Bailar la Lucha: A Glimpse into Bolivian Feminism

Note: All interviews were conducted in Spanish by me. Any misrepresentation, mistakes in translation or content errors are mine.

Bolivia is home to the largest indigenous population of any Latin American nation, with 62% of citizens over the age of 15 identifying as indigenous in the 2001 National Census (though census numbers are not necessarily the most accurate indicators of demographics). Political activism is practically bred into the culture, with protests and blockades something of a national pastime. From the renowned Cochabamba Water Wars [a more in-depth article can be found here] to workers’ rights marches and countless protests and movements in between, the Bolivian populace is constantly navigating the thorny issues of globalization while retaining and celebrating indigenous culture. As a 16-year-old gringa freshly graduated from high school, I had no hope of navigating — with respect, historical context, and cultural awareness and connections —  the complexities involved in understanding and breathing Bolivia on my own.

Enter Where There Be Dragons. Where There Be Dragons (Dragons) is an independent global education program geared primarily towards gap year students between high school and college. Between treks through remote Andean mountain villages home to “the last true Incas,” homestays in the Amazon, Spanish classes during extended homestays while integrating ourselves into a family and culture, and independent research projects, Dragons programs are not service programs. We were not in Bolivia to “help” or provide a service based on the concept that, as Americans, we inherently have something to offer to improve lives or that we know best. We were there to learn, to immerse ourselves in a culture and a language, to disconnect from one world and challenge ourselves in another, to expand and be humbled. In this environment of awareness, adventure and education I arrived on the doorstep of the complex and intriguing world of Bolivian feminism.

As a white, American young woman, my own comprehension and portrayal of Bolivian feminism is intrinsically that of an outsider. When considering the final presentation of my research, I questioned whether, as my decidedly non-Bolivian self, it is appropriate for me to discuss Bolivian feminism based on my brief and limited experience. What I have compiled is direct statements and opinions from two Bolivian women who generously contributed their time and knowledge to my project. Instead of presenting my personal thoughts and observations, I hope to amplify the voices of the Bolivian feminist movement itself and increase awareness, specifically in the United States, of a brave and determined crusade of equality and justice occurring throughout Bolivia.

Both of the women I spoke with — Eliana Quiñones, a member of the Cochabamba-based feminist collective Imillas (the Quechua word for young women) and Leny Olivera Rojas, project coordinator for The Democracy Center in Bolivia and a member of the Asamblea Feminista de Cochabamba (Feminist Assembly of Cochabamba) — are young, educated, urban feminists. They represent a specific slice of even the feminist demographic (though they both work with movements and activists across the nation) and recognize, as such, that their perspectives and experiences likely vary from those of the millions of other women throughout the country. This awareness is at the forefront of both of their philosophies: as Eliana puts it, “la lucha de las mujeres” (the women’s fight) does not have to be defined; those fights are necessarily diverse because the women themselves are diverse. The urban/rural divide, often mirroring the distinctions between modern and indigenous lifestyles, presents one major breach as women of the two ilks may have different values, viewpoints and objectives. Additionally, colonial structures are often replicated within the movement itself as the entire movement operates under a patriarchal system.

As white feminists in the United States have long struggled to incorporate the experiences and needs of women of color into their platforms, urban Bolivian feminists can fall short of effectively including and mobilizing rural indigenous women. Eliana explains to me that the major demands of urban feminists include increasing access to abortions, decreasing domestic violence (a 2006 report by the Center for the Information and Development of Women showed that 70% of Bolivian women experience some form of abuse, and a 2013 report by the Pan American Health Organization and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control comparing 12 Latin American and Caribbean countries found that Bolivia had the highest rates of violence against women) and embracing female sexuality — including LGBTQ women. Leny Olivera Rojas notes that Bolivian feminists themselves often purport desires to support indigenous women, but even with good intentions, if those ideas are not translated into concepts and terms indigenous women can relate to, those efforts will fail to produce the kind of mutual understanding and respect necessary to effect radical change across the board. Eliana says she and other urban feminists strive to practice “horizontal feminism”: addressing the concerns and demands of women across the country while taking into account the different experiences of indigenous and urban women, honoring the validity of those differences, and tailoring the movement to offer flexibility and inclusivity for all women.

Bolivia is home to 36 different indigenous groups, with Quechua and Aymara the largest. Most of these cultures’ traditions are based in the natural world, centering around deep reverence for the earth, sun, water and a lifestyle dependent upon the land. Returning to this visceral connection with the earth, Eliana tells me, can offer an alternative to the consumerism, capitalism, materialism and patriarchy that she sees as obstacles to women’s liberation in Bolivia. According to Eliana, one means of incorporating these indigenous practices into the lives of women is to reconstruct the community as a support system: indigenous communities often share land and resources, but in cities (where land may not be as accessible) an intentionally communal mindset can provide a safe and encouraging space for women to explore ideas, organize, and sustain each other. This reclamation of community values and honoring of indigenous knowledge, Eliana says, does not indicate fundamentalism. Rather, she acknowledges injustices within indigenous communities — aggravated by colonialism and its effects — and does not claim that the indigenous way of life is ‘the best’ or that nothing should change. The community itself is not stagnant, but a dynamic method of negotiating the world with built-in support. Leny also mentions the importance of community in Latin America, and remarks on the patriarchy and machismo of pre-colonial indigenous groups (she offers the Incas as an example), but noted that the systems were different: women’s work, such as weaving, had more value and was a source of pride for the community. With the arrival of the Spanish, Leny says, the machismo of Bolivian men increased as they observed the power they could attain.

Another way to execute horizontal feminism and integrate women of many social strata into collective action is to de-compartmentalize what is accepted as ‘women’s issues.’ The “women’s fight” has long been fragmented by governments seeking to confine the efforts of women into specific areas deemed appropriate. But every issue is a women’s issue — and ‘women’s issues’ affect the entire community. Resource extraction and environmental degradation affect indigenous women enormously, and therefore, Eliana asserts, urban feminists must also address extraction as a critical topic in an inclusive platform. Too often, she says, urban feminists view these matters as separate from their own fight, whereas indigenous women may understand the patriarchy as threats to the environment and the fight their way of life.

The gulf between urban and rural women, with the urban dictating the feminist agenda and the rural determining their own action, is a hierarchical framework arising from colonial patterns. Both Eliana and Leny speak extensively on occidental feminism and the disempowerment resulting from condescension and a lack of autonomy. Because western feminists often view women of Latin America and other developing countries as oppressed “pobrecitas” (poor things), Eliana explains, those feminists hailing primarily from North America have long dictated to ‘southern’ women which endeavors to undertake, how to conduct their activism, which discussions to have and what it means to be a feminist. As a continuation of colonial mindsets, this export and imposition of occidental feminism occurs without consideration and recognition of the different experiences, cultures and histories of Latin American women.

As an example of exported, colonial efforts for women’s rights, Leny references the introduction of some non-governmental organizations (NGOs) into Bolivia. Without truly listening or answering to the demands of Bolivian women, certain NGOs and similar organizations could claim to be ‘helping the women’ by placing privileged women in positions of power to act in the interest of ‘disadvantaged’ women without actually representing them. This proxy representation was granted only to women who wouldn’t question the status quo, illustrating need for autonomy. NGOs would supply communities in various ways so heavily as to create dependency and unsustainability, again reducing autonomy — with little accountability to communities.

Autonomous feminism — self-directed, self-organized and self-governed — is an empowering, effective and reliable framework to surmount the communication breakdown and lack of mutual respect that allows one contingent of feminists to determine the interests of another. Las Mujeres Creando (Women Creating), an anarcha-feminist collective based in one of the capital cities of La Paz, is the most well-known Bolivian feminist group. Founded in 1990 by openly lesbian activists in an even less accepting era, Mujeres Creando (which has since fractured into two groups) is a radical effort to promote autonomous feminism in Bolivia. And yet, both Leny and Eliana agree, even Mujeres Creando can fall into colonial traps of imposing one type of feminism. Be it western feminism, NGOs, or even well-intentioned in-country activists, both women say, there can be no one definition of what it means to be a woman and fight for her own liberation.

Many collectives of Bolivian women are meeting, discussing their own self-determined issues and visions, and exercising their autonomy — including those in which Eliana and Leny are involved — and Eliana wants recognition of Bolivian feminism to extend beyond just Mujeres Creando. These women are reclaiming authority over their own bodies, actions, and beliefs. It is also essential, Leny adds, to consistently challenge perceptions and prejudices. When considering indigenous women, for example, Leny says it can be easy to think, “they only speak Quechua, they don’t know what feminism is and therefore they must be in total oppression,” however unfounded that assumption may be. For many women, feminism is heavily stigmatized. Hosts of women throughout Bolivia are participating in activism, confronting patriarchy, promoting issues important to them and advocating for themselves (and possibly their families and communities) without necessarily labeling it feminism. My own 21-year-old, university-attending Bolivian host sister, upon my mentioning the word “feminismo” (feminism), assumed I was discussing feminicidio, the act of killing women or sex-based violence — she’d never heard the word. If Bolivian feminists themselves truly wish not to reproduce colonial structures and relationships, Leny states, they must commit to working with women of all types, relinquishing condescension and privilege in favor of achieving the actual demands of diverse women — not just what others deem necessary.

Maintaining consistency, transparency and accessibility is difficult for a number of reasons, Leny says, not the least of which that every woman is, of course, different. She cites some of the largest obstacles to cooperation as failure to consistently recognize privilege, tendencies to judge other women on how they engage in feminism, and assumptions that being a feminist grants that authority to judge. Dividing factors within women, according to Leny, include disparities in class, ethnicity and sexual preference.

The entirety of the work being done and debate held around feminism in Bolivia operates within a highly patriarchal system. While some, including many western feminists, advocate for more women in government, Eliana notes that the governmental system itself was designed to promote masculine values, suggesting that participation in the current government requires masculinization and the simulation of masculine values. Rather, she suggests, women as well as men must constantly resist, denounce, and dismantle unjust systems. Leny also emphasizes the need the remain aware and critical of every power structure. To create change, they say, relationships must be transformed on a micropolitical level, with men and some women “leaving their privilege at the picket lines.” Though progress may be difficult to detect within larger structures, constant vigilance and denormalization of the status quo from within will expand outwards.

In a sustainable, autonomous movement, the work itself must be enjoyable and fulfilling. As Eliana puts it, we must “bailar la lucha” (dance the fight). By committing to mutual respect, support, compassion, and listening, an indivisible community of women can continue to rise and dismantle oppressive structures and mindsets in all forms. Despite my own outsider status and recent introduction, when I parted ways with Eliana after our first meeting we embraced as she raised her fist and told me, “estamos en la lucha.” We are in this fight together.