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Crossing the river before summiting 17,500 Pico Austria. Photo by Ella Williams (2016 Fall Semester Photo Contest, 2nd Place), South America Semester.

The Mountain that Eats Men


In 1544 the Spanish invaders discovered the mighty Cerro Rico mountain of Potosi. Arguably the largest silver mine in history it’s said that the silver extracted from Cerro Rico could build a road of pure silver from Potosi all the way to Spain. It’s estimated that 60% of all silver mined in the world during the second half of the 16th century came from Cerro Rico. The silver of Potosi pretty much single-handedly funded the Spanish empire and shaped the world.

At its peak in the early 17th century Potosi had a population greater than that of London. That population first consisted of local indigenous people, then Spanish settlers and finally African slaves brought in to work in the mines. Between the indigenous population and the African slaves it’s estimated that over 8 million people have died from work related to the mines. During our visit to the Casa Nacional de Moneda (National Mint of Bolivia) our group learned about the inhumane conditions the African and indigenous slaves had to endure under the Spanish.

With our trusted guide Basilio we entered the Cerro Rico mines and tried to comprehend the tragic history of that place. As we sat in the pure darkness of the mine, coughing up the dusty air we reflected on our privilege and tried to imagine what it would be like to have to work in this type of environment.

To this day a couple thousand men still enter Cerro Rico each day. Now more for zinc, lead and other minerals because the silver is almost completely extracted. Some men enter in the morning, some in the middle of the night. It doesn’t really matter because once you’re consumed by the darkness of the mine day and night become insignificant. You have entered the world of El Tío (considered the Devil in Christian ideology).

In Potosi it is said that God rules over all and showers us with love and protection. However God’s protection can only reach so far. Once you enter the mine you are under the “protection” of El Tío, the Devil. With the blood of sacrificial llamas and offerings of coca, cigarettes and alcohol El Tío will protect you in the mines. That being said El Tío took the lives of at least 60 men last year alone in the mine. (We go to an inactive mine with our students that is safe for visitors to enter, the active mines are far more dangerous, they are quite voyeuristic as well). Even if you don’t perish due to an accident within the mines, the mines will still eventually steal the life from your body via silicosis, tuberculosis or other respiratory illnesses. Today the average life expectancy of a miner in Potosi is only 40 years old.

How many millions of my fellow human beings have worked and died in those mines of Potosi, those mines of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, those mines all around the world? Just to extract those minerals that are later built into “things” for us to literally fight over every Christmas season or Black Friday.

After 9/11 President Bush told us to go shopping, to go to Disney World. We are a nation of consumers, this of course is not all bad. Consumerism creates jobs and provides us with tools & resources that make our lives better. However if it goes unchecked consumerism can control us, create inhumane working conditions for workers around the world and destroy the natural environment.

Potosi, the city that shaped the modern world is now all but forgotten by it. However, for its 240,000+ inhabitants life goes on. As well some 300 miles from Potosi in the small village of Tocaña, where we will be in 2 weeks, the influence of Potosi remains ever present.

Resting at around 13,300 feet Potosi is one of the highest cities in the world. As you walk the streets you feel the altitude. Your breath becomes labored as you climb the tight streets. For the lowland Africans that were brought to this elevation as slaves the back breaking work in the mines was often too much to bear. Many, many died in the mountain but some, either through escaping or more often by intentional, involuntary relocation, made their way to communities in the Yungas, like Tocaña.

In Tocaña the African men and women were sent to work in the coca fields. Tocaña at an altitude of only 4,500 feet created a far more hospitable climate for the involuntary workers from Africa. We will be doing homestays with Afro-Bolivian families in Tocaña in two weeks, as we continue to follow the complex threads of Bolivian history.

Today, some 450+ years later the descendants of these slaves still live in Tocaña, still working in the coca fields. No longer slaves but still facing discrimination. The Afro-Bolivian culture is a beautiful blending of traditions and beliefs. Rich in hundreds of years of Bolivian tradition while still holding on to their African roots. One of the most impressively maintained traditions is the Saya dance.

Tonight we leave for El Alto. Here we’ll work with Teatro Trono, a Bolivian theater group that uses theater to create social change and empower youth. This will also be our student’s first homestay.