My first memory as an activist is of attending my first political public meeting to listen leaders of the resistance talking against the Dictatorship, marching holding a sign that read “Democracy Now,” and taking my first dose of tear gas. It was 1988. I was 13 years old. My first menstrual period had come six weeks before. At that time, I didn’t know what feminism was; there were many books forbidden. Social Sciences such as Anthropology, Philosophy, and Sociology were banned in most universities.
But lack of theories could never prevent experience from happening and leaving its imprint. In 1990, at 15, I was gender conscious without recognizing my actions as feminism.
Patricia* was my classmate and best friend. We shared a desk and we visited each other often after school. One day, my class was told by our languages teacher that Patricia has been “cancelled.” She was pregnant. Her boyfriend, who was in another institute ruled by the same board, was attending classes, happy and satisfied, thank you very much. According to authorities, it was “legal and correctly moral” to put her away, she was the female, exhibiting the “Sin” blah blah blah….
Not for me. Not for us, Group N°4-C of Biological Sciences in the Institute Divine Ascension of Mary.
I was the representative of students to the Dean’s Office. It was a rainy day when we went on strike, refusing to enter classes until Patricia was allowed to continue her education. The Dean said “There is a girl with the face of a nun, carrying flames inside.” Finally, the Board decided they would not allow her in regular classes, but she could have free tutorials and exams to finish the year and continue in the system for adults.
That’s how I learned about collective action, gender discrimination and sisterhood, long before feminist theory. I read about feminist theory after High School: I started with Julieta Kirkwood, Chilean feminist, who said:
I seek and I want to find the Furies at the bottom of all civilizations
Beauvoir came later, translated by some exiled comrade who hid The Second Sex among her panties, in her return from France, when democracy came back, but fear would not go away easily.
The 90s found me in the public space in the most official way.
The struggle in these years was for greater inclusion in political issues and legal reforms. According to family law, children born out of wedlock were legally illegitimate.
My daughter Constanza was born in January of 1992. Her birth certificate said she was a “natural child” – as if she had emerged from a cabbage. So, she could expect a life with half the rights and twice the prejudices. If there is a moment when I felt to the core of my bones the reality that the personal is political, this was it.
We got equality for our children ONLY in 1998. Just 20 years ago.
I was very active in a political party of the Concertación. At the age of 23, I was elected member of the Politburó from which I pled for political education for women, while I received my first training in gender and social justice. One of my teachers, Sandra Palestro, historian, outstanding fighter for human rights, said to me what later became my commitment and leitmotiv:
Wherever you go and wherever you are, work with and for the progress of women
The 21st century began with my journey through Latin America and the world. I never thought about working outside of my country, but blessings are what you receive without asking for. Then I found Islam and the spiritual became political.
Whenever I’ve been, I meet women who make something together for our uplifting. In the last 15 years I’ve lived in 5 foreign countries and over these 30 years the trenches I’ve been held within many diverse places and situations:
A desk in a district office of the social-democratic party in the city of Concepcion.
The leaves of a palm tree in Ayangué, Ecuador, under which we met to talk with women gatherers of Yam.
The Sacred Valley of the Incas and their indigenous communities, where women weave blankets, while they discuss what will be the strategy to resist the extractivism (extraction of natural resources) that pollutes its waters.
The hills that surround the city of Cuzco, where you have to climb endless stairs to do a workshop on prevention in domestic violence.
A dune in Hassi Labied, in Morocco, after the Magrib or a house where all the women were named Fatima.
A shack in the suburbs of Buenos Aires, from which I broadcast at community radio on Women’s Rights every Saturday.
Cape Flats and its women, the broadest in body and soul, dressed in all the colors of flowers. With them, gender justice always tastes like cinnamon biscuits.
And the space I opened around 4 years ago, so women from different backgrounds and spiritual persuasions could meet to find what they have in common: Mezquita de Mujeres, an integrated platform to boost activism, knowledge and spirituality for the women in the Global South.
This work has been a source of happiness and learning for which I am very grateful: a unique journey that took me to places and allowed me to do things many only dream of. After all the kilometers traveled, tear gas swallowed, workshops dictated, ideas written and debates fought, whether my formal or paid work has to do with gender equality or not, I take time in my life to renew my promise:
I will work and have worked with and for women’s progress.
I have not done it perfectly, but I have done it honestly. I am no longer a girl, every day I’ve less a nun’s face, but I am still carrying flames inside. . .
That should be enough for the years to come.
Vanessa Rivera de la Fuente is a specialist in training and community outreach in Gender, Communication and Interculturality. She’s also a learning and social projects designer and a qualitative researcher; an awarded activist for women’s rights who too does independent scholarship in Religion, Gender and Social Discourses. Nomadic writer. A woman with stories and geographies, lover of books, cats and spicy Chai.