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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.

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