How I learned about our latest Hall of Fame nominee is a story in and of itself. I was in a tiny shop in Cartagena, Colombia, buying a traditional Cartagenan linen dress. The elderly shop owner was clucking over the way the dress fit, and made me take it off so she could alter it for me. In the middle of her shop–and the entire store was no more than 10 x 10 feet–sat an ancient Singer sewing machine, the kind powered by a foot treadle. While she went to work, I pulled out the money to pay for the dress. When I unrolled a $10,000 peso note, Grandma jerked her chin in its direction and said “She was a dressmaker, like me.”
Confused, I looked down at the bill in my hands. It had a woman’s face on it, and underneath, her name: Policarpa Salavarietta.
“Who was she?” I asked.
“Oh, a great heroine of the Revolution. She was a spy and friend of the slaves and they executed her.”
Well, that sounded pretty badass, and further research indicated just how badass. So herewith, I bring you her story:
Policarpa Salavarietta was one of eight children born into a well-off Colombian family at the end of the 18th century. Although the date and place of her birth are in dispute, she grew up in Bogotá. But in 1802, her parents and two of her siblings died in a smallpox epidemic that killed thousands. The epidemic destroyed Policarpa’s family–two of her brothers joined a monastic order, another two left the city to work on a farm, and the remaining children were sent away to live first with an aunt, then with a godmother.
As a young woman, Policarpa made her living as a seamstress, and moved back to Bogotá in 1817, where she became politically active, particularly as an abolitionist and anti-colonial agitator. Bogotá was the stronghold of the Reconquista–the Spanish crown’s war to reclaim its former colonies in South America. In Policarpa’s hometown, most of the population were Royalists, and had locked down the city in an attempt to keep out the Revolutionary army who fought for a free Colombia. Because Policarpa was unobtrusive and middle-class, she could move easily through the Royalist lines and meet other patriots and spies without arousing suspicion. Her job as a seamstress allowed her to infiltrate the homes of Royalist families to spy on them, collecting intelligence from overheard conversations and purloined letters, then smuggling the information out of the city. Known to both her friends and enemies as “La Pola,” Policarpa also secretly recruited men to the Revolutionary cause, increasing the number of revolutionaries inside the walls of the Royalist capital.
But when fellow spies were captured with letters that implicated Policarpa and her brother, they were both arrested and sentenced to death. Hands bound, with two priests at her side, Policarpa, her brother, her lover and six other revolutionaries were marched before a firing squad. She refused to pray or receive absolution from the priests and died cursing the Spanish and predicting their defeat. In 1819, Simon Bolívar, the “Washington of the Americas”, liberated Bogotá; two years later, his army freed the former colonies of Spanish rule once and for all.
In 1967, the Colombian president and Congress declared that November 14th would henceforth be “the Day of the Colombian Woman” in honor of the anniversary of the death of “our heroine, Policarpa Salavarrieta.”