By Mario Vargas Llosa
Working in the mines of Potosí is a man’s job. A poor man, because we will always be poor. A miner’s wages barely stretch far enough to make ends meet, but miners are very macho men, not afraid of anything, not even the devils that superstitious people think hang around the tunnels and shafts to cause cave-ins, or the police armed with clubs and tear-gas bombs who come to break up meetings when we’re on strike. Miners are not even afraid of spending eight hours a day, six days a week, in the bowels of the earth, half buried in darkness, swallowing and breathing the thick dust that clogs their lungs, clawing from miserly rock the mineral that makes fine gentlemen rich, people we have never seen–or ever will–because they live far away from the cold and rain of Potosí.
That thing you see puffing out my cheek is a wad of coca leaves I keep in my mouth almost all day while I work. Some people say that to “cud” coca, that is, keep it in your mouth and swallow the juice you work from it with your saliva, is bad for the health. They don’t know what they’re saying. Why would it be bad to do something my father, my grandfather, my great-grandfather, my great-great-grandfather, and all my ancestors before them have done since the great darkness before time? So let them say what they want, I’ll keep on “cudding” coca, sucking the juice like almost all the compañeros on my work shift. I don’t know whether it will be bad for my health. All I know is that for me the coca leaves block out hunger, block out cold, and also block out thoughts and sadness and memories, and allow me to concentrate on my work like a soulless machine.
When our shift is over we are black from head to toe with coal dust and, in the slow elevator that brings us up to the surface we laugh a little and make jokes about not being able to tell who’s who. Mining is tough, like I told you. A macho thing. But it has its compensations. For example, the way digging into the earth like moles makes friends and brothers of people, builds solidarity among us you don’t find in workers in any other job or profession. Maybe that’s the reason we feel so proud of being miners, and are so at home in these mines that bury us in our lifetimes and poison our health. And it may be why we cling to our work, and when a mine closes because the vein has run out, our heart shrinks and our eyes fill with tears—as if we had lost a beloved member of the family. But why would it be any other way?