María Cano, a labor leader that helped grow political and social consciousness in Colombia

A love for the letters | María Cano the activist | Other causes | Her legacy

María Cano was a woman ahead of her time. A tireless advocate, she dedicated her life to champion dignified working conditions in Colombia. Read on to learn more about her efforts and legacy.

Nowadays, you may think about names like Claudia López in reference to Colombian women in politics. However, Colombia’s history has seen multiple instances of female empowerment. María is one of them. As an activist and labor leader, her work earned her the loving moniker of “The Labor Flower.” How did she get there?

A love for the letters

Born in Medellín in 1887, she came from an educated family of teachers, journalists, artists, poets, and musicians. Her upbringing differed from other girls’ at the time. She attended a secular school and grew up around what was considered radical thinking (Velásquez, n.d.).

Cano first stepped into the public light when she joined Medellín’s literary movement during the 1920s. She was a member of the literary gathering Cyrano and its namesake magazine, where she was the only female writer. Likewise, she collaborated with El Correo Liberal newspaper (Velásquez, n.d.).

In 1924, Cano organized a free, public mechanism for laborers to access reading material. She asked newspapers and libraries for donations. After only a couple of months, the service was running at the city’s municipal library (Velásquez, n.d.). Many consider this her first feat of activism.

María Cano the activist

Meeting working-class people regularly led to activism. In the beginning, she engaged in social work to work on laborers’ homes after visiting them and witnessing the daily hardships of mothers and children (Agencia de Información Laboral, 2017).

Cano then joined labor organizations. Alongside other notable women, she formed commissions that visited factories, workshops, and prisons. They collected information that labor groups could use to further their cause (Agencia de Información Laboral, 2017).

Her meteoric rise in Colombia’s public eye started in 1925. She first addressed a crowd to claim justice for social prisoners, as a group of Tropical Oil Co. laborers was transferred from the town of Barrancabermeja to Medellín’s prison (Velásquez, n.d.).

Then, she began visiting different areas of the country to listen to workers’ needs and speak against government policies and American companies’ poor treatment of their labor force. Between 1926 and 1928, she toured national soil by car, train, boat, on horseback and even by airplane. People flocked to public spaces to see her. Such was the excitement and outrage around a woman confidently and publicly addressing what were considered exclusively male affairs at the time (Velásquez, n.d.).

Other causes

Cano favored other social causes as well. Along with ex-president Carlos E. Restrepo, she led a massive mobilization for public freedoms and against the death penalty. This was one of the public appearances that put the national limelight on her (Velásquez, n.d.).

Furthermore, she questioned the ruling class for their hand in Colombia’s social injustice. Likewise, she berated the government for oppressing political opposition and failing to protect national sovereignty and local workers’ integrity from the voracious exploitation of American banana, oil, and mining companies (Velásquez, n.d.).

Her legacy

In 1928, laborers at the United Fruit Company banana fields in Colombia went on strike. They demanded dignified working conditions. Government forces and the company violently repressed them. Workers were massacred, and activists imprisoned. Shewas one of them (Velásquez, n.d.).

She had retired from public life by 1930, as the socialist movement became fractured and the country’s leading labor organization’s work began to dwindle (Velásquez, n.d.).

Nevertheless, her stance continued to be remembered. In 1945, Colombian suffragettes honored her in her hometown (Velásquez, n.d.). Later on, in 1967, the Medellín Council approved to salute her with a medal on International Women’s Day. However, this became a posthumous recognition, as she passed away the day before the appointed date (Agencia de Información Laboral, 2017).

Her legacy goes beyond her work for the disenfranchised. Her actions made her a trailblazer for female empowerment. In a small, traditional city that called for public voting to remove a depiction of the Venus de Milo from a display window in the name of morals (Velásquez, n.d.), a fearless, charismatic woman in the public scene was seen as a threat. It´s interesting to note that rebellious young girls became known as ‘Maríacanos’ in Medellín. Parents rigorously tended to their daughters to keep them from becoming such an unpleasant, inadequate sight. This shows that María Cano was quite a woman.


Agencia de Información Laboral. (2017). María Cano, la líder obrera que sembró la rebeldía. Hoy se cumplen 50 años de su muerte. Retrieved from

Velásquez, M. (n.d.). María Cano. Pionera y agitadora social de los años 20. Banrepcultural. Retrieved from