“A woman can’t enter the mine,” Pedro Villca tells me. “Can you imagine? The woman has her period and Pachamama gets jealous. Then Pachamama hides the ore and the seam disappears.”
Villca is an old miner, an unlikely combination in Bolivia. He’s 59 and none of his comrades have made it to his age. He’s alive, he says, because he was never greedy. Most miners work for months or even years without a break. Most miners end up working 24-hour shifts, fuelled by coca leaves and liquor, a practice for which they have invented a verb, veinticuatrear: ‘to twenty-four’. Instead he would come up to the surface, go back to his parents’ village for a few months to grow potatoes and herd llamas, fill his lungs with clean air to flush the dust out of them, and then go back to the mine. But he was never there when his companions were asphyxiated by a pocket of gas or crushed by a rockfall. He knows he’s already taken too many chances with death and that he shouldn’t push his luck. So he’s decided to retire. He swears that in a few weeks’ time he’ll retire.
Alicia opens her fist and shows me three stones the colour of lead, speckled with sparkling spots: particles of silver. She has pilfered them from the mine.
She wraps the stones in newspaper, puts the package in her backpack and disappears behind the canvas sacks to change her clothes. She takes off the overalls and puts on some jeans, a blue tracksuit top and a knitted hat. She grabs the backpack, and we leave the hut and walk downhill.
She’s 14 years old, and her hands are dry and tough, bleached by the dust of the mountain.
The wind sweeps the slopes: fragments of rock scatter before it, the rubble groans. The dust of Cerro Rico gets in your eyes, between your teeth, into your lungs. It contains arsenic, which causes cancer, and it contains cadmium, zinc, chrome and lead, all of which accumulate in the blood, gradually poisoning the body until it is exhausted. The dust also contains silver: between 120 and 150 grams of silver for every ton of dust. Every visitor takes away a few particles of Potosí silver in their lungs. It’s because of these particles, the need to separate them from all the others, that Alicia lives in an adobe hut on the mountain.
In Potosí, Ander Izagirre tells the story of Alicia, a 14-year-old girl who lives on the slopes of Cerro Rico de Potosí, the mineral-rich mountain in Bolivia whose silver and other metals were a key source of wealth for the Spanish Empire from the 16th to the 19th centuries. Alicia shares an adobe-brick hut with her mother and younger sister on a windswept esplanade at the entrance to the mine which dominates their lives. The mining cooperative provides Alicia’s family with their makeshift home in exchange for her mother’s work guarding the equipment that is stored in a nearby hut; although Alicia is officially too young to be employed, she supplements the family income by working shifts in the mine, pushing a trolley full of rocks through underground tunnels for 2 euros a night. The toxic dust of the mine floats in the air they breathe and seeps into the water supply.
At the foot of the mountain, the city of Potosí, for so long a source of fabulous wealth, remains a place of immense poverty. Atlhough the rich seams of the past have all been exhausted, there are still over 10,000 people working in the mines (many of them children like Alicia) in small-scale, informal operations. They remove the rock by hand and transport it to the surface, where US and Japanese-owned multinationals grind it down and process it to extract the remaining ore. The resultant damage – both to the environment and to those who live and work in or near the mines – is devastating.
Izagirre skilfully uses this intimate portrait of a single family and the place where they live to tell a larger story: how the ‘blessing’ of mineral wealth has cursed Bolivia throughout its history, attracting the Spanish conquistadores who created a system of slave labour to extract the metal, and giving birth in the 19th century to a brutal local oligarchy that ruled over one of the poorest and most unequal countries on the planet. The country’s modern history has been marked by a series of military dictatorships, often installed with US backing with the express purpose of guaranteeing the flow of raw materials, and the economy remains extremely vulnerable to any fluctuation in the prices of tin and other minerals.
At the same time, this is a narrative that is not afraid of confronting uncomfortable truths, and Izagirre shows how the terrible working conditions and appalling safety record of the mines have not only caused the deaths of hundreds of thousands of miners through the centuries, but have spawned a patriarchal social system in which the miners, brutalised and traumatised by their experiences and numbed by alcohol, pass this on to their wives and children in the form of violence and physical and sexual abuse. This system has its symbolic focus in the figure of El Tío, a diabolic subterranean male counterpart to Pachamama, the Andean earth goddess, and goes hand in hand with active attempts to exclude women from the public and political spheres.
Although the story of Alicia and her family are at the centre of Izagirre’s account, he interweaves it with accounts of the lives of several other people: Pedro Villca, at 59 an ‘improbably old’ miner who is the author’s guide in the mines; Father Gregorio, an Oblate priest from northern Spain who was sent to Bolivia in the 1960s to run a Catholic radio station, and was hounded by the authorities for siding with the poor; Che Guevara, who died in a doomed attempt to light the fuse of a peasants’ and workers’ revolution in Bolivia; and Klaus Barbie, the Nazi fugitive who took refuge in Bolivia and put his skills to use by organising death squads on behalf of the CIA-backed dictator, General Barrientos.
The result is a uniquely engaging mixture of memoir, reportage, travel writing and history that is reminiscent of Ryszard Kapuściński at his peak.
Originally published by Libros del K.O. Details of UK publisher, dates and title coming shortly…
What stories did you mean?
Earlier. When I recognized Danny in the photo, you said I would have heard the stories; that everyone knew about it.
Yes, I’m afraid so. In fact, I’m surprised you don’t.
About Danny’s accident?
It wasn’t an accident. I don’t know why I said that – actually, I do know. It was so comforting that you didn’t know anything, that you didn’t look at me in that way everyone does–
If you don’t want to talk about it–
At church they say talking about it is good for us. And I guess you have the right to know. You were friends, after all.
Danny was killed in the shooting.
The English translation of The Swallow (La Golondrina) by Catalan playwright Guillem Clua, was commissioned by London’s Cervantes Theatre for its world premiere in both English and Spanish in September 2017, and returned to open the Second Season of New Spanish Playwrighting from 30 April to 26 May 2018.
Did you hide the letters so your wife and your daughter wouldn’t find out?
Did you hide them?
Yes. Fuck. What else do you want? Do you want me to confess? I applied for the fucking loan to open the bar. They rolled out the red carpet, and it had always been my dream. I didn’t want to end up like my old man.
Ten years ago, the streets were full of people. Everyone went out in the evening. Seven nights a week. Now, I don’t even have enough money to buy new songs. Do you want to know how I feel every night when I go into the bar to be greeted by Riley singing ‘The Lady in fucking Red’ again?
Do you want to know how I feel at the end of the night, after I’ve spent ten hours on my feet and the takings don’t even cover the electricity bill? So yes, then I go over to the fucking one-armed bandit and feed it every coin I’ve fucking got.
Or do you want me to tell you how scared I am? How scared I am of losing my house and my family? How scared I am that they’ll turn their backs on me when they find out? Is that what you want? Is that what you fucking want?
IDIOTA by leading Catalan playwright, Jordi Casanovas, is a dark comedy that explores the limits of morality and power. It has been staged in Barcelona, Madrid, Mexico City, Rome, Buenos Aires and Costa Rica, with productions scheduled for the Basque Country, Venezuela and Chile in 2018.
To an unseen interviewer.
The whole thing backfired. It was his pride that made him win that fight. The more they tried to crush him into oblivion, the harder he fought, and instead of forgetting about him, people couldn’t get him out of their heads.
HERMANN SCHULZE (old)
To an unseen interviewer.
In the beginning, yes. But then I thought that losing control like that…
Thousands of people had seen him dance…
HERMANN SCHULZE (old)
…in public, betraying the fact that all of his elegance was just a pose…
…which was incredible, as if every drum in the world rolled to the tattoo of his fists, and his legs darted back and forth between the ropes like the fingers of a jazz musician on the strings of a double-bass.
HERMANN SCHULZE (old)
…which crumbled to reveal his true personality … In other words, he’d shown that breeding will always out.
ADOLF WITT (old)
There’s plenty of oysters in the sea, but only a few of them contain a pearl. The whole world was watching when Ali beat Foreman in the Rumble in the Jungle, but Rukeli pulled the same trick on me forty years earlier, making me believe I was winning and then finishing me off at the end. And we’re talking about Ali, the greatest psychologist in the history of boxing.
Rukeli, by Carlos Contreras Elvira, won Spain’s Premio Nacional de Teatro Calderón de la Barca 2013.
This play is an imaginary biography, set in Nazi Germany, which blends theatre, music and cinema to tell a story based on the life and death of Johann ‘Rukeli’ Trollmann, the gypsy boxing champion whose success infuriated the Nazis.
Translated with funding from the Sociedad General de Autores y Editores. Full text available on request.
Johann ‘Rukeli’ Trollmann was a charismatic boxer, a sex symbol and a dancer who achieved fame in Germany in the late 1920s. The pioneer of a distinctive style that Muhammad Ali would later make his own, he won the national light-heavyweight belt in 1933, but shortly afterwards the Germany Boxing Federation stripped him of his title for “inappropriate conduct”. Despite being fully aware that this decision was motivated by racial prejudice, Trollmann accepted a rematch against Gustav Eder, a heavyweight for whom the Reich rigged the scales to enable him to drop down a division and teach Trollmann a lesson. What followed was both a tragic farse and, arguably, the greatest victory in the history of boxing.