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.
Chilean history is marked by stories of conquest, inequality, totalitarianism and ultimately, resistance. While women are commonly wiped out of the national historical records, the following women – pioneers in Chile and oftentimes, in the entire Latin American region – made it difficult for the writers of history to completely ignore them.
Despite the societal barriers of their time, they excelled in their respective fields – whether it was politics, music, literature, law or human rights activism – to become powerful and widely respected leaders. They paved new paths for women to follow whilst leaving behind legacies that inspired new generations of Chileans.
The following female pioneers represent only a small sliver of the contributions women have made to Chilean history. Surely, many more have been left permanently to obscurity because of a conscious decision to leave women out of history. Still, these heroes attest to how women, committed to their ideals, are capable of changing history.
When the Spanish conquistadors arrived in modern-day Chile in the 16thcentury, the strongest acts of armed resistance came from the Mapuche people, the largest Indigenous group in the region at the time with some 1.5 million people. One of their most recognized heroes was Janequeo, a Mapuche warrior and tribal chief who fought against the Spanish in 1587. The information available about her life is scarce, but it’s believed she directed an army to successfully attack the Fortress of Puchunqui in southern Chile.
Eloísa Díaz was the first woman to study medicine in Chile and the first female doctor in South America. Díaz enrolled in 1880 to the University of Chile, making Díaz one of the first women to attend college. Despite the sexism she faced (she had to be accompanied by her mother to her classes), she graduated from medical school six years later. After working for years with children, Díaz directed medical services for schools at the national level, advocating for obligatory school breakfast, a large-scale vaccination program in schools and kindergarten classes for underserved communities. She died in relative obscurity and poverty at the age of 86.
The poet Lucila Godoy Alcayaga, known by her pen name Gabriela Mistral, was the first Latin American author to win a Nobel Prize for Literature in 1945. Born in a poor, rural household in 1889, Mistral abandoned her studies at a young age to help support her family, quietly writing some of her first poems whilst working as a teacher’s aid. The suicide of her first romantic partner in 1909 would lead her to write her first acclaimed literary work, Sonnets on Death.
Death and heartbreak would run as an undercurrent throughout much of her work, but so did motherhood, tenderness and love. After the success of her first book of poems, Desolation, she toured the United States, Latin America and Europe – eventually teaching at Columbia University, Middlebury College, Vassar College and the University of Puerto Rico. She died in 1957 in New York City, with her romantic partner Doris Dana by her side. She’s remembered today in Chile on the 5,000 peso bill.
Violeta Parra is known internationally as one of Chile’s most celebrated folk musicians and composers, beloved in her home country for revindicating traditional musical styles and writing about the experiences of everyday people.
Born in 1917 to a talented family of creatives, she started playing guitar at the age of nine and composing her first songs at 12. In 1932, when she moved to Santiago, she performed popular Latin American genres at a local restaurant but in 1950, she transitioned to Chilean folklore music at the encouragement of her brother and renowned anti-poet Nicanor Parra. This would lead to Parra’s meteoric rise to fame. She toured and recorded in Europe, published a book on Chilean folk music and established a community center for culture and political activism in Chile during the next two decades. She died by suicide in 1967, leaving behind a musical legacy that would inspire Chile’s Nueva Canción movement.
Today, her birthday, October 4, is commemorated with Chilean Musicians’ Day.
Elena Caffarena, a lawyer and activist, was a leading force in Chile’s feminist and human rights movement. Born in 1903, Caffarena was one of the first women in Chile to obtain a law degree.
By 1935, she was advocating for women’s rights as the co-founder of the Pro-Emancipation Movement of Women in Chile, the first feminist organization in the country. She co-wrote a women’s suffrage bill that was eventually approved and instituted in 1949. Later, during the regime of Augusto Pinochet, Caffarena’s home became a safe house for the opposition to meet and strategize. She also created two foundations to serve Chileans persecuted by the military dictatorship.
Sola Sierra was the president of the Association of Families of the Detained-Disappeared, a human rights group that formed in 1974 to find those detained or disappeared by the Pinochet regime. Sierra grew up aware of the social inequalities that burdened the poorest Chileans. Her father survived the Santa María School Massacre, a mass killing of striking workers by the Chilean army in 1907.
At 19 years old, she joined the Communist Party. Following the military coup in 1973, her husband Waldo Pizarro was detained by the National Intelligence Directorate and was never heard from again. She led the Association of Families of the Detained-Disappeared from 1977 to 1999 when she died. During this time, she was key in denouncing human rights violations at an international level, and she helped to force the government to recognize the thousands of people detained and disappeared in Chile.
After Chile transitioned to a democratic state following the fall of the dictatorship, Michelle Bachelet was elected as the first female president of the country. When the Pinochet regime took power in 1973, her father, an air-force general, died while after months of being detained and tortured. Bachelet and her mother, supporters of socialist and left-wing movements, were also interrogated and tortured by intelligence officials, which led to her exile in Germany for four years.
She returned in 1979, graduated with a medical degree, eventually working with the Ministry of Health after Chile’s transition to democracy in 1990. In 2000, she was appointed Minister of Health, and two years later, Minister of Defense. In 2006, she served her first term as president of Chile and was later reelected in 2013. Bachelet currently serves as the United Nation’s High Commissioner for Human Rights.
Emilia Nuyado Ancapichún is the first Mapuche congresswoman in Chile. Growing up in economic hardship, Nuyado worked with Indigenous social organizations, particularly rural women and the Indigenous Huacahuincul community, for 25 years before she was elected to Congress in 2017. As the representative of the 25th District, a rural Indigenous region in southern Chile, for the Socialist Party, she has fought to improve living conditions for the Mapuche people, advocating for an increase in the land reform budget and for Indigenous scholarships. She has also been a leading voice against police brutality, bringing awareness to violence against Indigenous people, such as the killing of Camilo Catrillance in November 2018 by police forces.