13 Bolivian Heroines That Should Have Been In Your World History Books But Weren’t

The history of the Americas and the Caribbean is filled with stories of radical socio-political movements and the resilience of marginalized communities surviving in a world that does not want us to exist. While not often remembered as leaders, women, along with gender non-conforming individuals, are often at the forefront of the resistance — especially in Bolivia.

Here, 13 oft-forgotten Black and Indigenous Bolivian women who have made enormous sacrifices and achievements in order to fight for a decolonial future for the next generation.

1. Bartolina Sisa  

#bartolinasisa #mujeresvalientes #diadelamujerindigena

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Born between 1750 and 1753, Bartolina Sisa was one of the fiercest leaders of her time and remains highly exalted. Born in La Paz, Bolivia to Aymara parents who sold commercial goods such as coca leaves, Sisa often traveled with her mom and dad and even as a child witnessed injustice against Indigenous populations in many forms. She saw men work till their death in mines and women who were legally sexual assaulted by their landowners, priests and soldiers. But it was also on her travels that she met her future husband, Julián Apaza, more famously known as Tupac Katari.  

Together, the revolutionary duo organized attacks on different haciendas in order to obtain military weapons.  Gradually, a majority of the communities in the mountains declared their independence and took back their lands. On March 13, 1781, under the command of the couple, 20,000 Indigenous troops gathered and began the first major siege in La Paz.  In the following months, the army count grew to 80,000 soldiers ready to fight for their liberation. The commanding pair divided their leadership around the surrounding provinces in La Paz and were able to cut off the city’s food supplies. Sisa was known for her military strategies and won several major battles against the Spaniards. Sadly, she was betrayed by her close companions and captured by the Spaniards.  After several defeats and his overall despair of losing his wife, Katari was also seized. A year after witnessing her husband’s death, Sisa was executed in 1782. On September 5, 1983, during the Encuentros of Movement Organizations of the Americas, the International Indigenous Women’s Day was founded in honor of Sisa’s legacy.

2. Gregoria Apaza

(Photo Credit: Paginasiete)

Born June 23, 1751 in La Paz, Gregoria Apaza, the sister of Katari and sister-in-law of Sisa, was a leader in her own right.  She traveled with her brother selling mercantile goods around the Andean regions, which taught her about the inhumane treatment of other Indigenous communities. She was one of the major generals of Katari and Sisa’s armies and was known as a brilliant military strategist in the battlefields. In addition, Apaza was in charge of the administration of the military bases, dividing the goods obtained from successful invasions and personally training Indigenous women for combat.

After being widowed and left as a single mother, she met and fell in love with Andrés Tupac Amaru, Tupac Amaru II’s nephew, and hoped their union could unite the Indigenous resistance happening in Peru and Bolivia. Unfortunately, when her brother and sister-in-law were captured by the Spaniards, Amaru, under the orders of his family, returned to Peru, and they never saw each other again. But she didn’t give up her fight. Apaza organized her troops and attempted a final siege in order to save her family, but sadly she was also captured. She was imprisoned alongside Sisa and was executed with her on September 5, 1782.

3. Juana Azurduy de Padilla

If you can recall from back in July, I posted a news story of which discussed how Bolivia's President Evo Morales, their first full-blooded indigenous President, convinced Venezuela to replace its statue of Christopher Columbus with that of #JuanaAzurduy, an indigenous female warrior of whom led an uprising against the Spanish. The following text, I unfortunately did not write; however, as always, I will accredit the source when the text is finished. "Juana Azurduy de Padilla was born in Chuquisaca in 1780. Her mother was of indigenous origin, and her father was Spanish, but she was orphaned at an early age. She spent her early years living in the Santa Teresa convent with nuns. In 1802, she married Manuel Padilla and had four children that she had to leave for a year to fight the Royal Army in order liberate Alto Peru (Upper Peru). In 1809, popular unrest overthrew the Vice Regency, which marked the beginning of the guerilla insurrections. In 1810, Juana Azurduy joined the liberating army of Manuel Belgrano, who gave her a saber as a demonstration of his admiration for her bravery in battle. In 1811, Royal forces under the command of General Goyeneche regained control of Alto Peru. As a result, the Padilla land was confiscated, and Juana was captured with her children. Fortunately, Padilla rescued them, and they took refuge in the Tarabuco heights. (CONT.)

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Juana Azurduy de Padilla was born on July 12, 1780 in Potosí, Bolivia to a rich Spaniard father and a mestiza mother. A girl rebel- (she was expelled from her convent when she was 17 years old) -turned revolutionary woman, she and her husband Manuel Ascencio Padilla joined the Chuquisaca Revolution, considered the beginning of their involvement in the Revolutionary Wars of Independence from Spain, in 1805.  After a series of defeats, and even being captured temporarily, Juana organized the “Batallón Leales” and participated in the Battle of Ayohuma in November 9, 1813, which triumphed over the Royalist army. A few years later, on March 8, 1816, her forces captured the Cerro de Potosi and she was subsequently promoted as lieutenant colonel. In 1818, she was forced to withdraw her troops to Northern Argentina and continued to fight several battles until she got promoted as commander of the Northern Army in the lands that would later be founded as modern-day Argentina. Juana was so dedicated to the cause that not only did she fight while she was pregnant, but after giving birth she immediately went back into the battlefield with her newborn daughter on her back.  

She returned to Bolivia after she retired from her active duties in 1821.  When Simón Bolívar went to pay his respects to her, he was upset to discover that she was living in poverty and set up a state pension and promoted her to the rank of colonel. Bolívar famously said that Bolivia should have been named after Juana or her husband instead of him since they were the ones who fought the hardest for liberation. Sadly, in 1857, her pension was taken away by the government of José María Linares, and she died in poverty on May 25, 1862.  

4. Adela Zamudio

Adela Zamudio was born on October 11, 1854 in Cochabamba, Bolivia to a wealthy couple. She attended a prestigious Catholic school until she reached the third grade,  the maximum level of education women could receive at the time. But she continued her education in private, later breaking barriers as a teacher and poet.

Zamudio is credited for creating the foundation of women’s literature in Bolivia and was a renowned poet and painter during her time. She began her writing career by publishing articles in El Heraldo under the pen-name Soledad and often wrote about social struggles in Bolivia, particularly about women’s rights. Eventually, she wrote her first and only novel, called “Íntimas,” which was not well-received during its time but would later become an important feminist work that was critical of institutionalized patriarchy prevalent in Bolivian society.

Zamudio’s work often put her at odds with the Catholic Church, as she strongly opposed its control over education. This inspired her to found Bolivia’s first secular school and painting institution specifically for women. On October 28, 1926, she was awarded Bolivia’s highest cultural award by President Hernando Siles Reyes. She died peacefully in her home on June 2, 1928. In the 1980s, Bolivia’s first and only woman president, Lidia Gueiler Tejada, founded National Women’s Day on October 11 in honor of Zamudio’s legacy.  

5. Domitila Barrios de Chungara

Born May 7, 1937 in a tin mine community in Potosi, Domitila Barrios de Chungara spent much of her childhood helping to raise her siblings and struggling with her family’s low income. This directly impacted the direction of her life. As an adult, Chungara joined the Housewives’ Committee, which was created by a group of women that demanded the release of their husbands after they were imprisoned for calling for higher wages. Her main role within the organization was to support mining families trying to improve their living conditions and receiving social services amid the repressive government of Rene Barrientos Ortuño. During the dictatorship, Chungara survived the brutal 1967 San Juan massacre but was subsequently arrested and tortured for her activities supporting the rights of mine workers. 

Despite these brutal moments in her life, it did not stop her from fighting against oppressive governments. In 1977, she and another group of women began a small hunger strike against the new dictatorship of Hugo Banzer Suárez, which led to thousands of people rallying for democracy. This first hunger strike forced Suárez’s government to begin the transition to democratic elections.  That same year, Chungara published her autobiography called “Si Me Permiten Hablar…Testimonio de Domitila: Una Mujer de Las Minas de Bolivia.”  A year later, Chungara began a second hunger strike, which led to Suárez being overthrown.  

In her final years, Chungara co-founded “Escuela Movil,” a school that traveled around the Andes of Bolivia to teach the history of resistance and university materials to rural communities that did not have access to educational institutions.  She died on March 13, 2012 due to lung cancer. Evo Morales issued a three-day nationwide mourning and awarded her Bolivia’s highest honor, the Order of the Condor of the Andes.

6. Luzmila Carpio

Born in Potosi in the 1950s, Luzmila Carpio is a famed Quechua singer. She first learned how to sing by her mother and grandmother, who used songs to pass down their community’s oral histories and oral traditions. It was due to Luzmila’s strong connection to pachamama that she was able to pick up melodies from the sounds of the nature, particularly bird songs.  

When Carpio was 11 years old, she auditioned for a singing radio contest but was rejected because she did not know how to sing in Spanish. After learning the words to the Bolivian national anthem, she tried out again, this time being told by the director of the radio station to sing songs that came more naturally to her. She did, performing Quechua tunes and winning the audition before becoming one of Bolivia’s most famous singers who perform in Quechua and Aymara languages.  

In April of 2006, the President Morales assigned Carpio to be Bolivia’s ambassador to France until March of 2010.  

7. Adalberta Monica Rey Gutierrez

(Photo Credit: Wikipedia)

Adalberta Monica Rey Gutierrez was born on April 23, 1964 in La Paz, Bolivia. The first Afro-Bolivian to graduate with a high school diploma from her boarding school, she studied social communications at the Universidad Mayor de San Andrés and published her thesis, “Saya as Mode of Communication and Cultural Expression in the Afro-Bolivian Community,” which became the first substantial work that focused on the Afro-Bolivian population.  She discovered that community elders in the Yungas communities still sang songs and practiced ceremonies in African languages and that Saya is a distinct cultural expression for Afro-Bolivians. Gutierrez was also one of the co-founders of MCSA (The Afro-Bolivian Saya Cultural Movement), which worked to revitalize Afro-Bolivian cultural traditions.

Gutierrez continues to be one of the most prominent leaders in the movement for Bolivia to recognize the identity of Afro-Bolivians, writing numerous articles documenting the effects of the socio-political and economic inequalities Afro-Bolivians are forced to live through on a daily basis.  In 2010, she helped create the National Council of Afro-Bolivians (CONAFRO) and served as secretary of communication and international affairs. Her work helped push Bolivia to finally recognize Afro-Bolivians on the census as their own specific racial group in 2012. In 2014, under President Morales, she was elected as supranational seputy in the Chamber of Deputies, and in 2016, she introduced legislation that would ensure civil and human rights of Afro-Bolivians are implemented.  

8. Vicenta Mamani Bernabé

(Photo Credit: El Pais Online)

Vicenta Mamani Bernabe was born in the rural community of Ticohaya near Lake Titicaca.  When she was a child, she helped her family cultivate the land and would make clothing out of sheep and alpaca in order to economically support them. During the height of the agricultural season, she would work for other families in exchange for naturally grown food. She would travel to the City of La Paz to sell her mercantile goods, and she used that money to help pay for her education. In her community, she experienced intense sexism for wanting to obtain an education, so in order to pursue a higher education, she moved to La Paz. However, going to the city was a huge culture shock for her, and the overt racism she experienced put a lot pressure on her to assimilate into mestizaje.  

Fortunately, due to her own labor and the support of leadership programs from the church, she enrolled in the Instituto Superior Ecuménico Andino de Teología to study theology, obtaining a PhD. Bernabe’s academic work focuses on Aymara epistemologies and how her communities have always had their own socio-political and economic systems to govern themselves and deal with the intergenerational trauma inflicted by colonial state violence.  Her most well-known works are “Migrant Aymara Woman” and “Aymara Woman: Identity and Spirituality.

9. Marfa Inofuentes Perez

(Photo Credit: Jorge Medina)

Marfa Inofuentes Perez was born in the late 1960s in La Paz, Bolivia. Perez’s father, Benjamin Inofuentes, was born in his family’s home community of Tocaña, which is located in Los Yungas.  After she enrolled in the Universidad Mayor de San Andrés to study sociology and law, Perez joined the Afro-Bolivian Saya Cultural Movement (MCSA) in order to support the resurgence of Afro-Bolivian cultural traditions. In 2001, she co-founded the Afro-Bolivian Center for Community Development (CADIC) to advocate for the Bolivian government to formally recognize Afro-Bolivians as their own distinct group. She also traveled the world representing Afro-Bolivian women at international meetings and was a member of the Network of African Diaspora Women in Latin American and the Caribbean (RMCALDA).  

After Morales became president, Perez continued to lobby for his government to add articles to the constitution protecting the human and civil rights of Afro-Bolivians. In 2009, with the support of prominent Afro-Bolivian activists and the government, the Bolivian constitution was changed in order to recognize and guarantee the rights of Afro-Bolivians. Perez went on to become the deputy mayor of La Paz, but she soon retired from her duties due to health complications. She died on March 4, 2015 and is widely remembered for her activism.

10. Rayza Torrani

(Photo Credit: El Diario)

In 2004, while Rayza Torrani was in Argentina, she attended an event organized for trans women that discussed community experiences and organizing throughout Latin America and the Caribbean. The moment was pivotal for Torrani, who become involved in social justice movements and learned leadership skills so that she could launch her own initiatives. In October of 2008, she helped organize Bolivia’s first gathering of prominent trans organizations in Santa Cruz to create the country’s earliest national organization, TRÉBOL (Trans Red de Bolivia). Torrani was chosen to be one of the main coordinators for TRÉBOL and eventually she also helped create Bolivia’s first national organization for trans women living with HIV/AIDS.  

A barrier-breaker, she was also the first trans woman to run for the Green Party in Cochabamba, but she was denied because her gender identity card did not match how she identifies.  Torrani became one of the most prominent figures advocating for the government to pass the Gender Identity Law Article 807 so that trans folk can change the gender marker on their government documents at an administrative level and not have to go through the judicial courts. In May of 2016, after years of organizing, the Bolivian government passed the legislation.

Currently the president of TRÉBOL, Torrani continues to support countless other social movements, such as sex worker rights, queer rights, anti-racism initiatives and access to healthcare, education and employment.

11. Sharon Perez

Sharon Perez is a prominent Afro-Bolivian artist and graphic designer who was born in La Paz. She explores her identity primarily by painting on doors and windows. She began her journey to rediscover herself by addressing her father’s, Miguel Perez Vasquez, internalized racism and how they both needed to connect with their ancestral and cultural roots. Once Perez had access to resources, she began to explore her history through paintings and quickly realized no one was talking about Afro-Bolivian identity through artistic expression. Perez’s father also grew up in La Paz and was isolated from his home community of Chicaloma in Los Yungas since he was child. As a result, Perez did not have access to her father’s side of the family or Afro-Bolivian elders to learn about her history and cultural traditions for a long time.  It is due to her success that both her and her father have been able to reconnect with their family in Los Yungas.

Perez’s work has been featured at art galleries and museums throughout Bolivia, and she dreams of becoming an art teacher so she can create workshops to help cultivate Bolivia’s next generation of contemporary artists. 

12. Chantal Cuellar

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Chantal Cuellar is a community organizer for countless social justice movements in Bolivia, such as improving health care, ending domestic violence, supporting anti-racism initiatives, supporting the rights of sex workers, conducting workshops about the Gender Identity Law and advocating for the rights of trans and queer communities. Cuellar is also one of the most prominent activists in Bolivia that supported the Gender Identity Law Article 807 and was present with her colleagues in government meetings to ensure the law passed through all legislative procedures. She is currently the secretary of TRÉBOL and has attended international conferences to represent Bolivia on matters of civil and human rights.  

13. Silvia Rivera Cusicanqui

Silvia Rivera Cusicanqui is a sociologist, historian and activist who was born in La Paz, Bolivia on December 9, 1949 to Quechua and Aymara Mestize parents. During the 1970s, she began her activism with the Katarista movement and eventually was forced to live in exile during the dictatorship years in Bolivia. While Cusicanqui was living in exile, she wrote her first well-known work called “Oppressed But Not Defeated: Peasant Struggles Among the Aymara and Quechua in Bolivia.” After she returned to Bolivia in the 1980s, she co-founded Taller de Historia Oral Andina, which focused on Indigenous oral histories and socio-political movements of the time. Cusicanqui became a professor at the Universidad Mayor de San Andrés until she retired in the early 2000s. She is currently a part of the Tambo Collective, creating workshops and activities based on decolonial practices.

Cusicanqui has spent years researching internalized colonialism within the Mestize psyche and centers Quechua and Aymara cosmologies in her academic work in order to explore affirmative practices of decolonization. She actively challenges scholars and political leaders of their appropriation of Indigenous concepts and their unwillingness to grapple with what decolonization could actually look like in Bolivia.  Cusicanqui’s most well-known academic works are “The Artisans and Libertarians and Work Ethic” and “Ch’ ixinakax utxiwa: A Reflection on the Practices and Discourses of Decolonization.”

Read: This Bolivian Cholitas Shatter Stereotypes Each Time They Scale Mountains In Their Skirts

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