30 Years of Activism by Vanessa Rivera de la Fuente

Diseño sin título

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.

*Name Changed

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.

Categories: Activism, Feminism, Feminism and Religion, Feminist Awakenings, Friendship, General

Tags: , , , , , ,

13 replies

  1. I hope your friend also managed to survive and thrive–as you so obviously have!


  2. Bravo Vanessa! May the Golden Spirit of Her always be with you – and all of us.


  3. You tell a story of unutterable courage. Brava! Yes, keep being brave and keep working. May She bless you with at least another 30 years. Twice 30 years.


  4. Vanessa, thank you so much for this beautiful powerful story. I too was uniformed about feminism until I was in college and reading Ms. Magazine but not really understanding all it was waking me up to! I had witnessed and heard and read of the oppression of women, both subtle and direct, but my own inner “tightness” – psychologically learned from many women and exacerbated by the early sudden death of my father who honored my attempts at 13 to TALK BACK – kept me from questioning too much for a long time. Having my own child in 1979 brought me an explosion of courage. I felt a shiver when I read “We got equality for our children in 1998.” Your story of gathering women, traveling to help others awaken, and your VOICE move me deeply. Thank you for never stopping being “the nun-faced girl with FIRE inside.”


  5. Your story is so inspiring Vanessa. Thank you for sharing it. I had to chuckle at the image of being a “nun-faced girl with FIRE inside”. A lot of nuns I know have that same “fire”!


  6. Dear Vanessa,
    The spiritual life will lead to political action and you will not be punished for the hate and anger that you carry inside. You will be punished by your hate and anger that you carry inside.

    From peace in meditation/contemplation/introspection you will find compassion and from compassion you will find understanding.

    I see great potential in you. You might actually become like the prophets themselves, leaving false belief behind and creating the new, becoming more true than the old, like humanity did for many thousands of years.

    However, be careful! The devil will try to lure you into becoming a warlord wanting to hate and kill the greedy, calling them bad words, making a political religion and actions of death and destruction. So you must be strong in the face of the devil and denounce him and only accept the higher spiritual truth!

    Then you will be ready for political action of peace, compassion and understanding, even understand the fear of the dictator Pinochet, the war monger and also the banker behind him, and forgive them, because they do not know what evil they do to themselves and all other people.

    Imagine having to live life in such fear, hate, atrocities and leaving life with a posthumous reputation like that, a legacy that everyone wants to forget, a legacy fit for hell, not for heavenly admiration. Then imagine the legacy of the true spiritual person!

    Good luck in your quest, Vanessa!


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