MAÑUELITA, AMABLE LOCA
Friday, September 13th, 2013
I first heard about Manuela Saenz from a newspaper article whose title read “Bolivar’s heirs honour ‘harlot of Americas’ “. Now, that sounds intriguing!
The article spoke about “the most famous harlot of the Americas”, Manuela Saenz, who lived and fought alongside the great liberator of the South American continent, Simon Bolivar. She died ostracized from her country and her people for being one of his most ardent supporters.
As I read the story I found myself more and more absorbed. Forgotten in exile in northern Peru, she survived by selling tobacco and translating love letters to the whalers who stopped at the dusty port town. Theatrically romantic, I thought (although, in reality, somewhat tragic). My imagination immediately took me to a stage filled with sand and a lone figure sitting on a wooden barrel. And a cigar, of course. No thought is complete without a smoking cigar.
The article continued: after 200 years she was being posthumously recognized and her symbolic remains were being taken to lie next to those of Simon Bolivar’s in Caracas, Venezuela. “We are going to unite the remains of our liberator with the remains of his immortal companion”. Hmm? Interesting idea. I wonder what she would’ve thought about that. I also wondered why this was being done now? Why was she so forgotten? Was she really a harlot, or just a woman struggling in a difficult patriarchal society? What was there to learn from this historical figure?
So I went to find her. I traveled for six weeks around Colombia, Ecuador and Peru – following the footsteps she made whilst she was alive and seeing the imprint she left on generations of Latin Americans. The memory of this controversial woman was distinct from country to country, city to city, person to person. There were so many stories about her – were they true or false? They often seemed to conflict in one way or another.
What did become clear was that she was pretty incredible – a true legend in her own right.
When I returned and sat down to write I realized I had discovered my own truth about her. One amassed by my accumulation of knowledge, questions, interpretations and imaginations. But there are so many Manuelas. Which one do you pick? Which one would she pick? After all, a legend is as much as you make of it.