‘The mountain that eats men alive’

Cerro Rico is famed for the harsh conditions faced by its miners. But, as James Dryburgh discovers, it is not only men who are ‘rock-breakers’ in Bolivia’s Potosí region. Women too, some as old as 81, work in the shadow of the sacred mountain.

Potosí, once one of the largest and richest cities in the world, has an incredible history. It is estimated that as many as eight million Andean Indians died because of the mining of its Cerro Rico (Rich Hill). The workers were brought from all over the region – in today’s Bolivia and Peru – to serve the Spanish Crown. Even now, two miners die each week of silicosis in Potosí, in addition to deaths from other mining-related illnesses and accidents. The ‘mountain that eats men alive’ has been written of many times, though perhaps not often enough read. While the vast majority of miners are men, it is not only men who live in the shadow of Cerro Rico.

The good mother

The mountain itself is female. In indigenous Andean culture mountains represent Pachamama (Mother Earth). The Spanish conquerors understood her importance and she became synonymous with the Virgin Mary, helping to convert the indigenous to Catholicism. This association is particularly evident in Potosí’s most famous painting, the 18th century La Virgen del Cerro, by an unknown artist, in which the Virgin Mary is the mountain of Cerro Rico.

Since Pachamama is a ‘good mother’, people toast to her honour almost every day by spilling a small amount of the fermented corn drink chicha to the earth, before drinking the rest. The toast is called ch’alla, from the word for offering, in the native language of Quechua.

Celestina, Macaria and Maria are palliris, a name given to female rock-breakers, which comes from the Aymara language, meaning ‘to select’. For around four dollars a day, the women sort through discarded mine tailings on the surface of the mountain, breaking the rocks with a small hammer to separate tin, silver and zinc. Their decades of experience allow them to determine each mineral by sight and by weighing the rocks with their hands.

Potosí’s ‘mountain of silver’ funded Europe’s development for centuries, yet it remains one of the poorest regions in Latin America

Celestina is 81 years old, and has been a palliri for around 40 years. Maria, Celestina’s 62-year-old daughter, has been working with her mother for 18 years. Though Maria enjoys working with her mother, she laments that Potosí has given Bolivia, and indeed the world, so much, but never gets anything back. Maria has a point. Potosí’s ‘mountain of silver’ funded Europe’s development for centuries, yet it remains one of the poorest regions in Latin America.

Working in the mines

Their hands look strong and wise, coated in the fine, light blue-grey dust of the minerals they sort. Celestina has a heavily lined face shadowed by her wide-brimmed black hat and wears dangly metal earrings. They all wear hats and cover their skin with thick, long skirts and llama wool cardigans. Celestina’s eyes almost look permanently closed from decades of squinting at the harsh high-altitude sun reflecting off the light coloured rock.

As we start talking, the face of 68-year-old Macaria lights up. She is immensely proud of her community and begins telling me her story before I even ask a question. She is a palliri because neither her husband, who was left brain-damaged after a mining accident, nor her daughter, who doesn’t have any legs, can work.

Macaria began working in the mines before the age of 15, when her father died. At first, the mine boss said she was too young, but she had a Spanish godfather who pulled some strings and soon she was working alongside her brothers. She worked until she was 23 in lead and silver mines, later working outside separating minerals with water and gravity.

When the US flooded the market in 1985, the price of tin crashed, making life even tougher on the mountain. Female workers got together and organized a support and response group called Centre of Palliris. They started street cleaning and tree planting groups to deal with unemployment. Macaria was president of the organization for several years and tells me she’s a very political person and is proud that, with little opportunity, she still enjoys life and is informed. Today, the group is called the Association of Female Workers of Cerro Rico, Potosí.

The important things in life

We sit, green bags on our laps, de-veining then chewing the coca leaves they contain to suppress the effects of altitude, fatigue and hunger as we look over the formerly government-owned miners’ houses that are now mostly empty. The women all reflect that conditions were much better before the crash and subsequent re-privatisation of mining in Bolivia. I ask Macaria what the three most important things in life are. She explains that work is the most important, because without it you cannot have health or look after your family.

Today Cerro Rico is hollow, but still standing at 4,860 metres above sea level. She has not once slept during the past 460 years, since the Spanish learnt of her riches. She still gives. She still takes away. She is tired, but not exhausted. Each day approximately 3,000 tonnes of mineral are brought out of Cerro Rico by around 15,000 miners, working in over 500 separate mines.

Macaria explains that work is the most important, because without it you cannot have health or look after your family

Potosí is one of Bolivia’s most indigenous regions. Over a third of its population only speak native languages. Almost every mining family is indigenous with Quechua, or sometimes Aymara, as their first language.

In 1581, Phillip II of Spain told an audience that a third of Latin America’s Indians had already been wiped out, and, referring to Potosí specifically, that mothers killed their own children to save them from the horrors of the mines. It is estimated there were 70 million Indians in Latin America when Columbus sailed towards its shores thinking he had found a back door to Asia. A century and a half later, there were just 3.5 million. Modesta only speaks Quechua and lives in a tiny adobe (mud brick) building on the side of the mountain. Two thirds of the building houses mining equipment and the other third is home to Modesta, her husband, and five of their seven children. She earns US$45 a month for protecting a mine entrance and mining equipment from thieves, all day, every day. She has six scrawny dogs to help.

What hope?

Modesta is spinning llama wool to make clothing and bedding for her family while she tells me of her 14 years living amongst the mines. Originally Modesta’s family were peasant farmers in the region of Santa Cruz, but if the rains were unkind to their crops they had no food. They moved to Potosí and her husband took a job in the mines. He is now a second-class miner earning between $30 and $70 a week, depending on production and the quality of minerals extracted. Modesta tells me that almost half his last pay went on his weekly alcohol binge. Drinking is a huge problem within the mining community. Alcohol not only exacerbates poverty, it brings violence and unplanned children into the home.

Modesta doesn’t want her children to work in the mines because of the danger, poor pay and short life, but she confesses, ‘I have no hope for our situation’.

Photo: Manuel Rivera-Ortiz: Macaria, widow of the Mines, Potosí, Bolivia 2004

Her eldest child has a job in a brick factory in Argentina and her 14-year-old son, Saturino, wants to follow his older brother after one more year of school. Modesta believes the only opportunity for her 12-year-old daughter Sylvia is to become a maid for a wealthy family, and if she is lucky, in a richer region of Bolivia.

Elias is seven and the only child with a local interest. Modesta helps him to collect coloured rocks and minerals, which he sells to tourists. Sadly, many of the children of Cerro Rico do likewise, which causes rivalry between the child sellers, leading to bullying, violence and an absence of friendships. Fortunately, Modesta’s children have some friends nearby, who aren’t competitors for tourists’ short change.

Despite centuries of tragedy on this mountain, there is a joy, dignity and beauty within her people. Though she provides the livelihood for thousands of people, and there is a subtle fear about the day Cerro Rico is finally exhausted, she is sacred to the people of Potosí

Modesta shines with a huge, almost toothless smile as she talks about Jose, her youngest, who is only four. Too young for school, he spends the days with his mother and clings to her as we talk. Given the average life span of miners in Potosí is around 38 years, the odds are that his father will be dead before Jose is 10. He and his brothers will likely be forced to follow their father’s fading footsteps, down the hill, into the mine, and into an early grave.

Miners generally don’t have access to running water, let alone hot showers, and are permanently coated in fine dust, meaning intimacy often results in sickness, especially in women. The wives face a future that is likely to bring the early loss of their husband and the primary family income, creating the need for children to begin working at disturbingly young ages. These mothers and wives have to deal with anxiety and fear for their children and husbands below in the mines every single day.

Keeper of a million stories

The women of Cerro Rico are widows or widows in waiting and are eventually left with the responsibility of trying to ensure their husbands can at least rest in peace. The miners are proud men who can truly say they have sacrificed their life for their family. But for the poorest miners of Potosí, even death is a struggle. If a miner is not in a co-operative, his family has to pay for a burial plot on a five yearly basis. If they cannot afford the payments, the remains are discarded and the plot used for someone else. Despite centuries of tragedy on this mountain, there is a joy, dignity and beauty within her people. Though she provides the livelihood for thousands of people, and there is a subtle fear about the day Cerro Rico is finally exhausted, she is sacred to the people of Potosí. Huge protests towards the end of 2010, in which Potosinos went on strike and blockaded the entire region for 20 days, ensured an agreement with the national government to preserve the form of Cerro Rico, even if it means leaving some of her wealth where it is.

A few days later, looking up from the city to the conical red mountain, I say to Jacqueline, a local woman, ‘that mountain must be the keeper of millions of stories.’ ‘She never stops speaking,’ Jacqueline replies.

James Dryburgh is a Scottish-born Tasmanian writer passionate about truth and helping the world’s muffled voices to be heard. He has lived in Scotland, Spain and Latin America and is Associate Editor of tasmaniantimes.com.