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April 22, 2010

Power Makes You Stupid

I've literally never met any Americans outside of my family who're familiar with the story of Potosi in Bolivia. And the only reason we know about it is because my grandfather wrote a book about it (The Imperial City of Potosi: An Unwritten Chapter in the History of Spanish America) and later became an honorary citizen of the city.

The reason this is notable is that, according to some estimates, eight million people—both indigenous to Bolivia and African slaves—were worked to death in the Potosi silver mines by the Spanish empire. You'd think that would be a high enough death toll to make it into rich people's history, but no. (In fairness to the Spanish, it did take them several hundred years to kill everyone.) Meanwhile, there's apparently still a saying in Spanish valer un potosi, which literally means "to merit a potosi," but figuratively means "to be worth a fortune."

But here's what's most interesting to me: even now there are children working in the Potosi mines, desperately trying to scrape out a living from the depleted veins of zinc and silver and tin. And as depicted in the documentary The Devil's Miner, they know the history of Potosi—from the brutality of the Spanish to the manipulation of religion to mesmerize people. In other words, the "uneducated" people understand what's going on, while my Stutts-educated contemporaries know nothing about anything important.

Here's a scene in which Basilio Vargas talks to his younger brother Bernardino deep within the mine. They're chewing coca leaves in front of a "Tio," one of which is apparently in every mine to represent the devil, who runs the underworld.

BASILIO: Do you know the story of the Tio?


BASILO: This Tio is from colonial times. When the Spaniards arrived, the Indios thought they were gods sent from heaven. But it wasn't like this. They were evil people who abused them. There was also a mita. Do you know what mita is? It was forced labor, without leaving the mine for six months, with twenty hours of work and four hours for resting. The Indios didn't want to work in the mines anymore, so they rose up against the Spanish crown and said, "We don't want to work anymore." The Spanish knew the Indios believed in all kinds of gods. So they built a statue with horns and a tail. And to the Indios they said, "If you don't work, this God will kill you." They were not able to say "Dios." They said Tios, because in the Qechua alphabet the letter "D" does not exist. So they gave him the name "Tio."

I'm going to say what everyone's thinking: why have these children failed to be as intelligent and hard-working as Lloyd Blankfein? Really, they have no one to blame but themselves.

—Jonathan Schwarz

Posted at April 22, 2010 10:29 PM

I have just recently watched this movie, and cried my eyes out. Basilio Vargas and his family just broke my heart. There is scant information about him available online, but it seems that he and his family have left Potosi and mines, and he and his brother and sister are going to school. I thought that filmmakers really did a good job of telling the story, and just letting people talk about their lives.

Posted by: Vesna at April 22, 2010 11:10 PM

Err, correct me if I'm wrong, but doesn't Eduardo Galeano have an entire chapter on Potosi in "Open Veins of Latin America"? I'm sure many Americans have read the story... though probably not enough.

Posted by: saurabh at April 23, 2010 12:00 AM

The most remarkable part is that the translation actually dumbs down the kid's level of language a bit. He doesn't say "indios," he says "indigenas," as in "indigenous people" and he doesn't say "letter" he says "consonant."

Potosí was discussed on Democracy Now yesterday and the day before:

Bolivia is awesome.

Posted by: hedgehog, now setty at April 23, 2010 12:13 AM

doesn't Eduardo Galeano have an entire chapter on Potosi in "Open Veins of Latin America"

To be honest, I've never read that. But having just downloaded a copy surreptitiously, I see that there's a section about Potosi in the first chapter. Reading that it seems largely based on my grandfather's book about Potosi, which had come out about fifteen years before. On the other hand, he doesn't cite it, so maybe I'm wrong. (He does cite one of the many books my grandfather wrote about Bartolomé de las Casas.)

Anyway, I'm sure some number of Americans know the story of Potosi. But the comparison between this small number and the millions of dead people is striking.

Posted by: Jonathan Schwarz at April 23, 2010 02:33 AM

No rub here but had to grab this from a previous comment. Perhaps spin it even, if you will. No, not the fiber.

“There is scant information about him available online, but it seems that he and his family have left Potosi and mines, and he and his brother and sister are going to school.”

---“metals in a computer”---

Google: 5 results

Wikipedia: 0 results

Enjoy the commute and don’t forget to stop on the side of the road for those road killed catalytic converters.

I love this fucking world. Should be very interesting when nearly every perception drains out of the conceptual real ponds back into footprints and labor.

There is nothing like a hungry human.

Posted by: go gravity, go labor, go find the clues at April 23, 2010 05:47 AM

I'd heard of it, but I'm Canadian, and also Spanish speaking (second language). I don't think most Canadians would know about it either.

How many Americans know anything at all about Bolivia (where is it?), let alone Potosi?

Posted by: Graeme at April 23, 2010 08:07 AM

Godamn them. Not the miners.

Posted by: Jesus B Ochoa at April 23, 2010 08:30 AM
Bolivia is awesome.
Yes it is, and not only because of Evo Morales. There's a long way to go yet, but indigenous women have been winning seats in parliament for years now.

I fear deeply for Bolivia's future. A popular, wealth-redistributing leader in a South American country rich in a natural resource of emerging high importance?

Always remember this, Evo: you can't be too paranoid or cynical about the intentions of the first world nations.

Posted by: Cris at April 23, 2010 12:22 PM

I'd heard of it---I think it was mentioned in the Lonely Planet guide to Bolivia.

It struck me the same way. 8 million people dead over centuries--it's always interesting what atrocities get attention and what ones don't. Someone needs to write a black book of imperialism --Mike Davis got off to a good start with "Late Victorian Holocausts" and there's Hoschild (sp?) book on Leopold II. Hannah Arendt has a few throwaway lines about the imperialist death toll (and in particular, Leopold's) in The Origins of Totalitarianism, which I think inspired Adam Hoschild's book. But it'd be nice to have it all in one thick massive volume.

Posted by: Donald Johnson at April 23, 2010 02:52 PM

Speaking of ignorance and its opposite, this morning a young fellow called me up to with a credit card offer from Bank of America, with whom I already have a credit card, but this one would be better. I declined, but before we got to that point we got to talking and it turns out that he is close to getting his bachelor's degree in history from a university in Texas. As he mentioned that one of his professors has written the book The German Way of War, this shows he is at the University of North Texas, where R. M. Citino is on the faculty.

He mentioned this book after I asked him - after he told me he was a history major - if he'd heard of Eisenhower's Farewell Address in 1961, and the "military industrial complex." No.


I suggested he look up the Financial Times 2008 Letters to the Editor about it. It's not impossible that he will.

Since he's working for the Bank of America, it could be said that he's part of the Military Industrial Financial Corporate Media Complex. I didn't tell him that, though.

Posted by: mistah charley, ph.d. at April 23, 2010 05:38 PM

I was just thinking of Davis's "Late Victorian Holocausts" recently myself, and I would modify Donald Johnson's request for a black book of imperialism to a Black Book of Capitalism.

Posted by: Duncan at April 24, 2010 10:39 AM

It may seem unwarranted to add a ridiculous snapshot of Lewis Hanke to the thoughtful comments here. I remember the baby blue academic robe, complete with hat adorned with baby blue pompoms that came home with him from one of his trips to Potosi, perhaps even the one during which he became an honorary citizen. He was asked to christen the new garbage truck for the city of Potosi in his new capacity! It made a great story. He was probably in town to work with librarian Gunnar Mendoza. They edited a history of the mine together using the papers of Bartolome Arzans de Orsua y Vela.

Potosi is certainly rarely mentioned. I am always pleased when I find references to Las Casas, who was an honorary member of the family.
Jody, aka Jon's mom

Posted by: Jody Schwarz at April 24, 2010 08:32 PM

What a pleasure it is to have you comment here Mrs Schwarz and tell us this wonderful story! Thank you! He must have been a very special person!

ps I have borrowed the documentary "Devil's Miner" from the library and have finished watching half of it. From what I can make out, the city must be very beautiful! Wish the children's lives were equally beautiful too though there does not seem to be any lack of love between them!

Posted by: Rupa Shah at April 24, 2010 10:08 PM

I certainly remember the story of Potosi, from Galeano's Open Veins of Latin America and elsewhere. I also visited Bolivia and am aware of the role miners have played in popular movements in that country in the 20th century.

While Galeano may have derived some history from your grandfather's work, Latin American historians haven't neglected the story of Potosi in quite the same way as happened here. For god's sake (!) we're currently cleansing evolution from our textbooks.

It is unsurprising history students here aren't actually taught, well, history.

Posted by: cripes at April 25, 2010 02:08 PM

Black book of imperialism, black book of capitalism--what's in a name? It's hard to beat Galleano (who Tom Englehardt apparently used to read to his kids at bedtime!), though I haven't read Grandpa Schwarz's book. Certainly Mike Davis is great, in particular in Late Victorian Holocausts but probably in everything. That guy is just good.

The problem with the Black Book is that it would be 50,000 pages long, because although Potosi is certainly the most homicidal mine in the record books, the murder and mayhem in all their various forms just go on and on and on in all sorts of places, not just mines.

Personally, for something more upbeat, I think Charles Mann's 1491 is a remarkable book in that it gives the Indian cultures credit where credit is due. It's an amazing proposition that the democratic ideals of the French and American revolutions might have been assimilated from some of the Indian cultures of the New World. Imagine that--cultural diffusion worked that way too, and the best of our traditions we got from the savages!

For those who, like me, enjoy reading about ghastly subjects, it's pretty easy to find a parade of horrors. Most people just don't want to read that stuff. The thing is, as a result they miss some silver linings of philosophical and even spiritual significance.

For example, I was once standing in a book store and a young woman walked by and saw a book on the table beside me called "Torture in Brazil," and she remarked to her friend, "who would read that?" I almost raised my hand, and the interesting thing is, the backstory to that book itself became a very interesting book by Lawrence Wechsler ("A Miracle, A Universe"). And quite a backstory it is. The way the book Torture in Brazil came into being is almost miraculous, but Americans won't learn it, because they don't want to know who was responsible for that torture, any more than they really want to know about Potosi or slavery or Jim Crow or Sundown laws or how the reservations came into being or the history of violence against working people in the US or, most of all, how the poor live here and now. (God Bless Barbara Ehrenreich, but she isn't reaching the widest audience.)

Posted by: N E at April 27, 2010 12:07 AM

I've shown this docu in my world history class a couple years, after our discussion of Potosi and the worldwide silver trade of the 16th century. it's beautiful and heart-breaking and it's a great illustration of the lingering legacy and the students dig it.

Posted by: jerry at April 27, 2010 09:22 PM