Manuela Sáenz would learn very early in her life that marriage was not as important as love. Her mother, Joaquina Aizpuru, was not married when she became pregnant with Sáenz, the result of an affair with a family acquaintance in a higher social class. To avoid the humiliation of such bad judgment, Aizpuru was sent away to keep her pregnancy secret, and forced to relinquish her daughter to the care of nuns in a convent in Quito. She died by the time Sáenz was seven. Simón Sáenz de Vergara was a wealthy businessman and successful politician with a wife and six children. A scandal could have ruined his life, but to his credit, he acknowledged Sáenz, paid the one thousand-peso dowry for his daughter to be given a proper upbringing in the convent, and introduced her to his legitimate children, giving her life some family context.
Sáenz’s father took responsibility for his daughter’s future by arranging a marriage to a much older, wealthy Englishman, and the newlyweds moved to Lima. As a young wife, Sáenz socialized with Peru’s social, political and military elite. She became sympathetic to the rebel cause, and against her husband’s orders, she joined the patriots to liberate Peru from the tyranny of Spain. For her involvement, Sáenz received the Order of the Sun, an award given to those who made an exceptional contribution to the campaign.
Her appetite for political adventure having been whetted, Sáenz left her husband and moved back to Quito in 1822. She unapologetically abandoned her marriage in a time when women had few options in life. There Sáenz met Simon Bolivar, “El Libertador” of South America.
Back in her hometown, Sáenz again immersed herself in the independence movement. Bolivar was to parade through town to celebrate victory in the battle that gave Quito independence. On a fateful day, Sáenz’s participation was not militant. She had the decidedly female job of beautifying the homes along the parade route to make a good impression on the esteemed soldier. That evening, the two met at a reception and began their legendary love affair.
FOLLOWING HER HEART At first, Sáenz was assumed to be another notch on the belt of a great womanizer. As scandalous as their affair was, the couple had an immediate deep, passionate connection. When Bolivar left Quito, Sáenz did not retreat back to her family, or even her marriage, as a spurned lover. She followed him and integrated herself into his life.
Sáenz and Bolivar’s romantic partnership could not be distinguished from their political alliance. She became the official keeper of Bolivar’s personal archive, guarding his private papers and personally maintaining the secrecy of the army’s military strategy. Her commitment to the cause superseded any fear she may have had of battle. Sáenz organized troops and rescued and nursed those injured on the battlefield. In one letter to Bolivar, Colombian General Antonio José de Sucre called Sáenz a hero for her contribution in the Battle of Ayacucho, and he recommended that Bolivar make her a Colonel of the Colombian army, which he did. This appointment was so controversial because Sáenz was a woman that, in an irate letter to Bolivar, Colombian Vice-President Francisco Paula de Santander accused him of nepotism. But Bolivar defended the bravery that earned Sáenz the recognition.
WHAT SHE DID FOR LOVE When the wars for independence were over, Sáenz was 29, and she moved into Bolivar’s official residence. She was well known as his mistress, but her influence extended beyond the personal to the role of gatekeeper for those wanting to meet with Bolivar. And she didn’t need permission to act on his behalf. In 1827 in Lima, the conditions for the troops were so bad that the army officers threatened a rebellion that would totally undermine the new constitution that Bolivar had established. While Bolivar was away, Sáenz visited the soldiers wearing a colonel’s uniform and contributed money for food to dissuade them from being influenced by rebels with an ulterior political agenda. She was rewarded for her initiative by being arrested and expelled from Peru, but her commitment to Bolivar’s cause never wavered.
Sáenz not only dedicated herself to Bolivar’s political mission, but she was directly responsible for saving his life on at least two occasions. In August 1928 Bolivar was to attend a party that Sáenz was not invited to. She had received word that at midnight he would be assassinated, and she begged him to skip the event. He ignored her warnings thinking she was just jealous at not being on the guest list. At about 11:00, Sáenz showed up wearing a military uniform, but she was denied entry by the guard who turned out to be one of the conspirators. She made another desperate attempt to preempt the assassination attempt by dressing up in dirty rags like an old crazy woman. She positioned herself outside and yelled, “Que viva el Libertador!” (“Long live the Liberator!”) Sáenz’s behavior was becoming an embarrassment to Bolivar, so he left the party to reprimand her. At midnight, when the conspirators came to kill him, Bolivar was gone.
Six weeks later, the couple was at home when Bolivar’s enemies entered the house with the same goal. Sáenz ran to the sleeping man, supplied him with a sword and gun and forced him to jump out the window. Bolivar resisted, instinctively wanting to stay and fight, but finally he trusted her judgment and left. When the would-be assassins confronted her, she said legitimately that she didn’t know where he was, and he successfully escaped. For this heroic effort, Bolivar called her “Libertadora del Libertador” (“Liberator of the Liberator”).
Bolivar was a hero for emancipating South America from Spanish rule, but there was trouble in determining the governments. Bolivar proclaimed himself as the dictator of the Gran Colombia in August 1828 in an effort to save the unified republic he fought so hard to establish and maintain his leadership. That did not appease the insurgents in Venezuela and Ecuador. In 1830 he resigned and prepared to flee to Europe in self-imposed exile. He died of tuberculosis in Columbia before he could leave.
A REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE Sáenz’s association with Bolivar did not endear her to the incoming leaders, and she was exiled to Jamaica three years later. Even from a distance, she attempted to stay involved in the political process of establishing the boundaries between Colombia, Ecuador and Peru through correspondence. Over time, however, she became increasingly less relevant.
Her final years were in stark contrast to the heady adventures with Bolivar. After an attempt to return to Ecuador was refused, Sáenz settled in a port city in northern Peru, selling tobacco and translating letters for North American whalers to send to their lovers in Latin America. She fell when the termite-eaten stairs of her home collapsed and became permanently disabled. In 1856, at 59 years old, Sáenz died during a diphtheria epidemic and was buried anonymously in a mass grave.
Sáenz was eventually given proper respect for her role in South America’s liberation from Spain. On July 5, 2010 symbolic remains of her body along with soil from her original grave were reinterred next to the tomb of her lover and compatriot, Simon Bolivar. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa presided over the ceremony at the National Pantheon in Caracas, Venezuela.
QUESTION: What is the craziest or most daring thing you’ve done to show your love for someone?
©2010 Debbie Foulkes All Rights Reserved
Murray, Pamela S. For Glory and Bolivar, The Remarkable Life of Manuela Sáenz http://books.google.com/books