Lessons from Domitila’s Experience

The following is less of a book review and more of an interpretation of the lessons which Domitila Barrios De Chungara’s classic autobiography, Let Me Speak, can teach us as a new generation of revolutionaries.  It was written by a Bay Area comrade and we see it as an important testament to the knowledge and wisdom we can gain from engaging revolutionary autobiographies and applying these lessons within our class struggles today.

Lessons from Domitila’s Experience

I just finished reading Let Me Speak!, Testimony of Domitila, a Woman of the Bolivian Mines. The book is a personal narrative by Domitila Barrios, where she explains her life’s struggle against poverty, sexism, exploitation, hunger…and capitalism in general. Domitila Barrios was the wife of a Bolivian miner in a region of Bolivia called Siglo XX. She breaks down their situation, detailing how the lives of miners are cut short due to overwork, bad pay, and silicosis, a lung disease mining people are all too familiar with. It’s a personal story which reflects on the historical situation of Bolivia at the time.

But I’m not planning on writing a summary of the book, but rather point out some of the major lessons Domitila’s experiences offer us.

Theory & Practice

One thing that really struck at me was how critical, undogmatic, and radical she was without having done much theoretical study. Whereas many of us radicals in the belly of the beast understand these conditions through political study, Domitila learned the contradictions of capitalism because they were brutally enforced on her and her people. She didn’t need to read State and Revolution to understand that the Bolivian military and police served the foreign and domestic capitalists, made all too clear through the frequent massacres, arrests, and deportations of people in struggle. She didn’t need to read Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism to see how American imperialism sucked Bolivia’s mineral wealth dry in order to build up its own economy and how this put Bolivia in a state of extreme dependence and subservience to foreign interests. She didn’t need to read the Communist Manifesto to understand that the workers and peasants were in a life and death class struggle against their oppressors. In fact, simply to exist, to eat, to work and to educate themselves required great sacrifices and political commitment. I love how Domitila insisted that if intellectuals and university folks were to come to help guide working people as to the laws of capitalism and the world situation, they’d better speak in terms the people can understand and not in their theoretical jargon. The concepts of class struggle, capitalism, and revolution can  be grasped by the oppressed in resistance if it is done in a way that connects the dots between their personal experiences and the objective laws of our society and is not done in an elitist or condescending manner. Not that she didn’t do any political study; the repeated brutality of the military and police against her, the accusations her of being a communist and liaison to Che Guevara’s guerrillas, and the knowledge that socialism, an alternative to capitalism, existed in other parts of the world during her time, prompted her to study socialism and communism and see it as the only real path towards human liberation.

Women’s Liberation

Her analysis of feminism was very interesting. She defined feminism as a bourgeois movement aimed against men, disconnected from the realities of imperialist-oppressed peoples. She said that you couldn’t separate the liberation of women from the revolutionary struggle against imperialism in Bolivia. As the secretary-general of the Housewive’s Committee of Siglo XX, she understood how not only the wage-earning males were exploited, but how women’s and children’s unwaged and unpaid labor was also exploited and served in the reproduction of capitalist social relations. She even did the math to explain how all her laundry washing, cooking, and domestic work amounted to even more wages than the men received in the mines. She had a marxist-feminist analysis even though she didn’t refer to it or herself as one. Domitila said the main struggle in Bolivia was against capitalism and that one needed a socialist revolution in order to begin to create the conditions for total liberation. Her journey to expand and put forward this analysis was not easy. The women had intense struggle with their husbands over their political participation and the creation of a housewives committee. In the division of labor capitalism imposes on the working-class, it falls on those at the bottom of it, like women in this case, to struggle for political equality within the class in order to mount a stronger collective struggle. The housewives made their mining husbands understand the indispensible role women played in their resistence. After becoming relatively well-known in Bolivia, the United Nations invited her to an annual women’s conference in Mexico. Domitila was very excited to meet women from around the world who she could learn from and spread her experiences to. But when she got there, she felt out of place and lost. Many of the women were well-off, who spoke about getting equal with men within the capitalist system, about rights for prostitutes, lesbians, etc. These are important, but not the central issue. When Domitila got up to speak about class struggle and imperialism, she was ostracized by many of the women who felt uncomfortable as Domitila spoke about what women went through in Bolivia and how the conference they were in was incredibly narrow and divisive in scope. She polemicized against the women who saw the enemy as the male and didn’t understand how conditions in a place like Bolivia required great unity and communication between males and females. In fact, Domitila referred to her husband as compañero (comrade). What good would it do in the mines of Siglo XX for the women to view their husbands as the enemy, when the capitalists were destroying their livelihoods and the military was massacring them?  Some words from Domitila’s narrative on this:

Our position is not like the feminists’ position. We think liberation consists primarily in our country being freed forever from the yoke of imperialism and we want a worker like us to be in power and that the laws, education, everything, be controlled by this person. Then, yes, we’ll have better conditions for reaching a complete liberation, including our liberation as women.

[Domitila breaks down women’s words and views at the UN conference:]…men create wars, men create nuclear weapons, men beat women…and so what’s the first battle to be carried out to get equal rights for women? First you have to declare war against men. If a man has ten mistresses, well, the woman should have ten lovers also. If a man spends all his money at the bar, partying, the women have to do the same thing. And when we’ve reached that level, then men and women can link arms and start struggling for the liberation of their country, to improve the living conditions of their country.

… So a group of Latin American women got together and…said that for us the first and main task isn’t to fight against our compañeros, but with them to change the system we live in for another, in which men and women will have the right to live, to work, to organize.

Revolutionary Leadership and Self-Emancipation

Having lived through the betrayed nationalist revolution in 1952, simply known as the Bolivian Revolution, Domitila was weary of the many (mis)leaders of the proletariat who made many promises to her people, only to backstab and cut and run when shit hit the fan or they got into positions of power. A bourgeois-nationalist revolution in essence, the petty bourgeois and bourgeois leaders rode the waves of the movement on the backs of peasant rebellions and militant worker’s strikes, promising worker control  of factories, mines, agrarian reform for the peasants, political freedoms, and better living conditions for Bolivians. The revolution reached its climax as armed miners seized control of their mines and armed workers took to the streets against the military in the cities, reorganizing their neighborhoods and workplaces in the process. The actions of the new self-named “revolutionary governments” exposed their class nature. Although the new regime, forced by its radical faction and its popular base, did enact some basic reforms, it reorganized itself into…”a new bourgeoisie,…[that] helped make new people rich. Those people began undoing the revolution. And we workers and peasants live in worse conditions than before” (Domitila 50). When the people continued their ongoing revolutionary struggle under the new state, the army arrested, tortured, assassinated, and exiled its leaders and activists. The nationalized mines, capitalist land reform, and nominal “worker’s control” led by bourgeois unionists still served imperialist interests. This, along with Bolivia’s re-introduction into the world market via the major financial institutions (ie IMF, World Bank), gave the Bolivian vendepatrias ample reason to crush the people’s resistance; their parasitic existence depended on super-exploiting working people and Bolivia’s precious natural resources to maintain their coziness with foreign capitalist interests. Thus, for Domitila, the question of leadership was central. She not only believed in a new society run by working people in their interests, but that this revolutionary struggle had to be led by working people themselves and their tried and tested revolutionary leaders. The working-class either emancipated itself, or it chained itself to the needs and interests of a new capitalist class.


Few possessions were more precious to the gente of Siglo XX than their radio transmitters. It was their means of communication with other mining regions and comrades in struggle. When the army and police advanced, the radio stations were the first things they attacked in order to block the miners and the women from transmitting messages, declarations, instructions, or warnings. And of course, it was the first thing defended by the people in the mines. The key here is that the people tapped into the most advanced form of communication available to them. When the military confiscated their radio transmitter and attempted to appease them by giving everyone television sets, Domitila wouldn’t have it. She saw how television began to create fantasy worlds in the minds of her children about Disneyland and shit, a prime example of cultural imperialism infecting the minds of colonized youth. Television simply requires passivity; it is a one-way method of communication. On the other hand, their radios allowed them to transmit their deeply felt message to people in the mining region and to people in the whole country. It was a matter of life and death for them. When the army took them, the miners and the Housewives’ Committee organized a strike! In our stunted and backward looking radical movement in the U.S. today, where is our method of communication that fulfills that same role radios did for Domitila and her people? New technology, such as youtube, video cameras, social networking sites, etc., have played and will continue to play central roles in organizing and politicizing people and revolutionaries should be at the forefront of that and tap into its potential. These methods can serve to build new revolutionary networks, connecting people from different areas politically and materially, similar to the Russian Bolsheviks’ Iskra newspaper in the Russian revolution.

To Serve the People

As with the stories of Che Guevara, Assata Shakur, and Malcolm X, Domitila inspires through her unfailing dedication to the larger cause of liberation. Even when faced with the hardest decision a mother must make, she had the courage to stand firm and live up the responsibility her people bestowed on her as their chosen leader. After being jailed for denouncing a massacre, Domitila was in a filthy prison, living in inhumane conditions WITH her infant in her arms. The soldiers tormented her by telling her her other children were imprisoned and were in such horrible conditions they’d die unless Domitila signed a certain paper. Faced with the decision, she decided not to sign the paper or give in, stating that if her children died, it wouldn’t weigh on her conscience and that she’d live to avenge their death. Putting her children’s lives before the thousands of lives who’d entrusted their faith in her would amount to betrayal. Thankfully, the authorities spinning this story were lying and Domitila was eventually reunited with her children. Because Mother’s Day recently passed, I think the unconditional love from a mother can be one of the most profound and radical forces on Earth. It is a love that would lead a mother to die or kill for her children’s well-being without hesitation. And, just like all social relations in Bolivian society, the relationship between mother and children, in particular a mother’s desire for her children to be well-fed, educated, and happy in conditions of starvation and political repression, takes on a revolutionary dimension. Domitila exemplified this by her principle of putting the futures of all the other mothers and children before her own and those of her children.


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