May 2012

Domitila Barrios De Chungara,

the strength to overcome

On the 13th of March, the country was in mourning, Bolivia lost one of its most eminent political figure: Domitila Barrios de Chungara who died at the age of 75 after a long struggle with lung cancer in Cochabamba..

By: Nina Feger
Projects Abroad Volunteer
Brest - France

Bolivian family
Photo: Rainer Worff

“I remember a workers’ assembly, in the mines of Bolivia, some time ago, more than 30 years: a woman stood up, among all the men, and asked who was the main enemy. There were various replies: ‘Imperialism’, ‘the Oligarchy’” ‘bureaucracy” ... And she, DomitilaChungara, put them right: ‘No, comadres. Our main enemy is fear and we have it within us.’” In these words Eduardo Galeano describes the fight of her life, a fight for many liberties and rights such as the freedom of speech. DomitilaChungara was a proud woman of indigenous origins who raised her voice in spite of her unconventional situation.She was and still is, the symbol of the miners’ fight; this large social group which made the Bolivians dictatorships shake several times. In her book “Si me permite hablar…” she gave a vivid testimony on the revolting working and living condition of the people of the mines: “In the richest mines live the poorest people. When the urine reaches the ground it has already turned to ice. Only people with the capacity to work have the right to housing and food. If a worker is killed or incapacitated as a result of an accident, his family will be left homeless.”* The particularity of DomitilaChungara is that she managed to include women in the struggle.

“She was and still is, the symbol of the miners’ fight; this large social group which made the Bolivians dictatorships shake several times.”

From a distant point of view Domitila may appear as a feminist but she has always rejected this statement, underlining that the fight for a better life in Bolivia was the fight of the couple, of the students. She claimed that feminism and chauvinism were just and other method for the government to divide and conquer. In that she was quite the modern woman, and the acceptation of women’s participation in politics was truly revolutionary in a country such as Bolivia and furthermore in the mine’s society.

Domitila describes how difficult entering the politic field was, in her society the role and space of men and women are strongly defined. The Housewives’ Committee of Siglo XX was heavily criticize by men who maintained that women had no business in it, that they should stay at home and let the men handle politics. To be contrary to customs, Domitila maintained that it was unfair, why women could not fight for their men, for their families, for themselves? Women are involved in this process as inhabitants of the mines, “I think that all of this proves how the miner is doubly exploited, no? Because, with such a small wage, the woman has to do much more in the home. And really that’s unpaid work that we’re doing for the boss, isn’t it?”*

She and her family suffered from many critics during her political life. Her husband has been told many times to control his woman, that he was not even a real man because his wife spoke her mind. She has been told that she was a bad mother, that she did not take care of her children, that she was arming her family by being politically active.

In the late 60’s the government of the military dictator René Barrientos accused her of inciting the people in favor of Che. That was not the truth, even if she had tempted to do it. They took her with them, and even though she was eight months pregnant, they tortured her. When she recovered consciousness, she found that the baby was dead beside her. Even after this tragic incident, being in prison, tortured for her convictions and lost her baby; Domitila wasn’t recognised as a true leader, and when she started the famous hunger strike alongside four other women in December 1977 – the hunger strike which overthrown the dictator Hugo BanzerSuárez - their protestation appeared in the beginning as a joke, and they have been strongly jeered before thousands of people joined them.

Domitila Chungara

DomitilaChungara, has set an example, for women and for the entire Bolivian people, moved by her strong beliefs, this woman has distinguished herself by her tenacity and courage despite her numerous detractors including some among her own community.

“From a distant point of view Domitila may appear as a feminist but she has always rejected this statement, underlining that the fight for a better life in Bolivia was the fight of the couple, of the students.”

Moreover, as she progressed in politics, she understood the importance of education. She was quite the savant back in Siglo XX - against her father pressuring her to quit school she kept going as long as she could - She often described the story of economists coming to Siglo XX to educate women on the economic situation of Bolivia. Nevertheless, these women whom the majority of were illiterate could not understand the figures and the way the economists were speaking. Domitila who could understand had to explain it in a way they could comprehend.

Until this day, she firmly believed that the miners people should be educated, and more than traditional knowledge she insisted on a political education. This political education is supposed to help build up a miners cast able to enter in politics, able to access strategic political positions in order to have a democratic government who can actually conceive the working and living conditions of the people. Coming back from her exile in the 80’s she created this kind of school, a Mobile School which was a space for reflection, information, and awareness. Despite her age, she continued to attack the neo liberal politics. She spoke proudly of her aspirations for a better world without racial discrimination. In December 2008, in an interview with Maria Rene Duchén she disclosed that “My people have given me my strength, and I have an eternal debt to them, because they never give up”.

Ultimately, Domitila Barrios de Chungara, is a grand model, an extraordinary women who despite all odds, achieved her role as a wife, as a mother, and as a political leader. This heroin of the people made a tremendous breakthrough, showing that no matter your extraction, your gender or age you can and must fight for your convictions.

Long live the Charango!

Firstly, the name “charango” has two possible origins. According to the musician and writer Ernesto Cavour, the word “charango” is coming from a mistake of pronunciation of the Spanish word “charanga”, which means brass band. Alfredo Coca, on the contrary maintains that it is coming from the Quechua word “Chajwaku” which means joy, noisy, boisterous, referring directly to the sound of the charango. He adds that the etymology coming from Quechua is more likely to be, the conquistadors having the habit to add local’s words.

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