New Internationalist

Saturnina Quispe Choque

Issue 422

Saturnina Quispe Choque talked with Nadia Hausfather

Photo by Nadia Hausfather
Felipa (left), and Saturnina (right). Photo by Nadia Hausfather

‘Holà hermana, holà hermana!’

Every second word, she refers to me as ‘sister’, even though in terms of race and nationality, we are far from related. Saturnina Quispe Choque has the ability to adopt sisters that way.

Despite having 12 biological siblings, Saturnina’s sense of family extends beyond blood. But the network of sisterhood that she now heads in Bolivia’s fastest-growing city took years to emerge.

After a flood ruined her home and crops in her small village near Lake Titicaca, her 10 family members ended up sharing a tent. Saturnina had no choice but to go to the city. Her parents, too accustomed to life in the countryside, stayed behind.

It was 1987 when she arrived in the town of El Alto and Saturnina was in her twenties. There, she met up with an old acquaintance from the countryside: Felipa Huanca Llupanqui.

At first glance you might think Saturnina and Felipa were sisters. Brown-skinned with long black braids, round faces and concerned eyes, both women humbly and easily share their laughter and conversation and make you feel at home. Although they didn’t grow up together, both know the claustrophobic feeling of leaving open fields for the densely packed city.

In El Alto, Saturnina and Felipa learned to knit and weave. Job after job, both received low pay, late pay or no pay at all. At one point, Saturnina’s boss was paying her $4 per clothing article which he would then sell in Germany for $70.

Saturnina and Felipa grew tired of seeing themselves and other rural migrants exploited. So in 2000 they founded a women’s collective called the Integral Association of Kullakas (IAK). ‘Kullakas’ means ‘sisters’ in the Aymara language. They used this word to symbolize their interdependence with the Aymara and with the world. Says Saturnina: ‘We decided that we needed to help each other.’

Nine years later, the collective – of which Saturnina is President – continues to teach handicraft and farming skills. Saturnina’s living room is where women come to be trained. The room displays colourful scarves, hats and dolls made by hand, often entirely out of the fleece of the alpaca – similar to the llama – which is warmer and softer than sheep’s wool.

Fifty per cent of the price of each product goes to the woman who made it, while the rest goes to communal living costs or to buy new materials. The Kullakas are constantly on the lookout for markets so that they can pay women as quickly as possible.

‘The money is not to buy a car, it’s to survive,’ explains Felipa. ‘And it’s not just about handicrafts,’ continues Saturnina. ‘Our vision is also integral education.’ The Kullakas educate women about politics and cultural identity. On the wall of their living room stands the wiphala – the multicoloured, indigenous flag of the Andes – and a poster of Tupac Katari, the leader of an Aymara revolt in the 18th century.

‘Our grandparents practised the Andean “cosmovision”,’ says Saturnina – a vision of the unity of nature, family and the cosmos. ‘But today it is not preserved. We have to remind and educate women to keep practising our ways.’ Aymara culture emphasizes sharing what you have and working for the good of all, they explain.

Saturnina and Felipa are among the rare few to study at a university wearing their pollera dresses – large, ruffled skirts common to indigenous women from the high plains of Bolivia. They both know the discrimination that Aymara women face in the education system and in society at large for not speaking Spanish and because they are women.

To overcome this, the Kullakas encourage women to be political leaders. Both Saturnina and Felipa feel that indigenous people don’t participate enough in politics and that official Aymara leaders are too compromised by power. Meanwhile, Bolivia’s mostly indigenous peasants have insufficient land and their work is undervalued.

‘Democracy is only for those who have money, it still excludes the indigenous majority,’ explains Felipa. They believe it’s important to nurture the next indigenous leaders who will be strong enough to change the country’s inequalities. So they encourage indigenous women to take a stand.

‘Often people discriminate against us, so we need to be prepared,’ continues Saturnina. ‘A woman has the right to express herself and participate in political organizing. At meetings, indigenous women are usually mere assistants, but they can do more than that. Aymara or Quechua women need to know what the government is doing, how the constituent assembly works, and what the laws are.’

Saturnina and Felipa eat in the same room where they weave clothes. When I join them for dinner, Saturnina calls another ‘sister’ who is staying with them to join us. ‘When women arrive without a place to stay they are welcome here,’ says Saturnina. ‘If there’s no room we find a way to make space.’

Saturnina and Felipa don’t just talk about indigenous equality and sisterhood. They live and breathe it – with little more than their own histories, convictions and the odd skein of wool. Last December, Saturnina was again voted President of the IAK. And the association now operates in six rural provinces, a sure sign that their message of ‘sisterhood’ is spreading.

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