“Indolent people! How diverse your luck would be today if you knew the price of freedom?” These powerful words, translated from Spanish, were passionately uttered during the last moments of Policarpa Salavarrieta’s life, Colombia’s most renowned heroine.
Though Colombian history overwhelmingly credits the patriarchal figures, Simon Bolivar and Francisco de Paula Santander, as the individuals that aided in Colombia’s independence, they received some help throughout their mission. In fact, women were also vital to the decolonization of Colombia from Spain. However, the one that has stood out the most is Policarpa, known as “La Pola.”. There might not be much information about La Pola, but there’s enough to let the world know of her unwavering strength.
It is believed that La Pola was born in 1795. Her father, José Joaquín Salavarrieta and her mother, Mariana Rios de Salavarrieta had eight other children aside from La Pola. Despite their large family dynamic, La Pola’s family was reputable among the village within the city of Gaduas, Colombia. Later on, in their lives, La Pola’s parents decided to leave Gaduas and head towards Bogotá, Colombia to a house La Pola’s father had acquired. However, their living conditions weren’t as favorable to them as they were in Gaduas. Sadly, their stay in Bogotá didn’t lighten up. Around 1802, there had been a smallpox epidemic and it affected many, including many members of La Pola’s family. This smallpox ruthlessly killed both her parents and two of her brothers. After this tragedy, La Pola’s family dissolved. Her salvation from a life without guidance came from her older sister, Catarina. In 1804, she had gotten the resources to be able to move back to Gaduas and live with her godmother, Margarita Beltrán. Thankfully, Catarina took La Pola and her younger brother, Bibiano back to Gaduas with her. Years later, her sister got married to Domingo Garcia and took both her siblings to live with them.
Her surroundings were politically-charged while La Pola was growing up. Catarina’s godmother, Margarita Beltrán, was part of a family that had been active in fighting against the colonizers in 1781, which highlighted their dissatisfaction in being part of a colonized nation. Catarina’s husband, Domingo Garcia, also became involved in patriotic battles during his time. Unfortunately, he lost his life in a battle he fought in a campaign led by Antonio Nariño. Her younger brother, Bibiano, became a veteran of that same campaign. Though his fate wasn’t as tragic as his brother-in-law’s, he did return to Gaduas badly injured after enduring imprisonment by the colonizers. All of these events instilled the importance of patriotic spirit and molded La Pola’s mentality.
Policarpa Salavarrieta or La Pola’s sole purpose in life hadn’t always been to fuel a political rebellion. Instead, she was someone who obtained an education. Even though in those times women weren’t regarded as much, let alone worthy enough of an education, her family allowed her to learn how to be literate. It is said that La Pola was even allowed to teach in public schools. She was also trained as a seamstress, a career that became of great use to her in the future.
La Pola’s political endeavours started in Gaduas. However, she quickly had to flee alongside her brother, Bibiano, to the capital once their rebellious attitudes were noticed. Since they had a letter signed by two patriotic guerilla leaders, Ambrosio Almeyda and José Rodríguez, they were able to enter the capital easily.
Since La Pola wasn’t recognized by the locals in Santa Fe, she had the liberty to roam freely. This allowed her to become part of the patriotic groups of the capital and join their chapters. It was then, where her patriotism was taken even more seriously and she was given instructions on how to develop her beliefs for the advancement of Colombia. After learning that La Pola was a seamstress, some of the leaders of the patriotic movement advised her to become the official seamstress for the Spanish royals. By doing this, she could infiltrate their space and obtain valuable information for them, such as their next moves, the numbers of soldiers, and learn about the weapons they were using. Of course, La Pola didn’t proceed into this task by herself. She had the help of her compatriots. She especially had the help of Alejo Sabarain. It is said that Sabarain was her boyfriend or lover, but it has never been confirmed. Regardless, he was a significant part of La Pola’s patriotic cause.
La Pola’s spying would have remained undetected had Almeyda not gotten caught. When he was caught, he was carrying documents that were linked to La Pola’s information, thus incriminating her as well. Everything went downhill from there.
Once everyone found out that Almeyda had gotten caught, everyone involved rushed to their escape. This included Sabarain’s escape. However, he too was caught before he could get far. At this point La Pola wasn’t a priority, but Sabarain was carrying a paper with a list provided by La Pola when he was caught. This gave the Spaniards enough reason to go to her immediately after Sabarain’s arrest.
On November 10th, 1817, La Pola was sentenced to death by shooting. She didn’t last too long being in prison. Shortly after, on November 14th, she was arranged to be executed.
La Pola was escorted by two priests to the destination of her final moments. As she walked towards her death trap, she was urged to ask for forgiveness by the priests. But she declined their advisement. Instead, she cursed the oppression caused by the Spanish regime.
Once she arrived to where she was sentenced to be executed, the executioner told her that she had to take the bullet to her back. This was due to the fact that she had betrayed the Spanish control. Knowing that there was not much to do that at that point, she dropped her clothing a bit and exposed her bareback. She told them her only condition was to kneel down, which they allowed her to do. According to the La Pola, kneeling down was the proper way to go, especially since she was a woman.
Before the shotgun’s freed the bullet designated to unjustly rob her of life, she let the crowd know that her actions were merely political. Some of her words still ring the nation of Colombia and inspires still inspires Colombians to this day:
“Although I am a woman and young, I have more than enough courage to suffer this death and a thousand more!”
Colombia’s journey to independence from Spain was a treacherous one. As with any situation involving colonization, injustices were a plenty. The Spaniards, robbed Colombia of their treasures, raped their women, and allowed the streets to be splashed with the native’s crimson-tinted despair. It is thanks to the brave women like Policarpa Salavarrieta that Colombia is no longer colonized. After her death, she ignited the fire in many to go after their independence, regardless of the repercussions. It goes to show the world that freedom is always worth fighting for, despite the heartache it may cause along the way.
Since then, her image became the first Latina commemorated on a postage stamp in one of Colombia’s 1910 independence- centennial issues and once appeared in Colombia’s two peso note in 1977.