Latinas in the U.S. come from a long line of influential, barrier-breaking, rebel Latin American women. Through Remezcla’s Herstory series, we introduce readers to the women warriors and pioneers whose legacies we carry on.
In times of revolution, women have led the way. While the history of Colombia is told through the accounts of mostly male “libertadores,” women played an important role in the resistance, defying Spanish conquistadors, slave owners, exploitative bosses, greedy landowners and unjust forms of government.
While history may remember some women such as Policarpa Salavarrieta, a pro-independence spy whose portrait is displayed on the 10,000 peso bill, many others – mostly Black and Indigenous women – remain forgotten. Other important leaders, legendary in their provinces for spearheading land rights and workers’ rights movements, rarely make it in the official textbooks.
In some cases, scarce information on these female leaders still exist despite their relevance to important moments in history. For example, little is known about Polonia, a powerful palenquera, or free Black woman, that in times of slavery led a small army to fight a Spanish conquistador.
It’s unfortunate that despite the bravery of these women – with some risking their careers or even their lives for their beliefs – have been barely remembered. Still, a diverse group of scholars and educators are taking steps to tell a more inclusive account of history – sometimes collecting oral accounts from descendants to uncover long-forgotten stories.
As part of our Herstory series, we’ve looked back at the brave women of Colombia who may not all be celebrated with prominent statues or national holidays, but that, regardless, marked the course of history for the better.
In times of colonization, Indigenous authorities were known as caciques. The Cacica Gaitana was one of the few women to hold this position of power. When Spanish conquistadors arrived to her town of Timaná in 1539, they killed her son after he refused to appear before them. In retaliation, the Cacica Gaitana galvanized a group of more than 6,000 Indigenous soldiers to attack the Spanish cohort. After killing the man who had ordered her son’s death, the Cacica Gaitan went on to lead an armed resistance against the Spanish invaders, at one point amassing an army of 10,000 indigenous soldiers.
Not much is known about Polonia, but it’s said that in times of slavery, the free Black woman led an army of 150 people to defeat a Spanish conquistador by the name of Pedro Ordóñez Ceballos. Described as a palanquera, Polonia was one of the many slaves who escaped and formed their own free towns.
According to the Ministry of Culture, Polonia pacted a deal with the conquistador after the battle in 1581 to trade lands and to free her army. However, she was ultimately deceived. Still, Polonia is remembered for her bravery as one of the first Afro-descendent women in Colombia to lead a movement of resistance.
When the Viceroyalty of New Granada was established in 1717, millions came to live under the tyranny of the Spanish Empire. A hike in taxes to fund the empire’s army and dominance provoked the ire of Neogranadines, including Manuela Beltrán. In 1781, when an increase in taxes were announced, the 57-year-old woman of Spanish descent not only tore the edict in two, but mobilized 1,000 commoners to protest the colonial government in the town square of Socorro. This unrest spread to other territories, such as modern Venezuela and southern Colombia.
Affectionately referred to as “La Pola,” Policarpa Salavarrieta is remembered as a hero of the Colombian independence movement. When the war broke out between the Spanish Royalists and the Revolutionary Forces, Salavarrieta’s family allied with the latter. In 1817, she moved to Santa Fe de Bogotá, the capital city, where she spied on the inner operations of important royalists while she worked in their homes as a seamstress. That same year, her real identity was found out and she was executed by a firing squad. Today, the anniversary of her death on November 14 is commemorated with Day of the Colombian Woman, a national holiday.
After Colombia broke free from Spaniard rule in 1819, the provincial government of what we know today as Sucre attempted to dispossess poor farmers of their land and hand them over to royalists of Spanish descent, according to one account. Felicita Campos, a Black peasant farmer, stood her ground when officials came to steal her lands, said to have used “witchcraft” to turn away officials and even military soldiers. As she fought to keep her home, she also organized fellow peasant farmers to resist large-scale landowners, sparking a lands rights movement that spread throughout the province.
Although María Cano’s career as a union organizer is legendary in Colombia, she initially wanted to be a writer. Led by her passion for literature, Cano called for the creation of a library that would be free and open to the public – this is considered her first act of activism. Shortly afterward, she demanded the liberation of jailed union members and mobilized against the death penalty and in favor of civil rights. Political activism in the 1920s was considered men’s work, so when Cano spoke in public, she attracted crowds. Cano was imprisoned after the Banana Massacre, a state-led repression of workers in 1928 immortalized by Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. Following this tragedy and her marginalization in the socialist movement, Cano quietly retired from public life.
Betsabé Espinal is remembered for having led the first strike of female workers in 1920. At the time of the strike, Espinal was a 24-year-old textile worker. After suffering many abuses from her bosses, Espinal galvanized 400 female textile workers to demand equal pay and an end to exploitative practices, such as sexual harassment and long work days. The protest worked, and many of their demands were met. However, Espinal was fired in an act of retaliation by superiors. Still, the history of the strike lived on and inspired similar protests in the following years.
Esmeralda Arboleda is known as the first woman elected to the Colombian Senate in 1958. She was also the first woman to study at the University of Cauca and the first woman to practice law in southwestern Colombia. An advocate for women’s suffrage, she toured the country collecting signatures to present legislation that would grant women the right to vote. Congress approved the bill in 1954, with women exercising their newly won right three years later. After her time in Congress, during which the government found itself obligated to build a women’s restroom in the capitol building, Arboleda also served as the country’s first female ambassador.