Nicolasa Machaca Alejandro – Bolivia

She is one of the 1000 women proposed for the Nobel Peace Price 2005.

She was born a peasant and indigenous woman (1952). She tended the sheep and cows and cultivated potatoes and broad beans. She learned to read late. She was a reading promoter. She established Mother’s Clubs where women could be trained. She unified the efforts of different organizations working to support the communities. She was arrested, tortured and was obliged to flee the country. She became a paramedic and returned to help the poor of Bolivia. She is Nicolasa Machaca.

She says: “Beautiful is my land from the outside. Bitter inside with its oppressed children”.

She says also: “Now, we have enough trees in my community. And we know how to take care of them to avoid erosion. We have transplanted some of them onto the river bank”.


Nicolasa Machaca Alejandro – Bolivia

She works for the Tomás Katari Polytechnic Institute (named on Cambridge Univ.Press), for the Juana Azurduy Center,
and for the Small Milk Producers Association.

And she says: “I worked at a training centre for women directing courses, among other things on dress making and health and gender matters”.

Nicolasa Machaca Alejandro is 15 years old, a little shepherdess in Bolivia. She has woven herself a poncho and her mother has woven a skirt to her. She wears a man’s hat, as is customary for the indigenous women of her land. She is very pretty. She does not know much about the world. She goes to a meeting of the Mother’s Club of the Caritas Catholic Association.

It is 1970. She is not yet a mother, and hardly knows the Lord’s Prayer. But they give courses in reading and this calls out to her.

Now as time goes by, she remembers her childhood in a song:

  • “Aquel ranchito donde he nacido en rinconcito
  • Pobre he nacido, pobre he crecido con mis ovejitas en aquellas lomitas
  • A mi ranchito un día caminito
  • Por eso se olvidan de mi existencia
  • Por eso se olvidan de mi existencia”.

(“In that little corner ranch house where I was born / Poor I was born, and poor I have grown up with my sheep in those hillocks / To my little ranch one day, I walked to with little steps / For that reason they forget my existence / For that reason they forget my existence”).

She wrote it in Quechua, her native language. She was very determined to learn to read and write. One year later, Nicolasa Machaca was already a reading promoter in her community. There she showed her true qualities. She soon became the president of the Mother’s Club. But the group lacked a place for their meetings. Sometimes, they met at a neighbor’s house. They were thrown out of the chapel because they came with all their mischievous children.

They needed a permanent venue, so she talked to the mayor and to Caritas. They gave her a plot and with help from the village people they built a house in which they could have their meetings. The women helped to make the fertilizer mixture. They lifted their looms and began to study the alphabet. Also, people from the community were able to meet there. Later on, a governmental agrarian institute taught them how to cultivate vegetables and gave them small trees to reforest the area.

– In her region, a large part of the herd of animals died because of the lack of a vaccine. She organized meetings with the interested parties in order to seek help, until they got it. Her center functioned very well and she was asked to help organize Mother’s Clubs in other places. She received economic help without asking for it. In that way, she came to know other villages, her province. She rode on a bicycle from one place to another. She was put in charge of food distribution at the end of each month for Caritas (The Catholic organization).

Her work was appreciated. She received training in pottery, textiles, the making of bricks, tanning of leather. She passed on all of the new knowledge she gained to the community. At age 18, Nicolasa became the leader of 12 communities. At age 20, representative at the provincial level. After a provincial exhibition, in which her community won a prize, she was offered work as handcraft promoter, which she accepted. She traveled through the country without any problems because she spoke both of the most important indigenous languages: Aymará and Quechua. She heard about the trade unions and about the massacred peasants. And the girl who was living an evangelical life, without even knowing it, heard about religion.

But why were women separated from men? Why not unify efforts? Why could not women enter the Trade Unions? A process of understanding began. Her questions gave origin to the Single Trade Union Federation of Workers from Oruro.

She was identified as an activist by the dictatorship of that time and she was captured and violated. She did not reveal “plans” and did not give up the names of those the she knew who were “implicated”. They ripped off her toes nail one-by-one. Until today, they do not grow. She has to wear closed shoes to avoid the pain.

Like many others, she was hurled from a light aircraft. She fell over a semi-deserted place. She ate roots. When peasants found her, she preferred not to speak. But she explained the situation to the leader of the people in secret. They helped her to flee the country with false documentation. In order to avoid the police, she left in a wagon of vegetables.

She had to memorize the explanations. She could hardly walk. Her contacts said very little: “Go to that place, someone will pick you up”. In Peru, a doctor told her that it was necessary to amputate one of her feet but that maybe the other one could be saved. They took her to Cuba where they were able to save both. She traveled to Nicaragua, to Guatemala.

Back home, her father consulted a ‘yatiri’, a healer. He responded: “She is alive, but far away. She is suffering a lot. She has serious health problems, but she will be back in two or three years from now”. They asked the ‘yatiri’ to heal her. “The ‘yatiri’ asked for a few of my clothes to make a doll and in that way he cured me,” she explained.

When she returned, she was healthy. She was invited to many communities to tell them her story. The political parties made her tempting offers, but she did not trust them.

She also sang and wrote songs. Her songs were broadcasted on the radio. But the needs of the people pressed her, as did her longing for knowledge. She wanted to study medicine, to become a paramedic. She entered the Tomás Katari Polytechnic Institute IPTK. Soon, she became president of the students union.

Besides studying, the students worked in the community. On Saturdays, she joined fellows students to pave the patio, and she herself gave the example working as a “workman”. Her brilliant results made it possible for her to get a scholarship to study in Holland. She admired the richness and beauty of Holland, but did not allow it to seduce her. “I felt for the ‘backwardness’ of Bolivia, but I could also see that people could not communicate with each other. Here we always ask ‘Where are you from?’ ‘What do you do?’ and things like that”.

She returned and decided to stay in the province of Chayanta because it was the one in the most need. There she worked as many things: as a midwife, a surgeon, a nutritionist.

In Ocurí, in 1988, she became the head of an IPTK project, directed at women. She saw that there was scattered support from different organizations, the European Union, the Institute, the government. She suggested unifying those efforts and channeling them through the town hall. It was difficult for her to be heard, because she is a woman and indigenous.

But besides that she is stubborn. Or enlightened, who knows …

She married an ambulance driver. They had children. For their sake, she left the countryside and moved to Sucre where she continued to work, in the Juana Azurduy Centre.

And we will still see her creating nurseries in mining centers or collaborating in an association of milk producers. She had milked ‘criollas’ cows, and lived in Holland, but she knew nothing of Dutch cows. But she can study again. (1000peacewomen).


The Virginia Gildersleeve International Fund;

a video: La Coyuntura política de Bolivia;

Caritas Bolivia Aiquile;

Caritas Bolivana;

Press Release Caritas;

Trotskyism in Bolivia;

Bolivia: the rising of the people;

The history of the worker movement

New Left Review;

In Motion Magazine’s, Photo of the Week Archive / see also week 376 / and week 364 / and also week 389.

Comments are closed.