From the kitchen to the cabinet:
the inspiring story of Casimira Rodríguez

By Paul Jeffrey
Response magazine

When Casimira Rodríguez reads the Bible, she is impressed by how often the word "justice" appears. As Bolivia's new minister of justice, the indigenous Methodist woman has a unique opportunity to incarnate the word in South America's poorest nation.

Ms. Rodríguez learned about the lack of justice at an early age, when she left her small Quechua village in the Andes to go to work as a maid in the city of Cochabamba. She was only 13. She worked from 6 a.m. til almost midnight every day, cleaning and cooking for 15 people, without ever having a day off. Everyone in the house could order her around. She was a virtual slave, forbidden by her employer from talking with others outside the house or contacting her parents. She received no pay for more than two years.

Ms. Rodríguez' mother eventually came and took her back to their home village, but the pressures of poverty soon brought her back to Cochabamba to find employment with another family. "I was told not to talk, only to follow orders from the woman of the house. The physical labor wasn't bad but the psychological control was overwhelming. I had to always be near the woman and ready to receive orders. She demanded that I be clean, but wouldn't let me use the shower, much less hot water. I had to wash my clothes at night with my own soap. She also controlled the electricity. I could only leave the light on in my room for ten minutes after I retired for the night, or she would sound a buzzer in my room," she said.

Ms. Rodríguez says such exploitation of young girls leaves deep emotional scars. "You experience so much humiliation and discrimination that you start to think that it's normal not to have dignity, not to defend yourself, not to have freedom or demand your rights. And you're alone, shut off far from your family. You're not respected as a human being. You become an object," she said.

Eventually Ms. Rodríguez found an employer who let her have Sunday afternoons off so she could attend sewing and literacy classes held at the Catholic and Methodist churches in the city. Over time, the women's discussions led to the formation of an association of domestic employees–whom Ms. Rodríguez prefers to call homeworkers.

"I got to know many sisters with whom I could share. I had many friends there, and we formed a small community. They became my people. When we shared food together, it made me remember how we'd shared together in the village where I grew up," she said.

As her experience of sisterhood on Sunday afternoons grew, so did Ms. Rodríguez' faith. On Sunday mornings, she participated in a small evangelical congregation, but was soon told by the pastor that her involvement in the homeworkers association, which was becoming more like a union every day, was contrary to the Gospel. The church pushed her to abandon the association. Ms. Rodríguez didn't like the choice.

And then she met Marta Cayo, a Methodist lay woman who was herself active in a peasant women's association. Ms. Cayo told Ms. Rodríguez that there was no contradiction between her faith and her involvement in the homeworkers' association. "She explained to me that in the Methodist Church, social justice and the word of God are one and go hand in hand," Ms. Rodríguez told the United Methodist Women's Assembly in May.

As a result, Ms. Rodríguez became a member of the Methodist Church, where on Sunday mornings she found a God who was on the side of the women she gathered with on Sunday afternoons. It was a life-changing encounter.

"When I came to know the Word of the Lord, my life filled with hope and faith because God was on the side of the poor, denouncing injustice and healing the sick," she said.

Buoyed by her faith, Ms. Rodríguez gave more and more of her life to the homeworkers association. "Every morning, as I swept the walk in front of the house where I worked, I made sure I spoke with every homeworker who walked by on her way to buy bread at the store, telling them about the union and the classes we offered on Sundays," she said.

Feeling called to dedicate more of her time to organizing, she quit her full-time homeworker job, found a small room to rent and got a half-time job to pay the bills. Her room became a refuge for abused homeworkers and often a gathering place for association meetings. "Loneliness is a big problem for homeworkers. In the union we try to make them feel like they're in a family. Welcoming them was a priority for me," she said.

Ms. Rodríguez rode her bike around Cochabamba, spreading the word that homeworkers were daughters of God and thus entitled to respect. She would often accompany abused homeworkers to the police where they would denounce abuse (though often with no result). One time a homeworker's employer followed the woman to Ms. Rodríguez' room, where the employer screamed at Ms. Rodríguez and got her in trouble with the landlord.

As the association grew, so did Ms. Rodríguez' public profile. She became the spokesperson for homeworkers on radio programs. Employers angry about their newly uppity homeworkers blamed Ms. Rodríguez as an agitator. She started receiving death threats.

As the association grew, with chapters in Cochabamba and La Paz, the capital, Ms. Rodríguez came to know other social leaders, including Evo Morales, the young leader of the coca producers union. (Coca is the main ingredient in cocaine, but much of the coca grown in Bolivia is used for traditional purposes.) The homeworkers joined in larger social protests, part of the fervor for grassroots democracy sweeping the country.

In 1986, Ms. Rodríguez was elected secretary general of the National Federation of Bolivian Homeworkers, and began traveling throughout the country, getting to know parts of Bolivia far from her home. "I had to get to know other spaces, other cultures, all different realities. But the problems of the homeworker were the same. The exploitation, the discrimination against the migrant and the poor, and the lack of knowledge about labor rights were the same everywhere," she said.

However far she traveled, her roots in the Methodist Church remained strong. Until the association recently got its own building in Cochabamba, it continued to gather in a Methodist Church. Gustavo Loza, a Methodist pastor and human rights activist in Cochabamba, says that before the homeworkers' first public demonstration the women–who'd never done such a thing–rehearsed at the church, carrying placards and marching around the church courtyard while chanting slogans about their demands.

Despite death threats, tear gas, and abuse, Ms. Rodríguez led the union in convincing the Bolivian Congress to pass a landmark law protecting the legal rights of homeworkers. Approved after more than a decade of lobbying by Ms. Rodríguez and her colleagues, the 2003 law put a limit on the hours of full-time homeworkers, ordered employers to grant time to go to school, and required a minimum salary and vacation days. The law was but one step on the road to full dignity, however; since its passage the association and other women's groups have been working to assure its enforcement throughout the country.

In recognition of her leadership in Bolivia, in 2001 Ms. Rodríguez was elected secretary general of the Federation of Homeworkers in Latin America and the Caribbean, an alliance of homeworker associations in 14 countries.

In December 2005, Bolivians elected Evo Morales–the coca growers leader–as their first indigenous president. When Mr. Morales took office in January, he named Ms. Rodríguez as the minister of justice. The designation was a surprise to Ms. Rodríguez, who had been so busy leading the two federations–and studying anthropology part-time in a university–that she had not participated in the electoral campaign. Her lack of experience with the law wasn't an impediment for Mr. Morales, however, who came to the presidency himself without a university degree or the normal background of traditional politicians. His landslide electoral victory nonetheless demonstrated that Bolivians were tired of traditional politicians and demanding significant change.

"Homeworkers are the sector that's been most discriminated against, exploited, and despised. They organized to demand their rights and pass a law that would guarantee them a just salary. We helped them lobby in the Congress. Yet even with the law they aren't respected by their employers. They're not paid a just salary," President Morales told Response during an interview in the Presidential Palace in La Paz. "Yet Casimira has struggled against this injustice. She has been an organizer and leader at a national and international level, which is why we designated her as the minister of justice. We want to create justice where there is today injustice."

The designation of an indigenous woman who proudly wears her people's traditional clothing as head of an important government ministry provoked an immediate public protest from the country's lawyers, most of whom are light-skinned men. The lawyers' association–with some 30,000 members–quickly demanded the resignation of Ms. Rodríguez.

In response, Methodist Bishop Carlos Poma called other church leaders to a meeting with the new justice minister, where they presented her with a Bible.

"When the lawyers demanded her resignation, she was feeling down. I told her that those 30,000 lawyers are about as important as three cats. ‘You've been chosen by a government that was elected by nine million Bolivians, and that's more important,' I said. We told her to be strong, that Jesus is present in her, and we prayed with her before she went out to a press conference to respond to the lawyers. That was the end of it. The lawyers shut up," Bishop Poma said.

The bishop said the naming of Ms. Rodríguez symbolizes the hope that Bolivians have in their new government. "Justice has always been unequal here, benefitting the rich while causing humiliation to the poor and illiterate. But God lifts up the ignorant and those who live in the garbage dumps, raises them high and brings down the mighty. That's what God is doing at this moment in our country," he said.

Although her cabinet post keeps her fully occupied in the nation's capital, Ms. Rodríguez has insisted on maintaining her membership and involvement in the Methodist congregation in Cochabamba that's been her spiritual home for several years. "She has long balanced her participation in the church with her leadership in the union, and now that she's a government minister she insists on maintaining her position as treasurer of the congregation. We've appointed another sister to help her, but Casimira refused to resign from the post. Usually when we've had men in the church who were elected as mayor or a member of Congress, their participation in the church ended as they started living another life, another ethical situation outside. But Casimira is different, perhaps because of her deep faith, or perhaps because women have a different understanding of leadership," he said.

Mr. Loza said the designation of Ms. Rodríguez to the prominent post has helped the cause of homeworkers and all of Bolivia's poor.

"As a result of the homeworkers' law, there have been changes, but a law doesn't change things overnight. It will take decades more. The presence of Casimira in the government helps a lot. It helps us redefine what it means to be an indigenous woman. It makes it easier to be proud to wear a pollero [an indigenous skirt] or a poncho [an indigenous cape]. Her presence there has helped indigenous people feel more valuable, and homeworkers raise their self-esteem. This will help speed up the process of change," said Mr. Loza.

Her new job isn't easy, but Ms. Rodríguez is determined to keep it. "My presence here has important symbolism, especially for indigenous and peasant women. Their support has helped me feel more secure. That the lawyers have discriminated against me, saying this isn't my space, that I'm not adequately prepared for the work, has helped us see clearly the changes that are taking place in our country. And those changes aren't well accepted by the elites who have always felt they owned this space. But the Lord is present to help me, to give me courage and keep me from fainting. My faith in the Lord is strong, and I know he is out in front of me leading the way," she said.

Ms. Rodríguez has committed her office to recognizing the value of community-based justice systems practiced in many of the country's indigenous communities. And she is playing a critical role in President Morales' campaign against corruption. Yet most of all she wants the word justice to have meaning for the poor and marginalized.

"The justice system has long favored those who are rich. Those who don't have any money have to wait a long time, often until they die, without ever seeing justice in their cases. We're dreaming that we can transform this, that we can speed up the process and make justice a reality for everyone, without any discrimination," she said.

Sidebar: Homeworkers organize to speak up for rights

When she was eight years old, Cristina Ortuño came from the countryside to Cochabamba to work in the home of a wealthy family which had promised the girl's mother that they would send her to school in exchange for some housework. But there was no school, no wages, and the girl was instead told that her mother had sold her. "They threatened me all the time, and the señora taught me to hate my mother," said Ms. Ortuño. Her situation was typical, she says. "They taught us to hate the poor, the people of the countryside. They told us the poor were dirty but that they, the wealthy, were different, were better than the poor."

Ms. Ortuño finally went to work for a family that gave her Sundays off, and a fellow homeworker she met in the street told her about the classes offered on Sunday afternoons by the Cochabamba Homeworkers Association. At age 16, Ms. Ortuño started learning to read and write. Her timidity was transformed into courage. Today, at age 21, she's the secretary general of the association.

Besides classes in literacy, self-esteem, sewing, and labor law, the association has a residence where homeworkers can stay for up to 15 days if they lose their job. It provides legal accompaniment for workers who want to take complaints about mistreatment to the police or labor ministry.

Ms. Ortuño says the homeworkers law, passed in 2003, has helped change the situation for young women.

"Most girls come from the countryside knowing nothing of their rights, and because they live inside the house where they work, they're cut off from a lot of information. Most employers don't want their homeworkers to know their rights. It's difficult to knock on the door and talk with them, because the employer won't even permit them one minute of talking to someone else," she said.

To get around the enforced isolation, the association hands out leaflets on the streets on Sundays, but since many of the young women can't read, they make extensive use of radio–which can penetrate into the private sphere where the women labor. The radio messages inform women of their legal rights under the new law, and let them know where they can turn for help.

"Many of the sisters are timid, afraid of making demands on their employer. Here we help them understand that they have rights, beginning with the fundamental right to speak up for themselves," said Julia Chambi, the secretary of the association.

The women hold Casimira Rodríguez in high esteem. After all, she is one of them, and her recent appointment as Bolivia's justice minister makes all homeworkers walk a bit more proudly.

"Casimira has shared her life for us so that other sisters aren't discriminated against as she was. She has shown us what is possible for each one of us," said Ms. Chambi.

Another association leader, Zenobia Mamani, said Bolivia's new justice minister sets an example for homeworkers across the country. "Casimira came from here, suffered a lot for us, and we're proud of her. Our goal is to follow in her footsteps," Ms. Mamani said.

Sidebar: Latin America's changing political scene

The landslide election in December of Evo Morales as president of Bolivia signals a turn away from politics as normal both in the landlocked Andean nation as well as throughout Latin America. The region's traditional politicians have been thrown out in country after country and a new breed of political leaders has taken over.

Much of the impetus for change comes from frustration with the "Washington Consensus"–a prescription by the U.S. government that demanded deregulation, privatization, lower taxes, smaller governments, and the unrestricted movement of capital and imports. Yet Washington's cure for Latin America's ills only manufactured more misery for the 43 percent of the region's population that lives on less than two dollars a day. As a result, more of the poor than ever before sought to migrate north, something not countenanced in a system of globalization that allows for the free movement of capital but not people. While human trafficking grew as a result, the money the migrants send home has become the principal source of hard currency for many countries whose traditional exports were pillaged by steadily deteriorating terms of trade.

More than a third of the region's youth are unemployed, the maternal death rate is 20 times that of the industrialized world, and diseases associated with poverty killed some 200,000 children in Latin America last year. Whatever statistic you cite, they all reflect increasing inequality. In land ownership, in access to credit, in income distribution, it's the region of the world with the most pronounced inequality. The gap is wide and getting wider.

No wonder voters have thrown out the bums and voted in presidents like Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, Luiz Inácio "Lula" da Silva in Brazil, Michelle Bachelet in Chile, and Mr. Morales in Bolivia.

Methodist leaders hailed the election of Mr. Morales, an Aymara activist.

"The day he was elected many of us cried with joy," said Methodist Bishop Carlos Poma.

Gustavo Loza, a Methodist pastor and human rights activist in Cochabamba, said Mr. Morales' election is symbolic of a larger political shift.

"This is a special time of hope that many of us, after 500 years of repression of indigenous peoples, believed would never happen. But it's also a product of 500 years of resistance, as well as the crisis of the neoliberal model which has further impoverished our country," he said.

Several key figures in the current U.S. administration have expressed fear of the political changes sweeping through Latin America, including those undertaken by Mr. Morales, who has reasserted Bolivian control over natural resources and challenged U.S. control over so-called "free trade."

"The United States suffers from a belief that whoever isn't with me is against me. That leaves out the possibility that people, or countries, can be friends but still think in a distinct manner," Mr. Loza said. "If struggling for justice is dangerous, then Bolivia is a threat to the U.S. If looking for unity amidst diversity is dangerous, then Bolivia is dangerous for the U.S."

One of the sticking points in relations between Bolivia and the U.S. is coca–the primary ingredient for the production of cocaine. Mr. Morales, who came to political prominence as head of the coca growers federation, is stuck between U.S. demands to reduce production and the desires of his constituents to expand it.

Although some of Bolivia's coca is transformed into cocaine, mostly for export to Brazil, at least half of it is used domestically for traditional purposes. It is an important part of Bolivia's culture.

"Coca is a means of celebration and a way of life. We have a whole other reading of the use of coca leaves here. Instead of having a cup of coffee together many Bolivians just pass around a bag of coca leaves," said Tom Henehan, a Catholic priest from Chicago who works in Cochabamba.

"It's like corn for us in the United States. Corn can be used to make whiskey, but we never made it illegal to grow corn," he said.