February 27, 2018
Every morning for almost 475 years now the men of this town have trooped up to Cerro Rico and started digging. The smart ones come back down at night, cough the dust of a dozen minerals out of their lungs, and open a book. Education, with luck, could be the only thing that will save them from an early grave. If an accident doesn’t kill the average miner between 30 and 40, lung disease surely will. Today in Potosí there are seven women for every man.
It wasn’t always this way. It used to be much worse. Following Francisco Pizarro’s conquest of the Incan empire in the early 1530s, Spain’s efforts to control the hemisphere from central Kansas to the Straits of Magellan shifted into high gear. Here was a cash cow the likes of which had never been seen in the history of human civilization. And the udder on this cow was Cerro Rico – Rich Hill – in Potosí. By 1545, it was the largest city on earth.
There were not enough survivors of Pizarro’s campaigns to swing the picks on Cerro Rico, so Spain played the cards that it knew best: first the sword, then the Bible. It swarmed through the jungles and rain forests to the east in what is now Brazil, enslaved and converted millions of indigenous people, and sent them off to Potosí. There, some 14,000 feet above where they were used to living, they experienced summer nights where the temperature averages 41 degrees F. They died like flies, eight to ten million of them over the centuries, or maybe they died wishing that they could die like flies. It wasn’t even over even when independence movements swept the continent 250 years later. Cerro Rico merely shifted from a Spanish killing field to a Bolivian one.
We did a tour of the city’s main museum. It is dedicated to memorializing the mining, refining, and minting of silver, some 300,000 tons of the pure stuff during Spain’s remarkable run. Life-size manikins, from the ages of mule power through steam power, uncomplainingly operate machines designed to make other men rich. Nearly every one of the carefully restored grinding, pounding, or crushing machines brings forth the identical thought: How many minutes on average can this worker operate this device before it takes one of his fingers?
I do not recall seeing any female manikins operating machinery in the museum, but that is not to say that women had no role in the extraction process. Our guide took us to a section of the city lying directly below Cerro Rico. It was literally walled off from the rest of the town, a zone historically reserved for the indigenous population. As luck would have it, the location was convenient for everyone. Raw ore could be simply rolled down the sides of the hill and lagoons high on the hill could sluice water to follow along with the rocks. The women’s job was to scrub the ore before it could be passed along to the next phase of the refining process. Who knew – who even cared, really – that the rocks were suffused with mercury oxide, a biohazard of the first rank?
The hill is today a sinkhole, tunneled out to the point where you’d think nothing could possibly remain in its spectacular shell. But geologists say that while most of the silver is gone, 65% of the tin, zinc, lead, and other metals remains still. They’re trying to keep the entire mountain from collapsing under its own weight, but no one who has seen maps of the tunnels can believe in such Sunnybrook Farm hopes. And when it goes, it could take a fair share of the 15,000-20,000 men who enter the 500 access tunnels each day at dawn. Think of it as simply a variation on a theme, a dirge that has been playing for half a millennium.
We wound up in the town square at the end of the tour. In the distance the brown, denuded mass of Cerro Rico frowned down on us. Potosí’s fortunes have similarly declined over the years. No longer the center of the universe, today it is the fourth largest city in Bolivia. It can still reach out, however, and remind you who it once was.
I struggled in vain to find some shade from the midday sun. Two women in our group talked quietly near me. “Our guide’s a widow, you know? She has three small children. Her husband was killed up there. A miner. In Cerro Rico.”