and cigarettes. We stayed there, sharing rum and cigarettes, alone
in the darkness and silence for what felt like hours. Julio warned
me not to whistle because doing so could make the Tio come
alive. He told me not to eat garlic before entering a mine or to
use the Christian word salud before taking a drink. “Never swear
to God in the mine,” he warned, “because God is not here.” This
was the Tio’s domain and the Tio liked sex, orgies, and acts of
perversion. To him virtue was vice and vice was virtue.
Julio told me stories about miners who brought prostitutes
into the mines and had sex with them in front of the Tio to win
his favor; about unscrupulous tour guides who took advantage of
female tourists before the Tio; and of his own attempts to convince a girlfriend to do the same to bring them both luck. In that
place of darkness and sulfurous heat his voice took on an ominous tone as he recounted these depravities, and I felt myself to
be in the very womb of Hell, courted by the Devil himself.
Once a year, during the miners’ Carnaval in January, the Devil
dances down from the mountain in the light of day, and the full
dichotomy of a miner’s life is celebrated in the streets of Potosí.
The entrada, which marks the beginning of three weeks of festivities, is a twenty-four-hour parade of comparsas (performance
groups) that begins outside the mines of Cerro Rico, passes
through the miners’ barrio, and ends in the city center.
Among the traditional groups found throughout Bolivian festivals are miners who dance with giant drills, young Quechuan
girls in traditional polleras (skirts) carrying bowls of mineral ore,
and dance groups of eight- to twelve-year-old boys dressed so authentically as miners that it is impossible to know which of them
have not already begun a miner’s life. The Tio himself appears
alongside statues of the Virgin Mary, prancing amid volleys of
soap foam and water bombs while miners on the nearby hills
ignite sticks of dynamite.
On El Día de los Compadres (Men’s Day during Carnaval) I
joined a group of miners that descended several hundred meters
into the mountain. We came to a large cavern lit by a string of
light bulbs. There we found miners busily hanging serpentinas
(colored streamers) from the thick wooden beams that held the
mountain up above us, and using their worn lungs to fill colored balloons. A large part of the room was occupied by a pneumatic hammer drill, a wheelbarrow filled with flower petals, and
a ch’alla, or ritual o=ering: a little mountain of the group’s best
mineral ore. As I sat on the ground and rested against a stack
of beer cans, I was warned that a vertical shaft eight hundred
meters deep lay immediately behind them. Peering over the beer
I could not see the bottom, but the ghostly movement of dim
lights at various depths indicated that below us similar festivities
were taking place.
The little pile of silver ore was the most venerated thing in
the room, and much attention was given to adorning it with
flower petals and special sour apples studded with colored flags.
The hammer drill was also decorated, as were the mine trolleys.
These tools, along with the dump trucks outside the mine, were
sanctified because there was no money to replace them and they
had to last through to the next generation of miners. Whereas
their ancestors worshipped the mountain as an untouchable life
force, the people of Potosí today worship the machinery used
to hammer and chisel wealth from the mountain’s core. Where
once a child was taught that “we hold the mountains sacred, for
the mountains give us life,” they now learn at a very young age
the adage first encountered by anthropologist June Nash in the
1950s: “We eat the mountain, and the mountain eats us.”
When preparation of the cavern was complete, every miner
took his turn kneeling before the o=ering of minerals. He said
a quiet prayer, giving thanks to the mountain and requesting a
prosperous year. Then he poured a small cup of wine into the
rocks for Pachamama (Earth mother) and a small cup of grain
alcohol for the Tio. After we had all made our prayer, the leader
of the work group reached into an enormous sack resting against
the wall and handed a small package to each miner.
The men opened the packages and, pulling out long strings of
serpentinas, began piling them around each other’s necks. “
Compadre,” they said, looking one another in the eyes, “compadre.”
Then, in their helmets and work clothes, covered in mud and
dust, the hardest of men hugged each another. They traded partners and repeated the ritual until their faces could hardly be seen
for all the decorations, until every man had paid tribute to every
other man, and until the indignity of all the blasted rock and machinery in that cavern somewhere in the heart of the mountain
was overwhelmed by the splendor of solidarity. A
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