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It’s Time To Lead Ourselves: An interview with Rosa Elva Tobías

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Photo of a woman in a white tshirt speaking into a microphone and addressing people in a room

When I ask Rosa Elva “Rosita” Tobías to tell me about her life, she tells me about her country, placing herself in the context of the collective experience of national oppression and social movements. “Like many women in El Salvador,” she says “I was shaped by a historical process of struggle since the 80s. I lived through invasions, through the armed struggle, had the experience of being a refugee in Honduras. And, after the end of the civil war, the process of re-integration into communities. Since 1983, I have been in Tecoluca, one of the cities in which we were building communities from the ground up, communities that had been destroyed during the civil war. In Tecoluca, I have worked on many initiatives and organizing processes including adult literacy and health access. For this work, we used the skills we had gained through other processes to engage and empower hard-to-reach rural communities.” Thanks to a scholarship from SHARE Foundation, Rosita got a master’s degree in development studies. Rosita was a municipal councilor from 2000-2009. In the most recent election, she ran for mayor, the first woman ever to do so.

It is fitting that Tecoluca is the setting for this ‘first.’ Before colonization, Tecoluca was a metropolis of the Pipil tribe of the Nonualco. During the civil war in the 80s it was central to the Marxist guerrilla army of the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (Frente Farabundo Martí de Liberación Nacional – FMLN). When the FMLN gained sweeping democratizing and demilitarizing reforms as part of the 1992 peace accords that disbanded the military organization, Tecoluca remained a left stronghold, with a high level of community organization in all social sectors among it’s 30,000 residents. The FMLN became an electoral party, and governed Tecoluca for more than 24 years.

Reflecting back on this conversation with Rosita, it struck me that her experiences embody what feminism can look like when you have a real left party (FMLN) through which to advance socialist programs, along with a culture and tradition of organizing rooted in a shared struggle against national oppression, and a commitment to developing organic leaders. In the face of right-wing attacks — even while the FMLN has governing power through the executive branch, the party of the right, ARENA, controls the courts and the media — leaders like Rosita are modeling grassroots leadership and governing from below. They are using these openings to democratize public policy, and they are struggling for greater democracy within the FMLN (locally, within the Party and nationally). This is the essence of grassroots feminism. The struggle for democracy strengthens feminism, while the growth of feminism strengthens democracy.

Grassroots feminism

Here in the US, as we are debating what feminism means, creating infrastructure for social movements to have electoral expression, and trying to build a broader strategy, I think we can gain a lot from Rosita’s experience and strategic perspective.

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According to Rosita, “Women who work for women’s rights are feminists. We do it through organization, which allows us to have real impact. Women have to be the first ones to fight back. We have to work hard, motivate ourselves, and each other, so that we are not waiting for someone else to make change for us. Not because we want to be on top, and flip the tortilla so the other side feels the heat. I don’t think that’s what we are working for. Equity is different than equality. Equality says we have the right to opt for the same role as a man, and we’re given the opportunity. But the problem is that men are well prepared for that role and women are not. That’s not equity. We need to build women’s capacities to be at the same level, to do the work to create the conditions for us to have the equity.

According to Rosita, “It’s in the interest of capital for women to feel that they are less than others, for men to want to be better off than women. A woman who does all the work of maintaining the home, from 4am to 8pm cleaning, sweeping, taking care of family, you ask her what she does for a living and she will say “nothing.” Patriarchy is a course of action in the interest of capitalism. It’s beneficial for capitalism for there to be inequality between men and women, and for women’s work to not be considered work. Although we won an official party policy that instead of saying “los” we say “las y los” (including both male and female pronouns), it’s hard for people. The comrades are in a process of formation.”

Rosita’s is not a story of decisive victory. She did not win the mayoral election. But this is not a story of defeat, either. This is a story of ongoing struggle, one that is in the making right now. It reinforces the need for a long time-horizon for change, one that gets us through the set-backs. It also is a story of using a left party’s governing power to build and advance women’s leadership, in the face of opposition both from the Right and from within the Party.

Ciudad Mujer: A model program

Where the FMLN has power, it is governing under massive pressure from US-led finance capital. And, eyes wide open, the left has attempted to reduce the negative impacts of privatization, from the inside, as part of the state, and to use their position to make space for a different project, built from below. “Everything we have gained in El Salvador is because of an organizing process, based on the belief that there are things that can be achieved. Even in the face of the right wing’s agenda of privatization, from the position of governance we have been able to defend healthcare and education, and pass laws to stop mineral extraction.” One example of building from below is Ciudad Mujer (“Women’s City”).

Rosita’s face lit up as she described the work she has been leading in Tecoluca as part of Ciudad Mujer, a national initiative led by the FMLN’s Minister of Social Inclusion and First Lady in 2009. “Ciudad Mujer is a model for public policy that is supported from above and run from below. Ciudad Mujer has 6 headquarters across the country. They provide holistic care for women addressing health, gender violence, economic autonomy, childcare, and offering these services to remote communities. These centers are staffed by people with skills and capacity, and an empathy-based approach. As Rosita notes, “We have never seen such a thing in our country. Here people see public services as something that doesn’t work, and we wanted to make Ciudad Mujer something different: warm, welcoming and effective. The offices are clean and orderly, because that’s what people deserve.”

Rosita also describes their approach to gender violence: “We use a community intervention model. We have a dedicated window for mental health support, forensic evidence, and attorney services that support with child custody issues that come up in these situations. Women are constantly threatened with ‘if you leave this house your kids will be taken from you,’ so we offer professional legal support regarding the situation of the children, and also support to resolve issues of property rights. We also help people register as needed, because in many of our communities there are people who legally ‘don’t exist’ because they have been off the government grid their whole lives.”

Ciudad Mujer supports women’s economic autonomy by offering vocation and skills trainings, technical assistance, access to credit to start a business, and support developing a resume. Ciudad Mujer also provides engaging learning spaces staffed by childhood development professionals, for kids 0-12 years, so that mothers don’t have to worry about childcare.

While it has regional headquarters, Ciudad Mujer takes its services directly to isolated rural communities. According to Rosita, “We go there, and we offer technical training and services, reclaiming the rights that have been denied to these communities for many years. While women with resources do not tend to access the services, “they are framed as being ‘for all women’ because we are governing for society as a whole.”

As they do all over the world, right wing politicians constantly attack the programs, calling them wasteful, as part of their agenda to privatize everything. “The right has successfully cut funding for community serving programs wherever they have had the power and votes to do so. They tell people that the government is unfit, but it’s not because of the work we are doing it is because of who we are doing the work for. These programs are benefitting the majority and building community assets. The strategy of the right is to asphyxiate the programs of the left in order to turn the masses of people against us.  Just look around and you can see how much privatization has happened in El Salvador. The national bank was privatized and is now owned by a single shareholder of Banco Agrícola, who is also a right wing political figure. They privatize national resources and hand them over to a company they have ties to. It’s a rip off.”

With control over the Supreme Court, and mainstream media outlets bombarding people with anti-FMLN propaganda, the right has made enormous structural changes that reduce the power of everyday people to make decisions about their collective future. The right turns pushes their agenda of privatization in every election. Ciudad Mujer is one of the ways the left is doing more than fending off attacks. It is proactively  defining communities differently, linking the wellbeing of women to the larger project of human liberation, and deeply engaging base communities. “Women have been in leadership of social movement struggles for years. These social service programs are a direct response to the demands that women have made; and were won because of the movements that women have built.”

The feminist challenge Within the FMLN

The struggle for women’s leadership and power occurs within the FMLN, as well. Far from being an individual decision, Rosita’s bid for mayor was the product of decades of internal organizing and capacity building. “The women’s sector of the FMLN has had to build consciousness and rally each other to engage in certain spaces – let’s get involved, it is time to lead ourselves. We have to take a risk knowing that it’s hard. We know very well that competing in a patriarchal environment is not easy. We have to deal with the legacy of patriarchy. We have the fear of being inadequate, we worry what people will say about us. Our personal lives are judged by patriarchal standards. Men are assumed to be competent, while women are repeatedly required to prove their qualifications.”

Women face structural barriers to gaining leadership with the FMLN. For example, back in 1994, “The women’s organizations in our municipality proposed that a woman run. But the ombudsman and the mayor were men, and they had an  existing agreement between them. The women wrote a letter nominating me for ombudsman, but they didn’t even accept the letter. I was on the council then and personally asked the ombudsman to please receive the letter, even if he was going to say no. They refused. We were called crazy, incompetent.” Rosita doesn’t reveal how she feels about the ways her comrades treated her, and instead describes the organizing challenge: “There wasn’t a correlation of power favorable to us. So, we decided to keep working, keep building power.”

Rosita was part of building a broad front that changed the correlation of power internal to the party, while engaging the leadership of grassroots communities. “Instead of the usual process of the mayor developing a platform with a series of advisors, we pushed to do things differently. We went into the community. We carried out a process of construction of a vision of what we want to see in our municipality. We divided the 150 communities into 7 sectors, gathering the leaders of the community bodies in those areas. We started by asking “what advances have we made?” and that was important because people sometimes think that we have made no progress. It was interesting to watch people think back from 1994 to now, and to take stock of what have we built. ‘There was no road here, we built a road. There was no electricity, now we have electricity.’ From there we talked about what is still missing and our vision for our municipality.”

This participatory process has transformed the party. “Now we have a majority of women on the board. Even now, there were two people who wanted to continue the tradition, talked about the experience that male candidates had, etc. But they got outvoted. Of a slate of 14, there are 8 women candidates. We have a secretariat of women nationally and in each province that coordinates with national. These guarantee women’s participation in decision making, building capacity among men and women about the need for participation in equitable conditions.”

This feminist organizing project made the party more democratic, more grassroots, strengthening the left’s power at the municipal scale. “To govern from the perspective of women is not something everyone thinks of positively, but we think we can work from that perspective to build a more holistic vision that benefits all of us, and govern on behalf of our whole municipality. Being a woman doesn’t mean that you would govern only for women – there are men, seniors, youth, many sectors of society and our community.”

Looking back on a decade of organizing that brought her to this moment, Rosita describes the tension that drove the work forward, and that she wants to put in the driver’s seat of the left as a whole: “We must make a leap from quantitative change to qualitative change. For 10 years, we have been in this process of development. We would ask ourselves: is there a woman with the capacities needed to run for mayor? We’d look around and say: no, not yet. And the men would look around and say: no, there are no women. For ten years we have been reflecting on this contradiction: if we are the ones who mobilize, then we are the ones who, in the end, are deciding who is in power in our local government. So why don’t we make a qualitative leap?”

Despite her successes, Rosita Tobías has a sobering view on the one aspect of reproductive health that is excluded from Ciudad Mujer’s services: abortion, which is banned without exception. “The criminalization of women is very strong, with many women in jail under the total abortion ban. The party has had a strong relationship with the church, which it needs support from in order to win. And, at the community level, people don’t understand what abortion really is. We aren’t talking about abortion for sport, there are fair reasons why people might need to have access to abortion. The project to decriminalize abortion is being led by women in the FMLN. A counter-proposal is on the table. It will take 20 years to win, but there’s at least a counterbalance now.”

Rosita  proudly described another small but important feminist victory: “For the first time, the party secretariat is implementing a solidarity plan with the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender community. We also got the FMLN to sponsor an LGBT softball tournament in Tecoluca. It was a lot of fun!”

In so many ways, over the course of our conversation, I heard Rosita telling me the same thing.  The left must unflinchingly analyze the correlation of forces, take a long strategic view, defend institutions of democracy, build our capacities for governance, and organize across our differences as if our lives depend on it. Because they do.

And, I don’t know about you, but I find the current correlation of forces demoralizing. How do we contend with the social-emotional challenge of this political moment? I asked her. What should we be doing here in the US? She got a far away look in her eye, as if looking back on her trajectory of struggle.

“There are no recipes. The important thing is for each of us to get to work. If we sit and wait, succumb to depression, we can imagine what will be the outcomes. Capitalism is truly ferocious, and it could end humanity. (Figuring) out what to do depends on the conditions and characteristics of each place. The important thing is for each of us to do the work that we are positioned to do, without losing hope. Capitalism works to inculcate terror. We work to counteract the right-wing propaganda that assaults people through the media by having conversations door to door. The idea that another world is possible has not yet been lost. Every time we go door to door and talk to people, they say ‘you should come more often!’ It’s an ant’s work that needs to be done, in every community.”

When I asked Rosita “what is this other world that is possible?” She smiled, and looked me straight in the eye, with the conviction of a commander. “The one that we will build.”



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