A Study of Iconic Women in Latin America
By Katie Smith ’15
On July 5, 2010, the 199th anniversary of Venezuela’s independence, then-president Hugo Chávez kicked off a year’s worth of celebrations running up to the country’s bicentennial in 2011. In an elaborate display of pomp and circumstance called “Manuela Vuelve,” or “Manuela Returns,” Chávez welcomed back the symbolic remains of an iconic revolutionary woman, Manuela Sáenz Aizpuru (1797-1856) — to a country in which she had never set foot.
Born in present-day Ecuador, Sáenz was the illegitimate daughter of aristocrats. Married to an English merchant, she joined the independence movement around 1817. Opening her home in Lima, Perú, to important political figures, she gathered information that became vital to the revolution’s success. Sáenz lobbied for the role of women in the movement and was jailed for disguising herself as a male soldier.
“Sáenz was an incredible figure — who most historians remember simply as General Simón Bolívar’s lover,” says Heather Hennes, Ph.D., associate professor of Spanish. “Known as ‘the Liberator,’ Bolívar had many lovers. What made Sáenz stand out was her tenacity, her dedication to the independence movement and her loyalty to both her partner and his cause.”
Sáenz met Bolívar in 1822, when his army was making its way south — after having liberated present-day Venezuela and Colombia — to help solidify Perú’s independence. She is reported to have participated in at least one of those important battles. Though the specifics of her participation are debated, Bolívar recognized her valor by promoting her to the rank of colonel and made her the guardian of his personal archives.
Bolívar's military and political leadership was instrumental in securing independence from Spain and the eventual establishment of Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Bolivia, Perú, and Panama as autonomous nations. His dream was the unification of the region in a nation called “la Gran Colombia.” As his de facto first lady, Sáenz had unparalleled access to Bolívar, making military and political leaders nervous.
“People feared her influence over Bolívar,” says Hennes. “Sáenz was outspoken and opinionated, which upset both his enemies and his allies.”
Sáenz was often excluded from official roles in the new government. According to Hennes, her story is exemplary of the threat that women pose when they enter politics. “Especially in her time, civic-minded women were seen as overstepping their bounds,” she adds.
Later exiled from Ecuador, Sáenz died of diphtheria in Perú and was buried in a pauper’s grave.
Hennes, who since 2003 has studied the representation of iconic women in Latin America — particularly Sáenz and Bolivian-Argentinian heroine Juana Azurduy — says that Sáenz is just one of the scores of women whose historical contributions have been ignored. She has published eight articles in scholarly journals about revolutionary women — most notably about Sáenz in Ecuador’s national publication, Revista nacional de la cultura. With the support of a Summer Research Grant from SJU, she traveled to the Dominican Republic in 2017 to begin work on the English-language translation of “Mañana te escribiré otra vez. Minerva y Manolo. Cartas,” a volume of letters between Dominican national heroine Minerva Mirabal and her husband Manolo Tavárez Justo. Mirabal and her sisters are internationally known by their codename “the Butterflies.”
Hennes takes up the cause of telling the stories of powerful women in her first-year seminar and her advanced Spanish course, both titled “Iconic Women of Latin America.”
“History, stereotypes and political agendas shape how we look at female figures,” says Hennes. “It’s important to consider society’s expectations for women and feminine behavior — how they met or transgressed those norms, and what happened as a result.”
"It’s important to consider society’s expectations for women and feminine behavior — how they met or transgressed those norms, and what happened as a result."
Heather Hennes, Ph.D.
Gender expectations change with time and place, but according to Hennes, women today face many of the barriers that Sáenz had to overcome. She encourages her students to reflect on their own lives and experiences in order to connect with the figures they study in class.
“Studying iconic women matters,” says Hennes, “because the same norms persist that prevent women from accessing the opportunities and power that heterosexual white men occupy. I hope students leave this course with an increased sensitivity to these gendered expectations.”
Historically, Sáenz's tenacity and fervor earned her a reputation for being unhinged and dangerous. Yet, beginning in the 1980s, with the emergence of feminist perspectives on history, the rhetoric around Sáenz changed. The Manuela Vuelve campaign reflects this transition. Stoking ardent revolutionary passions to inspire the support of his regime, Chávez began to use Sáenz’s image as the embodiment of the Venezuelan citizen.
Hennes analyzes this representation in her article, “Manuela Vuelve: La Amable Loca as Foundational Myth in Venezuela,” presented at the Annual Conference of the Modern Language Association in 2016.
“It’s important to understand Chávez’s leadership style,” says Hennes. “He relied on his people’s passion to evoke an emotional reaction — beyond the intellectual — to his revolution and to him as a person. Chávez wanted to say, ‘I’m one of you. I understand you. I connect with you.’ To do that, he needed to reach people in a way that moved them.”
Hennes’ students analyze the ways in which women are represented throughout Latin America. She stresses that representations reflect stereotypes, political agendas and biases.
“My goal is for students to become critical readers of representation,” says Hennes. “The women we study in this class deserve it.”