In Potosi, there are men beneath the mountain. They’ve been there for four and a half centuries, toiling away in the dark. They’re desperate to see one more rich vein of silver running through the stone. Most will never find it.
The ones there now are the ones who have always been there. They’re indistinguishable from their great-grandfathers. Small in stature, coarse skin, coca-stained teeth. Curved spines from a lifetime of ducking.
They are doing what they’ve always done - manually dragging ore out from deep inside the mountain, through rickety shafts built by their forefathers. Techniques haven’t evolved, there are no computers or heavy machinery or hydraulic lifts here. Take away the electric lighting and you could be in the 1700’s.
And they’re dying the way they’ve always died – scoliosis and lung cancer. Most start work at 14 and don’t live into their forties. Their work is literally back-breaking. Of everywhere in their lives, the mine is where they’ll spend the most time.
A hundred years ago Potosi was one of the richest places on earth. ((Potosi was once a bigger city than London)) Fifty years from now it might be deserted. Geologists say the mine is nearly exhausted, they say that the men have taken almost all there is to take. ((The mine is already hundreds of meters shorter than it once was and many geologists believe collapses will become increasingly common in the coming years)) But diminishing returns discourage no one. If they can’t find silver they look for tin.
Everyone knows dozens of people who have died in the mine. ((Hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, have died since the mine opened in 1545)) Yet, maybe more powerfully, everyone knows one person who has become rich, relatively, from what they found in that terrible, dark place. That money can be used for food, a nicer home, a new truck. But there is one thing the money can buy that is valued above all the rest. When a man becomes wealthy here, his wealth allows him to achieve the shared dream of every worker. They all say the same thing about these rich men, their voices thick with envy.
“His sons will not work in the mine.”
Before you think these men are controlled by some devious corporation, know that their management structure is surprisingly unionized. They form their own groups, called collectivos, and are paid directly according to what they pull from the ground. The money is terrible, of course, but it’s also based, theoretically, in some kind of fairness. ((Most miners make about $3 for a 12-hour shift)) In short, these are not slaves. They are simply men with nothing else. Which I suppose might make them slaves in their own way.
We brought them gifts – dynamite, coca leaves, and unfiltered cigarettes. They shrugged, indifferent to our presence, indifferent to the idea that gringos would pay to come down into the dark. They were just trying to find that last bit of silver. In many ways, nothing else matters.
We were in a small cavern, watching the men shovel rock into buckets, when our guide told me his father used to work in this collectivo. The work here is among the most physically intensive in the mine and, as his father got older, it became too much for him. He moved to “the hot place” – a mine shaft deep in the center of the mountain. Though they endure the incredible heat and a dangerous lack of oxygen, the miners there generally make less money because the rocks are slightly smaller and lighter. A different group of gringos passed us in the cavern and began to walk down the shaft to see this notorious “hot place”. I asked our guide if we’d be following them, if we’d see his father.
“No. I will not go there. I cannot bear to see my father working in this place.”
They drink harsh, clear liquor and pour out two drops: one for Pachamama, one for El Tio. Pachamama is Mother Earth, the giver of life, the creator of the mountain. El Tio is The Uncle, the devil of the mountain. He is always depicted naked, drinking liquor, laughing maniacally at the miners in their suicide quest for silver.
It’s as if they’ve come to an agreement. Pachamama will provide them the tiny silver flecks in the dirt that is their lifeblood. Then El Tio will take them and they will stay beneath the mountain forever; their work mercifully over. And their sons will enter the mine, to see what they can find.