Potosi trembles in the alpine mountain air as one of the highest and most elevated cities in the world. It is more like a village than a city. It looks down from above a mountain called “Cerro Rico,” (Rich Hill).
The cold from the height of the Bolivian Altiplano entombs the sharp routes that bring you to this cavernous mountain, down which, in search of promised clods of dirt, the souls of many have slipped.
The Colonialist’s thirst for fortunes and evangelization discovered it in the 1540s. Cerro Rico of Potosi, or Sumaq Urgu (“Beautiful Hill” in the original Quechua), has been testimony to one of the most fatal human tragedies of Latin America.
At an altitude of more than 4,000 meters (over 13,000 feet) and lashed by one of the world’s most inhospitable climates in the Andes, Cerro Rico was a rich mineral bed, producing more than 50% of the world’s silver up until the 16th century.
Since the beginnings of its exploitation, countless mines entwined and interlaced within the bellows of this hell. Like a true human anthill, the indigenous have been punished since its discovery. This is a place where thousands have been brought from miles away only to be enslaved to work in a job that fated them to death. It goes to show how this desolate Andean mountain little by little converted into a center organized by slavery and barberry; an indigenous tomb motivated by riches later paraded for her excellence, the imperialist homeland.
It is in the silver adornments of the 16th and 17th century Spanish churches, into which the blood of the indigenous has been engraved and recorded, in this way and in other riches Latin American history crossed the Atlantic. It would be better if the largest quantity of silver had been exploited during the time of colonization, yet the mines of Cerro Rico continue being stripped of the rest of its anxiously extracted silver.
This is how up until today these mines have employed hundreds of tightly bundled workers, each waiting for economic progression in an attempt to pull their families out of misery. Property of the Bolivian government, the Pailaviri mine is one of these. It is divided into 17 levels and reaches a depth of 240 meters (about 800 feet) and possesses in her entrails temperatures around 45 degrees Celsius (approximately 113 degrees Fahrenheit), making her a true infernal throat It is in the touristy interior of the mine where you encounter a demonic statue named Tio or “Uncle”—possessor of the mines—Tio’s inerasable scars tell of the many tremors and bear witness to the deceased that are sealed within. In an ideal world there would have been a call for justice in which silver would have suffered evaluations and reevaluations in the international market, the value to date at almost US $20 per ounce troy weight (about 31 grams).
Not much time passed before I witnessed the tragedies of Potosi, which for so many years, not even so much as a moan had escaped from the mouths of the forlorn, with their eyes staring into a social mirror that does not reflect them. The first person I had the pleasure of meeting was Madam Paulina Ibeth Garabito, a very intelligent woman of humble appearance who learned everything from her mother.
She was only accompanied by cats and the tragedies and suffering of women who dwelled in this chauvinistic and raped village. This woman is the head of an organization that is dedicated to help the families of the miners of Potosi, known as MUSOL (solidarity for women). When social injustice is openly accepted, it takes great courage and bravery to raise a voice to unthread its origin and denounce the terrible effects within the lives of the people.
This is how MUSOL arose, from the voice of a woman who no one so much as glanced at from the other side. MUSOL is commanded by the enormous devotion and dedication of Ibeth who does not throw inconsistent accusations to the wind—she calls for concrete changes and all allegations are backed by pseudo-anthropological investigations supported by evidence which she obtains through interviewing the victims.
This is how, on the fringe of Bolivian society, she registered into existence a complete net for the marginalized that work and inhabit Cerro Rico. The Palliris women (mine workers) adhere to its perverse and unhealthy framework.
At 50-years of age they also work the mines spending their days gathering the bits of silver mineral that still remain after the primary extraction. Often times they work in the mines elbow-to-elbow with the men. It is in the caves of that mountain where the “guardabocaminas,” guardians of the mouths of the mine live and work.
They are workers and wage-earners of the cooperatives of miners and/or private businesses whose role is to keep watch at the opening of the mines and tool deposit centers. These women (usually widows) permanently inhabit this inferno with their children in overcrowded and unhealthy conditions.
Although unimaginable, at an altitude of nearly 4,400 meters (14,080 feet), surrounded by this nucleus of contamination, and deprived of their basic health and educational needs, children live and work here. So do the children of no one.
Many orphans who have lost both parents to the mines have no other choice but working here too. They populate the nursery “Niños Caracoles” (snail children), nuzzled into this forsaken mountain. “Children are our tomorrow” is a common saying around the world; the appalling reality lived by these children “caracoles” (snails) closes the doors to the possibilities of any future with dignity.
For the widows of the mines, and the moribund—and not-so-dying miners— the great work that MUSOL carries out is possibly one of the only glimpses of hope that remains. I went to request information about the exploitation of the mines suffered by the children, women, and men of Potosi, when I arrived at Ibeth’s office which is also her home; I was met by two women dressed in rags of mourning.
Mother and daughter untied and let loose their voices, revealing to me the history of how their husband and father lost his life in the mine. Working 16 hours a day in caves hidden far from the sun, this man drilled what became his tomb. The debt of his humble yet honorable funeral displaced them from the house, including five children, who would now enter into the perverse circle of working in the mines to help feed their families.
These women, in a mix of Castellan and Quechua, narrated in words that became unintelligible scribbles, the history of how the cooperative neglected to compensate or allocate a severance pay for the death of the husband and father of their family. This man died by the hands of exploitation from the ruthless private sector, invisible now when the hour came to fulfill their promises and pay what they owe.
These cooperatives are managed by vultures of unspeakable cowardice who abuse the poverty of those who arrive to this town with thousands of illusions of prosperity etched into their minds and souls. Just as this family was fragmented by poverty, I met many other people to whom the mines snatched their husbands and sons, and in a sigh they were swallowed by the mountain.
Natividad Quendo lives in the poorest of the most impoverished neighborhoods of Potosi. It is constructed on a hill that used to be the town’s garbage dump, yet Bolivia continues filling this dump with its poorest people, its indigenous. Natividad has two children and if the frozen and dusty climate permits, she works washing clothes.
Her husband, Felix Quispe, works in the tight shackles of the mine, with dust and exhaustion impregnating his lungs. The day of my visit however, I did not find him working, but suffering the pains from the labor in the mines. He was not in the mine now, but the mine within him.
There, in the still air of a hospital bed he did not have dirt beneath his feet but mud caked deep inside his chest. He vomited blood alongside a large tank of oxygen that clutched his soul to his body. Voicing frustration and nodding off exhaustion he told me with strain about the misfortunes of the miner, who, armed with dust and effort becomes nothing but a beggar to whom God does not send more than the dynamite of rage, the gunpowder of wrath and mortal cadences to compensate their meekness.
He lived in the mine, striving with his hungers and paying with his health in hopes to be able to live sweetly. It was a desire that escaped him before the malevolence of the mine laid him to pieces reducing him to an anthropoid. Natividad waited outside the hospital, she was convinced that if she was seen walking into the hospital with a roaming journalist, that they would drive her away and not allow her to return to see her husband. Leaving, I found her wrapped in a poncho with a firm grief bunched with sweetness and desperation in her eyes, meanwhile telling me that the doctors had informed her that her husband was terminal.
She, who was brave enough to be a woman, wrapped in her immense poncho, looked defenseless and incurably desolated, echoing in the emptiness that her husband would leave her with when he became an animus leaving her alone like a salt statue.
The testimony to her pain was only a fraction of what I saw in Potosi. Like her, I met many widowed women and wives soon to be at a wake. Many who had children so young they still smelled of clay, resolving beneath the verdict of hunger with empty stares contemplating some dream about prosperity and revealing to the world their orphaned and lonely miseries.
The comparison is inevitable. Though there are in existence enormous abysses of difference between Bolivia and Costa Rica, the eagerness of the mines may draw us some parallels. In Bolivia, their intent is to steal from the already tired silver mines of Cerro Rico in Potosi.
In Costa Rica in the mining project of Crucitas in San Carlos, they are trying to install a vision of economic benefit stemming from her mines like open skies, all in the name of ‘development’. The difference between the profound masquerade of Cerro Rico and Crucitas is that in Costa Rica what they propose, through indirect leadership and the consultancy of the Canadian company Infinito Gold Ltd, is an open sky extraction of gold known as lixiviation, a method using large quantities of cyanide.
Granted that it is not my intention here to explore the impact of this renown and fatal vein of poison to all forms of life, (I’m referring to the use of big amounts of cyanide to obtain gold), I would still like to bring it to attention. Just like the dissolving of the armed forces made Costa Rica one of the most democratic establishments in the bloody scene of the military coup of Latin America in the 70’s and 80’s,the conservationist vision of our natural resources and biodiversity has marked Costa Rica as a visionary country in their realm.
After seeing and feeling the havoc of mining, I am brought to say that it would be a grave error to open these doors in Costa Rica, doors that once opened would close no more, like in the case of Potosi and its unfortunate mines that for hundreds of years have condemned its people.
The injustices that live in Potosi paint tears on the faces of hundreds of people that are under the oppression of other people born to live off the death of others. Cooperatives of vultures that do not know the true color of the blood nor the sweating pains of those who suffer and eat carbon, while they burst with revenue at the cost of their lives and sorrows.
Imperialists by customs that like dogs mark their territory with the urine of exploitation around the moribund. Businesses like Mankira, company mines like Comisol and other cooperatives that became corrupted and serve a dinner plate of hunger on one side and thirst on the other, tricking indigenous families that have no one to legally direct them.
Because the poor of Potosi as the poor of the world are rectors to illiterate chapters and students of ignorance, set for exploitation and who have no choice but to lament with the helplessness that populates their desolation.
I left Potosi with a cry in my chest, preferring to use language intermixed with metaphors, and to not to expose my experience in a raw manner, but to suggest it and to fill these chronicles with truth which is a seed. The truth is a seed.