Domitila Barrios de Chungara – Bolivien

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

She says: “I want to leave future generations the only valid inheritance: a free country and social justice.”

Domitila Barrios de Chungara – Bolivien

She works for the Mobile School Project

‘Let me speak’ is the name of her famous book. Moema Viezzer is the co-author. It has been the object of numerous translations and editions. In it, Domitila Chungara (born in 1937), a Bolivian indigenous, speaks. Daughter and wife of miners, she survived a massacre and the denunciation she made conducted her to imprisonment. She has been put in jail and tortured numerous times. She had seven children, but lost four of them because of this violence. Later, along with other women, she began a hunger strike that gathered support and brought down Hugo Bánzer, the Bolivian dictator.

Her book: In it, Domitila recounts her personal life in the tin mines in her country. Her suffering at home, parallel her suffering at the mines where women have been devoid of power when deciding what is better for them. In her life, she experiences explotation not only by the mine owners, but also by the patriarchal system in Bolivia. She tells of hardships and abuse which seems to be the part of everyday life in the mining towns. A long time militant fighting for the well being of women in her country, Domitila believes in education and political action as the basis for social change. As today, she has moved away from the mines and lives in Cochabamba.

The 1980s have not been kind to Bolivia – and especially not to its devastated tin-mining communities. Sophia Tickell tried to track down two great characters who brought home to NI readers what conditions
were like in the mining town of Siglo XX. She found only one – a woman who feels betrayed by sympathizers in the West.

Domitila Barrios de Chungara was the leader of the Housewives’ Committee of one of Bolivia’s militant mining communities. She became an international celebrity. She tells: ‘… At the International Womens Year Conference in Mexico City, I introduced myself feeling like nothing: ‘well I’m the wife of a mineworker from Bolivia’. I worked up the courage to tell them about our problems. That was my obligation.’ (See the rest on new internationalist).

Myriam Gonzales-Smith, of the University of California, Santa Barbara, writes on Domitila Barrios:

Domitila Barrios was born on May 27, 1937, in the mining community of Siglo XX, in Potosi, Bolivia. At the age of three her family moved further South to Pulacayo, a small mining district in the province of Quijarro, also in Potosi, where she lived until 1957. When Domitila Barrios was ten years old her mother died, making Domitila the sole caretaker of her four sisters. In spite of assuming the parental responsibilities of a mother and putting up with her father’s alcoholism and physical abuse, Domitila completed grade school in 1952. Later, she started working in the mining company’s grocery store. Escaping from her father’s beatings, she moved back to her birthplace at Siglo XX when she was twenty years old. Soon after she married René Chungara with whom she had seven children. In 1963, Domitila joined the Housewives’ Committee of Siglo XX, two years after its formation. As an active member of this women’s group, Domitila learned the ways and the hardships of organizing a community-based group to demand better living and working conditions for their families and their miner husbands. As one of the leaders of the Housewives’ Committee Domitila participated in several hunger strikes. Due to her activism in favor of the mining community of Siglo XX, and as it happened to other women leaders in the committee, she was persecuted, jailed, tortured and relocated to minimize and silence her protest. Details of the horrendous repression acted by the government and its allies upon the indigenous people of Siglo XX, and specifically upon Domitila Barrios are revealed in her testimonial.

The confrontations between the government and the miners in Bolivia were depicted in Jorge Sanjinés movie El coraje del pueblo, The courage of the people. Through this movie the organization of the Housewives’ Committee became a revelation for many people around the world. Because of this, in 1974, a Brazilian movie director who was commissioned by the United Nations met Domitila and arranged for her to participate in the 1975 International Women’s Year Tribunal held in Mexico as a speaker for the Housewives’ Committee of Siglo XX. Her participation in this public forum allowed Domitila to have a better idea of the magnitude and complexity of the struggles women faced around the world. However, these struggles varied greatly according to social status and roles within their respective rural communities or urban towns.

Due to the constrains in time allowed to each participant to speak in this International Tribunal, Barrios agreed to tell her story in order to make public the struggles and the suffering of her people in the Bolivian mining communities. She makes this clear in an introductory statement to her testimonial “I don’t just want to tell a personal story. I want to talk about my people. I want to testify about all the experience we’ve acquired during so many years of struggle in Bolivia, and contribute a little grain of sand, with the hope that our experience may serve in some way for the new generation, for the new people.” (15)

Domitila Barrios’ initial testimonial, transcribed and edited by Brazilian journalist Moema Viezzer, “Si me permiten hablar…”: testimonio de Domitila, una mujer de las minas de Bolivia, and translated into English as Let Me Speak!: Testimony of Domitila, a Woman of the Bolivian Mines, denounces at the international level the miner’s struggle, the social injustices, the human right violations, and the political corruption that occurs in the tin-mining communities of Bolivia. As an Andean woman narrator, she tells her personal story in the context of a larger story common to everyone in her mining community of Siglo XX. As a woman activist, she talks about the barriers and negative reactions from her own community when she and other women activists crossed the line from the private space, the home, to the public space. In the Andean tradition, as in many other indigenous societies around the world, the roles and spaces of men and women are strongly defined. The fact that this crossing over ocurred at the level of the Andean community, as opposed to the urban setting, Domitila’s activism was seen in the eyes of her own people as a serious threat to the balance of the community itself. In this context, Domitila Barrios’ testimonial should be analyzed from the perspective of a more complex social and political activism that challenged not only the capitalist Western society and its way of exploiting indigenous peoples, but also suggested a new role for women within the Andean community.

The testimonial nature of this type of narrative and its value as such is a subject that has been approached by many scholars from different disciplines. For example, from a literary perspective, Maureen E. Shea points out the importance of testimonial works, like the one of Domitila Barrios, within Latin American literature. Shea provides an historical account of the testimonial as a less privileged literary genre in which women voices have been distorted or silenced. Shea states that these types of texts “become a unique opportunity to give voice to the voiceless and to blend reality and narrative fiction through the works of the protagonists who tell the story and the writers who transcribe them.” (139) In this essay, Shea also suggests that testimonials have all the characteristics of texts classified as documentary fiction, therefore questioning the conventional position of some literary scholars who diminish the value of testimonials based on the lack of objectivity or based on the presence of a political ideology or agenda. Shea’s essay is critical in the understanding of Domitila’s testimonial in that it affirms the value of women’s oral narratives within the androcentric canon of literary studies.

Regarding the field of Latin American Studies and Latin American Literature, Eva Paulino Bueno demonstrate how some North American Scholars pay attention to some testimonials more than others. Their preference determines in this way the inclusion or exclusion of a variety of testimonials. She uses Domitila Barrios’ testimonial as one example of the preference in the United States for texts where the narrator is of Indian heritage. This criteria leaves out other testimonials. Paulino uses as an example the testimonial of a Brazilian woman named Carolina Maria de Jesus Child of the Dark (1963). For Paulino, this preference “…raises the question of the depth of North American academics’ political framework and the condition in which they operate.” (262) In an effort to consider a variety of testimonials in the Latin American Studies and Latin American Literature curricula, she contests Dinesh D’Sousa evaluation of what is “good” literature. (260) In regards to Domitila’s testimonial, this essay is very helpful in evaluating the process throught which Domitila’s testimonial becomes more appealing to North American scholars. Paulino also points out the complexities involved in testimonial’s texts in general. Narrating a personal story without being an active member of a social group or community organization, as is the case of Carolina Maria de Jesus, can also reflect the conflicts and faults of a specific society and the type of interaction its narrator has with that society. Paulino’s essay is valuable in looking close at the complexities and consequences of cannon formation and the need to re-evaluate its criteria regarding the study of Latin American testimonials.

From a Women’s studies perspective, which allows a more interdisciplinary approach to the subject of testimonials, it is important to recognize that the struggle of Domitila Barrios, is one that occurs in a setting different from other women’s struggles. The changes and actions that Domitila reveals as new roles for women should not be taken in the same context of the American women’s liberation movement, more commonly accepted and practiced by several urban feminist groups in Latin America. Domitila’s activism should be seen as an example of what makes the Latin American feminism unique among others. The battle to fight, as Domitila well states, is not against men but along side them, to work together towards a common objective, a community based on respect of its members regardless their gender or their role in society (199).

Primary Sources:

¡Aquí también Domitila! Ed. David Acebey. Mexico: Siglo XXI Editores, 1985.
“Si me permiten hablar…”: testimonio de Domitila, una mujer de las minas de Bolivia. Ed. Moema Viezzer. México: Siglo XXI Editores, 1978.
Let Me Speak!: Testimony of Domitila, a Woman of the Bolivian Mines. Ed. Moema Viezzer. Trans. Victoria Ortiz. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1978.

Secondary Sources:
Ardaya Salinas, Gloria. “The Barzolas and Housewives’ Committee.” Women and Change in Latin America. Eds. June Nash and Helen Safa. Massachusetts: Bergin & Garviy P., 1986. 326-343.
Hunsaker, Steven V. “State, National, and Gender Identity: Maria Campbell, Carolina Maria de Jesus, and Domitila Barrios de Chungara.” Autobiography and National Identity in the Americas. Charlottesville: UP Virginia, 1999. 32-59.
Jaquette, Jane. “Female Political Participation in Latin America.” Sex and Class in Latin America. Eds. June Nash and Helen Safa. New York: Praeger P., 1976. 221-244.
Logan, Kathleen. “Personal Testimony: Latin American Women Telling Their Lives,” Latin American Research Review. 32.1 (1997): 199-211.
Marin, Lynda. “Speaking Out Together: Testimonials of Latin American Women.” Latin American Perspectives. 18.70 (Summer 1991): 51-68.
Nash, June. I Spent My Life in the Mines: The Story of Juan Rojas, Bolivian Tin Miner. New York: Columbia UP. 1992.
—. “Myth and Ideology in the Andean Highlands”. Ideology and Social Change in Latin America. New York: Gordon & Breach Science Publishers, 1977. 116-141.
—. “Resistance as Protest: Women in the Struggle of Bolivian Tin-Mining Communities.” Women Cross-Culturally: Change and Challenge. Ed. Ruby Rohrlich-Leavitt. Chicago: Mouton P., 1975. 261-271.
—. We Eat the Mines, and the Mines Eat Us: Dependency and Exploitation in Bolivian Tin-mines. New York: Columbia UP, 1979.
Paulino Bueno, Eva. “Carolina Maria de Jesus in the Context of Testimonios: Race, Sexuality, and Exclusion.” Criticism. 41.2 (Spring 1999): 257-284.
Shea, Maureen E. “Latin American Women and the Oral Tradition: giving voice to the voiceless.” Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction. 34.3 (Spring 1993): 139-153.
Sommer, Doris. “Not Just a Personal Story: Women’s Testimonios and the Plural Self.” Life/Lines. Eds. Bella Brodzki and Celeste Schenck. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1989.
Williams, Gareth. “Translation and Mourning: The Cultural Challenge of Latin American Testimonial Autobiography.” Latin American Literary Review. 21.41 (Jan-June 1993): 79-99.


Quaker Bolivia link;

… in the Context of Testimonios: Race, Sexuality, and Exclusion: see a huge article over some 10 web-pages, free, about 3 women testimonies, (also Domitila Barrios de Chungara’s one) on

Active Sydney.

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