Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

February 20, 2006

The Devil’s Miner

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 4:35 pm

Posted to www.marxmail.org on February 20, 2006

Scheduled for release at the Cinema Village in NYC on March 17 (with other cities to follow) as well as PBS’s Independent Lens on May 23rd, “The Devil’s Miner” is a powerful study of a poverty-stricken Indian family trying to subsist on the nearly exhausted veins of the silver mines clustered around Cerro Rico (rich mountain) in Potosi, Bolivia.

The film focuses on fourteen year old Basilio Vargas and his twelve year old brother Bernandino, who have been forced to become miners after the death of their father two years earlier. Basilio makes $2.50 per day, his brother even less. Their mother Vanessa makes $12 biweekly guarding tools in a shed next to their stone hut at the top of Cerro Rico. The remaining member of the family is baby Valentina, who calls Basilio “papi”. Indeed, at the age of 14 he has been thrust into the position of being the family’s main provider as well as its emotional and psychological pillar.

As the film begins, words appear across the foreboding image of Cerro Rico indicating that 8 million miners have died due to accident or illnesses like silicosis in Bolivia’s mines since the arrival of the Spaniards. In addition, we learn that child labor is a fact of life in Potosi, where thousands of children can be found in the mines. The life expectancy of silver miners is only 35-40 years.

The film’s title derives from the statues that appear within all the mines in the area. Called “Tío”, Spanish for uncle, they represent the devil who is master of the underworld they work in daily. They offer propitiations to him in order to stave off accident and illness. We learn that the word “Tío” is a corruption of “dio”, the Spanish word for god. Basilio, who provides most of the narration in the film, explains that the Indians lacked a sound for “d”, so it came out as a “t” instead.

a Tío

Every day the miners make offerings to the devil, including coca which they all chew to ward off exhaustion brought on by high altitudes and exhaustion. Although coca is a sacrament to native peoples in Bolivia, it has also had a troubled history as a kind of crutch to support super-exploitation.

Basilio’s aspirations are quite modest. He wants to finish high school and become a teacher. He knows that the longer he stays in the mines, the less chance he has of survival. Combining personal courage and a strong sense of solidarity, directors Kief Davidson and Richard Kadkani accompany Basilio and Bernandino into the mines as they drill holes into the shaft to be stuffed with explosives. On one occasion, as the two boys are taking a break, they hear a series of explosions not far away. Since nobody has informed them that this was neither a planned detonation nor its scope, they make their way as quickly as possible to the mine’s exit with the cameramen and directors in tow. This is documentary film-making with real guts.

Despite being super-exploited, the miners of Cerro Rico have a strong sense of pride. They are deeply aware of their history and their role in producing the country’s wealth, even if they don’t enjoy their fair share. The older men tutor Basilio in the fine points of drilling, but hope that he can find a way to escape the mines, even if they haven’t. Their understanding of Indian oppression is keen, coming largely from tales handed down through the generations. Basilio explains how the ‘mita’ (forced labor) was used to compel the Indians into the mines, a fact that generally is the province of Latin American studies.

Although the film makes no effort to deal with how miners have collectively resisted their oppression over the years, especially through militant trade union struggles, it is safe to assume that men who work with Basilio and his brother are part of that tradition. This might lead one to wonder how trade union or socialist consciousness can co-exist so easily with superstitions such as devil worship.

June Nash provides an explanation in “We Eat the Mines and the Mines Eat Us: Dependency and Exploitation in the Bolivian Tin Mines”:

“The cult of the Tio reinforces the solidarity of the work group. In the prenationalization days when the team operated collectively and was paid in proportion to its output, the inner solidarity of the cuadrilla [work crew] was in opposition to the other work groups. The ch’alla [offering] was performed to wheedle more output from the devil, as each group competed with other cuadrillas. After nationalization, the individual worker was paid a basic wage regardless of the mineral produced, and solidarity included not only the entire work force of the mine but all nationalized mines. The ch’alla was more a recreation than a basis for solidarity in the productive work group. However, following the military takeover of the mines in 1965, the ch’alla was repressed along with unions and Worker Control. Workers continued to perform the ritual in secret, and these sessions become a focus for discussing the problems and struggles of the workers. Just as other pre-conquest rituals, such as the warming of the earth ceremonies at the fiesta of San Juan, became more explicitly the ritual expression of the desire to live, to multiply, and to enhance the reproductive and productive sources of life, so did the ch’alla. The resistance to military repression by men and women of the mining community came from these deep wells of cultural identity that gave them a sense of worth and the will to survive when they recognized the genocidal power of the Barrientos regime.”

The Devil’s Miner website: http://www.thedevilsminer.com/index_new.html

Leave a Comment »

No comments yet.

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: