In 1930s Bolivia, a powerful labor rights movement that upended all conventions of the times emerged. Indigenous and working-class women who were usually relegated to the margins walked front-and-center in protests. Cooks, florists, market vendors and other women in undervalued professions unionized. Cholas, Indigenous and mestiza women who dress in traditional pollera skirts and bowler hats, gathered to discuss anarcho-syndicalism (or direct action as the means to overthrow capitalism and the state). Women—particularly those who suffered from exploitation and abuse—stood up and learned to lean on one another.
“Women organize like this: We defend ourselves, we manage ourselves,” wrote Petronila Infantes, a chola, anarchist union leader.
Throughout Bolivian history, oppressed women found strength in coming together and realized that unifying made them even stronger. In colonial times, Juana Azurduy led a cavalry of women known as the Amazons against the Spanish. In revolutionary times, when Realist forces closed in on the city of Cochabamba (which was depleted of its men), an untrained but spirited militia of women confronted the encroaching army. In the 1920s, female intellectuals banded together to demand gender equality.
More recently, cholas have made history by foraying into sports typically dominated by men, such as lucha libre and mountain climbing.
These stories undoubtedly show us how women have demonstrated courage, solidarity and resilience in every era of Bolivian history.
However, patriarchal and colonial sensibilities have buried these stories. In the Bolivia chapter of the Herstory series, we look at 10 women who inspired women and men to action. While nowhere near complete, the following list offers an introductory look at the struggles of women who, far from needing a man to save them, relied on their inner power to create change.
Bartolina Sisa was born in 1750, under colonial rule in modern-day Bolivia. After spending her teenage years in the traditional coca leaf trade, Sisa gained economic independence and embarked on travels throughout the vast lands of the Viceroyalty of Peru. When she realized how fellow Aymara women and men were exploited, she couldn’t look away. That prompted her to spend the rest of her life fighting against colonial powers. She and her husband, Indigenous warrior Tupac Katari, laid siege on the city of La Paz in 1781 and stirred about 40,000 Indigenous fighters to join their army. The pair of Indigenous commanders kept up the siege for six months until Sisa, who had survived Katari at that point, was captured and executed by Spanish forces the following year. The International Day of Indigenous Women is celebrated on September 5 to commemorate the day of Sisa’s death.
Lieutenant Colonel Juana Azurduy lived an unconventional life. When her Indigenous mother died in 1787, Azurduy grew close to her father, who taught her to ride a horse and shoot a gun. Those abilities later served Azurduy when she joined revolutionary forces to oust the Spanish. Following a stint in a convent where she was thrown out for her rowdy behavior, Azurduy got married, had children and took up arms in the Chuquisaca Revolution. The popular uprising was successful in overthrowing the governor and instating a self-ruling government. However, the next few years were more difficult. She helped to recruit thousands of men and women and led Indigenous troops against the Spanish, but lost her husband and four of her children in the war. She didn’t return home until 1825—the year Bolivia won its independence from Spain. Despite the praises she received during her service, the 82-year-old retired colonel died in poverty, with no military pension.
With the fight for independence in full swing, many cities and towns were left defenseless as the men charged toward the battlefield. At least that’s what José Manuel de Goyeneche—a general of the Realist forces—believed when he attacked Cochabamba. He didn’t know that an army of 300 women and children, led by the elderly Manuela de Gandarillas, was waiting for him. Gandarillas, armed with a saber and mounted on her horse, purportedly said, “If there are no men, then here we are to confront the enemy and to die for the homeland,” before clashing with the general’s men. Unfortunately, the fearless army (equipped with only sticks and rocks) were easily defeated. Bolivians commemorate the courage of the “Heroines of the Coronilla” on May 27, Mother’s Day.
Born into the Bolivian aristocracy in 1854, Adela Zamudio attended Catholic school up to third grade—the highest level of learning afforded to women at the time. She continued her education on her own, eventually starting a career in education and literature. She wrote collections of poems on feminism, nature and philosophy that launched her into a life of fame. In 1926, her work was recognized by the president in a tribute. However, her ideas also provoked much criticism, especially from the Catholic Church. She directed a secular school and critiqued the power of the church through her poems, published in a regional newspaper. Zamudio is remembered as one of Bolivia’s greatest, most outspoken poets.
María Luisa Sánchez Bustamante (b. 1896) was the co-founder of Ateneo Feminino, the first feminist organization in Bolivia. Along with her sister and other members of the group, Sánchez fought for a woman’s right to obtain an identification card, control their inheritance, divorce and vote. Like the rest of the group, Sánchez belonged to the elite class. She was the daughter of a Bolivian politician and diplomat. Sánchez was president of Ateneo Feminino for 28 years. During her tenure, the group launched the first feminist publication called “Eco Feminino”—a critical voice of dissent at the time.
An outspoken activist, Domitila Barrios de Chungara embodied the spirit and resistance of the working-class people in Bolivia. Barrios lost her mother at the age of 10 to the poor working conditions of mines in Potosí, a town historically exploited for its metallic riches. She spent the rest of her life advocating for miners’ rights and confronting military dictatorships. After surviving a massacre, imprisonment and torture, Barrios took part in a hunger strike in 1978 that demanded democratic elections and an end to the persecution of miners and union leaders. Thousands joined and the U.S.-backed dictatorship of Hugo Banzer had no choice but to comply. Elections were held the following year, ending the seven-year Banzer regime.
Gueiler was Bolivia’s first female president in 1979. She grew up with many privileges: She was one of few women who studied at the American Institute in her hometown of Cochabamba and obtained a diploma in accounting before the age of 19. But she used that privilege to help others. Guiler supported the 1952 Bolivian Revolution—a popular insurrection that ushered in an era of progressive policy changes such as agrarian reform, the nationalization of mines and universal suffrage in Bolivia. She co-founded the Revolutionary Party of the Nationalist Left (PRIN) party in which she served as legislator and president of the Chamber of Deputies. Her presidency was brief. She came to power following an election crisis, a coup and a popular uprising. Congress appointed Guiler as interim president during the lead-up to new elections but was overthrown in a military coup, which led to a bloody dictatorship. Still, her political career opened up a new range of possibilities for women.
While the feminist movement sought to create a broad coalition of women, class and racial differences often drove wedges between women. Petronila Infantes, an Indigenous woman, anarchist union leader and chef, denounced the 1935 municipal ordinance in La Paz that indirectly banned Indigenous women from riding the tram. The city made that decision in response to complaints from upper-class women who claimed that Indigenous women’s baskets tore their stockings and stained their dresses. Outraged at the blatant discrimination, Infantes co-founded the Culinary Workers Union (SC), a group of female, Indigenous cooks who regularly carried food in baskets on the tram. Under enormous pressure, the city repealed the ordinance. The victory inspired other working women, such as florists, to organize. That quickly snowballed into a powerful labor rights movement. The movement later obtained monumental wins such as the eight-hour workday, free childcare for working mothers and the recognition of cooks as professionals.
In Bolivia, there are about 25 million Afro-descendent people. Activists like Marfa Inofuentes Perez fought for Afro-Bolivians’ right to be recognized as an ethnic group. Inofuentes forayed into activism as a member of the Saya Afro-Bolivian Cultural Movement, an organization set out to protect the cultural heritage of Black Bolivians— especially the traditional song and dance form known as the saya. In 2001—which also happened to be the same year Perez started the Afro-Bolivian Center for Comprehensive and Community Development (CADIC)—the government once again refused to count Afro-descendants in the census. It wasn’t until Evo Morales took office in 2006 that the government convened with citizens’ groups, including CADIC, to write a new constitution in which a provision was added that recognized Afro-Bolivians and protected their cultural traditions. Inofuentes died in 2015 to lung cancer.
Carmen Rosa, born Polonia Ana Choque Silvestre, is one of Bolivia’s most famous cholitas. She’s a professional lucha libre wrestler and has been featured in countless international documentaries and articles for her role in opening the sport to Indigenous women. In 2001, she pursued a professional career in lucha libre. She once heard a man say women aren’t fit to wrestle and are meant to cook in the kitchen. She decided to prove him wrong. Years later, Rosa is known as La Campeona across Bolivia. She supports women newcomers to the sport through her organization Carmen Rosa and the Gladiators of the Ring.