Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Silver and Salt: so much in common

Bolivia, they say, is a "big street market" and I think they are not wrong: The country's few buildings and occasional stores are confined in bigger cities like La Paz or Santa Cruz. Homes, wherever they are located, are tiny and barely hold essentials; people do not shut themselves behind closed doors and windows or else they would (likely) suffocate. To work or celebrate Bolivians also head to the streets (or even further, to the fields) except perhaps for the occasional Mass which unites the community to church. This also makes sense considering that the vast vast majority of the population is in farming, animal raising or the mines; celebrating is something that Bolivians know very well and streets fill during local Carnivals: the Carnival of Oruro is said to be the second in South America after that of Rio.

Such "openness" creates a level of transparency that almost "dictates" that people grow together. People collectively benefit from shared experiences and interpersonal relationships that take place in common spaces - both psychologically and in material terms, through the sharing of resources. This becomes particularly important since few Bolivians have substantial individual posessions, whether material or non-material, to meet their needs on their own. At the same time grievances and adversities are also collectively experienced, magnifying thus the number of affected individuals.

The documentary of Richard Ladhkani and Kief Davidson "The Devil's Miner" confirms just this; although it focuses on Basilio Vargas and his family, the film shows how mining affects the entire community of the city of Potosí in south Bolivia. Cerro Rico, the mountain that "hosts" the mines five centuries now, is often referred to as the "eater of men" [because of the dead miners] and members of the commmunity openly talk about it. At the same time workers and outsiders know they all depend on the mines for survival. For such reasons the entire community participates in the ceremonies to appease the spirit of the mine, Tio (pictured like a Devil), so that he does not take the lives of miners.

If there is one thing that transparent societies are not good at, this is keeping secrets. It is common knowledge to workers and outsiders that there are many children workers in the mines, like Basilio who is 14 and his brother, Bernandino, 12. Many miners openly express their discontent stating that children are unsuitable for such an unhealthy profession. Yet what comes out from the film is that child labor ultimately is not a choice, it is a matter of survival. For single parent families like the Vargas family, working is indeed a necessity as the mother, Manuela, makes only US $25 per month and, hence, is unable to financially support her three children and herself. What is perhaps the toughest part of the film is the moment where Basilio admits that he would not have to work, if his father was alive - "If only..."

"The Devil's Miner" is a "difficult" movie both because its subject matter is a tough one and the scenes in the mine are not particulalry pleasant to watch; also, because it has no "plot" it may appear "slow" - and yet these are precisely the elements that make it an excellent documentary, the very fact that Ladhkani and Davidson capture reality and shun ornaments. Regardless of its technical ans artistic merits the documentary is worth watching for yet another reason: it deals with the major plague that many states in Latin America and elsewhere face, the exploitation of mine workers. A phenomenon that goes back to colonialism, it has taken many forms in the centuries and sadly continues almost unabatted today. In that sense, "The Devil's Miner" echoes Peruvian author Ciro Alegria and his famous novel "El Mundo es ancho y ajeno" (The world is broad and alien); Alegria condemns among others the maltreament of locals in the mine of Navilca at the beginning of the 20th century.

Typical communal meal that is shared among peasants in rural Bolivia; all parties involved contribute by bringing some food of their choice.

Everything can be a reason to celebrate. Here, a children's [sic] road run organized by a television station, near La Paz.

A yet another demanding job is the production of salt. Much like miners producers of salt have to masticate leaves of coca and protect themselves from the harmful fumes that accompany the purification of the salt. Colchani, Potosí.

MindBlog Network

Subscribe to  this blog"s feed via FeedBurner Subscribe to  this blog"s feed" feed via Google Reader or Google Pages Subscribe to  this blog"s feed via NewsGator Subscribe to  this blog"s feed via Yahoo Subscribe to  this blog"s feed via Bloglines Subscribe to  this blog"s feed via NetVibes

Enter your email address to get updates: