(1937— ) Bolivian political activist
Social and political activist Domitila Barrios de Chungara is best known for her work in the Housewives’ Committee of the Siglo XX mining camp in the Andean region of Bolivia. The women led protests in Bolivia’s capital of La Paz on behalf of their imprisoned husbands in the early 1960s. A decade later, Barrios was selected to represent the Housewives’ Committee at the United Nations Tribune of the International Women’s Year in Mexico City, where her actions brought to light the class, race, and ethnic differences separating the international sisterhood of women, and the complexities inherent in the feminist cause. Barrios later recorded her memoirs in her autobiography, Let Me Speak! Testimony of a Woman of the Bolivian Tin Mines (1978).
Insurrection and instability have marked Bolivia’s political and economic history since its independence from Spain in 1825. In April 1952, an alliance between mine workers, peasants, and religious leaders resulted in the overthrow of the existing military regime and the beginning of the Bolivian National Revolution. The revolution produced universal suffrage, land redistribution to the nation’s indigenous population, and the nationalization of the tin mining industry. However, in the late 1950s, some of the social welfare programs were suspended in order to revive the failing economy. In 1961, Bolivian President Victor Paz Estenssoro instituted an agreement made with the United States and West Germany that resulted in a decrease in the number of miners, wage freezes, and a plan to control the tin miners’ union. The reforms provided the mine owners with higher profits but meant degradation for the mine workers.
Domitila Barrios de Chungara was born in the Andean highlands of Bolivia on May 7, 1937. She married her husband, a tin miner, in 1960, and over the next decade gave birth to seven children while living at the Siglo XX mining center near Lake Poopo in central Bolivia. In her autobiography, Barrios described the harsh conditions imposed on the miners and their families. The agreement reached between the governments of Bolivia, the United States, and Germany, she reported, was “all to their advantage. Well, the workers criticized the situation we were in. When all the steps were taken against the people, there was fighting in the mines, and protests and demonstrations. They cracked down hard on us: they didn’t send groceries and didn’t send wages, they even cut off our medical supplies. And,” she continued, “they put the leaders in jail.”
A dysentery epidemic spread through the camp, due to unsanitary conditions, and exacerbated by lack of medicine. The government responded by sending a group of performers to put on a show for the distressed miners and their families, according to Barrios. Mine leaders announced a plan to take the performers hostage until medicine and hospital care were delivered. The plan worked, and the perplexed showmen were set free.
“Necessity,” noted Barrios, “made us organize.” Women, who had been taught that their place was behind the scenes and in the home, decided to forge a plan that would enable them to travel to La Paz to voice their demands. During a meeting between government ministers and miners’ organizations, a group of women disrupted the enclave by marching and chanting, “Freedom, freedom for our husbands!” The protesters were attacked and dispersed by the police. Discouraged but not dispirited, they returned to Siglo XX and declared a hunger strike. Soon, they were joined by factory workers, college students, and women from surrounding villages. After 10 days, the government relented and released the imprisoned leaders. Back wages were paid to workers, and food reappeared on store shelves. Buoyed by its successes, the Housewives’ Committee decided to work on a newsletter that it sent to managers and government officials, presenting conflicts in the mines from the wives’ perspective.
Domitila herself did not take part in the committee until 1963. In 1964, a military uprising forced President Estenssorro from office. The Housewives’ Committee became the target of the military regime’s accusations that they were under the influence of the Soviet Union and Cuba (the 1959 Cuban Revolution resulted in the communist dictatorship of Fidel Castro). Complicating matters, Che Guevara (1928-67), an Argentinian communist leader from Cuba, had arrived in Bolivia to foment revolution among workers there (Bolivian troops assassinated Che in 1967; see Tamara BUNKE). In June 1967, guerrilla organizations hoping to oust the military government sent the tin miners’ union a manifesto, asserting that the union had a right to protect themselves against the Bolivian government. On June 24, government forces invaded Siglo XX and arrested people who, they surmised, had supported the guerrillas. One of her guards kicked Barrios in the stomach, and she lost the child she was carrying as a result.
In 1974, a Brazilian cinematographer filmed the Housewives’ Committee for a United Nationssponsored project on Latin American women leaders. Barrios was invited to come to Mexico City for the United Nations Tribune in 1975. Her participation in the Tribune underscored the difficulty faced by feminist activists from different cultures and socioe-conomic backgrounds. For example, the Tribunes leaders began a discussion on the need for birth control throughout the world. Barrios commented that such an agenda would be seen as completely alien to her companions in Bolivia, where the indigenous population was in decline. “There are so few Bolivians by now,” she stated, “that if we limited births even more, Bolivia would end up without people.” Furthermore, some of the women from industrialized countries spoke out in favor of peace, but Barrios and others defended the right of women in underdeveloped nations to continue to fight for justice alongside their men.
In 1977, Barrios and Moema Viezzer collaborated on Barrios’s autobiography, Si me permiten hablar. The English language version, translated by Victoria Ortiz, was published under the title Let Me Speak!’in 1978. In 1980, Barrios attended a conference on women in Denmark. Two days later after she arrived in Copenhagen, the Garcia Meza coup, a military takeover, occurred in Bolivia, and Barrio could not go home after the conference. In 1982, democracy was restored, and Barrios returned safely.