Domitila Barrios de Chungara
“I want to leave future generations the only valid inheritance: a free country and social justice.”
“The place where I was born, in1937, is called ‘Siglo XX’ (Twentieth Century). It is the largest tin producing mining area of Bolivia. My father was a miner. Early on, he was moved to Pulacayo, where I grew up. This was a much colder area, where silver was mined. After washing your hair, when you combed it, there was ice on it. If you squatted on the ground to urinate, before you were finished, the trickle of urine had turned to ice. The ones, who did not have work, did not have any housing, or any right to food, nothing. The families of miners, who had died in accidents, were left to fend for themselves in that cold.”
The one who is talking to us is Domitila Chungara, one of the indigenous people of Bolivia. She does not know to which ethnic group she belongs. Her father spoke Quechua and Aymará, native languages from Bolivia, but he did not teach them to his children. Domitila learned Quechua during her youth. She was ten years old when her mother died.
The bosses promised good wages, but never kept their word. The workers, on the contrary, were always in debt with the company. Food was scarce. The technicians - called ‘laboreros’ - were privileged. They had housing, food and firewood. One day, a technician decided to burn his and his children’s old clothes. He took it all outside and sprinkled it with petrol. Barefoot, half naked children came to him begging: “Please give me this one. Please do not burn that one. Please give me those shoes.”
“One of the children, taking the risk of being burnt, took a pair of boots. The owner, who was looking through the window, went out with a hose and hosed down the boy with cold water, telling him: ‘You, filthy animal, you shall not wear the clothes of my children; who do you thing you are?’ And, with more petrol from the can, he burned everything in front of us. The boy was frigid with cold, but they did not allow him to come near the fire. We cried when we saw this and asked my father: ‘Why, why?’.”
Domitila got married at age 16 and returned to Siglo XX. She joined the Union of Housewives at the mine and became its General Secretary. The movement strove for better protection for the miners and their families. Because of her work with the Union, she had to go through 15 military incursions in her home. They dragged her by her hair. They kicked her in front of her children. They took her to another city to torture her. But she never lost hope, “that hope we always have that one day things will change.”
Bolivia was then a country in turmoil, governed by a military dictator, René Barrientos (1966-69). Che Guevara led the guerrilla movement from the mountains. The miners mobilized themselves, the government observed them. And one night, while people were celebrating the feast of San Juan, in Siglo XX and in Catavi, governmental planes arrived. “We had been dancing and drinking punch when suddenly the fireworks of San Juan got mixed up with real bullets. The soldiers murdered men, women and children without any pity”. She made a speech of denunciation and was captured the day after. They 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. Due to pressure from her companions, she was freed. She was sent to another town, where she could recover from the trauma. In the meantime, Barrientos died. She came back home and resumed her struggle.
Time passed and another dictator, Hugo Bánzer (1971-78), prohibited political parties and the trade unions. Then, the unbelievable happened. The great Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano tells us about it in the vignette called “Five women” from his book ‘Memorias del fuego’ (Memories of the fire):
“Which one is the main enemy? Is it the military dictatorship? Is it the Bolivian bourgeoisie? Is it Imperialism? No, fellows. I want to tell you that our main enemy is fear. It is inside us. That was what Domitila said in the tin mine of Catavi. Then, she and four other women with around twenty children came to the Capital. At Christmas, time they began a hunger strike. No one believed in them. More than one person thought it was a good joke:
-Oh yes, sure! Five women are going to bring down the dictatorship
The priest Luis Espinal (Jesuit Priest, professor, film critic and director; he was murdered on March 22nd, 1980, during the dictatorship of General Luis García Meza) was the first to join them. Shortly afterwards, fifteen hundred people had joined the hunger strike from the entire country of Bolivia. The five women had suffered from hunger, since they were born; they called water chicken or turkey and salt, ribs. They were nourished by their humor. In the meantime, the amount of hunger strikers increased, 3000, 10,000, until there were countless Bolivians who had stopped eating and working. Twenty-three days after the beginning of the hunger strike, people invaded the streets and, at that moment, there was no way to stop them. Those five women had overthrown the dictatorship.”
Domitila went abroad and denounced the injustices her people suffered. They forbade her from returning. With the collaboration of a Brazilian educator, Moema Vizzer, she wrote the book ‘Let me speak’, in 1977. The book was written based on her experiences. At the beginning of the eighties, she lived in exile in Sweden. “The Swedish government accepted my children as exiles. We moved from a very little house in Bolivia to a house we could have never dreamed of, with carpets, telephone, rooms for all the children, abundant food… like a dream!” She had seven children but, because of all the violence, she lost four of them.
A sister of hers continued the fight in Bolivia and was murdered. Domitila, tormented by her memories, decided to return.
Back in her country, she created her Mobile School. It is a space for reflection, information, and awareness. In spite of her age, she journeys to the most remote villages. She continues to attack the neo liberal politics. She speaks proudly of her aspirations for a better world without racial discrimination. “My people have given me my strength, and I have an eternal debt to them, because they never give up”.
“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 woman who tells us these things is one of the indigenous people of Bolivia, Domitila Chungara. Both daughter and wife of miners, she lived in between tin and silver mining areas of the high plateau. She was General Secretary of the Syndicate of Housewives. She suffered repressions, but never lost “that hope we always have that one day things will change.”
The miners organized themselves. The government of René Barrientos (1966-69) was afraid. They sent planes on the night of San Juan. “We were dancing and celebrating and the bullets being fired got mixed up with the fireworks of San Juan. The soldiers murdered men, women and children without pity.” Domitila was captured. She was pregnant. Because of the torture, her baby died. Time went on, and another dictator arose, Hugo Bánzer (1971-78). Then, the unbelievable happened: Domitila, along with four other women, went to the Capital and began a hunger strike. Soon, thousands joined them and the dictator fell. Injustices continued. Domitila went abroad and denounced the wrong doings from there. They forbade her from returning. With the help of a teacher, she wrote the book ‘Let me speak.’ In the 1980s, she lived, in exile, in Sweden. A sister of hers continued her fight in Bolivia. She was murdered. Domitila returned and created her Mobile School Project. With it, she went to remote villages. She talked about her hopes for a better world. “My people have given me my strength. They never give up.”
Politically, Bolivia has a history of instability. Dictator Hugo Bánzer, who governed the country between 1971 and 1978, came to power after 186 coups. His was the 187th in 146 years. Bolivia, a country of large tin and silver mines, has an enormous indigenous population living in misery.
Mobile School Project
Latin America and the Carribeans | Bolivia