social and cultural history of the Americas.

Myrna Ivonne Wallace Fuentes, Most Scandalous Woman: Magda Portal and the Dream of Revolution in Peru.  University of Oklahoma Press 2017.  361 pp., Bibliography, Index, Illustrations, $34 hardback.