Colectivo de Mujeres
(Collective of Women)
El Alto, Bolivia
“We were in the streets 12 days with nothing to eat and we had to
feed our children.”
Celia Salazar was born into a mining family in rural Bolivia. She lost both her
parents to the mine—her mother to lung disease, her father to an accident.
She migrated to El Alto and focused on raising three children until a stint
as block captain drew her into neighborhood organizing. As she scored small
successes on modest infrastructure projects, she rose through the ranks of
Working at the Gregoria Apaza Women’s Center in El Alto, Celia met other
Alteña (from El Alto) leaders, many of who had experienced discrimination and
even sexual abuse because of their positions as community organizers. To
combat this, Celia helped forge a partnership between City Hall and Gregoria
Apaza to create a leadership school funded by the municipality. Many of the
women involved experienced growing confidence. When a woman would come
to the group having been beaten by her husband, the members went to her
house and spray painted “aggressor” and “wife beater” on the walls in order to
shame the husband. Many involved women also divorced their husbands,
including Celia. “As a single mother, I began to confront the challenges of
life,” Celia proudly claimed.
Celia helped found the Colectivo de Mujeres and began to organize around
natural resource issues. When the Bolivian president moved to export Bolivia’s
natural gas supplies, Celia and her colleagues took to the streets in July, three
months before the mass mobilizations in October 2003. They used homemade
fliers and spray painted messages to educate El Alto about the negative impact of natural gas privatization. The protests grew to envelop the whole city and Celia was on the front lines of this mobilization, organizing barricades, marches, and communal kitchens. Despite over 65 deaths of El Alto civilians during clashes with the state, the mobilization ousted the president and halted his export plan.
Colectivo de Mujeres
(Collective of Women)
El Alto, Bolivia
“I love to serve my community. These are my
best days as a leader, getting things done,
working under a friendly government.”
Having lost her parents as a child, Isabel Atencio
was raised by her grandmother in Tembladerani,
in the state of La Paz, where she finished high
school and married at age 18. When Isabel
moved to El Alto in 1985, the informal houses
in her neighborhood were just walls, lacking both
floors and roofs. This motivated her to get
involved and work for improved housing
Isabel and her neighbors began to organize to
purchase the land titles at a cheap price. The struggle took 18 years, but between 1986 and 2004 they managed to reduce the average lot price by 98 percent from an impossibly high $15,000 to a bargain price of just $300. After attending the Gregoria Apaza leadership school in 2002, Isabel helped form the Colectivo de Mujeres to address issues such as women’s political participation, self-esteem, and natural resource privatization. The group disseminated information through a self-published newsletter.
During El Alto’s battle for natural gas in October 2003, when hundreds of thousands of Alteños mobilized, one of the first battles was on Nestor Galindo Street in front of Isabel’s house. Neighbors blockaded the street to stop soldiers from transporting natural gas through El Alto and violence ensued between neighbors and soldiers. In 2010, Isabel finished her fourth two-year term as neighborhood president. She represents about 1,500 people and continues to focus on infrastructure development.
Executive Council of the Federation of Neighborhood Councils of
El Alto (FEJUVE)
El Alto, Bolivia
“I’m not that kind of woman. I speak out. I went to the Aguas Illimani
[water company] offices. I petitioned. I learned and discussed. I did the work.”
Born near El Alto’s Centro Minero Corquiri, Luisa Crespa spent her childhood
in poverty, initially without water or electricity. From her parents, who co-founded
the community of Urbanización Corquiri in 1988, Luisa learned the importance of
community activism. After receiving leadership training from Gregoria Apaza,
she became politically involved, serving as neighborhood secretary until her
neighbors pushed her to run for neighborhood president.
As neighborhood president, Luisa attended the 2002 Congress of the Federación
de Juntas Vecinales de El Alto (FEJUVE). Scanning the list of delegates, Luisa
bristled when she saw that she— the only woman among her district’s 20-person
delegation—appeared dead last on the list. She tore the list to shreds and
“requested” a new list. In 2003, Luisa led her neighborhood’s participation in
the historic “gas war” revolt that paralyzed La Paz and forced the government
to change its natural gas policy.
Citizen Action, Center for the Promotion
of Women Gregoria Apaza
El Alto, Bolivia
“The effort we put into our work wasn't from one
person, but from all of us women, put in with a
lot of love and a lot of commitment.”
Norah Quispe grew up listening to her grand-
parents’ stories about the meaning of being an
indigenous Bolivian and learning the value of hard
work and education from her mother. One of her
strongest childhood memories was when the
Bolivian military conscripted the young men in
her neighborhood for combat in conflicts that
Norah’s family opposed. After finishing high
school in 1989, Norah worked with Aymara
health care practices at the Centro de Cultura
Popular and, in 1991, began studying social
work at the Higher University of San Andrés,
supporting herself by working a night job.
When working in a tuberculosis-afflicted neighborhood, Norah was strongly affected by the unnecessary deaths of the poor, who could not access medical care. A Peruvian conference about 500 years of resistance to colonial domination and sexism further politicized Norah. She became skeptical of social justice groups that preached gender equality, but treated female members as second-class. Beginning in 2001, Norah worked for the Aymara Amuyt’a Women’s Development Center, allowing her to reconnect with her Aymara heritage and language and helping her develop her public voice through newspaper and radio journalism.
Norah left her position as president of Aymara Amuyt’a in 2007 to work for Citizen Action, an NGO that provides job and leadership training to women. She emphasizes the inclusion of working women at the grassroots and giving equal attention to the needs and contributions of women in urban and rural organizations. Norah is currently working toward an M.A. in Sociology of Socioeconomic Development from the Institute of Sociological Research, where she focuses on urban movements and the political ideology and participation of indigenous women. She plans
to start her own organization to support indigenous people.
Director of the Unidad de Mujer (Office of Women)
El Alto, Bolivia
“I want to work with the grassroots—with all Alteña women.”
Born in 1977, Benita Pari moved from the Altiplano (high plains) to
El Alto when she was 20 years old. She could not yet speak Spanish
and the transition was difficult, but she worked hard to finish her basic
studies in a night school, and received her high school equivalent degree
in three years. During this time, she also worked in an almond factory
with 170 other women.
In 2000, Benita worked for Integral Services for the Development of
Women, where she supported gender equality and municipal affairs
programs. Because of her low level of education, however, Benita did
not feel confident in her position. Benita’s boss encouraged her to pursue
higher education in Aymara studies. Her father was not supportive,
stating that women should work in the home, but Benita nonetheless
decided to attend the Higher University of San Andrés.
In the 2002 elections, Benita worked for a legislative candidate from the
Movement of the Revolutionary Left. Although he lost that race, he later
became Prefect of La Paz, and hired Benita as a secretary to coordinate
work between La Paz and the surrounding provinces. In 2006, Benita
was hired to teach Aymara to government officials, a position
that acquainted her with the workings of the municipality.
In 2008, the mayor of El Alto, Fanor Nava Santiestevan, offered Benita the
position of director of the Unidad de la Mujer de El Alto, a governmental
organization that offers legal services and counseling to women. Benita’s
team includes a social worker, a psychologist, an attorney, and a manager.
She oversees two offices, which serve 400 clients per month, mostly victims
of domestic violence. Benita is developing domestic abuse prevention and
educational programs, a task she says is difficult in the machista El Alto society.
Coordinator of the Unidad de Mujer (Office of Women)
El Alto, Bolivia
“The land and my people are the source of my strength.”
Rosa Queso is from the rural province of Ingavi and immigrated to El Alto in
1986 seeking a better life. In 1987, she experienced a bad fall, and was
hospitalized for a year. She believed that she would never walk again, yet
has made a nearly full recovery. After recovering from her injury, Rosa began
working with women’s organizations that focused on gender equality, domestic
violence, and supporting indigenous women and artisan groups.
In 1989, Rosa worked as a technical training teacher with the Pachamama
Women’s Center, where she was responsible for implementing workshops
about gender equality and domestic violence. She also held workshops about
women’s rights and domestic violence. Rosa then became the leader of her
neighborhood organization in the Atalaya zone of El Alto, and served two terms
as president of Atalaya (2004-08). In 2006, Rosa was elected vice-mayor of El
Alto’s fifth district (population 90,000). Among 49 candidates, Rosa was the
Rosa now works at Unidad de la Mujer, a department of the municipal
government of El Alto, where she focuses on domestic violence prevention
and on providing legal services to people who have experienced domestic
violence. Despite these efforts, Rosa has observed an increasing rate of
domestic violence. Her office sees about 25 people a day, mostly women,
who have suffered from domestic violence. Rosa is also pursuing an M.A.
in social work.
Spokesperson for the Coalition in the Defense of Water
“For me, involving myself in processes of social change was not a major shift,
since that was the lifestyle I believed in, treating people as compañeros. It was
Rosa Rodríguez grew up in rural Ecuador where her father engaged in human
rights activism with campesino and indigenous communities. Rosa, who
is mestiza, spent a great deal of time in the homes of indigenous people.
This experience radicalized her, through exposure to the racism and
economic injustices that Ecuador’s indigenous population face daily.
As a university student in the 1970s, Rosa became active on issues of
unionization. She organized campaigns to support victims of political violence
in Nicaragua and El Salvador. During the repressive era of President Febres
Cordero (1984-88), she helped found Ecuador’s Alfaro Vive Carajo guerrilla
movement. During what she called her “subversive period,” Rosa was jailed
for a year, and some of her compañeros were murdered. Her journey next took
her to Uruguay, where she worked in an activist cooperative, working in radical
radio and print journalism. In 1992 she returned to Quito to participate in
Ecuador’s indigenous uprisings against neoliberalism.
In 2004, while working for the alternative newspaper Tintají, Rosa researched
the mayor’s plan to privatize water services in Quito. Rosa published an article
exposing the plan, and challenging PricewaterhouseCoopers’s analysis of costs
and benefits. Rosa’s article proved pivotal in the creation of the Coalition in
Defense of Water, a non-hierarchical alliance of organizations that defeated
the privatization plan. Rosa served as a key organizer and the spokesperson
for the Coalition during this 2004-07 battle. She now directs Ecuador’s chapter
of an International NGO.
Director of the Dolores Cacuango
Women’s Leadership School, Ecuarunari
“I was going to create in myself a thought, a spirit
of action on behalf of my people, to demonstrate
the values of my people.”
Blanca Chancoso is one of the most revered
indigenous activists in Ecuador. She has worked
in the indigenous movement since 1970, gaining
international recognition for her work for equality.
Blanca comes from a family of agricultural
workers. They were laborers on an hacienda
(ranch) in the province of Imbabura. Her father
was the only person in the family who attempted
to liberate himself from this life by working in
construction. She grew up with the “spirit of a
rebel,” wanting to help her people and valuing
her indigenous heritage.
In 1973, Blanca earned an education degree and became a teacher. She observed that indigenous students were vulnerable to abuse and exploitation due to racism and their lack of Spanish. Blanca began to organize the community, holding meetings to recapture the value of indigenous people and resolve problems internally. While indigenous community members supported her activism, some non-indigenous community members persecuted her, and tried to drive her out. As word of her activism spread, however, she gained a reputation as an effective organizer. She decided to stop teaching and focus entirely on the battle for indigenous rights.
Blanca’s trajectory as an activist quickly led her to the highest echelon of indigenous power in Ecuador. She co-founded the Indigenous Federation of Imbabura, a group that merged with the mass indigenous organization Ecuarunari, where she served as Press Secretary, Health Secretary, and then Secretary General, a post she held for two terms, in 1979-83 (in 2010, she was still the only woman to have held the top executive position). In 1986, she helped found, and was the first Director, of the powerful Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE); she held key posts over the next two decades. Since 2003, Blanca has led the Dolores Cacuango Women’s Leadership School, which aims to empower communities by empowering women. Blanca is frequently cited as one of the most powerful women in Ecuador.
Director of Women and Family, Ecuarunari
“As a woman, I will not lower my voice.”
Magdalena Aysabucha has been active in fighting for women’s and indigenous
rights since 1986, when she directed a potable water project in her community
of San Pablo de Santa Rosa in the Ecuadorian province of Tungurahua.
Magdalena identified water collecting as one of her community’s most pressing
priorities and, after organizing eleven indigenous communities in the Sierra to
participate, successfully implemented the Francisco Gangotena piped water
project, which now serves thousands of people.
In 1990, Magadalena formed a women’s group that started a communal
micro-finance bank. The women worked on a donated farm and as artisans,
generating sufficient funds to provide small credits and loans to women. Despite
experiencing sexism and machismo from male members of the community,
Magdalena and the women’s group continued to fight for women’s rights.
Recognized for her work as a community activist, Magdalena became president
of San Pablo de Santa Rosa’s 180 families. This activism complemented her
involvement in the national indigenous movement. She attended the Dolores
Cacuango Women’s Leadership School and also attended international meetings
for indigenous rights.
After graduating from Dolores Cacuango in 2005, Magdalena was elected to the
position of Leader for Women’s and Family Issues for Ecuarunari, an indigenous
organization representing 500,000 people throughout the Ecuadorian Sierra.
Magdalena is in charge of programs in fourteen provinces; each sends a
delegate to the leadership council. She works with the Dolores Cacuango
school, educating and empowering women leaders. The school promotes
agricultural productivity, holds artisan fairs, and has opened childcare centers
throughout the Sierra. Magdalena states that she will continue to fight for equal
rights for women and men within Ecuador.
President of Mujeres por la Vida (Women Struggling for Life)
“[With the new Ecuadorian constitution], now we fight with the law on our side.”
At age 14, María Hernández began her political involvement through a Christian
youth group in her Quiteño neighborhood, Menadoz. As a high school student,
María worked nearly full-time in community organizing. She helped form the
Unión de Mujeres Taki, which conducted youth education about women’s health.
María became pregnant as an adolescent and she marks the birth of her son as
the most important moment in her life. Though parenthood forced her to postpone
her education, it also renewed her commitment to activism on behalf of mothers
and their children.
In 1988, military forces killed a child from María’s neighborhood during a political
protest, galvanizing her into political action and leadership posts within the
Coordinadora Popular de Quito. In 1995, María co-founded the illegal land
invasion settlement of San Juan Bosco de Itchimbía; she led the community
from 1996 to 2006. Under María’s leadership, Itchimbía pioneered ecologically
sensitive strategies for self-help housing and employment. In 2004, her
successful neighborhood-level activism culminated in her election as a
vice-councilwoman on Quito’s Metropolitan Council.
Now the president of the national organization Mujeres por la Vida (MPLV),
María was a vocal advocate for women’s rights during the 2008 Constituent
Assembly and the successful campaign to approve the Constitution. She helped
draft proposed articles that recognize women’s domestic household work as
legitimate work meriting retirement and social security benefits. Despite these
gains, she laments Ecuador’s continuing failure to recognize abortion access as
a legal and protected right. Under her leadership, MPLV has become the
backbone of Foro Urbano, a rapidly expanding political organization that
played a key role in negotiating the new Constitution. Despite the more
expansive scope of her current political agenda, María’s political activism
remains rooted in women’s needs.
Director of Leadership Training, Mujeres por la Vida (Women
Struggling for Life)
“There I was in the house… but I was missing something.”
Since her youth, María Quispe has been involved in her Quito community of
Pichincha, dedicating her self to improving the standing of women in Ecuador.
María’s politicization developed while providing summer camp opportunities
for poor children. She served as a community leader, eventually becoming
secretary and then president of her community. María was also a member of
a theater group supported by City Hall, providing educational programming to
as many as 2,000 teenagers and 8,000 children. This youth movement played
an important role in stopping political oppression by President Febres
Combining her work experiences in poor neighborhoods in Pichincha and her
studies of leftist political processes in Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Cuba led
to María’s political radicalization. After working with Quito’s youth movement,
she worked from 1992 through 1998 with indigenous movements in Chimborazo
(in southern Ecuador) alongside Monsenior Leonidas Proaño, the “bishop to the
poor.” At this time, María began strongly identifying with women’s struggles
against discrimination, and especially indigenous women. She actively opposed
discrimination based on gender, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status while
following and implementing the tenets of liberation theology.
Today, María leads personal development and support programs for Mujeres
por la Vida and Foro Urbano. She organized a political leadership school for
women, focusing on gender identity, feminist movement theory, national
history since the conquest, democracy, development, organizing, and
leadership. Each participant is encouraged to develop her personal leadership
style and connection with her community.
Director of Public Health, Foro Urbano (Urban Forum)
“We are creating a new vocabulary that makes us become visible.”
Dancer & Choreographer
“The new constitution is not perfect, yet implies great possibilities for
constructing a society that is truly human, and provides a great inspiration
for everyone… It represents a recapturing of ancestral patterns of thinking
and living, integrated into the present. It is practical while based in
communitarian values… It is a profoundly post-colonial constitution.”
Susana Reyes was born into a cooperative of washerwomen in an
impoverished and often violent community in central Quito. Even as
a child, she felt a powerful compulsion to create dance and theater.
“The women I grew up amongst suffered so much,” she said, “yet
were so strong; my mother was a leader.” With merit scholarships,
Susana studied dance and art at university and professional levels.
María Augusta Calle
Chair of the Constituent Assembly Committee on Sovereignty
“This is the beginning of a very painful revolutionary process. It is more difficult
to create a revolution with peace than with weapons.”
María Augusta Calle has been involved with a range of social movements since
she was 18, including multi-ethnic indigenous movements such as CONAIE and
El Comité del Pueblo (Committee of the People), environmental groups, activist
communications coalitions, and with international populist and anti-authoritarian
journalism movements across South America. She is also a successful
mainstream television journalist and commentator.
Today María is the director of the TeleSur network in Ecuador. In 2008, the
right-wing newspaper El Comercio accused her of ties to Colombia’s FARC
rebel group. María believes the charges were based on her principled and
long-held opposition to Plan Colombia, the US military and anti-drug program
within Colombia, that also impacted Ecuadorian sovereignty. Plan Colombia
includes aerial fumigation of wide regions of Colombia and Ecuador, resulting
in the injury of people, animals, and the environment. María believes Plan
Colombia is part of a larger US plan to dominate Latin America, stripping
and exploiting its natural resources, including petroleum, minerals, forests,
and water. She denied the newspaper’s charges, and she countered with
an anti-defamation lawsuit. María won the lawsuit, clearing her name
Chair of the Constituent Assembly Committee on Natural Resources
“There needs to be an equilibrium, we should think about a post-petroleum
economy, we should think about a post-extractionist economy.”
Searching for employment, Monica Chuji’s family migrated from their
impoverished indigenous community in southern Ecuador to a northern
petroleum-extraction region. From early childhood, she accompanied her
parents to community meetings, where she learned about the importance
of Ecuador’s land and natural resources, and the indigenous understanding
of nature as a living force with its own rights. From local clergy, Monica
came to understand that the survival of Ecuador’s indigenous population
and traditions would require self-organization and initiative, and would not
easily be granted by conservative social and economic forces that had
dominated Ecuadorian society for centuries.
Monica quickly ascended to local leadership positions and joined CONAIE.
She was an active participant and young leader in the 1990 indigenous uprising
that thrust issues of indigenous rights and demands onto Ecuador’s national
stage. Inspired by the results of the 1990 protests, Monica participated in
additional mobilizations in 1992 and 1994. She came to believe that indigenous
stories needed to be told in indigenous languages, and she helped organize
an indigenous film festival. That festival opened a pathway of educational
opportunities for Monica and others. Monica studied environmental issues in
university courses in Ecuador and she won a scholarship to study indigenous
rights in Spain. Subsequently she was hired by the United Nations to work
internationally on inter-cultural and indigenous rights.
In 2006, President-elect Rafael Correa asked Monica to serve as his press
secretary. She worked for President Correa until the 2007 election of a more
progressive Constituent Assembly. She successfully ran for a seat on the Constituent Assembly, chartered to write Ecuador’s new constitution. Monica was then elected to lead the Committee on Natural Resources and Biodiversity. She chaired this committee during eight months of deliberations over several of the most crucial constitutional articles. These included the prohibition of all forms of water privatization and the constitutional recognition of the inherent rights of nature. The 2008 Constitution requires that the government must consult, negotiate with, and compensate with indigenous peoples about resource extraction on their traditional lands—but it does not require the government to obtain their consent before authorizing resource extraction, as Monica Chuji would prefer.