Olivia and I sit on the roof, whispering about our respective days when all of a sudden we hear the sound of an Andean flute. Devan has arrived. He climbs the stairs from the roof to a farther up roof and then up a ladder to atop a water tank. “Devan,” I warn, with a slight sense of jealousy for the view he must be seeing. “Let’s join,” Olivia offers, and we run up to join him.
At the last rung of the ladder, I turn to face Cerro Rico for the first time. Small yellow lights dot the outline of the mountain against the dark night sky which itself is brimming with lights, those of thousands of distant stars. There’s some sort of colonial arch to our left and two other colonial tower structures to our right. After a minute or so, the dichotomy of the the city starts to come into focus, that between the colonized and the colonizer; the poor and the extremely wealthy; beauty and exploitation.
The dark outline of the Potosí mine looks absolutely stunning from our perch atop the water tank at night, but during the day, you can clearly see how the mountain has been stripped for its vast natural resources. The hills nearby offer a glimpse of what this mountain looked like prior to the Spanish colonization and following exploitation of land, labor, and capital. Although not much grows at 13,000 feet above sea level, there’s a clear difference between the stripped face of Cerro Rico, littered with trash and large mounds of mined material, and the surrounding hills, dotted with trees and shrubs. At night, all of this is hidden. There’s a false sense of beauty on this roof, only overpowered slightly with the feeling of mine residue entering the lungs each time you take a breath. The dichotomy continues in the architecture of the city. At night, the colonial buildings stick out, but during the day, the rest of the city is much more visible. The most common buildings are not colonial ones, but those made of adobe, weathered and beautiful.
Those that live here and have lived here since Spain began their exploitation of the place also feel this dichotomy heavily. Potosí used to be a booming city, aided by the large amounts of silver that poured out of the mine. At the same time, the indigenous population became subjected to slave labor and the gap of wealth and power between them and their Spanish colonizers widened. The legacy of this type of Spanish rule continues to affect the population of Bolivia today. Yet, the inequality, power relationships, and continued discrimination against the indigenous population can not be seen from our spot on the roof tonight. Instead, we see a bustling yet tranquil city. We do not see the twelve year old child worker sleeping peacefully in his one room house with five siblings. We do not see the miner working his 24 hour shift deep inside Cerro Rico. And we do not see the female miner, largely forgotten about, sorting through piles of extracted material. But somehow all of this lingers in our unsettledness as we watch the city below. It helps remind us that behind this beautifully lit city at night is a story of colonization and exploitation.
Encountering this dichotomy leaves us struck with awe. So much so that before climbing down to the roof again, we sit in silence, marveling at the city and mine of Potosí. Then, slowly, my toes begin to freeze in the cold mountain air and I descend back into the fluorescentlight of our hostel with the lingering unsettledness that has been on my mind for several weeks now, finally able to grasp it and name it, hoping the feeling will diminish but not the curiosity that comes along with it.