We’re approaching the 147th anniversary of the death of Juana Azurduy de Padilla, who is my second-favourite female military commander in Bolivian/Alto-Peruvian history. (The first is, of course, the Aymara leader Bartolina Sisa, who was busy leading an armed insurrection along with her partner Tupaj Katari in the year of Juana’s birth. They were both executed by the Spanish after laying siege to La Paz). Lieutenant Colonel Azurduy has been in the news a bit, lately, probably owing to this. She’s a national hero, after all – not merely a national one, for that, but a continental one, being feted in Argentina as well.
Look at this rather wonderful portrait of her. Would you get in a bar fight (let alone a transcontinental war of independence) with this woman?
You’d be very foolish to do so. She commanded a guerrilla army of several thousand against royal troops and was quite decisive in laying out the frontiers of Bolivia. (Well, before the borders were monkeyed around with by losing wars against every neighbouring country over the next 120 years, anyway). You can some rather romantic accounts of her life in Spanish here and here. To summarise: she was sent to convent school for being a hellraiser, kicked out for being a hellraiser, went and married this Padilla guy, had four children, fought several decisive battles during 1812 – 1817 in the revolutionary wars of Alto Peru, specifically in the area of Chuquisaca, which is now Sucre, was recognised by Sucre and Bolivar as a major military hero and lived to be 82. She is said to have spoken Quechua and Aymara as well as Spanish: certainly fluently enough to command a batallion of up to 6000 indigenous troops. Her four children died during her military campaigns: she became pregnant again and engaged in battle with her daugher in utero, handing the kid over to a nurse as soon as she was born and returning to combat.
Then I noticed that as well as having a little parade of horsemen in homage to her around Sucre, the government’s extended its recognition too, by naming something after her. To be more specific, they’ve introduced a new payment aimed at helping to reduce maternal and infant mortality. This is all very laudable, but possibly not too thoroughly thought through. Let’s recap: Juana Azurduy de Padilla was fearless, bloodthirsty, a good tactician, a capable commander and handy with a sword. In other words, she was a badass. Devoted mother? Not so much. My own mother, with whom I went to the Casa de la Libertad in Sucre, commented as we stood looking at that painting, ‘You get the feeling she saw these endless children as a bit of an inconvenience, when she would have much rather been off fighting wars.’ Now, I wouldn’t want to impugn a revolutionary hero, but neither would I want to belittle her. If you’re going to name something after Lt Col. Azurduy, name a military installation. Name a tank. Name a batallion (Argentina have). Name a country – Bolivar apparently said that the altoperuano republic should have been named after her, not him. Don’t name a fricking child health programme. That’s a bit like the Harold Shipman Pension Supplement, isn’t it? Or like appointing Tony Blair as a peace envoy to the Middle East! Oh, wait…
Look, Bolivian government. Your history is full of heroic, badass women. They accomplished things far beyond making sure that their bairns grew up healthy and bien cuidado. So why use their names only for things associated with childbearing? That’s not just patronising and sexist in the here and now, it’s also revisionist. It’s a great idea to try to reduce Bolivia’s alarming level of infant mortality, but in the words of Zaphod Beeblebrox, plus ten points for altruism, minus several billion for good thinking, yeah?