Friday 6 April 2012

Domitila Barrios de Chungara (Bolivian, 7 May 1937–13 March 2012)

‘Let Me Speak’ is the name of her famous book. Moema Viezzer is the co-author. It has been the object of numerous translations and editions. In it, Domitila Chungara (born in 1937), a Bolivian indigenous, speaks. Daughter and wife of miners, she survived a massacre and the denunciation she made conducted her to imprisonment. She has been put in jail and tortured numerous times. She had seven children, but lost four of them because of this violence. Later, along with other women, she began a hunger strike that gathered support and brought down Hugo Bánzer, the Bolivian dictator.

Her book: In it, Domitila recounts her personal life in the tin mines in her country. Her suffering at home, parallel her suffering at the mines where women have been devoid of power when deciding what is better for them. In her life, she experiences exploitation not only by the mine owners, but also by the patriarchal system in Bolivia.

She tells of hardships and abuse which seems to be the part of everyday life in the mining towns. A long time militant fighting for the well-being of women in her country, Domitila believes in education and political action as the basis for social change. As today, she has moved away from the mines and lives in Cochabamba.

Domitila Barrios de Chungara was the leader of the Housewives’ Committee of one of Bolivia’s militant mining communities. She was born on May 27, 1937, in the mining community of Siglo XX, in Potosi, Bolivia. At the age of three her family moved further South to Pulacayo, a small mining district in the province of Quijarro, also in Potosi, where she lived until 1957. When Domitila Barrios was ten years old her mother died, making Domitila the sole caretaker of her four sisters. In spite of assuming the parental responsibilities of a mother and putting up with her father’s alcoholism and physical abuse, Domitila completed grade school in 1952. Later, she started working in the mining company’s grocery store. Escaping from her father’s beatings, she moved back to her birthplace at Siglo XX when she was twenty years old. Soon after she married René Chungara with whom she had seven children. In 1963, Domitila joined the Housewives’ Committee of Siglo XX, two years after its formation. As an active member of this women’s group, Domitila learned the ways and the hardships of organizing a community-based group to demand better living and working conditions for their families and their miner husbands. As one of the leaders of the Housewives’ Committee Domitila participated in several hunger strikes. Due to her activism in favor of the mining community of Siglo XX, and as it happened to other women leaders in the committee, she was persecuted, jailed, tortured and relocated to minimize and silence her protest. Details of the horrendous repression acted by the government and its allies upon the indigenous people of Siglo XX, and specifically upon Domitila Barrios are revealed in her testimonial.

The confrontations between the government and the miners in Bolivia were depicted in Jorge Sanjinés movie El coraje del pueblo, The courage of the people. Through this movie the organization of the Housewives’ Committee became a revelation for many people around the world. Because of this, in 1974, a Brazilian movie director who was commissioned by the United Nations met Domitila and arranged for her to participate in the 1975 International Women’s Year Tribunal held in Mexico as a speaker for the Housewives’ Committee of Siglo XX. Her participation in this public forum allowed Domitila to have a better idea of the magnitude and complexity of the struggles women faced around the world. However, these struggles varied greatly according to social status and roles within their respective rural communities or urban towns.

Due to the constrains in time allowed to each participant to speak in this International Tribunal, Barrios agreed to tell her story in order to make public the struggles and the suffering of her people in the Bolivian mining communities. She makes this clear in an introductory statement to her testimonial “I don’t just want to tell a personal story. I want to talk about my people. I want to testify about all the experience we’ve acquired during so many years of struggle in Bolivia, and contribute a little grain of sand, with the hope that our experience may serve in some way for the new generation, for the new people.”

Domitila Barrios’ initial testimonial, transcribed and edited by Brazilian journalist Moema Viezzer, “Si me permiten hablar…”: testimonio de Domitila, una mujer de las minas de Bolivia, and translated into English as Let Me Speak!: Testimony of Domitila, a Woman of the Bolivian Mines, denounces at the international level the miner’s struggle, the social injustices, the human right violations, and the political corruption that occurs in the tin-mining communities of Bolivia. As an Andean woman narrator, she tells her personal story in the context of a larger story common to everyone in her mining community of Siglo XX. As a woman activist, she talks about the barriers and negative reactions from her own community when she and other women activists crossed the line from the private space, the home, to the public space.

In the Andean tradition, as in many other indigenous societies around the world, the roles and spaces of men and women are strongly defined. The fact that this crossing over occurred at the level of the Andean community, as opposed to the urban setting, Domitila’s activism was seen in the eyes of her own people as a serious threat to the balance of the community itself. In this context, Domitila Barrios’ testimonial should be analyzed from the perspective of a more complex social and political activism that challenged not only the capitalist Western society and its way of exploiting indigenous peoples, but also suggested a new role for women within the Andean community.

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