Indigenous Women in the Vanguard

The world was stunned when it woke on New Year’s Day 1994 to news of an armed uprising in the mountains of Mexico. In an era of supposed global prosperity and stability, pundits were baffled revolutionary movements still existed. But by the time the masked Zapatista rebels left the jungle to make their international debut, the first revolution of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) had actually already occurred.

Teo Ballvé

The world was stunned when it woke on New Year’s Day 1994 to news of an armed uprising in the mountains of Mexico. In an era of supposed global prosperity and stability, pundits were baffled revolutionary movements still existed. But by the time the masked Zapatista rebels left the jungle to make their international debut, the first revolution of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) had actually already occurred.

When the EZLN was still in its early days as a clandestine organization, a women’s insurgency erupted in its ranks against chauvinism and sexism in Zapatista communities. For years, Comandantas Ramona and Susana crisscrossed the state of Chiapas to consult with other Zapatista women and convince them about the need to fight for women’s rights within the movement.

These efforts led to the EZLN’s approval of the “Revolutionary Law of Women” eight months before the armed uprising. It was one of the organization’s first official acts and a major instance of the Zapatista ethos that the “Ends” of a movement should be exhibited and embodied through its “Means.”

Women have forced indigenous movements throughout Latin America to recognize that their organizations and communities can sometimes be as undemocratic and unjust as those of the dominant society. In response, indigenous women are striving to fight the constraints imposed on them by society at large as well as the lingering chauvinism within their own communities.

“When we started, the only woman was the secretary, which was pretty common in our organizations, so I do think we’ve moved forward,” says Celia Eumesa, an indigenous Nasa community leader in southwestern Colombia. Celia is one of the founders of the Nasa Indigenous Guard, a nonviolent self-defense group used by the Nasa to protect their communities from the armed actors of Colombia’s civil war. The Indigenous Guard sometimes mobilizes thousands of members and descends on a guerrilla or paramilitary camp to rescue kidnapped community members.

In the early days of the Guard, Celia remembers the male leader of the entire Nasa Guard only reluctantly let her join. “I’m a short little woman, and back then I was pretty skinny—I’ve fattened up a bit,” she laughs, “but he was pretty skeptical.” In retrospect, Celia actually credits this weariness from her male colleagues as a factor in helping her persevere: “Of course I think that men should treat women gentler than porcelain,” she chuckles, “but that can also debilitate us more. Sometimes they’re hard on us, but we are also hard on them. But that’s good, it makes all of us stronger.”

“One does not have to stop being a woman to do these things,” warns Celia. “To be successful, we shouldn’t copy the things men do, because then we’d be just like them. Instead, I do things my way, from my space as a woman.”

Alicia Chocué, who served as governor of the Nasa reserve of Pueblo Nuevo from 2003 to 2004, notes that for an indigenous woman in a position of power, the already heavy responsibility of governing is doubled. “One has to not only leave the name of your office in good standing,” she explains, “but one also has to leave a good impression of a woman having held that position, so these spaces remain open for more women in the future.”

What’s more, compared to their male counterparts, the personal lives of women public office holders come under intense scrutiny, enhanced in this case by the negligible privacy afforded in the Nasa’s tight-knit communities. Besides judging a woman’s performance in office, notes Alicia, “people are also judging how well you are taking care of your responsibilities as a woman, how you are taking care of your home and your family. You’re being measured from all sides.”

In Bolivia, although indigenous women are often marginalized in daily life—as they are elsewhere—during uprisings they are always seen on the frontlines of protests and staffing the road blockades. A book of testimonies by Aymara women about the October 2003 uprising in the city of El Alto calls women there the “backbone of the insurrection.” (Similar arguments have been made about women in last year’s predominantly indigenous uprising in Oaxaca, Mexico.)

Sometimes the political role of women is more subtle, but no less powerful. As Aymara sociologist Silvia Rivera Cusicanqui notes, “Politics [in Bolivia] is not so much defined in the streets as it is in the most intimate settings of the markets and domestic units, spaces of female protagonism par excellence.”

Excluded and discriminated three times over—as women, as indigenous, and as poor people—indigenous women know all too well what it means to be on globalization’s losing side and thus play a highly politicized role in Latin America’s contemporary social struggles. They also serve as a badly needed corrective that ensures Latin America’s movements for equal rights and justice are themselves equal and just.


Teo Ballvé is NACLA’s Web editor. A journalist based in Colombia, he edited, with Vijay Prashad, Dispatches From Latin America: On the Frontlines Against Neoliberalism (South End Press, 2006).
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