In Bolivia, being a journalist and organizer go together

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Susana Pacara has worked for years as a radio journalist while also being a respected activist in her community. (WNV/Marta Molina)

Susana Pacara, one of the founders of Radio Lachiwana in Cochabamba, Bolivia, believes that communication work is a key part of the defense of territory. She doesn’t mean this in an abstract way. Over the years, Pacara has fought the privatization of water, the construction of mega highways and the attacks on the rights of coca growers. She’s braved tear gas and repression with such bravery that she’s earned the title “Mamá Susana.”And now she’s fulfilled her dream of transmitting these stories of resistance and defense at the national level.

In Quechua, “lachiwana” refers to a little bee that makes its hive in the most secret of places. The word could almost just as easily describe Pacara herself. At 49 years old, she has a small build, which she says helps her get to all sorts of places, and a curious expression. When Waging Nonviolence met her at the Continental Summit on Indigenous Communication in Tlahuitoltepec, Oaxaca, Mexico, she was wearing her long black hair tied in two braids, a Bolivian bowler hat made from sheep’s wool and the traditional dress of her region, from the province of Chayanta, in the department of Potosí.

According to legend, the bee stocks up its honey in periods of abundance, and it drinks water, not from just any river but from one of the cleanest. “And when you bother it, it stings you right in the eye,” says Pacara. “And your eye gets really swollen!”

Throughout her life she has moved like a bee, from one place to another, insisting on knowing what is going on until she gets to the root of the story. According to Pacara, disseminating the information of social movements helps in mobilizing, organizing and even in winning battles.

Even so, when she talks about her trajectory, she says that sometimes she has flown like the condor and other times she has fallen like a toad. For her, that’s what communication is about: chronicling people’s victories and defeats. More than anything, it’s about finding the story below the surface.

“Speaking from here within,” Pacara says, pointing at her heart, “is to speak from below the subsoil. It is to talk about land and territory.”

Water or death!

Before being a communicator, Pacara was an organizer, and before that, she worked as a housemaid. The years of being humiliated, discriminated against and marginalized as a maid politicized her. Finally, she grabbed a microphone and began to speak with strength, bravery and dignity. From that moment on, she never let go.

After the 1993 imposition of Law 1.008 on the Regulation of Coca and Controlled Substances, and after the repression faced by cocaleros, Susana began to participate actively in social struggles. Later, she worked on alternative forms of development and against the state repression inflicted upon those who opposed the construction of massive highways in Cochabamba. She fought against the law commodifying the lands, organizing the march for dignity in 1994 and the national march for land and territory in 1996. She learned to fight in the street.

As an organizer, she has more than once put her life on the line. “If you’re going to die, you’re going to die for the cause,” she said.

While organizing with farmers defending their right to grow coca leaves, a sacred leaf and an ancient tradition for the Bolivian people, she survived tear gas attacks on the plantations. But her daughter, only months old at the time, died.

“During the Coca War, for the first time I washed my face with my companion’s urine, because of how much gas they were throwing at us,” says Pacara. “In the struggle, men and women don’t distinguish among themselves, and you lose your fear!” she insists, visibly upset at recalling that moment of her life.

Later, during the 2000 Water Wars, when the U.S.-owned multinational corporation Bechtel tried to privatize the water system in Cochabamba, Pacara was pregnant with her son. Still, she joined others in the streets shouting, “Water or death!”

“They were going to bust my stomach open,” she recalled later. “But I said, ‘I’d rather you did that than sell my water!’”

Organizing and communicating

After witnessing the repression and massacre of the cocaleros, the massive gas attacks and the resulting hunger strikes, Pacara understood how important it is to give a voice to her compatriots and to amplify their stories across Bolivia. While organizing movements, she began reporting.

Of her ten siblings, Pacara was the only one who has dedicated herself to communication. It is not an easy profession. When she first began, she did not earn one cent from her work. She had no formal training. She studied by doing.

“I’m never going to get my degree in communication,” she said. “So, I got my degree without the piece of paper.”

She is clearly proud of not needing a university degree to earn the title “Mamá Susana” that her people have given her. In Quechua, being a mamá doesn’t necessarily mean being mother — although Pacara does have two children. Rather, the title means being a person who has shown commitment and bravery in the struggle and who holds a great amount of respect from others.

Pacara is adamant that alternative media should speak in the community’s own language. “Communication is to talk about ourselves,” she says.

This idea doesn’t only refer to the actual language, but also the need to construct one’s own forms of expression separately from those of the commercial mass media, which for so long has used abstract, pretentious language that is removed from the daily reality of indigenous communities. “They impose laws on us that we don’t understand and a media [that we don’t understand], and we should make our own,” she says.

Pacara is also insistent that one must work as a communicator, an organizer and an activist all at once — although there are people who insist that all of those things are incompatible. “Sometimes people would criticize me: ‘Are you a communicator or a leader?’ And I insist even today that I am going to fight as both a communicator and an organizer.”

In Quechua, Pacara explains that there is no phrase that to refers to “only one.” Rather there are always pairs — a vision that she says represents her own work: communication and struggle.

In 2007, Radio Lachiwana incorporated with the alternative radio station Radio of the Indigenous Peoples. One of Pacara’s goals as a communicator came true: She became responsible for transmitting news on a national level as a correspondent.

Looking forward

Today, Pacara is pleased with her work with Radio Lachiwana, as well as her work to mentor new communicators.

She left her home in Cochabamba and now lives in the Sud Yungas province in the department of La Paz. The area is a mix of Quechua, Aymara and other intercultural communities. She says that there isn’t a strong women’s organization or much independent media.

“What there is [on the radio] is all music, and they don’t even play our music!” Pacara says, indignant. Her goal is to strengthen the social fabric there and establish a functioning community radio station, which will broadcast about the land in their own territories.

Pacara has been married for 28 years and has two children, one 19 and one 13. She is already a grandmother. Pacara stresses that it is not easy to accomplish what she has accomplished, especially as a woman, without support at home from one’s partner and children.

If Pacara is missing one thing, it’s the certainty that she’ll be successful in organizing this new community where she now lives. Yet, she maintains her confidence. “Once you lose confidence, your soul may still talk to you but it will never trust you again,” she says.

As she presented at the conference, her ease with words and her way of sharing experiences based in examples and anecdotes immediately captured her audience’s attention. Her gracious humor as she explains the ways that she learned about doing radio from her challenges, errors and the times she got it right provokes knowing grins.

When Waging Nonviolence asked to take her photo, Pacara explained that she never cuts her hair because it is sacred. She cares for her hair as she would her eyes, she says. But even beyond herself, she explains that she cares for her hair in the same way that people must care for the earth.

“The earth adorns itself like we adorn ourselves: Flowers are its earrings, grasses are its dresses, and if we rip them out, we strip her.”

Soon it becomes clear that she’s speaking not only about herself, but about her whole life’s work of defending territory — and, in doing so, defending the people who live on it.

“A woman is like the earth,” she begins. “She bleeds and nourishes at the same time. The water we drink is her blood, and the minerals we get from it are her bones, and the trees we cut are her hair, and the sacred places we damage are her eyes. Earth is like a woman and women, just like the earth, must be fought for.”

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