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"Our main enemy isn?t imperialism, or the middle class, or bureaucracy. Our main enemy is fear and we carry it inside us"

She is one of the first woman leaders of the miners’ movement in Bolivia. Since 1963, she has participated in the Housewives’ Committee of the “20th Century” mining community, which has challenged the repression of various dictatorial governments. In 1975, she represented 20th Century at the Annual International Tribunal of Women, organized by the United Nations in Mexico. Her participation received international attention. In 2007, the Government of Bolivia awarded her the Democratic Medal of Merit for her contribution to the reestablishment of democracy in Bolivia after more than 20 years of dictatorship.

Domitila Barrios de Chungara is an indigenous woman, a housewife, a hard worker, and, a tenacious fighter who stands up for the rights of her people. She is an everyday activist, who has the courage to bring to light the exploitation of Bolivian workers and an unbreakable will in the fight for justice.

Bolivia has many natural resources, including petroleum, gas, zinc, tin, iron and gold, resources which have generated incredible wealth and which have tended to leave the country. Large multinational companies have siphoned off this wealth at the expense of the rightful owners, who live in poverty. Investing in the improvement of the workers’ living conditions is a historic debt. For many years, Domitila has wondered, “If Bolivia is a country that is so rich in raw materials, then why are its people so poor? And why is our standard of living so low compared to other Latin American countries?”

Her commitment and activism gave her the answer to this question: “Bolivia has been at the mercy of the transnational companies who control our country’s economy.  Despite the fact that our population is small, this wealth does not belong to us. There are people in this country who have become very rich, but they invest the profits overseas.”

In the 20th Century mining camp where Domitila lived, there was no running water and electricity for only a few hours a day. Nine people lived in a room of four or five square meters, without a bathroom, shower, and the kind of dignity that all human beings deserve. Children were often crushed to death while waiting in line for a scrap of meat—which were scarce in the mining camps and used to pressure the miners to abandon their claims. The women worked twenty hours a day to take care of their families and took paid employment to supplement the meager miner’s pay. As Domitila explains, “Allowing the wife, husband and children to participate in the working class struggle is the first battle that must be won because it will turn the home into a trench that is impenetrable by the enemy.”

The 20th Century Housewives’ Committee, of which Domitila was an active representative, was organized in the same manner as the Miners’ Union, and was a part of the Federation of Mineworkers and the Bolivian Workers’ Centre. For Domitila, women’s participation in politics and the issues of the mining community is part of a larger strategy: “If a woman is politicized and informed, then she can educate her children with other ideas from infancy so that they may become something else.”

Domitila represents anonymous women, more often than not, silenced (some husbands beat their wives when they came back from committee meetings), but who have defended workers’ rights and have asked for medicine and food so as not to die of hunger, cold or preventable diseases. Domitila herself had a sister who starved to death because she ate leftovers that she found in the trash and which contained coal ash. Meanwhile the “tin men” kept getting richer: “The bourgeoisie have always been brutal, lying thieves.”

In June of 1967, an alarm went off at 20th Century: “It was very, very loud. They say that the noise came from a boat.. We saw so many things that night!” The dictator René Barrientos had sent military detachments to the mining communities of Catavi and Llallagua to silence the workers. It was the night of San Juan. As Domitila explains, “The army had planned everything… they entered the city disguised as civilians… Then they opened fire on anyone who they crossed paths with… It was terrible, just terrible!”

Thousands of people died that night, many of them women and children. Domitila would not be silenced and condemned the act: “It is unjust, what they’ve done to us. Our own government has taken away our salaries and the only thing we ask in return is that we be treated fairly and be given our due. The fact that they have killed us like this, is unjust. They are cowards!”

Two days after her condemnation, Domitila and her 2 year-old daughter were thrown into a La Paz jail. This time, she escaped unharmed, but two months later she was detained again. The tortures resulted in the loss of some of her teeth and an unborn child, who died inside her during the beatings. She was accused of being an agent for Ché Guevarra, who at the time, was active in Bolivia.

The government of Hugo Banzer attempted extorsion, but Domitila once again chose to continue fighting for her people and for herself. In the year 1978, Banzer banned all political parties and unions. The workers protested and united against the repression with a strike. A group of four women and two dozen children launched a hunger strike and were later joined by thousands of people in cities and towns throughout Bolivia. Banzer’s dictatorship fell but another (that of Garcia Meza) emerged in 1980 and forced Domitila into exile in Sweden and later Mexico, where she had been invited by the UN to participate in the International Women’s Year Tribune for the past five years. For Domitila, this experience led to the realization that her wisdom came from her people and their age–old struggle. Her speech did not support the Western feminist ideas of the time. As she explains, “They did not see our fellow workers slowly but surely coughing up their lungs into pools of blood. They did not know what it was like to wake up at four in the morning and go to sleep at midnight so that you can get your domestic chores done due to poor living conditions.”

“Doña Domi,” as some of her colleagues call her, has since returned to Bolivia and has continued to challenge those who would put an end to the Miners’ Movement with measures like Decree 21060, which left the inhabitants of the 20th Century community out on the street, jobless and homeless.

When Domitila Barrios de Chungara reflects on her 72 years of life(1) , she concludes that little to nothing has been achieved, after more than a century of struggle against foreign and national business owners. However, she is still hopeful that injustice will not last forever.

(1)Domitila Chungara passed away on March 13, 2012 in Cochabamba, Bolivia.