March is the month of fierce women in history. The ones who had to overcome an authoritatively male society even more than today. The ones who kept their head up, against all odds, and faced prejudice in order to have their say. Sometimes they had to fight for their own life, just to bring humanity one step further. Before a final betrayal awaited them: they were erased from history and plunged into oblivion. Juana Azurduy de Padilla was one of them. So on the occasion of Women’s History Month, let us tell you her story…
Juana Azurduy (1780-1862), born in Chuquisaca (current Sucre, Bolivia), was a military leader in the South American wars for the independence from Spanish rule, in the early 19th century.
Chuquisaca, Juana Azurduy’s birthplace
Bolivia back then was not called Bolivia. In fact, the country got its name after Simon Bolivar, the main general in the wars of independence. Before that, it was part of the Viceroyalty of Río de la Plata, a Spanish territory roughly equivalent to present day Argentina, Bolivia, Paraguay and Uruguay. So quite a big territory.
Chuquisaca was an important town. It housed several religious congregations, a cathedral, and one of the first universities in the Americas, established in 1623. Its residents –were they called Chuquisacans?– were therefore educated, wealthy and white, for the most part.
The city today has kept most of its colonial charm: read here about Sucre
Of course it was not so for everyone. Like many towns in Latin America, Chuquisaca was “founded” where there was already an indigenous settlement. The lower class of the population, the workers, the servants, the farm hands, were therefore indigenous, poor workforce mostly treated as slaves. Many of them, by the way, would be sent to neighbouring Potosí to lose their life in the silver mines.
Juana the mestiza
Juana Azurduy was born in an unusual family. Maybe that’s what gave her an unusual character.
She was born a “mestiza“: her father was a white Spaniard and her mother was more than half indigenous. As a kid, she loved playing with the indigenous children who lived on her father’s land, the rich land of a rich man. Later, she accompanied her father to work the land with the labourers.
As a result, she could speak Spanish of course, but also Quechua and Aymara, the two main indigenous languages. Nowadays, these 2 languages are still used by many people in Bolivia and Peru.
That is also where she witnessed the terrible exploitation of these groups in the colonial society and became much involved with the independence movement.
Juana the rebel
During her childhood in Chuquisaca, Juana Azurduy was a rebel; even from today’s perspective, we could say she was ‘boyish’. After her mother died in 1787, she got very close to her father, who trained her in horse-riding and sharpshooting. That’s at a time when women were expected to only keep the house and take care of the children. Later, when she served in the army, Juana dressed in male cavalry uniform, keeping her hair under a military cap.
There aren’t many little girls nowadays who can both ride a horse and shoot a rifle. Not many little boys either, now that I think of it. I personally don’t know any. But just imagine how it might have been in such a deeply Catholic and conservative colonial society, where gender roles seemed like set in stone!
A few years later, her father died too and Juana went to live with an aunt. But said aunt couldn’t stand Juana’s ways and sent her away to become a nun. Her classmates in the convent would always remember Juana Azurduy idolising Joan of Arc, the warrior saint. She also ostensibly declared her desire to go to war and shine on the battlefield.
Needless to say, she didn’t stay long in the convent. She got expelled at the age of 17. It was 1797.
It is said that the very first “shout” for the independence of Latin America, in 1809, was made in Juana’s very hometown, Chuquisaca. That would mean that the first people who started complaining about the Spanish colonisation were in Chuquisaca, and that led to the whole of Latin America fighting for their freedom. In any case, when the war began that year, Juana joined the revolutionary forces without further ado.
Her marriage with Manuel Ascensio Padilla
In the meantime, she got married, in 1805. She chose Manuel Ascencio Padilla; that’s how her name changed to: Juana Azurduy de Padilla. He was her childhood friend and was studying law at the renown university of Chuquisaca. He was also sensitive to the Indigenous cause and joined very early the armed revolutionary forces.
In fact, their marriage was unusually progressive for the time. Remember that we’re talking about the 19th century, a time when the superiority of a husband on his wife wasn’t latent like today, but downright official.
And yet, Manuel always stood alongside his wife, both on and off the battlefield. So much so that every time Juana got captured and imprisoned –at least three times– her husband always went and rescued her. Isn’t that romantic? It is probably during one of those rescue missions that Manuel was captured and subsequently beheaded. Less romantic.
They had no less than five children together and altogether. But only the youngest daughter survived the War of Independence.
Casa de la Libertad, Sucre
We learnt most of what we know about Juana Azurduy in the Casa de la Libertad (“House of Freedom”), in Sucre. In a beautiful colonial building, a free guided tour walked us through an excellent exhibition about the history of Bolivia. In the patio there’s a sculpture of another important hero of Bolivia, the indigenous warrior (see photo below).
That’s also where we took the picture of this painting of Juana Azurduy above. Both Bolivia and Argentina regard Juana as a national heroine for her important role and bravery in the South American independence wars. On this painting she is holding the sword that she received from the Argentine general Manuel Belgrano. Belgrano is the guy on the Argentine $10 peso note, so please.
Sucre –the current name of Chuquisaca– has always been an important city in Bolivia. In fact, it is still to this day the official capital city of Bolivia. The city of La Paz is only the seat of government, where the president lives and works.
Juana the heroine
Many exploits are attributed to Juana Azurduy. With the passing of time, it’s hard to know what really happened or what was an invention of the Independence forces to scare the enemy. The enemy is often scared of women who fight for a cause, strangely enough.
What we do know is that Juana was damn good at recruiting and leading soldiers! She was an inspiration for many, especially for indigenous people and women.
She set up her own all-female battalion named “Amazonas“. (In the Greek mythology, the Amazons were a tribe of women who were very good at war.) On another occasion, she led another group called “Loyal Battalions”, composed of indigenous men and women known for their strong loyalty to their commander.
She captured the enemy’s flag several times. That doesn’t seem like much nowadays but it was almost considered a battle victory back then. A bit like capturing the king when we play chess. In 1816, her troops captured the infamous Cerro Rico of Potosí, the silver mountain which was the main source of Spanish wealth.
For all this and more, General Manuel Belgrano gifted her with his sword. By also being promoted to lieutenant colonel, she was the very first woman in history with a military rank.
It is also said that she once left the battlefield to give birth to a child and returned to the fight right after. But that sounds like fake news to me. I can’t imagine a pregnant woman do much fighting. In any case, she’s seen today as the symbol of women’s’ engagement in the independence movement.
I really wonder if the men had any problem listening to a female leader… If you’re well-versed on the subject and know something about it, please shed a light in the comments section below.
Later life of Juana Azurduy de Padilla
The last years of her military career, Juana Azurduy fought in the region of Jujuy, in what is now Argentina. After putting down her sword, she lived for a while in nearby Salta.
Remember that the frontiers established under the Spanish rule were different to what they are today. It was also common for army troops to march a long distance to fight alongside their brothers (and sisters), whether they were in Argentina, Uruguay, Peru or Venezuela for example.
After Bolivia declared independence in 1825, the couple’s services were acknowledged and she was able to return to Chuquisaca, recently renamed Sucre. She got a military pension that allowed her to live. Simón Bolívar, the leader of the Independence movement, commented: “This country should not be named Bolivia in my honour, but Padilla or Azurduy, because it was them who made it free.“
And yet in 1857, the government made structural changes and decided to stop paying her pension. In her old age, Juana adopted an indigenous boy who cared for her, and she died in poverty in 1862 at the age of 82.
Her legacy today
She had to wait more than 100 years to be acknowledged again and to receive the honours she deserved. She doesn’t rest in a communal grave anymore –where she was first buried–, but in a mausoleum constructed in her honour in the town of Sucre. She’s now a figure of the city and of the sisterhood between Bolivia and Argentina. Sucre’s international airport is named after her, and her birthday is celebrated throughout the country.
We’re really amazed by what she achieved at that time in a field that was so strongly dominated by men. But sadly we came across her figure mainly in her hometown of Sucre, whereas male leaders are celebrities across the continent. Edit: Argentina has finally started paying tribute to Juana Azurduy; see the next part about her statue in Buenos Aires.
In 2009, she was awarded the rank of general of the Argentine Army. Very well. But I don’t know what she will do with that in her grave…
The history behind her statue in Buenos Aires
In 2015, Bolivia offered to Argentina an imposing 25-ton, 15-metre-high statue of Azurduy. Not your usual Christmas present, but one very symbolic indeed. It’s a beautiful token of the friendship we just mentioned between the two nations.
But it’s even more symbolic because it replaced, near the president’s palace in the capital of Argentina, another statue that had been there for decades: one of Christopher Columbus. The move created major turmoil among the most conservatives; they saw in it a revisionism of their nation’s history and demonstrated to prevent it.
It is of no surprise that the statue was ordered by Evo Morales, the pro-farmers indigenous leader of Bolivia. Morales, like many other leftist leaders and thinkers, propose to put things right in the history we teach to our kids.
There is no doubt that Christopher Columbus is directly and indirectly responsible for the pillage of the land and the death of thousands of indigenous people. Those poor wretches happened to be already there on the continent we claim he discovered. You know, the continent he thought was India. More and more people start doubting the “Columbus myth”.
The time has come to acknowledge that a fighter for the independence like Juana Azurduy did more for South America than Columbus. He travelled for riches and glory; she fought for equality and freedom. He acted on the King’s request; she stood up for the indigenous and the exploited.
The statue of Juana Azurduy, like Evita’s, should compensate for all the bronze and marble white men distributed throughout Buenos Aires.
Read more in this interesting opinion piece on The Bubble
But another rule in social justice is: there’s never only one person bringing a change. Juana Azurduy certainly didn’t fight alone. But we’re happy we have presented you one of the many women that History has tried to forget.
Other modern homages
In 2016, the Bolivian film director Jorge Sanjinés made a film about the heroic deeds of Juana Azurduy. Its Spanish title is “Juana Azurduy, Guerrillera de la Patria Grande” (Juana Azurduy, Warrior of the Great Fatherland).
But let’s finish in music. The Argentinian singer Mercedes Sosa has sung beautifully the story of Juana Azurduy. You can listen to it here, and underneath is an excerpt of what she says in her powerful voice.
Juana Azurduy, flor del Alto Perú,
No hay otro capitán más valiente que tú.
Oigo tu voz mas alla de Jujuy
Y tu galope audaz, Doña Juana Azurduy
Me enamora la patria en agraz,
desvelada recorro su faz.
¡El español no pasará:
con mujeres tendrá que pelear!
Juana Azurduy, flower of Upper Perú,
There’s no other captain braver than you.
I hear your voice beyond Jujuy
And your courageous gallop, Doña Juana Azurduy
It makes me fall in love with the fatherland,
unveiled, I travel its territory.
The Spaniards shall not pass:
with women they will have to fight!
And you, do you have a favourite story about a famous woman? Or a woman forgotten by history?
Share it with us in the comments section below!
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