The majority of South Americans could certainly understand whom you are talking about if you mention the nicknames ‘Manuelita’ o ‘Libertadora’. Unfortunately, while European and American political ‘heroes’ of the past are worldwide known, few of those who made important contributions to the history of the southern hemisphere are likewise famous in northern countries. Manuela Saénz is considered one of the main heroes of the Latin American independence. Her figure has been ignored and denigrated for almost a century, and only in recent years she was given the attention that such a complex and multifaceted character deserves.
Manuela Sáenz y Aizpuro was born on the 27th of December, 1797, daughter of Simon Sáenz, Spanish merchant, and María Joaquina de Aizpuru, who belonged to a noble Basque family. It should be noticed though that the genealogist F. Jurado Noboa found some Jewish and indigenous roots in her family lineage, and this would explain the native-looking features noticeable in her portraits.
Since her very young age, she was in contact and was following with interest the local rebellions against the Spaniards. Her stay in a cloister wanted by her mother lasted shortly, since Manuela’s personality and interest strongly clashed with monastery life. To end local rumors about her moral rectitude, she was forced to marry a 40-year old man whom she will never love. This however, introduced her to the upper classes of the Ecuadorian and Peruvian society, which at the end of the 1819 was already agitated by the news of Simon Bolivar’s actions.
She rapidly turned into one of the principal activists in Lima who conspired against the Spanish administration: she would organize parties which really were meetings for conspirators and she would leak important information to the rebels. Once Peru was liberated in 1822, she was attributed the title of knight of la Orden El Sol.
She then returned to Ecuador where she actively cooperated with liberation forces: she was doing intelligence work, take care of wounded people and collected and donated provisions for the rebels. In Quito Manuela met Simon Bolivar. The two will start a romantic relationship made of frequent encounters, while Manuela was actively taking part in the formation of a strong Ecuadorian nation. Bolivar himself gave her a uniform, which she would proudly wear when needed. After the death of her father, she went back to Lima where she played an important part in the Ayacucho battle – the battle that secured Peru’s Independence.
After this she followed her lover to Bogota, since she was an active member of the Bolivarian party and was in charge of Bolivar’s archives. In Bogotá in September 1828 a group of conspirators, among whose Santander – future president of Colombia, tried to assassinate the Liberator. She promptly understood what was happening and was able to face the aggressors herself giving time to Bolivar to escape: it is said that himself gave her the nickname “Libertadora del Libertador”.
The two will be lovers until Bolivar’s departure to Santa Marta in 1830. When she heard months later of the death of her beloved, attempted suicide but didn’t succeed. After Bolivar’s death, Santander took power and started persecuting all the supporters and collaborators of the Libertador. As a consequence of this, she will be exiled to Jamaica.
She tried in 1835 to go back to her native land, Ecuador, but here president Rocafuerte refused her on arrival, so she anchored in Paita, a Peruvian port. Here she will live the rest of her days in a humble home, selling hemmed textiles to live. She was loved by the people of the village and received visits of important characters. She died of diphtheria at the age of 59, in poverty and solitude.
Interestingly, the figure of Manuela Saenz has always caused controversies. Many historians of the time wrote about her due to her unorthodox behavior and not to her heroic achievements. She is often referred as ‘Bolivar’s mistress’, and not as one of the principal figures of Latin American liberation. The historiography of the time criticizes her for her masculine attitude and appearance, her ‘unmoral’ sexual behavior, her insolence of wearing military uniform in public. The fact that she did not comply with the gender stereotypes of the 19th century attracted the antipathy of many: her sexual freedom, ‘immorality’, her disinterest in being the angel of the home opposed to her will to belong to the political life, were all subject of critics. She was told to be influent on the country’s politics for her erotic force and not thanks to her abilities and knowledge. Undoubtedly many at the time recognized her value. Some defended her relationship with Bolivar, and her qualities were acknowledged by many of her colleagues and observers. Only in recent years Manuelita was given more attention by historians and the public: she is now considered a national hero and moral judgments about her are not the core of the discussion anymore. Perhaps she lived in a society that was not able to fully appreciate her complex personality, and sadly she spent the last years of her life alone and in poverty. This however represents a good example of how, sometimes, history does justice to those whom deserve it.
Written by Aurora Piergiacomi