Maria Galindo attracts a lot of attention wherever she goes. With her knee-high, leather-studded boots, chunky goth jewelry, heavy, dark eyeliner and half-shaved head, you can’t miss the self-proclaimed rebel as she makes her way around La Paz.
"I suppose you could say some people are afraid of me," admits the 52-year-old anarchist, feminist and lesbian activist. "But I really don't care what the public thinks, I'm not running for mayor and I don't work to be applauded by them," she says. "I was the first publicly 'out' lesbian in Bolivia and I'm proud of that, I've never not spoken about my sexuality," says Galindo.
It's this devil-may-care attitude that has been the trademark of one of Bolivia's most prominent—and at times most controversial—activists. Since the early 1990's Maria has staged and been arrested at countless protests and public demonstrations against the Catholic church and state institutions.
Most of her life has been occupied by a crusade against the Catholic church to expose its "hypocrisy." But Maria's early years were shaped by Bolivia’s most dominant religion. She was once a Catholic student and even lived in a convent with a group of nuns. "They treated me well but knew I was in a desperate position and they offered me a way out," recalls Maria.
The exit strategy involved Maria obtaining a "nun's visa" to leave the country and study in a religious institution at the Vatican. "It sounds crazy but it happened," laughs Maria. The activist spent five years in Rome studying in a religious institution right under the noses of the very organization she despised. "I was an atheist, feminist, anarchist, lesbian camouflaged as a nun in the Vatican!" remembers Maria, "and they didn’t suspect a thing."
Stonewall's Legacy: Beyond Pride and Towards LGBT Liberation
It was these years in Italy, living in such close quarters with priests, cardinals and bishops at the Vatican that shaped the rest of Maria’s life. Upon returning to Bolivia in 1992, she tried her hand at teaching, but as soon as the authorities and parents found out she was a lesbian she was shown the door.
"They were afraid I was going to contaminate the students so I lost jobs within two or three days."
Maria turned to campaigning, setting up a group called "Mujeres Creando," or Women Creating, and set her sights on exposing the "double standards" of the Catholic church. When Pope Francis came to Bolivia in 2015, Maria and a group of like-minded campaigners dressed up as pregnant nuns with placards and screamed, "My sexuality does not need your approval" and called for legalized abortion. They were forcibly removed by riot police for causing a scene.
Galindo and others dress up as pregnant nuns. | Photo: Maria Galindo
Maria says she is fighting for those who fall foul of the church's "dubious double morals ... The church in Bolivia discriminates against the sons and daughters of single mothers,'' she says. They have this model of the perfect family that’s not real and no longer exists in Bolivia," says Galindo.
Evidence suggests she may be right and that the influence of the Catholic church in Bolivia is beginning to wane. "It’s getting weaker by the day," declares Galindo. But another, potentially more potent religion is taking its place.
Pentecostal and Mormon churches are growing. In 2013, 17 percent of Bolivians described themselves as evangelicals. Galindo says they are more conservative, more fundamentalist and will potentially become more powerful than the catholic church. "We should be worried," warns Galindo.
The feminist says despite all her high-profile shock campaigns she just wants "to be happy." But before she settles into a life of tranquility, Maria is off to plot her next protest. "This is what really makes me happy," she says.