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Photo by Tom Pablo, South America Semester.

The life cycle of zinc

It starts with dust and darkness. Wearing loose fitting hard hats and headlamps, young men burrow into the earth in search of the minerals that the Pachamama offers. They are headed to the place where God cannot reach them. Every inhale takes in the dust that fills their lungs and shortens their lives, and every exhale lets go of the God that can only exist above the Earth’s surface. They are searching for the lucrative veins—sparsely spots buried so deeply in the mountain—in an effort to feed their families or pay their way through primary school. This is the life of a miner in Potosi. It is more than a job; it is a lifestyle, an identity, and a sacrifice.

But when I think of Zinc, I think of warm sand between my toes, rolling pillowy waves, and a dangerously hot sun. I ask my mom to help rub in the sunscreen on my back—SPF 30 and undeniably full of Zinc. Just like that, the mineral goes from a miner’s dusty hands to my white skin. I am not even aware of the history embedded in the milky substance, which is now so intimately stuck to my body. I do not realize the role I play in the Cerro Rico mountains of Bolivia and do not recognize that I could even have a role in them at all.

Later, when my brother and I go snorkeling—our minds hopped up and racing with the idea of rainbow fish and fan coral—the Zinc leaves my body. Our relationship is short lived and impersonal, but Zinc’s life does not end there. It swirls and circulates with the tides, making its way to the coral reefs below. Our most diverse ecosystems have become endangered due to so many things. Plastic bags and straws harm so much of our marine life; yet, there is another killer: Zinc, Pachamama’s gift and a symbol of Tio’s love.

We do not intend for this harm to happen. In fact, many of us are unaware. And as the 14 and 15 year old boys leave their homes and enter the land where the Tio dwells, they are there for work. Sandy beaches are worlds away, as their families survive off only papas and mate de coca. It starts with young boys trying to feed their families. How does your white skin carry it to the sea turtles and polyps?