Manuela Saenz

(1797-1856)

Manuela Senz by Tecla Walker

"Do you think for a moment that, after being beloved of this General for years, and with the security that I possessed his heart, I would choose to be the wife even of the Father, Son, or the Holy Ghost, or of all three?  I know very well that I cannot be united with him under the laws of honor, as you call them, but do you believe that I feel less or more honored because he is my lover and not my husband?  Oh, I do not live for the prejudices of society, which were invented only that we might torture each other." -- Manuela Sáenz

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    Manuela Sáenz illustrates how much a reputation can change over time.  In her own lifetime, and indeed for nearly a century after, most people would have said she deserved a room in the main house.  But Manuela was not a working girl; she practiced serial monogamy and chose lovers for what they offered by way of intellectual companionship. The little fact that none of these men were her husband, however, put  her in a negative spotlight that overshadowed the minor fact that she was a political leader, a cunning spy, and not half bad as military personnel.  She became an instrumental figure in Latin America's fight to free itself from Spain.
     La Sáenz, as people came to call her, did not have an auspicious start in life. She was born in Quito, Ecuador,  the  illegitimate child of a married Spanish nobleman and a young Ecuadorian woman of modest family.  At her birth, her mother's embarrassed family hustled her off to a convent.  There she stayed until she was seventeen, when she was seduced by an army officer who noticed her beauty. When the nuns found out, they threw Manuela out.  This event stirred her father's sense of responsibility. He quickly arranged a marriage for her with a merchant in Lima, Peru.  He was considerably older than she, and apparently not the least sympathetic to a young woman's needs. Manuela threw herself into politics and joined the fight to free South America from Spanish domination.  Working as a spy, she distributed revolutionary pamphlets all over the city.  When her husband found out, he ordered her to quit and issued an ultimatum.  She disobeyed, and her new friends (and, reputedly, lovers) in the military prevented him from taking any real action. She soon ceased to bother with him altogether.  Manuela worked along side the revolutionaries, until the day that Lima fell to the patriot army. She was among the first women to receive the Order of the Sun, the first honor given by the new republic.
      It was at the victory party that Manuela met the man who was to become her political partner, exclusive lover, and lifetime obsession. Simón Bolívar was already a hero whose fame had spread across Latin America.He was as passionate about freedom as Manuela. Theirs was a match, if not a marriage, made in heaven. They remained together for eight eventful years.  She wisely avoided direct interference in his political affairs, and he wisely allowed her to continue her habit of riding out to the battlefield to exhort the troops and collect military information.  It wasn't perfect; she disagreed with him in  many political matters, yet love and mutual respect kept them together.  In 1828, during a mutiny, Manuela showed great courage, and helped Bolívar escape.
     When it was over, Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia (named after guess who) were free. Unfortunately, internal power struggles brought down Bolívar, and he died in disgrace, as an exile. Manuela had stayed behind, in Bogotá, and faced persecution by her political enemies as soon as her lover was out of sight.  She, too, was exiled, and wound up in the little town of Paita, Peru selling tobacco.  She died in poverty, during a diphtheria epidemic.  All of her papers were burned.
     During her lifetime, her enemies branded her as a prostitute.  Modern sensibilities have rescued her memory, and she is now remembered as a heroine.

Click me!Here's a source for texts of works by Bolivar.

Click me!Essays on Colonial Spanish America.


 

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