I was picked up this morning by a very funny local man by the name of Antonio Banderas. He tells me that there is the famous Antonio Banderas of Spain who sings (?? I thought he was an actor) and then there is famous Antonio Banderas of Potosí who dances (him).
We first went to his office where we were equipped with sexy red pants and jackets, helmets and torches, ready for a bit of industrial spelunking. On the way of course, we had to stop and acquire some supplies. Such supplies consist of coca leaves, a 96% bottle of booze, and snacks to give as presents to the miners. Why you ask does a person need a 96% bottle of alcohol in a mine, well, we will get to that later.
So a bit of background history. Locals lived here for thousands of years happily. The Spanish rock up with their guns and evil trickery and take over pretty much the entire continent. Upon the discovery of a boat load of silver ore underground, some of which being up to (oddly) 96% pure, they decided to base their entire South American economic operations out of Potosí. Problem though. Who is actually going to work in these unsafe mines in shocking conditions for the profitability of the Spanish? Certainly not the Spanish.
According to Señor Banderas, up to eight million local Quechua died working in these mines from either accidents or lung failure from the silica dust. They were forced to work there as slaves. My fact checker journalist friend finds a mere hundred thousand in comparison on the internet but no doubt these numbers have been fudged a bit along the way by both parties. As it stands today, there are 7,500 people still working across 40 different cooperative mines in the area and there are on average approximately three deaths per month. One of the last they had to haul out in pieces after he exploded himself with dynamite.
In an attempt to protect themselves from the evils of the mines, there are several rituals which miners undertake to ask Pachamama and their devil friend they call Tio, for sparing. At first we throw coca leaves and some alcohol on the ground at the mine entrance to ask Pachamama for her blessings and then we enter.
Back in the days of the Spanish, when the Quechua would refuse to enter the mines, the Spanish lied to them and told them that unless they went and pulled as much silver out of the ground as possible that they would seriously piss of the God of the underworld, also known as Satan, and that he would rain fucking hell down like you’ve never seen. All lies of course, but what this started was super interesting.
Scattered throughout the mine are devil statues of varying sizes that they call Tio. Tio means uncle in Spanish, but it is more likely the case that they were trying to call him ‘Dios’ without the capacity to be able to pronounce the letter ‘d’, thus ‘tios’. Each Tio has his hands on his knees in sitting position with an optimistically giant erection sticking out from between his legs. The ritual proceeds that one gives coca leaves and alcohol to each hand, to protect the hands, to each feet, to protect the feet and lots for the penis for “lots and lots of sex sex sex!” Antonio Banderas tells me. Of course he is joking, the significance of the giant schlong is fertility and they make the biggest offering to it in hope that the mine will be rich with ore and give back ample dinero. Antonio then also sparks up a doobie, has a few puffs and inserts this cigarette into Tio’s mouth so he gets the trifector of all vices of miners. Most of the Tios have black noses for this and black lips. This is still something that is performed in devout manner to ask for protection and safety every single day in disregard to occupational health and safety measures. Despite losing both his father and grandfather to lung disease from working in the mines, Antonio still didn’t wear a mask.
What he did do however was sing the Indiana Jones theme song quite consistently and recommend that we use hands to crawl like ‘Spider-Mans, Spider-Womens and Spider-Pigs’. I can say that I not so graciously attempted to follow this advice as I squeezed my way through some of the small cracks where we observed the miners working in their actual conditions with hammers to break up stone, shovelling rocks into carts and pushing them along the tracks. These days the ore is lucky to contain ten percent and as such, not a lot of money is to be made from such a gruelling process.
They are however a proud people. Proud of their jobs and proud of their history. I can tell you this right now, I don’t think you could pay me enough money in the world to make the daily sacrifices that these men make, with their lives and their long term health, just to sustain their families. But then I was fortunate enough to be born with such a choice. Many of them don’t and come from generations of miners like Antonio Banderas. He did something smart though. He learned to speak English and started doing tours of the mines.
“Six years”, he will proudly tell you he has been speaking English. “Fuck is the first English word I learned”, he chuckles as he adds in “fucking tourists, jejeje”. He is one of the most friendly and jovial men you will meet, and very, very funny. But his face takes a hard worn look to it as he discusses his friends that died in the five years he was working in the mines as a miner. A reality that every single man in the mine faces.
It’s all fun and games crawling around a mine as a tourist, in all your gear, with your helmet, but at the end of the day, that’s what we are. Tourists in the unfortunate lives of others. These men work in appalling conditions that will either lead them to rapid accidental death or the eventual death by age forty from the constant inhalation of silica dust. It is hard, dirty, and completely unregulated in what we would consider a western standard. Nobody here survives in the end. They just accept that it’s their card and get about it until they die, with the exception of the odd ones like Antonio and a few others who defy this and find work elsewhere. It certainly gave me an appreciation for the options I have for work in my life. At least I don’t have to die to provide for my family for the short working span of life I would have working here.