Flora Tristán boarded Le Mexicain on April 7, 1833. It was her 30th birthday, and she was traveling to a land she had never laid eyes on before, but whose rich history she carried in her bones.
Her father had been a Peruvian colonel in the Spanish Armada and the older brother of Pío de Tristán, the last viceroy of Perú. Her father met her mother in the Basque Country, where the colonel was stationed for a time during the French Revolution and where her mother, a Frenchwoman, was seeking refuge from the violence unleashed in her native country. Flora herself was born in Paris and enjoyed a gilded life early on, as her parents hosting such luminaries as Simón Bolívar, the future South American revolutionary general to whom Flora’s uncle would transfer power years later.
When her father died suddenly, five-year-old Flora found herself hurled into a life of hardship and uncertainty, made even more so after the discovery that her parents’ marriage hadn’t been officially sanctioned and that the true identity of her father had been cast into doubt. (It was rumored that the young girl’s father was El Libertador himself.) Forced into a disastrous marriage at the age of 17, Flora left her husband in 1825 and had been living on her own in the French port city of Bordeaux ever since, receiving minimal financial assistance from her uncle in Perú. It was while trying to get a divorce from her husband and in the midst of a custody battle over her two children that she sailed for her paternal homeland in an effort to secure her father’s inheritance.
The Perú she encountered both inspired and disgusted Flora. She returned to France the following year having failed to receive her inheritance, but the notes she took during her stay would form the basis for Pérégrinations d’une paria (Peregrinations of a Pariah). Published in 1838, in it she discusses her own struggles as a marginalized woman and about other such women in Perú — like Francisca Zubiaga y Bernales, the former Peruvian first lady whose bravery on the battlefield earned her the nickname “La Mariscala” (“the field marshal’), but who nonetheless died in exile at the age of 31.
Flora’s most celebrated work, however, would be an 1843 treatise on the role of a workers’ union and the liberation of women in creating a more just and egalitarian society. Appearing more than five years before The Communist Manifesto, L’Union ouvrière (The Workers’ Union) is remarkable for its early insistence on the need for workers to unite irrespective of race, nationality or gender. Her proposed International Association of Working Men and Women would push for not only workers’ rights but also women’s rights, which Flora argued were crucial in liberating the entire working class.
“Are you beginning to understand, you men, who cry scandal before being willing to examine the issue …. why I would like women placed in society on a footing of absolute equality with men to enjoy the legal birthright all beings have?” she writes:
I call for woman’s rights because I am convinced that all the misfortunes in the world come from this neglect and scorn shown until now for the natural and inalienable rights of woman. I call for woman’s rights because it is the only way to have her educated, and woman’s education depends upon a man’s in general, and particularly the working-class man’s. I call for woman’s rights because it is the only way to obtain her rehabilitation before the church, the law, and society, and this rehabilitation is necessary before working men themselves can be rehabilitated. All working-class ills can be summed up in two words: poverty and ignorance. Now in order to get out of this maze, I see only one way: begin by educating women, because the women are in charge of instructing boys and girls.
Unfortunately the years of being a poor single mother in 19th-century France caught up with Flora, and she died a year after publishing The Workers’ Union. She was only 41 years old.
Remembering Flora Tristán — and that the crises Latin America continues to face are political, economic and social — is how we celebrate our heritage