Eloy Alfaro: On the Revolutionary Road


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Despite his national fame, getting to grips with who Eloy Alfaro, as he is more commonly known, really was is a box many would prefer to keep shut. For some, his shadow can provoke fear as it inevitably recalls inconvenient memories of the anarchy and chaos Alfaro sowed across the country. He did this at a very young age: 22 when he kidnapped the governor of Manabí with a group of armed peasants.

As Tatiana Hidrovo, president of the Alfaro Civic Center in Montecristi, puts it, this enfant terrible, the fifth child of Juan and Maria Natividad, was destined to lead a “riotous life”.  Tatiana says he would even be locked in his room at night to temper his character. Eloy was the only son who Juan, an exporter by profession, took on his trips with him, always watchful of his feisty nature. Did Juan repress Eloy, or, through imparting his own liberal ideals, give his son wings? This, we will never know. What we do know is Alfaro’s cataclysmic path through the social and political history of this country. No leader would wreak such havoc over its foundations. He was the president to usher in a new century, after decades of armed struggle, leading an entire people on a journey without return. This much Ecuadorians know, and honor on the many streets, institutions, organizations, squares and parks named after him…

Central to Alfaro’s story is his place of birth: Montecristi, Manabi. The pre-Columbian cultures that once thrived throughout the region are a pivotal aspect to understanding Alfaro’s liberal thought and action. No other people shared the degree of autonomy the Manteño-Huancavelica conglomerate displayed, including an advanced navigation system (and dominance) throughout the Pacific coast of the Americas.  Historian Carmen Dueñas says “Manabí has always professed a kind of impenetrable political freedom. Neither the Incas in pre-Columbian times, or the Church and Spanish ruling class, truly penetrated this ‘wall,’ and Manabí sustained itself alone throughout the centuries, without asking favors from anyone.”

According to archaeologist Jorge Marcos, the Montecristi tradition of weaving the native Carludovica palmata palm leaf until it “resembles silk” can be traced back to the pre-Columbian cultures. But it is in the eighteenth century that the technique was applied to the classic hat we know today as the “Panama”. Dr. Tatiana explains that the hat “developed into a large-scale industry, conceived to protect day laborers from the sun in haciendas throughout the colony, and, thanks to its popularity, certain merchants from Manabí were able to enter the international market. For centuries, the straw hat was Ecuador’s only manufactured export (with its due added value).” Getting away from purely exporting raw materials represented an unprecedented gain in the country’s history.

Along with cocoa, the hat industry created economic high class in the Manabí of Republican times, into which the Alfaro family inserted itself: they even opened a hat store in none other than Panama!

The growing elite, however, would soon encounter a radical group, spurred on, ironically, by Eloy Alfaro himself. Comprised of mainly rural farmers and working class people who knew how to ride horses and weald weapons, including the fear-inspiring machete, they quickly showed their aggressive nature and soon terrorized the entire country, calling themselves “Montoneros” (guerrilla cells). Although, according to his death certificate, Alfaro “was killed by the people,” his struggle was always interpreted as a people’s struggle. To further dwell on the irony, we must ask ourselves why someone from a wealthy family like his would give up an entire fortune for the utopian ideal of social equality. Alfaro, despite being banished from the country many times and taken prisoner and kept in shackles, never wavered. An example of his determination was the famous naval defeat by the troops of President Caamaño. Alfaro sank his own boat and, they say, escaped floating on a barrel. He was forced into exile in Panama, where he found himself penniless after having spent everything he had earned during his early adulthood in the Panama hat business, financing his insurgent activities over the years. Despite his deep financial woes, Alfaro continued dreaming of returning one day to Ecuador to change the country to its very core. And, honoring the nickname given to him by both friends and foes, the “Old Warrior” ended up achieving it.

He may have lost many more battles than he won, but Alfaro finally reached the doors of history, becoming president of Ecuador on two brief occasions. In such short time, however, he managed to irreversibly affect the country. Looking to build a society deeply rooted in liberal ideals while managing to unite the country like never before, thanks to the completion of the railroad between Quito and Guayaquil, Alfaro defined a future for a complex era of transition for Ecuador. He oversaw, among other advances, the most significant land reform in the country’s history, the introduction of secularism in education, education and political inclusion for women, the separation of church and state, and freedom of worship. Today, Ecuadorians feel his deep influence on modern, secular and democratic society.


Liberal women: Under the shadow of the Montoneros

There is some irony in the fact that Eloy Alfaro did so much for women, being the first person to create schools for women, and allowing women to work in public office; but so little is said of the role played by women in his struggle to achieve those goals. A telling example is the record of the death of José Litardo, a long sought-after montonero, who was finally brought down, together with a so-called Inés Lucía, an enigmatic woman fighter who was not even worthy of a last name in our historiography.

Steam engine “number seven”, displayed outdoors at Ciudad Alfaro.

Liberal women played many roles in the fight, from standing in the firing line to causing trouble politically. And they weren’t risking their lives as simple lovers; they were convinced liberals, such as Sofia Moreira de Sabando, owner of a profitable store at the time, who instead of leaving politics behind to safeguard her business, resisted until she was left with nothing. Or Colonel Filomena Chavez, a woman rebel officer of whom a few photographs exist, depicting her in uniform; and Isabel Muentes, a woman involved in the very first liberal action of 1864. She purportedly handled weapons and Alfaro considered her a brave comrade. But how many more passed unnoticed?

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