miners & minors

miners & minors

The Edge (Students Online) 1998


The Story of Bolivia’s Teenage Mine Workers

By Brett Allan King

Hell is at the top of the world.

Without flames. Satan’s lair bodes further diabolical, for no one can see you scream. Absolute darkness, one hundred yards underground, is somehow that much more absolute, flawless in its tyranny. Even the most tenacious stream of light couldn’t navigate this treacherous tunnel maze of rock and toxic dust. A young miner’s extinguished lantern lies dormant beside the recollection of forgotten matches. One false or foolish step sparks a dreaded, different light at the end of the tunnel.

“The other miners will come.” the boy reassures himself in Quechua. “No! It’s a holiday!” It’s Carnaval, the pre—Lent period of feasting and merrymaking – and the rare occasion when miners don’t work. Scant gulps of water and a bag of coca leaves will have to last two days.

Salvation in the heart of darkness means sitting still and praying to the Pachamama – the Earth Mother – to do the same. That, or step into eternity.

Potosí, Bolivia, crowns the world’s cities at more than two-and—a-half miles above sea level, but its mines lead directly to the depths of Hades. This under-aged miner survived. but his oft-recalled ordeal echoes the premonitory nightmare of all who work in the Cerro Rico. For millions of mitayos, Potosi’s ”Rich Hill” is geology’s angel of death.

The young miner’s name is Juan. His name is Carlos. His name is José. He is seventeen years old. He is fourteen years old. He is even twelve. He’s been here for centuries. His name always changes. but his face reads the same: indigenous and poor.

He is the 350 Quechua-speaking Indians – seventy-five miners and 275 helpers – who work the six levels of the Candelaria Baja mine. At every stage, five hundred feet down the devil’s mineral-coated throat. Andean adolescents toil to the glimmer of calcium carbide lanterns. The further they descend into the damp inferno, the hotter it becomes – temperatures can reach 120 degrees. What should be high school boys scurry amidst mud and eerily tinted darkness, like time-whipped beasts of burden. In what should be book bags, they haul seventy pounds of crushed rock, climbing fifty yards and descending – almost vertically – at least forty times a day. Their only respite appears in the form of coca leaves, which they chew to ward off hunger and lessen fatigue. Deadly pockets of carbon monoxide gas mine their path. Scant oxygen is raped by lead, chemicals, sulphur, and myriad noxious fumes. Blackened young lungs are further assaulted for hours on end – for days and months and years that, within a decade, end in fatal silicosis pneumonia.

On a good day, a miner’s helper will take home seven or eight dollars. The younger boys, still not strong enough to compete, might take home two or three.

How they got here

“Vale un Potosí!” the windmill-chasing Spanish literary legend, Don Quixote de la Mancha. tells his sidekick Sancho Panza. For an indigenous Andean weaned on arsenic gas and silica dust, a Potosi is life’s cruel and miserly wage. But in colonial era Spain, anything of great value was “worth a Peru” or “worth a Potosi.” After all, it was the wealth of the Americas, particularly the silver of Potosi, that forged the Spanish crown.

In 1545, Diego Huallpa, a Yanacona Indian who, according to the Historia de Bolivia, had once served the Inca emperor Huayna Capac, discovered silver on the Sumaj Orcko (beautiful hill). The four Spanish soldiers in Huallpa’s company were unwilling to believe that this mountain, later called the Cerro Rico, was almost pure silver. But in a matter of years, the resulting silver boom-town became one of the largest and wealthiest cities on Earth. Popular lore and poetry held that, if a bridge were built from Cerro Rico to the royal palace in Spain, it could be constructed entirely of Potosi silver.

“It is said that, at the height of Potosí’s splendor, even the horseshoes were made of silver,” wrote Eduardo Galeano in his celebrated book, Las venas abiertas de América Latina. “Church altars and the wings of cherubs used in processions were of silver: in 1658, for the celebration of Corpus Christi, the cobblestones of the city’s streets, from the motherhouse to the Recoletos church, were removed and replaced entirely with bars of silver. In Potosi, silver raised temples and palaces, monasteries and gambling dens. It was a source of tragedy and festivity. It spilled both blood and wine. It enflamed jealousy and unleashed both waste and adventure.”

Less than three decades after Huallpa lit the campfire that illuminated a vein of silver, Potosi had blossomed into an urban sprawl of 120,000 inhabitants. “Around 1650 a new census showed Potosi with 160,000 inhabitants.” writes Galeano. “It was one of the largest and richest cities in the world, ten times the size of Boston, at a time when New York wasn’t even yet known as such.”

Back to the present

Those days, like the silver, are long gone. Potosí remains one of world’s highest cities, but it is now one of the poorest. The riches were shipped abroad, in exchange for the eight million Indian corpses that remain. Today’s miners, in cooperative teams of twenty or thirty workers apiece, continue to scour the already ravaged hill in search of tin, zinc, lead and evasive, residual silver. The only constant is the work itself – mining conditions remain the same today as they were four hundred years ago.

Dark silence is assaulted by a subterranean thunder that grows louder and louder, followed by a flash of light: a trolley overflowing with crushed rock comes barreling down the track with the force of gravity. The gas flame helmets of young miners serve as warning lights for workers or visitors to leap to the side of the rails and press against wet cave walls to avoid being crushed. Wooden frames and bridges serve as precarious impediments to avalanches and collapsing tunnels.

“In other cooperative mines they don’t have these trolleys,” says Eduardo Garnica, an ex-miner who
now works as a guide. “They use wheelbarrows.” In yet others, miners use mules to haul the crushed rock to the surface.

Like many women in the first half of the 20th century, Garnica’s grandmother worked in the mines. His father, who died at the age of thirty-six in a tunnel collapse, also worked here. At the age of fifteen. Eduardo joined his family’s work. Though miners earn more than Potosi’s other blue collar workers, he quit after two years.

At that time, many of the mines were government owned. Workers got pensions and medical benefits and were often provided with housing; they were equipped with electric lamps, jackhammers, and a certain degree of safety. But these non-cooperative mines were losing millions of dollars a year. When tin prices plummeted in 1985, almost half of Potosi’s twelve thousand miners saw the light at the end of the tunnel. Many now work at odd jobs or as taxi drivers.

Today, some seven thousand miners and helpers, divided into thirty-two cooperatives, scour the hundreds of interconnected mines. Now there are no colonial Spanish overlords cracking the whip. The miner-slave prison is a soccer field. Today a tyrant called hunger allows them to exploit themselves. The miners are their own bosses, with team leaders negotiating a meager price with local refineries in town. But each worker must buy his own supplies: everything from helmets to rubber boots to picks to dynamite – which explains why ragged, coca-chewing Davids enter the belly of Goliath in tennis shoes, without so much as a hardhat.

Deep in the bowels of Hell, a group of sweat-drenched miners court their second wind in a rocky enclave, coughing and talking soccer and politics. They chew coca and down singani – a domestic, rotgut white lightening that, at 96 percent, is akin to rubbing alcohol. Upon removing the cotton plug from the refilled bottle, a miner with a raspy voice pours a few drops on the ground – a toast to the Earth Mother.

“The first dose, for the Pachamama, is pure.” he says.

For a miner without a social safety net, the Pachamama takes on special importance. Workers make constant offerings to her. The devil, known as Tío, or Supay (whose home, miners reason, they are doubtless invading) is also given offerings – just in case. In the Fiesta del Espíritu, miners sacrifice a llama, slitting the throat and splashing its blood on the mine entrance. In 1996 alone some thirty llamas – each worth about seventy dollars – were sacrificed in the interest of the Pachamama’s continued protection.

Whether it’s from the Pachamama or the devil himself, the miner of Potosí will need protection. Whether he is Juan or Carlos or José, whether he is seventeen or fourteen or twelve, upon entering the mines he can expect to live no longer than ten years. Whether the Pachamama grants him more, or the devil diverts his attention longer, a miner can count on sacrificing his youth and his life to the Cerro Rico.

Copyright by Brett Allan King and/or publication in which story first appeared
Do not reprint without permission


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