Classic book: Let Me Speak!

Nick Caistor takes another look at Domitila Barrios de Chungara's story of life in Bolivia's mining villages

August 8, 2012
5 min read

The year 1976 was designated International Women’s Year by the United Nations. In Mexico, an International Women’s Tribunal brought together women from all over Latin America. One of the speakers who stood out with her insistence that feminism must engage first and foremost with class conflicts was a middle-aged Bolivian woman, the wife of a miner from her country’s tin mines: Domitila.

In the 1960s and 1970s, Bolivia was wracked with political violence. It had the sorry record of suffering the most military coups in the world since gaining independence in the early 19th century. And despite its organised labour movement and strong Communist Party, the outside world knew little about what was going on in this remote country of five million people.

Domitila’s book of direct testimony of what it meant to have been born and grown up in the miserably poor mining villages, and her growing political awareness of exploitation, resonated with readers in many countries.

In Let Me Speak! (the Spanish title Sí me permiten hablar is much more tentative, and reflects the nervousness Domitila said she felt when she first stood up to speak at the 1976 conference) she writes of the death of her mother when she was only ten years old, and how she had to then start looking after her young sisters, with little help from her father. When he remarried, she soon found herself thrown out of the house, and in turn wedded a miner from the famous Siglo XX tin mine, high in the Bolivian mountains.

The book describes what became her daily routine, similar to that of many thousands of other miners’ wives in their one-room shacks: ‘My day begins at four in the morning, especially when my compañero is on the first shift. I prepare his breakfast. Then I have to prepare the salteñas (pasties), because I make about a hundred of them a day and sell them in the street… The night before we prepare the dough and at four in the morning I make the salteñas while I feed the kids… then the kids who go to school have to get ready, while I wash the clothes I left soaking overnight.’

These wives saw how their husbands and sons were organising to try to prevent the military government of the 1960s taking away their hard-won rights. In 1961, the women at Siglo XX formed the ‘Housewives’ Committee’ to fight alongside their partners. The struggle was often bitter, and Domitila details the two massacres that took place in 1963 and 1965, when scores of miners were shot down by the army on the orders of the dictator of the day.

As with many others, the repression only served to make Domitila even more determined that things must change. To her, it was simple: the profits from the mineral riches of Bolivia went into the pockets of the imperialists from other countries, who used their allies and the army inside Bolivia to stifle any demands for better treatment. She was equally clear that the victims were not just the miners but also their wives and children. Domitila was convinced that the only solution was to organise and fight for a socialist revolution.

It was after Che Guevara’s murder in Bolivia in 1967 that things turned even more dangerous for Domitila. Accused of being a ‘liaison with the guerrilla’ she was taken into custody and beaten so badly she lost the baby she was expecting. Some of the most harrowing pages of Let Me Speak! cover those awful days, and how she was saved thanks to the kindness of a doctor and a colonel who was friends with her father.

In spite of these experiences, she returned to the mining region and continued to press for better wages and conditions, particularly after General Hugo Banzer seized power in 1971. Her prominence as a leader of the working women of Bolivia led to her invitation to speak at the Mexico forum, and this in turn led to her book, produced from lengthy interviews with the Brazilian sociologist Moema Viezzer.

Domitila’s uncompromising account of life among the poor miners of Bolivia found an echo in both the United States and Europe. She became in great demand as a speaker, and toured many countries. She was always conscious that her main task was to help her own people in whatever way she could, and in a 1978 postscript to the book she insisted that all the information should be available back in Bolivia, so that ‘we’ll be able to do things better in the future, guide ourselves better, direct ourselves better, to see the reality of our country and create our own instruments to improve our struggle and free ourselves definitively from imperialism and establish socialism in Bolivia.’

It was also in 1978 that Domitila and other mining women started a hunger strike for the release of imprisoned miners, the withdrawal of the army from the mines, and free and fair elections. Their strike won massive support in Bolivia and abroad, and was part of a movement that forced the military dictator Hugo Banzer to accept a democratic opening.

Paradoxically, when a left-wing movement proclaiming socialism did come to power in Bolivia in 2005 under President Evo Morales, it was thanks to the organised peasant movements, among them the coca‑leaf growers, rather than the miners or their wives. By this time, Domitila was suffering from chronic ill health, and in 2008 she was diagnosed with lung cancer. She died on 13 March this year.


✹ Try our new pay-as-you-feel subscription — you choose how much to pay.

Greece’s heavy load
While the UK left is divided over how to respond to Brexit, the people of Greece continue to groan under the burden of EU-backed austerity. Jane Shallice reports

On the narcissism of small differences
In an interview with the TNI's Nick Buxton, social scientist and activist Susan George reflects on the French Presidential Elections.

Why Corbyn’s ‘unpopularity’ is exaggerated: Polls show he’s more popular than most other parties’ leaders – and on the up
Headlines about Jeremy Corbyn’s poor approval ratings in polls don’t tell the whole story, writes Alex Nunns

The media wants to demoralise Corbyn’s supporters – don’t let them succeed
Michael Calderbank looks at the results of yesterday's local elections

In light of Dunkirk: What have we learned from the (lack of) response in Calais?
Amy Corcoran and Sam Walton ask who helps refugees when it matters – and who stands on the sidelines

Osborne’s first day at work – activists to pulp Evening Standards for renewable energy
This isn’t just a stunt. A new worker’s cooperative is set to employ people on a real living wage in a recycling scheme that is heavily trolling George Osborne. Jenny Nelson writes

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 24 May
On May 24th, we’ll be holding the third of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.

Our activism will be intersectional, or it will be bullshit…
Reflecting on a year in the environmental and anti-racist movements, Plane Stupid activist, Ali Tamlit, calls for a renewed focus on the dangers of power and privilege and the means to overcome them.

West Yorkshire calls for devolution of politics
When communities feel that power is exercised by a remote elite, anger and alienation will grow. But genuine regional democracy offers a positive alternative, argue the Same Skies Collective

How to resist the exploitation of digital gig workers
For the first time in history, we have a mass migration of labour without an actual migration of workers. Mark Graham and Alex Wood explore the consequences

The Digital Liberties cross-party campaign
Access to the internet should be considered as vital as access to power and water writes Sophia Drakopoulou

#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part III: a discussion of power and privilege
In the final article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr gives a few pointers on how to be a good ally

Event: Take Back Control Croydon
Ken Loach, Dawn Foster & Soweto Kinch to speak in Croydon at the first event of a UK-wide series organised by The World Transformed and local activists

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 19 April
On April 19th, we’ll be holding the second of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.

Changing our attitude to Climate Change
Paul Allen of the Centre for Alternative Technology spells out what we need to do to break through the inaction over climate change

Introducing Trump’s Inner Circle
Donald Trump’s key allies are as alarming as the man himself

#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part II: a discussion of power and privilege
In the second article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the silencing of black women and the flaws in safe spaces

Joint statement on George Osborne’s appointment to the Evening Standard
'We have come together to denounce this brazen conflict of interest and to champion the growing need for independent, truthful and representative media'

Confronting Brexit
Paul O’Connell and Michael Calderbank consider the conditions that led to the Brexit vote, and how the left in Britain should respond

On the right side of history: an interview with Mijente
Marienna Pope-Weidemann speaks to Reyna Wences, co-founder of Mijente, a radical Latinx and Chincanx organising network

Disrupting the City of London Corporation elections
The City of London Corporation is one of the most secretive and least understood institutions in the world, writes Luke Walter

#AndABlackWomanAtThat: a discussion of power and privilege
In the first article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the oppression of her early life and how we must fight it, even in our own movement

Corbyn understands the needs of our communities
Ian Hodson reflects on the Copeland by-election and explains why Corbyn has the full support of The Bakers Food and Allied Workers Union

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 15 March
On 15 March, we’ll be holding the first of Red Pepper’s Race Section open editorial meetings.

Social Workers Without Borders
Jenny Nelson speaks to Lauren Wroe about a group combining activism and social work with refugees

Growing up married
Laura Nicholson interviews Dr Eylem Atakav about her new film, Growing Up Married, which tells the stories of Turkey’s child brides

The Migrant Connections Festival: solidarity needs meaningful relationships
On March 4 & 5 Bethnal Green will host a migrant-led festival fostering community and solidarity for people of all backgrounds, writes Sohail Jannesari

Reclaiming Holloway Homes
The government is closing old, inner-city jails. Rebecca Roberts looks at what happens next

Intensification of state violence in the Kurdish provinces of Turkey
Oppression increases in the run up to Turkey’s constitutional referendum, writes Mehmet Ugur from Academics for Peace

Pass the domestic violence bill
Emma Snaith reports on the significance of the new anti-domestic violence bill


7