Manuela Sáenz: The Revolutionary Heroine of South America
In South America’s struggle for freedom, there was an unexpected and unconventional heroine: Manuela Sáenz. This woman conspired against the Spanish monarchy, trekked the Andes, fought in battles, and loved the general leading the fight.
All of this occurred during the second decade of the 19th Century, a time when women weren’t supposed to do anything like that. Manuela Sáenz lived an extraordinary life that has inspired many girls and women from South America over the years.
Who was Manuela Sáenz? And why was she called “the liberator of the liberator”?
Why did she make so many enemies during her lifetime?
Keep reading to find out!
Who Was Manuela Sáenz?
Manuela Sáenz was a revolutionary who played an important role in South America’s struggle for independence. She was also the mistress of South American liberator Simón Bolívar, and is known as the “liberator of the liberator” for saving Bolívar’s life on more than one occassion.
But in reality, Manuela Sáenz was a much more complex figure than that. She was a woman unrestrained by the social prejudices of her time, and a true feminist way before feminism was even a word. She has even been called “the most influential woman in Latin American history” and, in the following paragraphs, I’ll show you why.
An Unconventional Life
Manuela Sáenz was born on December 27th, 1797, in Quito, the current capital of Ecuador that at the time belonged to the Viceroyalty of New Granada and was under Spanish rule. She was the illegitimate daughter (out of wedlock) of a Spanish nobleman and an Ecuadorian woman, a stigma that followed her all her life.
The embarrassment of having an illegitimate child was too much for her mother’s family, who threw her out of the house when her mother died. Her father sent her then to the convent of Santa Catalina, where she was raised and educated by nuns. That’s until she had an affair with an army officer and the nuns threw her out too. She was 17 at the time.
Three years later, in 1817, her father arranged for her to marry a wealthy Englishman and she went to live in Lima, Peru, also under Spanish rule. That should have been the end of Manuela’s errands, as she had secured a comfortable life and distinguished social position at a time and society where, for a woman, that was all they could ask for.
However, Manuela Sáenz wasn’t your typical woman. She used her social position to get involved in the conspiracies against Spain and actively fight for the independence of South America. And she did all this with an unconventional style that defied most of the prejudices and taboos of an era of strict social rules and conservatism. As you can imagine, she made a lot of enemies, but she was also crucial in South America’s fight for freedom.
After the liberation of South America and the death of Bolívar, her enemies exiled her in Jamaica, but she eventually came back, started a tobacco business, met American author Herman Melvile, and died in 1856 of diphtheria. She was buried in a mass grave and the letters she had kept from Bolívar were burned with all her other possessions. Her enemies never forgave her for being a strong independent woman who wouldn’t give in to their rules.
The Liberator of the Liberator
Just a few years into her marriage, Manuela Sáenz left her husband and moved back to Quito where she met Simón Bolívar. At the time, Bolívar was in the midst of his war of independence against Spain and its struggle to keep South America united. He succeeded in the former, but failed in the latter.
Manuela and Simón fell in love from the moment they met, interchanged many love letters, and even lived together for a year in Lima. Their love story was an “on and off” torrid affair, not the typical romantic relationship for people of their social status at the time. Besides, the revolution was the all-important mission for both of them, and everything else was secondary, even their love.
However, Manuela Sáenz did manage to save Bolívar’s life two times, and with that she kept the hope for freedom and a united future for South America alive. On the most famous of those occasions, Sáenz convinced Bolívar to put on her boots and sneak out the window of their bedroom to save his life. She stayed to confront the traitors, who almost beat her to death.
Because of these moments when Sáenz saved his life, Bolívar gave her the nickname of “the liberator of the liberator.”
Sadly, during many years Manuela Sáenz was simply known as “the mistress of Simón Bolívar,” without acknowledging the many contributions of Sáenz to the cause of independence, and her paradigm-breaking life that scared men and inspired women alike.
Thankfully, modern historians have brought to light documents that showed her involvement in the fight for independence and the key role she played to achieve it. She’s a heroine in Ecuador, and has been given several posthumous medals and titles.
Manuela Sáenz is right there with women such as Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, Eva Perón, and Frida Kahlo, among the historic figures that have done more for the advance of women’s rights in Latin America. Even if they never said the words “women’s rights,” their lives were an explicit shout for them.
Interesting Facts About Manuela Sáenz
Now that you know her story, let me tell you some interesting facts about Manuela Sáenz:
1. Gabriel García Márquez Wrote About Her
In his novel “El General en su Laberinto” (The General in His Labyrinth), the Nobel Prize winner author Gabriel García Máquez depict her as a strong woman and important figure in the fight for independence. This novel includes an image of Sáenz riding a horseback in men’s clothing, which later became a powerful symbol in his country’s modern struggle for women’s rights.
García Márquez hasn’t been the only one to write about her, among the most famous writings are “Papeles de Manuela Sáenz” by Vicente Lecuna, an historic compilation of Manuela’s documents, and the opera “Manuela and Bolívar” by Diego Luzuriaga, which portrays her life in artistic fashion.
2. She Tried To Kill Herself Like Cleopatra
When Manuela Sáenz found out that Bolívar had died, she got herself a snake with the intention of letting it bite her. She wanted to kill herself like Cleopatra did. But she survived the snake’s bite and kept living an iconic life for many years more.
3. She Wore a Moustache for Social Gatherings
During the famous Battle of Ayacucho, she took off the moustache from a dead enemy and then wore it for social gatherings, showing off her pride for being an active participant in the fight for South American freedom.
In another occasion, she put on men’s clothes and rode into the middle of a group of deserting soldiers to bribe them off and convince them to keep fighting. Needless to say, Manuela Sáenz wasn’t your typical 19th-Century girl.
4. She Named Her Dogs After Her Enemies
After Bolívar’s death, Manuela Sáenz position in the recently liberated territories was precarious. She provoked many people with her lifestyle and actions (see number 3), and struggled to settle down and live a peaceful life after the war. When she finally managed to do that and focus on selling tobacco in the small Peruvian town of Paita, she named her several dogs after her and Bolívar’s enemies. She was the perfect provocateur.
5. She Was Reburied Alongside Bolívar in 2010
Manuela Sáenz was given the “Order of the Sun” award for her contributions to the revolution, and in 2007, Ecuadorian president Rafael Correa named her Generala de Honor de la República de Ecuador (Honorary General of the Republic of Ecuador).
Finally, in 2010, her remains were unburied and given a state reburial alongside Simon Bolívar in Caracas, Venezuela. Reuniting them 180 years after they were separated by Bolívar’s death.
Manuela Sáenz: A Strong and Inspiring Woman
The story of Manuela Sáenz, a revolutionary woman from the 19th Century, is inspiring on so many levels that makes you wonder why she isn’t even more famous, at least in Latin America. Sáenz should be a role model for women all across a region that still struggles to give women their full rights, and where machismo still plays an important role in society.
Her unconventional ways and freedom of thought show what a woman can do when unrestrained by archaic prejudices against women.
Leave a comment below, tell us who’s your favorite Latin American feminist icon, and let’s start a conversation with Spanish students from all over the world.
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