Updated: Dec 11, 2020
Policarpa Salavarrieta, also known as “La Pola,” is a renowned figure in Colombian history. She was a revolutionary, a spy, and a seamstress who was integral to the Neogranadine resistance movement in the early 1800s. Her story has earned her a place in history for her bravery, heroism, and determination to move towards independence.
Policarpa was born in 1795 in Guaduas, a town in the Viceroyalty of New Granada, which is now modern-day Colombia. At the time of her birth, New Granada was experiencing a wave of revolutionary movements against the Spanish Empire. Guaduas was recently impacted by the Comunero Revolt against the Spanish Authorities, and this backdrop fueled Policarpa’s early exposure to politics and revolution. Policarpa’s family was heavily involved in the revolutionary movement, and La Pola soon became a known member of the resistance in Guaduas. Due to her notoriety in the area, Policarpa moved with her brother to Bogotá, where she could continue to support the rebellion.
La Pola soon moved into the home of Andrea Ricaurte de Lozano, a noblewoman whose home doubled as a base of operations for a female spy network in support of the Revolutionary movement. From here, Policarpa soon became employed as a seamstress, and she began working in the homes of Spanish military leaders and authorities. Using her inconspicuous age, gender, and position, La Pola eavesdropped on conversations to learn the strength of the Spanish forces, their movements, and which people they suspected of being rebels. She also recruited more members to the Resistance, helping the rebels strengthen their numbers and expand their operations network.
In 1817, Policarpa’s role in the Resistance was discovered by Spanish authorities when two of her compatriots were captured while carrying documents evidencing her involvement. Soon after, another rebel was captured with incriminating documents, giving the Spanish greater cause for arresting La Pola. Policarpa was quickly apprehended, but not until after she destroyed numerous documents, which included the names of her fellow revolutionaries (Adams, 1995). In November of 1817, Policarpa was arrested, tried, and executed.
Before her execution, Policarpa gave a stirring speech that encouraged fellow Neogranadine citizens to rise up against Spanish rule. She demonstrated her bravery and composure, calling for others to follow her example, by proclaiming, “Although I am a woman and young, I have more than enough courage to suffer this death and a thousand more!”
Policarpa’s life and death inspired many to follow in her footsteps and rebel against the Spanish Empire. New Granada achieved independence in 1823, and La Pola’s legacy helped fuel the Resistance even after death. Today, Policarpa’s story is still celebrated through telenovelas, plays, books, and more. For example, a statue of La Pola stands in her hometown of Guaduas, and her image is found on the 10,000 Colombian peso banknote as well as on several commemorative postage stamps.
Policarpa’s revolutionary efforts are also celebrated annually on November 14, known as the “Day of the Colombian Woman.” On this day, Colombian’s recognize the work of Colombian women, like La Pola, in achieving independence and driving history.