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“The first battle Bolivian women have to win is in the home”
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Interview with social leader Domitila Barrios de Chungara

At age 72, Domitila Barrios de Chungara knows she cannot afford to slow down. She maintains her fighters´ spirit she used to denounce the 1967 San Juan Massacre, army killings of dozens of miners in Catavi and Llallagua. She has the same energy she had when, more than 30 years ago, she led the women´s group that declared a hunger strike to pressure for an end to which was instrumental to end the dictatorship of Gen. Hugo Bánzer Suárez (1971-78).

Born in 1937 in the mining town Siglo XX in the southern Potosi department, the mother of seven, Domitila, as she is called affectionately, suffered from physical violence and imprisonment during successive military dictatorships. Her life has been the subject of several books, the most famous of which was Si Me Permiten Hablar, (If You Let Me Speak) by Brazilian writer Moema Viezzer based on interviews with Domitila. She continues to work with disenfranchised sectors to improve education and teach stories excluded from the history books.

Ricardo Herrera Farrell, Latinamerica Press collaborator, spoke with Domitila about Bolivian women and her work with labor unions.

How do you see the situation facing Bolivian women today?
They have more participation in every area these days. [President] Evo Morales has appointed women as ministers and that shows we´re gaining ground. But I think things depend a lot on us to overcome the obstacles that have held us back and continue to do so since we were young. For example, when I was a young girl, many mothers and grandmothers were opposed to women going to school because they thought studying wasn´t something for us. On the other hand, it´s not easy to overcome one´s fears to speak up. That happened to me many times. I remember the first time I tried to speak out in the Siglo XX Housewives Committee. I was so scared that I couldn´t speak and I started to cry.

When did you overcome that fear?
When I started studying. Knowledge gives you security and that´s why it´s fundamental for women to study. For example, in the Siglo XX Housewives Committee, we didn´t know the laws or our rights, but when we learned and researched them, we could even discuss with our compañeros from the mining unions who used to make fun of us.

The first time I was arrested [1967], I was also very scared. The abuse ... made me feel weak and every time I saw a soldier, I would start to tremble. My father encouraged me and used to send me books to Los Yungas [northeast of La Paz], where I had been sent. The readings taught me about countries where the women who fought against injustices had been knocked down but had not given up. It helped me hear the experiences of women in the mining centers who told me how they stood firm in their struggles against the dictatorship in the most difficult moments.

In 1990, you created the Mobile School for Political Training. What led you to that?
I was born in Siglo XX and I thought I would die there. But everything changed with Decree 21060 [issued in 1985 by the 1985-89 government of Víctor Paz Estenssoro that privatized state mines and relocated workers.] We were like a big family, our struggles united us and it was as if everyone´s mother was dying and her children didn´t know where to go. That was one of the saddest moments of my life. It was the end of many years of sacrifice and struggle for many people, like my father, who died working in the mines.

They kicked us out of our town. Some of us came to Cochabamba, because we had relatives here, but it was difficult because when you told you were a “relocated” people the employers didn´t give you work. Our children were not accepted at the schools and we were refused even renting a house, with the excuse that we were ill with “the mining sickness” and that we could be contagious. That´s why a many families had to live in tents outside of the city. Later, the migration started. Many went to Chapare and to Argentina.

When I was able to establish myself I started traveling around the country, invited by the unions to give my testimony of our struggle in the mines and my experiences. It was very useful because on one hand, I would give my testimony, and on the other, I got to know the history of those places. Once, they invited us to Tarija [southern Bolivia]. We arrived and gave a lecture, but other unions found out and asked me to visit them as well. I had planned to stay a week but I ended up staying a month. It was like that, together with compañero Félix Ricalde [a sugarcane workers´ leader], I decided to create a space to tell the story that has not been written and that has to do with the popular and union struggles of Bolivia. We called it the Mobile School for Political Training and we´ve worked there since the 1990s.

Who are the students?
Sometimes they´re students, others campesinos, mothers´ groups and unions. Here in my house [in a busy part of Cochabamba] we have a classroom where we conduct workshops and hold lectures, but we´ll go wherever they want us to. The only thing we ask for is that they pay for our transportation, lodging and food. Last year, we had a lovely experience in a small rural school. The children had pooled together, cent by cent, to pay for our tickets.

What obstacles stand in the way of Bolivian women progressing?
Machismo, mainly. Not long ago, after finishing one of the literacy programs, a compañera came up to me. She was sad and told me that she hadn´t participated in the course because her husband didn´t want her to go. He told her that if her parents “raised a donkey, that´s how she should stay.” That´s why I think that the first battle Bolivian women need to win is in the home.

What do you think about President Evo Morales´ government?
I think he´s doing things well and he´s doing everything he can, but the danger is that the people around him have taken advantage of their power for their own benefit. One person alone cannot change things, even if he may want to. That´s why the entire population needs to participate. There should be a social control to avoid corruption. I think political training is important, so we know what needs to change and how we want to change it. I´ve been a leader and I know how difficult it is. A small mining camp had many problems and many things to do. Imagine how it is to resolve the problems of a country. On the other hand, there are people who criticize this government and call it a dictatorship, but they don´t realize what it means. In a dictatorship, you could not sleep because in any moment, the army broke down the door, raped the women, took valuables and called it their “war booty.” No one could say anything about it.
—Latinamerica Press.


Domitila Barrios de Chungara (Photo: Ricardo Herrera Farrell)
Latinamerica Press / Noticias Aliadas
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