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Dolores Cacuango, “Mama Warrior” of Ecuador

Kathryn S Gardiner | Published on 9/10/2022

Forgotten Foremothers

Profiles of lesser-known heroines in the fight for women’s rights

Few paid any mind to the beggar who often settled outside the law offices to seek alms throughout the day. He lingered at the doors, morning and evening, but the lawyers were unconcerned. The beggar was “indigene,” after all, one of those poor illiterate and uneducated souls from the rural areas outside the city, and could almost certainly not understand their Spanish. 


But this beggar, Juan Albamocho, not only understood Spanish, he was an activist eavesdropping for information that could help his cause. One afternoon, he overheard these officials discussing a law that the indigenous people of Cayambe, Ecuador could use to protect themselves, a law he had no idea existed. He rushed back to tell the others, to share the word with all of those fighting for the same freedoms he was. 

One of those he told was Dolores Cacuango.


Dolores was born Oct. 26, 1881, just northeast of Cayambe in San Pablo Urco in Ecuador. Her parents worked as farmers on the Pesillo Hacienda, where the family’s labor was compensated with small piece of land called an huasipungo. As “concierto indians,” Dolores and her family were on the lowest rungs of Ecuadorian society. The Global Nonviolent Action Database reported, “The indigenous farmers were highly attached to their land although their plots were still owned by the hacienda. The renters often expected huasipunguero families to work for free and demanded huasicama, unpaid personal services for the renters’ households.”


This “unpaid personal services” bill meant that the indigenous farmers almost always owed money to the hacienda. They could, technically, pay for their own release and move elsewhere, but they could rarely cover the cost themselves. This created a system where such negotiations often happened between the wealthy hacienda overseers. A landowner could pay the “debt” owed by an indigenous farmer and claim him. The farmer and his family would then have little choice but to move to the new land and begin working. Bluntly, the indigenous farmers could be bought and sold on a whim.


“I do not consider the indigenes as men, but rather as children who lack sufficient discernment to give their agreement, much less to enter into a contract,” a prominent politician said in 1855, quoted in The Construction of a Ventriloquist's Image: Liberal Discourse and the 'Miserable Indian Race' in Late 19th-Century Ecuador by Andres Guerrero. “They have been granted the rights of citizens, when as I say, they are weaker and of less worth than children.”


Dolores and other children like her were expected to labor for the hacienda and do little else. No schooling was provided; they were not taught to read or write; and they spoke their native language of Quechua while most of the landowners and ruling class spoke Spanish. 

Indigenous protesters carry the image of Dolores Cacuango as they march.
Photo from La Confederación de Nacionalidades Indígenas del Ecuador

“When the Spanish colonized Ecuador, they brought with them the Catholic faith,” wrote Hannah Poor in The Historical and Contemporary Role of Women in Ecuadorian Society. “The arrival of Catholicism to Ecuador helped establish a patriarchal society where the women were delegated to the domestic sphere and expected to submit to the will of their male relatives. ... Because indigenous women are subject to discrimination because of both gender and race, as well as class, their lot is often referred to as the ‘triple burden’ of indigenous women.” 


Around 1896, 15-year-old Dolores fled southwest to Quito to escape a betrothal to a much older man. Working as a housemaid, she’d observed the disparity between her own life and the lives of the hacienda children, the children of wealth and privilege who attended school and learned arts. In Quito, she secured work as a maid in a military man’s home and taught herself to speak Spanish. 


Nearly 20 years later, now a woman in her mid-30s, Dolores returned to San Pablo Urco with a fire to fight for herself and the other indigenous people of Cayambe. This fire received direction when she heard Juan Albamocho’s news of a law that could help them. The indigenous activists now knew they had a legal means by which they could protect themselves from abuse and discrimination. They just needed to demand its use. 


When a landowner attempted to buy Cayambe itself in 1926, the indigenous people living there fought back. Dolores became known for her fiery oratory—delivered in both Spanish and Quechua—advocating not only for their land, but also for education and for women. “We want the indigenous to know who they are giving birth to,” she said in one speech, “so that they are never raped again by their devil chief, so that [we] let no more children be born without a father and be despised children.” Socialist and communist parties in the area began to support the movement. Dolores herself became a noted leader of the Communist Party of Ecuador.


In 1927, Dolores met and married Luis Catucuamba, and the two settled on a small farm. The couple had nine children in total, but only one—a son also named Luis—survived to adulthood. The other eight died from intestinal diseases caused by the lack of sanitation in the Cayambe area.


The constitution of Ecuador gave women the right to vote in 1929. This was likely an attempt to assuage the growing socialist and communist parties in the country, several of which had female leadership. Theoretically indigenous women like Dolores were included in this expansion of rights, but for one detail: “The continued stipulation...that citizens must be literate perpetuated the exclusion of most indigenous people from voting and other citizenship rights,” Hannah Poor noted.


The workers of Pesillo Hacienda went on strike toward the end December 1930 with demands of higher pay and better conditions. They did not turn to the law this time, a choice Marc Becker in Comunas and Indigenous Protest in Cayambe, Ecuador argued was a smart and calculated move. “…politically astute Indigenous leaders in Cayambe understood the law’s intent to extend state structures into traditional communities with an ultimate goal of paternalistically manipulating local affairs. ... Indians in Cayambe rejected the provisions of this law precisely because they wanted to defend their political space and economic interests, and to preserve their ethnic identity.”


The indigenous workers stormed the main house, causing the landowners to flee the hacienda. The pushback by the government was severe (and long-lasting—some activists had to stay in hiding for more than 15 years). The police searched widely for the activists, descended upon the Pesillo Hacienda with dogs and soldiers, and burned down workers’ homes in their pursuit. Dolores temporarily retreated into the mountains for safety. Five other leaders were arrested. By nearly all accounts, the workers were unarmed and had not been violent during their takeover.


On Jan. 7, 1931, hacienda overseers conceded to several demands, including an 8-hour workday, one day of rest per week, and payment for the labor of women and children. The workers called off the strike, but the peace did not last. Despite legal promises, hacienda owners retaliated with whippings and abuse. 


In late March 1931, Dolores and fellow leaders of the newly formed unions marched to Quito in protest. “Some 1,000 Indigenous people walked to the capital—about 43 miles—and filled the central plaza, something urban Ecuadorians had never seen before,” Kimberly Brown wrote for Atlas Obscura. The government’s attempt to suppress protest only convinced the union leaders that their efforts needed to be even more widespread. According to the Global Nonviolent Action Database, “These repressive responses by the government inspired the activists to not only demand changing of conditions but aim for reform of the entire land tenure system.”


Dolores was a constant presence at protests, uprisings, and rallies throughout the decades. During the country-wide revolution in May 1944, she personally led an assault on a military barracks. That same year, she established the Indigenous Federation of Ecuador, the first official organization created to fight for indigenous rights. In 1945, she founded bilingual schools in the Cayambe area. Her son Luis became a bilingual teacher, and for the next 18 years, people were taught to read and write in both Spanish and Quechua.


“Under the dictatorship of General Ramón Castro Jijón, in 1963 the government closed the schools, prohibited Quechua from being a language that could be taught, and destroyed Dolores's house, forcing her to go into hiding,” the El Paīs reported. “She continued her activities by visiting her classmates at night and supporting undercover movements while the government searched for her.”


Dolores watched as much of her hard-won progress was repealed, overturned, and undone during the final years of her life. In one of her last public speeches in the mid-1960s she said, in her native Quechua, the phrase she is most remembered for now: “We’re like the grass of the mountain that grows back again after being cut, and as mountain grass we will cover the world.”


By 1971, Dolores was in very poor health. Her weakness and immobility ended her visits to the communities for which she’d fought. She died in the company of her husband, her son, her daughter-in-law, and her best friend.


For a time, Dolores was deliberately erased and nearly forgotten, but the indigenous activists of today have clung tight to the memory of the woman called “Mama Guerrera,” or “Mama Warrior.” In 1997, Vincenta Chuma, a fellow Quechua woman, co-founded the Dolores Cacuango Training School for Women Leaders. Though that specific school closed, similar leadership schools for women spread across the country. In October 2019, indigenous protestors took to Quito’s streets once more, continuing what activists like Dolores began. They carried her picture and bellowed a chant as they marched:


“Dolores Cacuango! Mamá Guerrera! Por tu camino, compañera!”

Dolores Cacuango! Mama Warrior! In your footsteps, friend!




Brown University Library: The Historical and Contemporary Role of Women in Ecuadorian Society

BBC News Mundo: Who is Dolores Cacuango, the Ecuadorian leader to whom Google dedicates its doodle

El Paīs: Dolores Cacuango, the rebellious Ecuadorian indigenous leader who fought for education and land

Atlas Obscura: In the Footsteps of Ecuador’s ‘Mama Warrior’

TeleSURhd: The Life of Dolores Cacuango and her Struggle for Justice

Wikipedia: Dolores CacuangoCayambe

JSTOR: The Construction of a Ventriloquist's Image: Liberal Discourse and the 'Miserable Indian Race' in Late 19th-Century EcuadorComunas and Indigenous Protest in Cayambe, Ecuador

Global Nonviolent Action Database: Ecuadorian indigenous workers strike for higher wages in Cayambe, 1930-1931

Flickr: La Confederación de Nacionalidades Indígenas del Ecuador