Oct 11

Exploiting Bolivia – part 2 – sitting with the dead

by in Bolivia

"Here ends your service to the mining community," reads the sign painted on the wall of the mausoleum reserved for one of the 33 mining cooperatives in Potosí, Bolivia. The other wall reads, "Silence! here rest the men who left their lungs in the mines." | photo by brandon c janes iv

“Here ends your service to the mining community,” reads the sign painted on the wall of the mausoleum reserved for one of the 33 mining cooperatives in Potosí, Bolivia. The other wall reads, “Silence! here rest the men who left their lungs in the mines.” | photo by brandon c janes iv

Last week I participated in a wake for the martiarch of a local mining family in Potosí. The five children – four sons and one daughter – spent their savings shipping the body back from Argentina – where she had died of cancer.

The ceremony lasted until sunrise and, as is the custom in Bolivia, we sat with the body all night.

My friend Zenón Oxachoque, who invited me to the vigil, said the tradition dates back to when Bolivians did not have the technology to confirm when a body had gone completely lifeless.

“In those days they would sit 48 hours with the body,” Oxachoque said. “It was more common to be buried alive then.”

I’ve heard of similar stories in the histories of other countries, including my own, but particularly Bolivian is the nostalgic conviction not to let these forlorn rituals go out of practice.

Modern Bolivians identify with a whimsical mish-mash of cultures: takings from the sensitive peasant society of the country’s origin; the oppressive Spanish colonialism, where they get their language and some of their religion; and the smartphone revolution.

Most important for the city of Potosí – a community intimately tied to one of the most dangerous professions on the planet – is the spiritual system by which it understands death.

Death in the mines

With the eeriness of Dante’s gates of hell, someone has painted a message on the entrance of Potosí’s main mining mausoleum at the town cemetery.

“Silence! here rest the men who left their lungs in the mines,” it reads.

There are three ways to die inside a mine, Oxachoque told me. Asphyxiation – from lack of oxygen or carbon monoxide poisoning – a dynamite misfire from a fouled fuse, and a tunnel collapse.

“Death is always on our foreheads,” a miner called Chino, of the 27 de Marzo cooperative, said. “We work underneath a mountain and death is all around. But that is the value for us. It gives us power.”

In January five young miners died in one day from carbon monoxide poising inside the mountain.

Often the cause of such deaths is the rain, which moves the gases around inside the mountain, said Rolando Colque Rios, a former miner and tour guide.

Some of the miners use 1950s-style carbide lamps, which burn acetylene gas that changes color when carbon monoxide and other deadly gases enter the work area. But even that method of prevention is uncommon.

Of the more than 15,000 miners who work inside Cerro Rico, about 35 die each year due to accidents, Oxachoque said. And when an accident occurs the whole community comes together to help the family deal with the loss.

By far the greatest killer of miners is a disease called silicosis, caused by inhaling the small bits of hard dust over a long period of time.

The average life expectancy of a Cerro Rico miner is 40 years because of the disease, according to articles by the BBC and Time Magazine, who have covered Potosí’s silicosis problem.

Rios said he has heard of men who worked just four years in the mine before contracting the silicosis.

In all of my trips to the mines, I never saw one miner wearing a mask. Some of them said they use them, but only when jackhammering.

El Tío of the San Miguel Mine, operated by the 1 de Abril Cooperative, inside Cerro Rico, Bolivia. The photographs is overexposed in post-production to show the details of the statue. Notice the bottles of liquor, traditional Bolivian paper flags and the god's large member | photo by brandon c janes iv

El Tío of the San Miguel Mine, operated by the 1 de Abril Cooperative, inside Cerro Rico, Bolivia. The photographs is overexposed in post-production to show the details of the statue. Notice the bottles of liquor, traditional Bolivian paper flags and the god’s large member | photo by brandon c janes iv

The devil inside

Most Bolivian miners believe that the only thing standing between themselves and death is an underground god called El Tio, the foil of the aboveground Quechua goddess Pachamama or Mother Earth.

Each mine has its own clay or concrete Tio, placed in a quiet recess, shielded from any possible stray dynamite blasts. Most of the figures resemble a devil with horns and a large, unclothed penis and testicles – a source of pride for the miners.

A week after my first visit, Oxachoque and I visited a Tio that he had made in the San Miguel Mine, operated by the 1 de Abril Mining Cooperative.

Sitting next to the statue, the miners acted quiet and restrained.

I watched as one miner in a Cleveland Indians hat and a dusty soccer jersey quietly placed a lit cigarette in Tio‘s mouth and then sat down to sip alcohol with a thick plug of coca leaves stuffed into his cheek.

Coca – mixed with petroleum products – is the active ingredient in the illegal drug cocaine. However, the unprocessed, leaf form is the essential Bolivian habit – both legal to possess and consume here.

Miners will work for up to 24 hours in the mine, taking nothing more with them than a bag of coca for nourishment.

Miners drink alcohol, smoke cigarettes and chew coca - which is legal in Bolivia - before heading into the mines | photo by brandon c janes iv

Zenón Oxachoque (center) smokes a cigarettes and chews coca with two other miners of the 27 de Marzo Mining Cooperative in Cerro Rico, Bolivia. The green bags in the miners’ hands hold their coca rations for the day | photo by brandon c janes iv

Oxachoque’s apartment

The night of the wake we went by Oxachoque’s apartment to pick up some candles and bottles of alcohol. Since his mother died in January, Oxachoque wears black clothing and will continue for one full year of mourning.

“It’s obligatory,” he said.

Down the street, inside the downstairs living room of a back alley home, the wake had already begun.

In the center of a floor scattered with coca leaves and cigarette ash, stood the woman’s coffin, covered in colorful flowers, photographs and her favorite meal – a tomato lentil dish, which had long since gone cold.

All night her sons roamed around the room, holding back tears and offering trays of coca leaves, cigarettes and a hot drink called té con té – the Bolivian hot toddy – an infusion of cinnamon, coffee bean husk and potable alcohol.

Every hour the brother of the dead would rise and say a prayer in mixed Quechua and Spanish. When he was through, we would pour a sip of our drinks on the floor as an offering to the Pachamama.

By 5 a.m. – through hours of rich conversation, coca and endless cups of alcoholic tea – we had celebrated a life.

VIDEO: Exploiting Bolivia – part 1 – “the riches that made us poor”

Tags:

Leave a Reply