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.
Women aren’t present in Uruguay’s historical record until the early 1900s. Before that, traces of female icons exist but are few and far between. In the 18th and 19th centuries, politics and revolution were men’s affairs. To be sure, it was men, protagonists of the Colorados and Blancos traditional parties, that periodically plunged the country into civil war. Still, women also fought these battles. Sometimes, they accounted for half of the personnel in each side’s army, yet these warriors rarely made it into history books.
Women appear later. In the 20th century, women campaigned hard to secure dignified labor conditions, stable democracy in times of tyranny and equal rights for women. Today, Uruguay is heralded for its progressive policies such as same-sex marriage and marijuana legalization. It’s often thought of as a beacon and an exception in Latin America, where wealth inequality and corruption reign freely. It’s hard to imagine that this could be true without the courage and commitment of the women who we highlight in this Herstory chapter.
The presence of Indigenous women is conspicuously absent. Settlers and the “founding fathers” exterminated the native people of Uruguay almost completely in the course of 200 years. There’s work to be done to rescue the stories of the Indigenous and Black women that resisted. Needless to say, the list of the following 10 Uruguayan women is only introductory. Here are ten women who changed the course of history:
María Josefa Francisca Oribe y Viana
María Josefa Francisca Oribe y Viana was a heroine of the Uruguayan independence movement against Spanish rule. Born into a Royalist family, she was married to an Italian merchant, and was a fierce supporter and agent of Queen Carlota of Spain. Oribe y Viana openly defied her husband and social mores of the time when she joined the revolutionary cause. She took part in an operation to liberate a detained, high-ranking leader and later, snuck into a Spanish-controlled area to obtain much-need surgical equipment. She died in 1835, eight years after Uruguay declared itself a free state.
María Stagnero de Munar
María Stagnero de Munar played an important role in cementing women’s participation in Uruguay’s public school system. In 1877, a reformist movement supported by a legion of teachers, including Stagnero de Munar, helped to pass a law that made education free, secular and compulsory—a measure they believed to be key to guaranteeing a healthy and strong democracy. In 1882, Stagnero de Munar brought a feminist approach to this movement by founding the first women’s teaching training college in Uruguay. She served as the head principal there for the next 40 years until her retirement.
Paulina Luisi upended long-standing gender roles as Uruguay’s first female doctor at a time when women were effectively barred from pursuing a professional career. Born into a well-off and educated family, Luisi naturally took to learning. She studied at a teachers’ college and went on to medical school, where she graduated despite the jeers of her male classmates. However, she didn’t stop there. Her passion for class equality and feminism led her to co-found the Socialist Party in 1910 and the National Women’s Council in 1916, making Luisi a pioneer in Uruguay’s early-century social movements.
After María Collazo co-founded an anarchist center and organized a rent strike in Buenos Aires, the Argentine government deported her and her family to their native country of Uruguay. She was as committed as ever to her anarchist beliefs, and joined a “society of resistance” (an early example of a union), which assembled female workers to demand better labor conditions. She also co-founded the anarcho-feminist publications La Nueva Senda and La Batalla, which told the stories of working women and the oppressive environments they faced. She organized against the Gabriel Terra Leivas dictatorship for the last few years of her life.
Virginia Brindis de Salas
Virginia Brindis de Salas was the first Black woman in Latin America to publish a book. Brindis de Salas printed “Pregón de Marimorena” in 1947—an indictment of Uruguayan society’s exploitation of and discrimination against the Black woman—with only a primary school education in her pocket. Her fearless outcries made her one of the country’s most radical Black poets, a characterization that still stands today. Contrary to the overwhelming white literature of the times, Brindis de Salas wrote about the Black female experience, sometimes taking inspiration from the women in her personal life. Her work received a positive critical response, particularly from female peers such as Gabriela Mistral.
Julia Arévalo joined the Socialist Party at the age of 15, effectively laying down the foundations for what would be a long, illustrious political career. She was a cigarette factory worker since the age of 10 and encouraged her peers to organize and demand better working conditions even then. Later, at age 16, she co-founded the Socialist Women’s Group in an effort to bring more women to the cause. At the time, she also wrote a column in a Socialist newspaper that argued for women’s political participation. Fourteen years after women won the right to vote in 1932, Arévalo was elected into Congress. She was one of the first four women to serve as a senator in Uruguay and was the first female, Communist legislator in Latin America.
Luz Ibarburu was a founding member (and vociferous activist) of the Mothers and Family Members of Detained and Disappeared Uruguayans group. She lived a quiet life as an accountant in Montevideo before her son, a persecuted leftist activist, disappeared in Buenos Aires in 1976—an event that marked the beginning of her relentless struggle for democracy and human rights. She rushed to the Argentine capital, where she connected with other Uruguayan mothers who also searched for their children. Together, they started a small cohort of mothers-turned-activists that grew into a mass movement for truth and justice during and after the Uruguayan dictatorship (1873-85). She died in 2006 without ever finding her son.
Alba Roballo was a powerful force in politics. She was a Black woman from a poor Uruguayan town named Baltasar Brum. In the late 1930s, she engaged in her first years of activism as a supporter of the anti-fascists in the Spanish Civil War. Years later, she made her mark in politics as the first Black woman to serve as a senator in 1958 and later, the first woman in Latin America to be selected cabinet minister in 1968. She broke off from the traditional Colorado political party to form her own and joined a leftist political coalition known as Broad Front—one of Uruguay’s strongest to this day.
Decades before she became the first female vice president of Uruguay in 2017, Lucía Topolansky waged war against the government as a member of the Tupamaros, a leftist urban guerilla group. She was arrested twice. She served 13 years in prison and was tortured throughout. Upon her release in 1985, when the dictatorship ended, Topolansky helped to transform the Tupamaros into a political party, now called the Popular Participation Movement (MPP). During her first 17 years in Congress, Topolansky helped push through landmark legislation that legalized marijuana and same-sex marriage. Topolansky then served as vice president until February 2020 and returned to the Senate.
Michelle Suárez Bértora
Michelle Suárez Bértora is the first trans lawyer, university graduate and elected official in Uruguay. Suarez, who transitioned at age 15, faced adversity in her classrooms in high school and later college, where one professor refused to grade her work because of her identity. After she graduated, she led some of the LGBT group Ovejas Negras’ most important initiatives as their legal adviser, drafting the same-sex marriage bill that became law in 2013. In October 2017, she was sworn in as a senator. She pledged to propose legislation that guaranteed more jobs for transgender people and reparations for those who were persecuted during the dictatorship for their identity. Three months later, she left office when she was found guilty of forging documents as an attorney.