by Roberta Nin Feliz
The narrative surrounding revolutionaries and public figures is almost always skewed to favor those in power and with the most privilege. Take, for instance, the dominant narrative of the Dominican Mirabal Sisters. These women were wealthy, light-skinned Dominican revolutionaries known for engaging in clandestine activities to overthrow the Trujillo regime. The Mirabal Sisters, who were later assassinated by Trujillo in 1960, have had books written about them and even museum galleries dedicated to their activist efforts. They are now widely recognized as martyrs in the Dominican Republic. On the other hand, Mama Tingó, a Black woman revolutionary who fought for working-class farmers is seldom heard about or celebrated.
Mama Tingó, also known as Doña Cristiana Florinda Soriano Muñoz, was born November 8, 1921 in Villa Mella, Dominican Republic, to a family of poor farm workers. She and her husband Felipe made a living by working their farmland in Hato Viejo, Yamasá. When in 1974, landowner Pablo Díaz Hernández reclaimed the land that the farmers of Hato Viejo had occupied for more than half a century, Mama Tingó lead the fight to ensure the 350 families living on the land could retain the land. Mama Tingó and her husband even went to then president Balaguer, one of Trujillo’s protégés with the intention of buying the land after he didn’t fulfill his promise of fairly distributing the land. Mama Tingó would become a leader in the Liga Agraria Cristiana, an advocacy group for farmers or “campesionos” despite being in her 50s are the time.
Hernandez, who claimed the land was his, destroyed the land of the campesinos with bulldozers and the protection of armed men. Throughout the land dispute, several young people were injured and one of the farm residents had her ear chopped off, an example of the violence and discrimination working-class farmers face in the Dominican Republic and other parts of the Caribbean. Mama Tingó would later take Diaz to court, but Hernandez didn’t show up to the trial. On her way back home, someone told her that her pigs had been set loose and when she went to go gather them, Hernandez shot her twice. Although Mama Tingó tried to fight back with a machete, the gunshots, one to the head and one to the chest, killed her. She was 52 years old.
Mama Tingó’s story is one of incredible strength and resilience but one that also forces us to challenge our notions of leaders and public figures. Mama Tingó was a poor, Black farmer with very little education. In fact, neither she nor her husband went to school and spent most of their lives working. Even so, she would become a voice and advocate for an extremely vulnerable community of people. It’s true that the reason Mama Tingó isn’t widely celebrated in the Dominican Republic is because of anti-Blackness and classism. But we must also think through the ways respectability politics affect the value we put on someone’s life and their contributions to history, even outside of the context of the Dominican Republic.
How comfortable are we with having leaders with very little education? How willing are we to let poor and low-income people speak for all of us and lead a movement? What does it say about community movements if the celebrated leaders are all easy-to-digest caricatures of respectability and excellence? Are we willing to let those at the margins of society have the most say in movements? Will we make room for them? These are all questions we should consider for International Women’s Month and in our everyday lives. And whether or not we have the answers, leaders like Mama Tingó, will emerge and take charge whether we are ready for it or not. We can’t forget that our greatest revolutionaries always come from the margins.