By Sarah McCracken
This paper examines the role of the 1952 revolution in Bolivia in the participation of working-class indigenous women in social and political life, starting with the creation of the Housewives’ Committee in the Siglo XX mine in 1961. Discussing the root causes of the 1952 revolution as well as its effects on social and economic life, I argue that the political rhetoric instilled in national life as a result of the revolution allowed for women (specifically, miners’ wives) in a severely patriarchal society to organize for economic and political rights for their families. I examine the effects of this activism on women, detailing the repression that they experienced at in hands of both their husbands and the national government. I go on to compare the activism of the miners’ wives in Bolivia to affluent, first-world feminism (as these women rejected the title “feminist”), as well as arguing that the current political atmosphere in Bolivia, which allows for many indigenous women to participate in government and political life, can at least in part be attributed to the groundbreaking efforts of the women of the Housewives’ Committee.
In 1952, Bolivia underwent a revolution backed by the Movimiento Nacionalista Revolucionario (MNR). The impetus for change arose from rural struggles that began as early as the 1940s (Gotkowitz 287). However, miners played a significant role as well. After wresting control from rival political parties, the MNR gained mineworkers’ support through its condemnation of the government-backed assassination of mineworkers in Catavi in 1942, support that was key for its success (Gotkowitz, 169). The MNR came to power after a final confrontation between its supporters, including mineworkers who marched on La Paz, and the army that began on April 9, 1952, and lasted three days (Klein 207). Herbert Klein classifies the MNR of 1952 as “a new type of populist movement” that, having “[accepted] the workers’ participation and ideology and by arming the populace…had committed itself to a destruction of the old order” (Klein 208). Indeed, the MNR’s agenda appeared radical – primarily universal suffrage, land redistribution and nationalization of the mines – yet the way in which the new government carried the nationalization of the mines in particular reveals that it was much less radical than many have been led to believe (Klein 212-213).
The MNR was in fact fairly moderate, and operating in the framework of the Cold War, proceeded cautiously in nationalizing the mines though “labor radicals demanded confiscation without indemnification” (Klein 213). The MNR “was concerned about the response of the United States government” because “it did not wish to antagonize a potentially dangerous ally” and feared being accused of being a “communist-inspired regime” (Klein 213-214). Therefore, the MNR agreed to compensate the three most powerful tin-mining corporations in Bolivia – Patiño, Hoschild and Aramayo, and “made no gestures toward nationalizing any other mines, including the several medium-sized non-tin producing mines owned by American companies” (Canelas 21, Klein 214). After years of deliberation, the Bolivian government, under the leadership of president Víctor Paz Estenssoro, announced its plan to nationalize the three major tin mines on Dec. 31, 1961, stipulating that it would pay the Patiño corporation 9,436.40 in U.S. dollars; the Hoschild corporation would receive $8,704.40, and the Aramayo corporation would receive $3,985.50 (Canelas 65).
Nevertheless, the state could not leave out the workers entirely, as their support had helped the MNR succeed. Thus, the government “was forced to accept [Central Obrera Boliviana]” (COB, Bolivian Workers Center) “and [Federación Sindical de Trabajadores Mineros de Bolivia]” (FSTMB, Union Federation of Mineworkers of Bolivia) “direction and worker ‘co-government’ in the administration of [Corporación Minera de Bolivia]” (CMB, Mining Corporation of Bolivia, created by the MNR after the revolution) (Klein 214). The workers won two seats (there were seven total) on the Board of COMIBOL and thereby gained veto power on any decisions that would affect workers (Klein 214). The workers used this power to pressure for “increased hiring and for the establishment of well-subsidized pulperías, or company stores” (Klein 214). The latter had operated as a form of debt peonage that tied mineworkers to the mine, which will be discussed later in this paper.
Juan Lechín Oquendo, a Trotskyist who had worked in the Catavi and Siglo XX mines, was heavily involved in the leadership of both the COB and the FSTMB; following the revolution in 1952, the new interim president, Hernán Siles, named him Minister of Mines and Petroleum (Cajías 151). Lechín’s working-class sentiments are reflected strongly in his statement upon being sworn in: “We, the workers, have accepted a chance to take part in the government because we believe that in this way we will help the advancement of the National Revolution. I give my regards to and express my admiration for the heroic workers of the mines, tireless fighters for the social and economic recognition of the Bolivian people” (Cajías 151, my translation). This militant attitude in favor of the mineworkers made its way into the agenda of the COB and the FSTMB through Lechín’s leadership, thus affecting COMIBOL despite the MNR’s attempts to please the United States and remain more moderate.
An exploration of the COB’s political agenda helps to further elaborate Lechín’s ideology and that of his followers. The COB employed language that often referred, in Marxist terms, to imperialism. The official political thesis of the COB, published in 1970, states in its preamble: “We the workers proclaim that our historic mission in the present moment is to crush imperialism and its domestic servants. We proclaim that our mission is the fight for socialism…The alliance of workers and peasants with the poor of the cities and with all anti-imperialist forces will guarantee victory” (Comité Central Revolucionario de la Universidad Mayor de San Andrés 9). One may assume that ‘domestic servants’ refers to politicians, businessmen and people in general who supported corporate interests, especially those of United States businesses.
The alliance of the moderate MNR and radical leaders such as those of the COB, in addition to the short time in which the new government wished to implement fairly drastic changes, made for an imperfect transition. First, this alliance was not always easy. In his discussion of the Bolivian economy from 1952 to 1965, Cornelius Zondag notes that “on the whole, it may be said that labor relations during the twelve years of the MNR regime were turbulent” and that in its first five years of existence there were “an average of 350 strikes a year” (Zondag 51). Indeed, in its political thesis, the COB quite clearly expresses disdain for the efforts of moderate politicians, calling them bourgeois and accusing them of using foreign investment to modernize the country while also maintaining a capitalist regime ( Comité Central Revolucionario de la Universidad Mayor de San Andrés 10). Secondly, in addition to internal arguments, the overthrow of the previous government on top of “the nationalization of the mines, the destruction of the hacienda system, and the massive shift of government resources into social welfare programs all created havoc in the national economy and in government income” (Klein 216). That is, the changes that the government did make, however dissatisfied radical political parties may have been, were nevertheless significant, and implemented over such a short period of time they inevitably caused economic distress in Bolivia. Perhaps the most severe of these problems was “the runaway inflation that occurred during the mid-1950s,” for although Bolivia had experienced inflation since the Chaco War, that which occurred in the mid-1950s “constituted a new phenomenon in Bolivia’s financial history” because of its intensity (Zondag 55).
These economic difficulties hit tin miners especially hard as a historically underpaid, economically abused sector of society. In addition, after the nationalization of the mines, tin production began to decline, causing further detriment to the Bolivian economy and to their wages; between 1952 and 1960, for example, tin production decreased by a little over ten metric tons (Zondag 89). The cost of living continued to increase throughout the 1960s and the Bolivian government did not adjust miners’ wages to compensate for the inflation. The miners were acutely aware of this; one mineworker, interviewed by June Nash in 1979 for her work We Eat the Mines and the Mines Eat Us, summarized the situation well, saying: “[in 1979] we are earning as much as we did in 1956 and 1957, but the cost of living has gone up. Since 1965 the daily pay has increased only ten centavos a day…before 1956 a peón, a regular worker in the mine, earned more or less the equivalent of three dollars and fifty cents a mita. But today, a driller, who has the highest position in the mine, doesn’t earn even a dollar” (Nash 234). The following table further illuminates the mineworkers’ economic situation, showing the monthly budgets for four different mining families in the late 1960s (based on information from Nash 240):
A. Carpenter; 2 adults, 3 children; B 1,250/month
Clothing per month: B 190.92
Household expenses per month: B 27.94
School supplies per month: B 17.67
Transportation/Bus per month: B 35.63
Food per month: B 444.67
Per person, per month (assuming equal shares): B 88.9
Monthly total including expenses not listed here: B 901.70
B. Carter; 2 adults, 4 children; B 700/month on five month contract
Clothing per month: B 110.40
Household expenses per month: B 199.80
School supplies per month: N/A
Transportation/Bus per month: B 24.50
Food per month: B 241.38
Per person, per month (assuming equal shares): B 40.23
Monthly total including expenses not listed here: B 601.48
C. Pipelayer; 2 adults, 1 child; B 350/month on a five month contract
Clothing per month: B 287.40
Household expenses per month: B 191.83
School supplies per month: N/A
Transportation/Bus per month: B 14.88
Food per month: 398.87
Per person, per month (assuming equal shares): B 132.96
Monthly total including expenses not listed here: B 915.20
D. Driller; 2 adults, 5 children; B 1,000/month
Clothing per month: B 3,135.00
Household expenses per month: B 286.90
School supplies per month: B 87.65
Transportation/Bus per month: B 29.69
Food per month: B 3,459.90
Per person, per month (assuming equal shares): B 494.27
Monthly total including expenses not listed here: B 7,121.44
These four budgets clarify the harsh economic realities that mineworkers faced. First, the carpenter earns more money than the carter, the pipelayer and the driller. In addition, he is able to spend more on school supplies for his two children than the driller can for his five children. The carter and pipelayer, both of whom have children, do not even include school fees or school supplies in their budgets because they cannot afford to. All of this indicates wage discrimination – certain miners at that time earned more than others simply because of their roles in the mines; but how did they gain those positions, and why were they worth more? Also note that the pipelayer’s monthly budget is almost three times his wage, and the driller’s is a little over seven times his wage. This indicates that the wives of both must have been working as well, on top of caring for their husbands and children. The jobs of their wives might be considered harsher because, as women were expected to remain in the home, only informal sector work – sometimes illegal – was available for them.
Another source of economic difficulty for the miners’ families was the company store, which provided all their essentials. A narrator in director Helena Solberg’s documentary, “The Double Day,” notes: “often, the company store is not well-stocked. So when the women go shopping, they can’t find what they need. Many times, the miner’s wage doesn’t even cover food costs. So the company deducts store debts before he gets his salary. They end up being dependent on the company store for everything.” In We Eat the Mines and the Mines Eat Us, Nash furthermore contends that “dependence on the pulpería is one of the major factors limiting the miner’s ability to act freely in the labor market” because “as soon as the workers go on the job, they can draw supplies from the pulpería, but they are not paid for a month” and “at the end of the month, the pulpería account is deducted from the worker’s paycheck, often taking up three-quarters of the total”; most importantly, “his debts [from the pulpería] tie him to the job from then on” (Nash 241). The dependence that the company store forced upon the miners and their families has been described as a “system of the worker-employer relationship” and “a paternalistic system” that resulted from the Mining Corporation of Bolivia (COMIBOL) wishing “to manage…the expenditures, diet and even the life of the miner” (Iriarte 36-37). Thus the miners’ wives, who took responsibility for cooking, cleaning and taking care of their families, found that in addition to their husbands’ low wages, they were limited to one primary source of goods: the company store, a source that ultimately worked against them by incurring debt and tying their husbands to their low-paying jobs.
The Housewives’ Committee
It was in the context of these economic difficulties, and in this post-revolutionary atmosphere, that miners’ wives in Siglo XX, a mining town in the Potosí province, formed the first Housewives’ Committee on June twenty-first, 1961 (Lagos 21). With this organization, these women made significant contributions to the labor movement in Bolivia. They created the committee in order to survive and support their husbands, yet they also broke ground as the first women’s movement in Bolivia; without the political environment that the 1952 revolution afforded them, despite difficulties with more moderate politicians, they may not have had the courage to organize as women. The revolution created an atmosphere of change and modernity in which women could seize the opportunity to negotiate their own role. Without employment opportunities of their own and often with several children, they could not survive without their husbands’ wages. The women who created the Housewives’ Committee took the initiative to organize of their own accord, often facing vehement opposition from their husbands, who in some cases avoided politics. The husband of one of the founders of the committee, María Fernández de Valeriano, started an affair with another woman in response to her activism. She threw him out of the house, raising their five children on her own (Lagos 58). Another member, Norma Arancibia del Salguero, notes that for women who wished to participate in the committee, the first fight that they faced was within the home, and that her husband to this day “does not agree with union leaders” (Lagos 59). María de Valeriano furthermore notes that often their political activities ended “in fights with [their] husbands” when they went home (Lagos 55). Their husbands, used to a patriarchal society in which women stayed home and did not participate in politics, evidently felt threatened by what their wives might achieve. One article about the Housewives’ Committee notes that “even the men conscious of their exploitation as workers do not have the perspective that permits them to understand the role of household labor” – by their wives, in other words – “in the productive process” and therefore they “accept as ‘normal’ the confinement of the women to the house, the prohibition of their social and political participation,” furthermore “[bearing] an attitude of sarcasm in relation to the women who decide to participate” in political life (Viezzer, Dietz, and Tuchman 82).
One woman who emerged as an important radical actor within the Housewives’ Committee was Domitila Barrios de Chungara. Although Barrios de Chungara rejected the label ‘feminist,’ she publicly discussed the hardships that Bolivian miners’ wives suffered, underlining important factors that led women to create the Housewives’ Committee in Siglo XX (Chungara and Viezzer 41). Specifically, she often discussed the problems that women faced as a result of the health risks that their husbands suffered in the mines as well as often having several children. In the documentary, the “Double Day,” she notes that “women can’t make plans for the future because [they] never know when [their] husbands are going to come out dead…usually [they] become widows at an early age, with 5, 6, 7, 8 children.” Her mention of widowhood refers to silicosis, a disease of the lungs that seriously affected Bolivian mineworkers, often leading to their untimely deaths (Nash 55). In the same documentary, Barrios de Chungara also states that widows “receive a small pension that doesn’t even pay the rent” and that “if one goes to the mining company asking for a job they say, ‘you don’t inherit your husband’s job,’” which left the widows without employment opportunities to supplement the pension. Barrios de Chungara even went as far as publicly discussing domestic abuse, a subject that many Bolivian housewives would have been afraid to discuss for fear of retaliation from their husbands. Beyond publicly voicing the grievances of Bolivian women in the mines, Barrios de Chungara actively participated in the Housewives’ Committee and served as its Secretary of Public Relations in 1964 and as its Secretary General from 1965 to 1967, from 1970 to 1976 (after returning from exile in La Paz), and from 1978 to 1982 despite being exiled from Bolivia for the second half of that term (Lagos 273-274). She was imprisoned in two instances as a result of her political activity, and lost her unborn child during the second imprisonment because of the physical abuse that she suffered at the hands of the soldiers (Chungara and Viezzer 149).
Beyond resistance in the home, these women also faced repression by the Bolivian military dictatorships that suppressed their organization and their husbands’ unions. The reforms that the MNR implemented and their negative effects on the Bolivian economy made the Bolivian government vulnerable to to the United States, and to a revival of the military, which the U.S. supported, resulting in a series of military coups. The first occurred in 1964, installing General René Barrientos as the new head of the Bolivian government. Barrientos’ regime generally oppressed the mineworkers; for example, one of his first actions was to order the army to enter the mines, most likely to pre-empt political activity and protests on the part of pro-MNR miners (Chungara and Viezzer 89). Barrientos furthermore “succeeded in dismantling [FSTMB], discharged some six thousand miners from COMIBOL, and even massacred striking miners on the night of San Juan in June 1967 at the Catavi-Siglo XX mines” (Klein 224). The next coup occurred in 1969 when General Ovando, who had aided Barrientos in 1964, seized power. Ovando was more labor-friendly than Barrientos; he “was of the moderate reformist MNR tradition” and “by early 1970 had once again legalized COB and the FSTMB and permitted Lechín,” who had been driven out by Barrientos, “to return to power” in the miners’ union (Klein 226). Ovando’s successor, General Juan José Torres, came to power in October 1970 through a government decision to change leaders rather than a coup. Torres turned out to be “an idealistic left politician who wanted to extend Ovando’s ‘democratic opening’ to include even more radical mobilization of workers and left” and sought financial aid for COMIBOL from Europe rather than the United States, unlike the MNR and his military predecessors (Klein 226-227). Unfortunately for the miners, Torres only lasted until August 1971, when Colonel Hugo Banzer led a military coup that ousted him (Klein 227). Banzer maintained troops in the mines and actually outlawed union activity within them in 1977, towards the end of his reign (Klein 230-234). After a temporary return to civilian rule beginning in 1978, General Luís García Meza came to power through another military coup in 1980, instigating yet another massacre in the mines during the process (Lagos 139). Bolivia made a permanent return to democratic governance in 1982, with the election of Hernán Siles Zuazo (Lagos 274).
The Housewives’ Committee evolved in this context: revolutionary hopes, hyper-inflation, bureaucratic ineptitude, and eventually, military violence. The exact size of the Housewives’ Committee is difficult to discern from the existing literature. Between forty and sixty women participated in the first big political action of the Housewives Committee in 1961; one account says forty (Lagos 43) while another source says sixty (Viezzer, Dietz, and Tuchman, 81). Additionally, partly as a result of the efforts of the women in Siglo XX to reach out to other communities, Housewives’ Committees were established in other mining towns. These towns included Catavi, Chorolque, Viloco, Siete Suyos, Machacamarca and Matilde (Centro de Promoción Minera 14-19). Despite these efforts, government repression prevented them from realizing their ultimate goal of creating a committee on the national level (Viezzer, Dietz, and Tuchman 82).
In reality the Housewives’ Committee was born of its first strike in 1961. Domitila Barrios de Chungara notes that “necessity made the [housewives] organize” because at that time, “the company owed [their husbands] three months’ wages, there was no food to eat, there were no medicines and no medical attention” (Chungara and Viezzer 71). Thus it is not surprising that the women marched to La Paz and initiated a hunger strike in August of 1961, during the presidency of Dr. Paz Estenssoro. An article published on the fifteenth in a periodical called Presencia outlines the reasons for the strike: “pay of [their husbands’] salaries for the month of July; [re]supplying of company stores” and “freedom of the union leaders” who had been imprisoned as a result of their political activities (Lagos 43).
The participants gathered at the Parliament building in La Paz (Lagos 43). There a group of women called “las barzolas,” named after a previous mining activist and hired by the MNR, threw rotten fruit and shouted insults at them, eventually threatening them with knives as well (Lagos 43-44). Many women were forced to bring their children with them; the same article from Presencia lists them: “S. de la G. [sic] with five children; Elena de Pereiro with her five-month-old son; Coltilde, widow of Calderón, with two children, Primitiva del Barco with six children, Elsa de Fernández with her son; Brígida Velarde, pregnant with four children…” and so on (Lagos 47). After the fact, several women including Brígida Velarde fell ill and never fully recovered their health; one woman, Manuela de Sejas, died after returning home from the hunger strike (Lagos 49). Domitila Barrios de Chungara, who did not participate in this particular strike, notes that the women “were joined by university students, factory workers, and even women from other mines began to arrive, in solidarity with [them]” (Chungara and Viezzer 73-74). After twenty-six days, the government released the union leaders from jail (Lagos 43, 51).
In 1963, the government arrested union leaders from Siglo XX again, still under Dr. Paz Estenssoro’s leadership (Chungara and Viezzer 79). The miners in Siglo XX discovered this around the same time that “there were four foreigners in Cataví” (Lagos 80). Believing that their leaders had been killed because one of them had escaped and heard machine-gun fire as he fled, the miners wanted to hang the four foreigners, but the leaders of the Housewives’ Committee thought up a better idea (Lagos 80). The president of the Committee at the time took responsibility for holding the foreigners hostage, with about twenty women helping her (Lagos 80-81). Over the radio, the miners heard that the peasants and the army were coming to attack them, leading to a rather daring decision; they “decided that all of [them], with [their] husbands and [their] children, should move into the union building and place dynamite in such a way that, if necessary, [they’d] be blown up with the building, so that no one would come out of there alive, not [the miners and their wives] or [their attackers]” (Lagos 85).
Juan Lechín went to La Paz to verify if perhaps the rest of the leaders were imprisoned rather than having been murdered. He discovered that they were alive and convinced them to write to the housewives asking them to release the hostages, which they did when they realized that their leaders weren’t dead (Lagos 88). Barrios de Chungara states that this made the entire event feel rather like a “defeat, because all of [their] efforts hadn’t been enough…[to swap] the hostages for [their] leaders,” yet nevertheless the Housewives’ Committee sent a commission to La Paz, which succeeded in “[getting the leaders] moved to San Pedro jail, which was healthier” (Lagos 88-89).
The political situation took a turn for the worse when Barrientos’ military coup overthrew the MNR in 1964 (Lagos 89). During the coup, the army decided to enter the mines, resulting in a confrontation with the miners (Lagos 90). The actions of the Housewives’ Committee during this event do not indicate a political success (such as the hunger strike in 1961) so much as they show its members’ dedication to helping the miners, their bravery and the fact that their help was beneficial to the miners, even in the instance of an event as seemingly hopeless as a massacre. For example, the secretary-general of the Housewives’ Committee, seven months pregnant, and Domitila Barrios de Chungara, four months pregnant, acted as stretcher-bearers, risking their lives, to bring back the wounded when men were too scared to do the job (Lagos 90). Without their help in this instance, many wounded miners may have been left to die, or captured and murdered. The women also cooked meals for the people who had come from Huanuni, and others delivered food to men from Siglo XX who kept a lookout in case the army attacked again (Lagos 91-92). They also visited the hospital in Huanuni, bringing their husbands food and seeing which of them could be moved back to Siglo XX (Lagos 92).
The next major action of the Housewives’ Committee in Siglo XX (at least, the next one that is on record) began in December 1977, when four women from the committee began a new hunger strike, situating themselves in the archbishopric of La Paz (Asamblea Permanente de los Derechos Humanos en Bolivia 11). They began the strike in the context of General Banzer’s regime, which was quite repressive, and during which “thousands of Bolivians were detained, jailed mostly without due process, beaten and brutally tortured” (Asamblea Permanente de los Derechos Humanos en Bolivia 12-13, my translation). Shortly before the strike, Banzer, who had promised that there would be democratic elections in 1977, announced his own candidacy for president, as well as asking that the Bolivian armed forces be withdrawn from active duty, and then naming himself commander in chief of the armed forces a few days later (Lavaud 66-67). The official demands of the women who instigated the hunger strike were amnesty for workers involved in union activity and the right to organize unions and engage in politics. They also demanded that organization and political activity be respected and upheld by the government, that mineworkers who had been detained and fired be reassigned to jobs in the mines and that armed forces withdraw from the mines (Lavaud 19). At first, the government showed almost no reaction to the hunger strike, but the situation became more serious when, on the thirty-first of December a second group of eleven people joined the strike, occupying the office of the daily Catholic newspaper Presencia in La Paz. The eleven were family members of political prisoners, representatives of the Permanent Assembly for Human Rights, the Union of Bolivian Women and the Interdisciplinary Committee of the University of San Andrés and the Popular Theater. Although their demands were slightly different from those of the first group of four women, they supported that group and represented a growing threat to the government in the form of a popular political uprising (Asamblea Permanente de los Derechos Humanos en Bolivia 21). Eventually, this uprising spread to Cochabamba, Potosí, Oruro, Tarija, Sucre and Santa Cruz (Asamblea Permanente de los Derechos Humanos en Bolivia 22). On January 17th, 1978, the armed forces attacked all of the groups of protesters that had gathered across the country, yet the same day Banzer also announced a general amnesty; nevertheless, the strike continued after this announcement (Asamblea Permanente de los Derechos Humanos en Bolivia 32-40). After further negotiations, the government agreed to amnesty without restrictions, to reincorporate the mineworkers who had been fired into jobs in the mines, to the renegotiation of the pay of those who were already had been rehired already and amnesty guarantees for everyone who had participated in the strike and those who had helped them (Asamblea Permanente de los Derechos Humanos en Bolivia 40-41). Ultimately Banzer had to leave office, resulting in a two-year return to civilian government beginning in 1978. In 1980, when García Meza led his military coup, Domitila Barrios de Chungara, who was the Secretary General at the time, was away at a United Nations conference in Copenhagen, leading one former participant in the Housewives’ Committee to conclude in her testimony that the committee was powerless (Lagos 139). A journalist who interviewed Barrios de Chungara in 1981 noted that after Barrios de Chungara “[mobilized] international support against [García Meza’s] regime,” she was “branded a traitor and and threatened with execution if she returned to” Bolivia (McIntosh 301). Eventually Barrios de Chungara was able to return to Bolivia, and in1985 the Bolivian government shut down the mines; the Housewives’ Committee continued to exist through 1987 during the government’s relocation of miners who now had no work opportunities, but after that it faded away (Lagos 274).
Domitila Barrios de Chungara had, in fact, achieved international fame even before García Meza’s coup in 1980. The United Nations invited her to participate in the International Women’s Year Tribune in Mexico City in 1975. At the tribune, she found that when she attempted to participate in discussions, she drew disdain from upper-class feminists who had a different agenda. In one instance, she had a confrontation with the president of the Mexican delegation. While this woman was also Latin American, she clearly came from the upper classes. Pointing out the Women’s Year Tribunal’s motto of “equality, development, and peace,” she asked Barrios de Chungara to “’forget the suffering of [her] people’” and to “’forget the massacres’” in order to “’talk about [them]” as women (Chungara and Viezzer 203). Barrios de Chungara made it clear that, coming from such different socioeconomic situations, “’[they] couldn’t at [that] moment, be equal, even as women’” (Chungara and Viezzer 203).
The dilemma for Domitila Barrios de Chungara and other third-world feminists of her time was that while affluent feminists in the United States and in Europe were fighting for autonomy and getting ready to reduce the role of family in their lives, women in the Third World had a completely different agenda. In her testimony, in Let Me Speak!, Barrios de Chungara rejected the label of ‘feminist’ and noted that Bolivian housewives in the mines emphasized “the participation of the compañero and the compañera together” because “[their] liberation consists primarily in [their] country being freed from the yoke of imperialism” (Chungara and Viezzer 41). Although she denied the title of ‘feminist,’ the act of entering public life did strengthen the situation of women in the home. Their goals as feminists differed from the goals of affluent feminists because their ideals were shaped by the different social reality in which they lived. If women didn’t act, the moment would soon pass; a revolution had occurred in 1952, and as of the 1960s there was still a Marxist, populist rhetoric that existed in Bolivian society. Thus when Third World women entered the public sphere, they were labeled as feminists, a label that did not fit into the political rhetoric of their times. As a result a generation of Third World feminists rose up that denied the label and engaged in certain forms of self-censorship, such as failing to publicly mention birth control. Barrios de Chungara, for example, makes statements in Let Me Speak! and the “Double Day” referencing the difficulties of having to raise so many children on their husbands’ wages – or, in the case of a widow, presumably on no wages at all, only an inadequate pension and perhaps money from labor in the informal sector. But in her testimonies she never demands reproductive rights – access to birth control.
Nellie Wong’s article, “Socialist Feminism: Our Bridge to Freedom” reflects the situation of women such as those in the Bolivian mines. Wong argues that “the resistance of women is nothing new; however, it must be seen in the context of political, social, and economic conditions in which the total emancipation of women, as a sex, is hampered,” and that “the liberation of women cannot be relegated to simply overthrowing the patriarchy” (Wong 289). For women in severely patriarchal societies such as Bolivia, where domestic abuse was common even in the 1970s and women were expected to remain at home, declaring oneself a feminist and overtly contradicting men was dangerous. The women in the Bolivian mines still saw themselves as wives and mothers, but simply wanted better living standards for their families.
It seems that Bolivian officials themselves have opted for the strictly feminist viewpoint in describing the Housewives’ Committee to the outside world. The Center of Mining Promotion in Bolivia published a political cartoon about the Housewives’ Committee entitled “[Political] Conscience: the Committee and the Union.” Through the cartoon, the Center of Mining Promotion attempts to explain who the women in the Housewives Committee were, and why they organized the Committee.
The comic strip asks: “How much does she earn and/or does she have a salary?” and depicts two women, the first of whom says “No! No one pays me,” and the second of whom says, “And I work more than eight hours…I don’t receive wages for these hours of work” (Centro de Promoción Minera 5). Perhaps the people who wrote this publication were simply attempting to explain the situation of the Housewives as being completely dependent upon their husbands’ wages, but the cartoon strip seems to imply that the women who organized the Housewives’ Committee complained about their lack of pay and the hard work that they had to do at home. This interpretation follows the line of reasoning prevalent in affluent feminist criticisms of first-world societies and misleads the reader as to the nature of the Housewives’ Committee’s complaints.
The recognition that that the Bolivian government allowed the Housewives’ Committee in these comic strips occurred during the 1990s, a period of neoliberalism in Latin America, championed by the United States. Behind neoliberal policies was the fact that the government officials were trying to demobilize supporters of a socially active state, in essence trying to destroy the state; those who wanted an active state, with citizens having political influence on policy, would not get one. During the neoliberal period, feminism came to mean professional equality, not social struggle, and the theoretical vein in which the comic strip casts the Housewives’ Committee’s supposed complaints reflects this. It is the affluent feminist’s version of equality – equality of pay, and in professional opportunities. The idea of neoliberal professional gender equality was reflected in governments throughout the 1990s; by 2000 in Peru, for example, “the legislative quota for female candidates was twenty-five percent” (Monteón 261). That percentage may seem small, but compared to no female participation in the government, it is significant. However it must be remembered that in the era of neoliberalism, this female participation was limited to whiter, richer women with connections. In recent years, indigenous women have played a role in the new government of Evo Morales, the current president, and that is where the efforts of the Housewives’ Committee are historically important in terms of female participation – and indigenous female participation in particular.
The women who formed the Housewives’ Committee in Siglo XX may not have considered themselves feminists in the affluent, United States/European sense, but they broke important ground for women in Bolivia. They seized the opportunity to express themselves politically in a modern, politically transitioning society, despite the obstacles that they faced because of their husbands (the very people they were trying to help), their government and society as a whole. Their first hunger strike and creation of the first committee encouraged other women to organize, and the movement spread. Today, Bolivia’s political sphere is much different – in the current government, under the leadership of Evo Morales, “half of the the government ministers are women, the President of the Senate is a woman, and women hold twenty-eight
percent of congressional seats and forty-seven percent of Senate seats” (Menkedick 1). While Evo Morales’ progressive attitude is partly to thank for this (as well as the fact that many of the supporters who helped him come to power were indigenous women), the actions of the Housewives’ Committee paved the way for a political atmosphere that could accept such reform of traditional gender roles, as well as allowing the reform to involve indigenous women, unlike the neoliberal reforms of the 1990s. The actions of the Housewives’ Committee set a precedent for indigenous female political action, and thanks to them Evo Morales’ government is able to encourage poorer, non-white women to participate in government without creating a huge backlash. Additionally, though Morales is a labor leader, a core of his support comes from the informal sector, and Indian and mestiza women are the dominant part of this sector; thus his constituents include a significant number of indigenous women, so in a sense he is obligated to champion reforms that aid such women in the public sphere.
Morales’ government allows for indigenous women to be politically active without fearing government retaliation. Domitila Barrios de Chungara, made famous by her activities in the Housewives’ Committee, has taken advantage of this. Still alive and active, she was interviewed as recently as 2009 by Ricardo Herrera Farrell, a Latinamerica Press collaborator. According to the interview, Barrios de Chungara approves of Morales’ efforts at gender equality, stating that “[women] have more participation in every area these days,” which is reflected in the fact that “Evo Morales has appointed women as ministers” (Farrell 1). Nevertheless, she believes that “things depend a lot on [women] to overcome the obstacles that have held [them] back and continue to do so since [her generation was] young,” such as seeking more education (Farrell 1). In the interview, she also discusses an organization, the Mobile School for Political Training, that she created in 1990. Barrios de Chungara continued to be active from the political repression of the 1960s-1980s to the neoliberal era of the 1990s to now, and perhaps now, at the age of 72, she will be able to help achieve the goal of providing more education for indigenous women, young and old, in Bolivia.
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Courtesy of Szymon Kochanski
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