Manuela Sáenz (1797-1856)—friend, lover, and ally of Spanish American independence hero Simón Bolívar and, today, an icon of nationalists and feminists throughout the region—has been largely ignored by professional historians. In the United States, she remains unknown among most scholars of Latin America. My own introduction to her was by accident. It happened decades ago when, as a graduate student browsing the book stacks of Tulane University's Latin American Library (preparing for the requisite Ph.D. prelim examinations), I came upon The Four Seasons of Manuela: The Love Story of Manuela Sáenz and Simón Bolívar (1952) by popular author Victor W. Von Hagen.
A distraction from my usual dry reading, Von Hagen's story captivated me. Here was the tale of a strong-willed, passionate woman who had defied convention and raised controversy in order to pursue an affair with Bolívar, a.k.a. the "Liberator"—renowned commander of the largest and most successful patriot army in Spanish South America, creator of republics, and, for a time, the world's most celebrated revolutionary leader. Here, too, was a woman who had participated in the epic Spanish American struggles for independence and whose abilities, enthusiasm, and commitment to the patriot cause had won her Bolívar's confidence. Proof of that confidence was her eventual acceptance into the ranks of his closest followers, including her emergence as his personal archivist, confidante, and, in the last years of his life, his most ardent defender. More broadly, and as Von Hagen reveals in his vivid storyteller's fashion, Sáenz had carved a place for herself in a man's world; she had learned to ride the crest of war and revolution and had wielded political influence. Why, then, given the modern history profession's growing interest in women's experiences, had I and other graduate students never heard of her?
The answer to this question is complicated. One part of it lies in biography's quasi-pariah status among academic historians. Author of two widely acclaimed biographies and of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation, Joseph Ellis refers to this status when he describes the genre as "a bastard, or . . . orphan periodically adopted as a welfare case by History or English departments." He also explains some of the reasons for biography's predicament. He notes, for example, the "hegemonic" influence of social history, whose approach to the past sees groups or collectivities rather than individuals as the proper focus of study. This same influence, he adds, "privileges the periphery over the prominent figures at the political center, who become 'dead white males' and their respective stories elitist narratives casually dismissed as 'great man history,' even when the subject is a woman or, even when the story told undermines the entire notion that [only] men make history."
One wonders what Ellis might have to say about the "new biography." He almost certainly would look upon it with some dubiousness. New biographers, after all, are less interested in understanding a life on its own terms and making it intelligible to readers than in elucidating the contested process of identity construction—of "inventing selves," more particularly. Indeed, their genre stems from postmodern epistemological insights and premises that have contributed to a new hegemony within the profession and that inevitably conflict with, as Jo Burr Margadant has put it, "a narrative strategy designed to project a unified persona."
Today's historians of Latin America are not immune to the bias that prevails among their disciplinary brethren, at least in the United States. In an essay in Latin American Research Review, Michael Monteón puzzles over Latin Americanists' tendency to shun traditional life-writing. He then offers an explanation similar to Ellis's, noting that biography is "academically unfashionable" and "does not lend itself to social science modeling." The genre "presents numerous difficulties in research and composition," he adds, perhaps thinking of the concerns of postmodernist scholars.
As others before him have noted, however, tackling such "difficulties" can be worthwhile. This is certainly the case for the vital subfield of women's history (now increasingly being subsumed, it seems, into the history of gender), to which biography can offer, as Donna Guy once put it, "invaluable" insights into the influences and motivations underlying the actions of individual historical agents.
This brings us to yet another factor that has worked against the telling of Manuela Sáenz's life story, one exemplified by the general silence that, until around the middle of the twentieth century, was long maintained by Spanish American historians. The silence was especially noteworthy in the case of authors in Sáenz's native Ecuador. In a survey of national histories published between 1860 and 1940, for example, María Mogollón and Ximena Narváez found only three books that even acknowledged the existence of Bolívar's Quito-born mistress. Those three limit their attention to what most authors have regarded as her main accomplishment: her thwarting of the attackers who, on September 25, 1828, broke into the presidential palace in Bogotá in an attempt to assassinate the Liberator. They also downplay that accomplishment; their brief accounts say almost nothing about the bravery and quick thinking with which Sáenz met the attackers (nor about the beating she took from them) but dwell, instead, on her physical beauty. Above all, they display the deeply conservative male gender bias that long has characterized both Ecuadorian and Spanish American historical writing. Most evident in works such as the once-popular children's textbook, Leyendas del tiempo histórico (1901), by Manuel J. Calle—a work that, in condemning Sáenz's illicit affair with Bolívar, portrays her as a "fallen woman"—this bias includes the assumption that women have no role to play on the stage of national history.
Although Manuela Sáenz is known widely today in Spanish America, historians in the region are still largely silent. While national histories in both Colombia and Ecuador now acknowledge her existence, for example, their acknowledgment remains severely limited. In some cases, they say even less than earlier narratives. The latest, most comprehensive, work on Ecuadorian history, the fifteen-volume Nueva historia del Ecuador, edited by Enrique Ayala, for one, notes Sáenz's role on the night of September 25 only in passing and offers no further discussion of her or of her place in the history of the nation's women. The forty-volume Historia extensa de Colombia does little better, paying only brief homage to Sáenz's success in saving Bolívar from the clutches of his would-be assassins. A newer survey, the Nueva historia de Colombia, omits mention of our protagonist altogether.
Memory of Manuela Sáenz, of course, has been preserved in other writings. These include a few articles by gentleman-scholars who, in the first half of the twentieth century, took an interest in preserving her papers. Since around the mid-twentieth century, such writings have included reams of more popular publications including newspaper essays, poems, and historical novels. Overall, however, this literature has had only a loose connection with the historical personage. Indeed, it often has projected a distorted, semimythical image of her. One reason for this is that, as with Argentina's controversial Eva Perón, opinions about Sáenz (known to many in her own time as the "Libertadora") have been polarized—divided into two opposing camps of historical interpretation.
Originating in the criticism of her contemporaries, including her and Bolívar's political enemies, one camp, for instance, sees her as a "bad girl." Its authors focus on her unorthodox behavior, highlighting her violation of gender norms or boundaries that prohibited women from participating in government and the public sphere, including, in the wake of independence, the raucous world of competitive politics. This camp also echoes the discomfiture of some of Sáenz's male acquaintances who, on seeing her willingness openly to confront her and Bolívar's opponents and her habit of appearing in public dressed in a military-style uniform, characterized her as "indecent" or "crazy."
Some authors within the "bad girl" camp, moreover, have interpreted the Quito native's "crazy" conduct as evidence of a confused sexual or gender identity. An example of this appears in the work of popular Peruvian author Ricardo Palma. In an essay penned around the turn of the twentieth century, Palma classifies the Libertadora as a "manly woman" (mujer-hombre). Contrasting her with her well-known friend, Lima socialite Rosita Campusano, whom he classifies as a "feminine woman" (mujer-mujer), he claims that Sáenz preferred the world of army camps and barracks to the urban refinements and luxuries of Lima. She "did not know how to cry" and had "renounced her sex," he concludes. Possibly inspired by the memoirs of one of Sáenz's acquaintances, French scientist Jean-Baptiste Boussingault (who met her in Bogotá in the late 1820s), Palma also pronounces her "a mistake of nature whose masculine spirit and aspirations were embodied in feminine forms."
Palma would be joined by Colombian author Alberto Miramón, whose 1944 La vida ardiente de Manuelita Sáenz elaborates on the theme of Sáenz's supposed gender deviance. Miramón's book offers a unique, Freudian-inspired explanation for Sáenz's bold—and, thus, seemingly unfeminine—public conduct, arguing that such conduct stemmed largely from the effects of an overactive libido. Indeed, in stating that his protagonist "belonged to a certain erotic category of women that has been identified by modern science," the author suggests she was a nymphomaniac. Her excess sexual energy, he continues, led her not only to indulge in "continuous infidelities" but also to invade the manly realms of war and politics, working zealously on behalf of her lover's political interests.
Other authors have simply condemned the Libertadora for her transgressive behavior. Eschewing any attempt to understand the historical woman (perhaps unsure of what to make of her), they portray her as disreputable. In his 1951 two-volume biography of Bolívar, for example, Salvador De Madariaga claims Sáenz's relationship with the Venezuelan-born hero was based on little more than personal ambition, greed, and crass convenience. He states that Sáenz "tolerated" Bolívar's affairs with other women in exchange for "a generous pension, not a little political power, and the freedom to indulge in [numerous] romantic adventures." Characterizing her conduct as low class or boorish, he also suggests she was a liability for her prestigious lover. Sáenz's love of port wine combined with her habits of smoking, "dressing and acting like a hussar," and telling "dirty jokes," Madariaga asserts, coarsened the atmosphere around Bolívar, thereby tarnishing his reputation along with that of his Bogotá circle, or "court."
Pilar Moreno de Ángel tends to agree, offering a similarly negative assessment of both Sáenz and her influence. In her two well-documented biographies, one of José María Córdova, the other of Francisco de Paula Santander (Bolívar's main Colombian rival and Sáenz's antagonist), Moreno portrays Sáenz as an opportunistic camp follower. She depicts her, too, as someone who lacked a sense of propriety or female respectability—who "rode horseback like the men and smoked and drank like a soldier." She implies that this same quality led to Sáenz's later difficulties (in 1828-1830) with her Bogotá neighbors; her "free and easy ways" (costumbres libres y desenfadados), Moreno asserts, offended the city's pious, puritanical residents. Moreno also agrees with De Madariaga's suggestion that Sáenz was a political liability, alleging that she contributed "notably to an increase in Bolívar's rising unpopularity." She particularly condemns Sáenz's political activism, or habit of, as she puts it, "intervening openly in politics without the ability or experience to do so." Such a habit, she concludes, poisoned the atmosphere by increasing the tension that had come to exist by the late 1820s between Bolívar and his rivals.
Yet others have seen Manuela Sáenz as a heroine. Reflecting the impact of twentieth-century nationalism and the secular cult of Bolívar, especially strong in Venezuela and its immediate neighbors (Colombia and Ecuador), their writings celebrate her commitment to independence, personal bravery, and love for as well as devotion to the revered founder of five nations. An example of such writings may be found in the work of well-known Venezuelan scholar and Bolívar panegyrist Vicente Lecuna. In an essay entitled "Papeles de Manuela Sáenz" (1945), Lecuna praises Sáenz, highlighting her courage and compassion as well as her stoicism in the face of misfortune. He especially lauds her thwarting of the notorious September 25, 1828, attackers and, in paying homage to her sangfroid and bold action that night, states that she "saved" the Venezuelan nation from "the shame of assassinating its greatest hero." For this reason alone, he adds, she ought to be remembered always "with respect and sympathy."
Yet, as in the case of works associated with the "bad girl" school of interpretation, Lecuna's portrait of Sáenz is one-dimensional. Indeed, in dismissing unflattering myths or claims about her, for example, that she was less than totally faithful to Bolívar, his article suggests the Libertadora was less a real person than a kind of saint or Mary Magdalene—a woman who transcended her supposed moral weakness through love for and devotion to the Liberator-Messiah. Sáenz's "noble conduct . . . purified her life and redeemed all her sins," the article piously concludes. Lecuna's view has been largely echoed by other Spanish American authors since the 1940s, especially nationalist authors in Ecuador who, like Ángel I. Chiriboga, see Sáenz as a romantic "martyr of love and glory."
The present work seeks to transcend such simplified, stereotypical images. It offers a more balanced, nuanced view of Sáenz, portraying her not as "bad," deviant, or transgressive, or as romantic or heroic (much less saintlike), but as a complex person rooted in the equally complex and changing world of her time. Above all, it seeks to recover the historical person.
It has been preceded in this by two older biographies: one by Alfonso Rumazo González, another by Von Hagen. In his now-classic Manuela Sáenz: La libertadora del libertador (1944), Rumazo seeks to trace Sáenz's life in a serious manner, relating it to historical developments that shaped it, such as the 1808-1809 crisis of Spanish colonial authority and ensuing Spanish American struggles for independence. He examines not only her romantic affair with the Liberator but her alliance with him and involvement in events marking the early years of the new Spanish American republics, Peru and Colombia, in particular.
Rumazo's book suffers from serious flaws, however. It tends to offer conjecture as fact. Indeed, it fails to substantiate key claims about its protagonist and her activities. One example of this is the claim that Sáenz joined Bolívar's army in combat and participated in the decisive December 9, 1824, Battle of Ayacucho, an assertion based more on legend that on any archival or documentary evidence. Another, ultimately greater, flaw is the book's tendency to overlook key parts of its protagonist's life experience. While lavishing attention on her eight-year relationship with Bolívar (devoting over half of roughly three hundred pages to the subject), Rumazo fails to examine her subsequent trajectory. He devotes only one short, twenty-one-page chapter to the twenty-six years by which she outlived her famous lover (who died in December 1830). He gives especially short shrift to the two decades she spent in the northern Peruvian port town of Paita, where, from 1835 on, Sáenz lived out the rest of her life as a political exile.
Von Hagen's The Four Seasons of Manuela (1952)—until now, the only biography available in English—suffers from similar weaknesses. Its narrative focuses almost exclusively on Manuela's affair with the Liberator, with fourteen of its eighteen chapters (these arranged into four parts: "Spring," "Summer," "Autumn," and "Winter") devoted to charting the couple's eight years together. It acknowledges other aspects of her life only briefly. Despite its inclusion of several new details about her years in Paita, for example, it says little about the friendships Sáenz formed with local residents or about the role she came to play in the town's tiny Ecuadorian émigré community. Like Rumazo's book, The Four Seasons of Manuela also overlooks Sáenz's continued involvement in the world of politics; it says nothing about her post-1835 efforts to collaborate with two-time Ecuadorian president General Juan José Flores or about her ties to other important national figures, nearly all of them, like her, old followers of Bolívar. It also tends to fictionalize or, at least, to make broad use of poetic license and, beyond a helpful bibliographical essay, avoids scholarly documentation. It suggests, too, that, with Bolívar's death, Sáenz's life was over—a suggestion that reflects both authors' tendency to see her life primarily as part of an epic love story.
The present work differs significantly from these older biographies. It deromanticizes its subject, offering readers the first critical, comprehensive study of a remarkable, if still little known and poorly understood, woman. It builds on recent scholarship, both on Sáenz and on nineteenth-century Latin American women generally. Above all, it presents the results of my visits to archives, libraries, and historic sites in the countries in which Sáenz resided—Ecuador, Peru, and Colombia—and consultation of a wide array of primary sources. Belonging to manuscript collections located in Quito, Lima, Bogotá, and elsewhere, these sources have been preserved by scholars and, thanks to publications that have appeared over the last century, gradually have been made available to a wider audience. They include Manuela Sáenz's extant personal correspondence—a source that, despite its many gaps, allows a biographer to reconstruct her life story. Combined with other surviving documents of the period, for example, the reports and recollections of those who knew her, they also allow for a reassessment of the historical woman.
Crucial to this reassessment have been the letters Sáenz exchanged with General Juan José Flores from the mid-1830s through the mid-1840s. Ignored by (or unavailable to) earlier biographers, these letters reveal not only Sáenz's friendship with Flores—and enduring ties to other old Bolivarians—but also her growing interest and involvement in Ecuadorian national politics, facilitated by the alliance she chose to form with a friend who also happened to be her country's main strongman, or caudillo. Such interest and involvement, of course, belie older biographers' assumption that, after Bolívar's death, the Libertadora faded away into sad obscurity. It shows that Sáenz learned to adapt to new circumstances and that, in the wake of her exile to Paita, she reinvented herself, finding new sources of pride and self-respect as well as personal influence.
More generally, this biography also shows that for all her seeming exceptionalism—that is, the fame (or notoriety) and influence she achieved in the course of her brief career as Bolívar's follower and mistress—the Libertadora cannot be understood apart from her time, place, and generation. The time, of course, was Latin America's "Age of Revolution," an age that witnessed the impact of the European Enlightenment as well as the French, British North American, and Haitian revolutions; collapse of Iberian colonialism; and birth, by around 1840, of some sixteen fledgling Latin American nations.
Like others born in the last years of the eighteenth century, Manuela Sáenz grew up and matured in the midst of these changes. She learned to navigate and negotiate them, adopting, for example (and as the coming chapters illustrate), the vocabulary of Spanish America's new liberal-republican order, with its universalist promises of freedom, constitutionally based law, and citizenship. She also formed part of a unique storm-tossed generation, one marked by the new century's most intense and violent moment: the wars for independence that, between 1810 and 1825, raged across Spanish America. It was as a member of this generation that the Libertadora burst onto the public scene and new postindependence political arena—an arena in which, largely because of her sex, she would be transformed at once into both an icon and a partisan lightning rod.
The subject of this biography also cannot be understood apart from her gender or from the broader history of Spanish American women. She was, of course, no ordinary woman. She was a relatively pampered and privileged city girl—a member of Quito's small, exclusive, white (or criollo) elite or upper class. She had little in common with the darker-skinned (Indian and mixed-race) peasant or working-class members of her sex, who predominated in poor urban neighborhoods as well as in the Andean countryside. Her experiences, nevertheless, may offer insight into the changes women throughout the region—in small towns, villages, and cities—underwent as a result of their involvement in the struggles for independence and in what Sylvia Arrom describes as a broad process of civic and political "mobilization." They offer insight into the limits of this mobilization and into the gender boundaries that, after independence, would, among other things, exclude women from formal participation in the young Spanish American republics. They demonstrate one woman's tendency to chafe against those boundaries and, above all, to search for her own path and destiny.