Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.

×

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.

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
Why not try our new pay as you feel subscription? You decide how much to pay.
Share this article  
  share on facebook     share on twitter  

Labour Party laws are being used to quash dissent
Richard Kuper writes that Labour's authorities are more concerned with suppressing pro-Palestine activism than with actually tackling antisemitism

Catalan independence is not just ‘nationalism’ – it’s a rebellion against nationalism
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte argue that Catalonia's independence movement is driven by solidarity – and resistance to far-right Spanish nationalists

Tabloids do not represent the working class
The tabloid press claims to be an authentic voice of the working class - but it's run by and for the elites, writes Matt Thompson

As London City Airport turns 30, let’s imagine a world without it
London City Airport has faced resistance for its entire lifetime, writes Ali Tamlit – and some day soon we will win

The first world war sowed the seeds of the Russian revolution
An excerpt from 'October', China Mieville's book revisiting the story of the Russian Revolution

Academies run ‘on the basis of fear’
Wakefield City Academies Trust (WCAT) was described in a damning report as an organisation run 'on the basis of fear'. Jon Trickett MP examines an education system in crisis.

‘There is no turning back to a time when there wasn’t migration to Britain’
David Renton reviews the Migration Museum's latest exhibition

#MeToo is necessary – but I’m sick of having to prove my humanity
Women are expected to reveal personal trauma to be taken seriously, writes Eleanor Penny

Meet the digital feminists
We're building new online tools to create a new feminist community and tackle sexism wherever we find it, writes Franziska Grobke

The Marikana women’s fight for justice, five years on
Marienna Pope-Weidemann meets Sikhala Sonke, a grassroots social justice group led by the women of Marikana

Forget ‘Columbus Day’ – this is the Day of Indigenous Resistance
By Leyli Horna, Marcela Terán and Sebastián Ordonez for Wretched of the Earth

Uber and the corporate capture of e-petitions
Steve Andrews looks at a profit-making petition platform's questionable relationship with the cab company

You might be a centrist if…
What does 'centrist' mean? Tom Walker identifies the key markers to help you spot centrism in the wild

Black Journalism Fund Open Editorial Meeting in Leeds
Friday 13th October, 5pm to 7pm, meeting inside the Laidlaw Library, Leeds University

This leadership contest can transform Scottish Labour
Martyn Cook argues that with a new left-wing leader the Scottish Labour Party can make a comeback

Review: No Is Not Enough
Samir Dathi reviews No Is Not Enough: Defeating the New Shock Politics, by Naomi Klein

Building Corbyn’s Labour from the ground up: How ‘the left’ won in Hackney South
Heather Mendick has gone from phone-banker at Corbyn for Leader to Hackney Momentum organiser to secretary of her local party. Here, she shares her top tips on transforming Labour from the bottom up

Five things to know about the independence movement in Catalonia
James O'Nions looks at the underlying dynamics of the Catalan independence movement

‘This building will be a library!’ From referendum to general strike in Catalonia
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte report from the Catalan general strike, as the movements prepare to build a new republic

Chlorine chickens are just the start: Liam Fox’s Brexit trade free-for-all
A hard-right free marketer is now in charge of our trade policy. We urgently need to develop an alternative vision, writes Nick Dearden

There is no ‘cult of Corbyn’ – this is a movement preparing for power
The pundits still don’t understand that Labour’s new energy is about ‘we’ not ‘me’, writes Hilary Wainwright

Debt relief for the hurricane-hit islands is the least we should do
As the devastation from recent hurricanes in the Caribbean becomes clearer, the calls for debt relief for affected countries grow stronger, writes Tim Jones

‘Your credit score is not sufficient to enter this location’: the risks of the ‘smart city’
Jathan Sadowski explains techno-political trends of exclusion and enforcement in our cities, and how to overcome this new type of digital oppression

Why I’m standing with pregnant women and resisting NHS passport checks
Dr Joanna Dobbin says the government is making migrant women afraid to seek healthcare, increasing their chances of complications or even death

‘Committees in Defence of the Referendum’: update from Catalonia
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte on developments as the Catalan people resist the Spanish state's crackdown on their independence referendum

The rights and safety of LGBTQ+ people are not guaranteed – we must continue to fight for them
Kennedy Walker looks at the growth in hate attacks at a time when the Tory government is being propped up by homophobes