The Silver Cycle: The Ruin of Potosí
An excerpt from Open Veins of Latin America by Eduardo Galeano
Andre Gunder Frank, in analyzing “metropolis-satellite” relations through Latin American history as a chain of successive subjections, has highlighted the fact that the regions now most underdeveloped and poverty-stricken are those which in the past had had the closest links with the metropolis and had enjoyed periods of boom. Having once been the biggest producers of goods exported to Europe, or later to the United States, and the richest sources of capital, they were abandoned by the metropolis when for this or that reason business sagged. Potosi is the outstanding example of this descent into the vacuum.
In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the Cerro Rico of Potosi (Mexico’s Guanajuato and Zacatecas silver mines had their boom much later) was the hub of Latin American colonial life: around it, in one way or another, revolved the Chilean economy, which sent it wheat, dried meat, hides, and wines; the cattle-raising and crafts of Cordoba and Tucuman in Argentina, which supplied it with draft animals and textiles; the mercury mines of Huancavelica; and the Arica region whence the silver was shipped to Lima, chief administrative center of the period. In the independence period the area, now a part of Bolivia, still had a larger population than what is now Argentina. A century and a half later Bolivia’s population is almost six times smaller than Argentina’s.
Potosian society, sick with ostentation and extravagance, left Bolivia with only a vague memory of its splendors, of the ruins of its churches and palaces, and of 8 million Indian corpses. Any one of the diamonds encrusted in a rich caballero’s shield was worth more than what an Indian could earn in his whole life under the mitayo (forced labor), but the caballero took off with the diamonds. If it were not a futile exercise, Bolivia – now one of the world’s most poverty-stricken countries – could boast of having nourished the wealth of the wealthiest. In our time Potosi is a poor city in a poor Bolivia: “The city which has given most to the world and has the least,” as an old Potosian lady, enveloped in a mile of alpaca shawl, told me when we talked on the Andalusian patio of her two-century-old house. Condemned to nostalgia, tortured by poverty and cold, Potosi remains an open wound of the colonial system in America: a still audible “J’accuse.”
The people live off the refuse. In 1640 the priest Alvaro Alonso-Barba published in Madrid’s royal printshop his excellent work on the art of metals. Tin, he wrote, “is poison.” He mentioned the Cerro, where “there is much tin, although few recognize it, and people throw it aside looking for the silver everyone seeks.” Today the tin the Spaniards discarded like garbage like garbage is exploited in Potosi. Walls of ancient houses are sold as high-grade tin. Through the centuries the wealth has been drained from the 5,000 tunnels the Spaniards bored into the Cerro Rico. As dynamite charges have hollowed it out, its color changed and the height of its summit has been lowered. The mountains of rock heaped around the many tunnel openings are of all colors: pink, lilac, purple, ochre, gray, gold, brown. A crazy quilt of garbage. Llamperos break the rocks and Indian palliris in search of tin pick like birds, with hands skilled in weighing and separating, at the mineral debris. Miners still enter old mines that are not flooded, carbide lamps in hand, bodies crouching, to bring out whatever there is. Of silver there is none. Not a glint of it: the Spaniards even swept out the seams with brooms. The pallacos use pick and shovel to dig any metal out of the leavings. “The Cerro is still rich,” I was blandly told by an unemployed man who was scratching through the dirt with his hands. “There must be a God, you know: the metal grows just like a plant.” Opposite the Cerro Rico rises a witness to the devastation: a mountain called Huakajchi, meaning in Quechua “the cerro that has wept.” From its sides gush many springs of pure water, the “water eyes” that quench the miners’ thirst.
In its mid-seventeenth-century days of glory the city attracted many painters and artisans, Spanish and Indian, European and Creole masters and Indian image-carvers who left their mark on Latin American colonial art. Melchor Perez de Holguin, Latin America’s El Greco, left an enormous religious work which betrays both its creator’s talent, and the pagan breath of these lands: his splendid Virgin, arms open, gives one breast to the infant Jesus and the other to Saint Joseph; she is hauntingly memorable. Goldsmiths, silversmiths, and engravers, cabinetmakers and masters of repousse, craftsmen in metals, fine woods, plaster, and noble ivory adorned Potosi’s many churches and monasteries with works of imaginative colonial school, altars sparkling with silver filigree, and priceless pulpits and reredoses. The baroque church facades carved in stone have resisted the ravages of time, but not so the paintings, many of the irreparably damaged by damp, or the smaller figures and objects. Tourists and parishioners have emptied the churches of whatever they could carry, from chalices and bells to carvings in beech and ash of Saint Francis and Christ.
These untended churches, now mostly closed, are collapsing under the weight of years. It is a pity, for pillaged as they have been they are still formidable treasures of a colonial art that fuses all styles and glows with heretical imagination: the escalonado emblem of the ancient civilization of Tiahuanacu instead of the cross of Christ, the cross joined with the sacred sun and moon, virgins and saints with “natural” hair, grapes and ears of corn twining to the tops of columns along with the kantuta, the imperial flower of the Incas; sirens, Bacchus, and the festival of life alternating with romantic asceticism, the dark faces of some divinities, caryatids with Indian features. Some churches have been renovated to perform other services now that they lack congregations. San Ambrosio is the Cine Omiste; in February 1970 the forthcoming attraction was advertised across the baroque bas-reliefs of the facade: It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. The Jesuit church became a movie house, then a Grace Company warehouse, and finally a storehouse for public charity food.
A few other churches still function as best they can: it is at least a century and half since Potosians had the money to burn candles. It is said of the San Francisco church, for example, that its cross grows several centimeters every year, as does the beard of Señor de la Vera Cruz, an imposing silver-and-silk Christ who appeared in Potosi, brought by nobody, four centuries ago. The priests do not deny that they shave him every so often, and they attribute to him – even in writing – every kind of miracle: incantations, down the centuries, against droughts, plagues, and wars in defense of the beleaguered city.
The Señor de la Vera Cruz was powerless to stop the decline of Potosi. The depletion of the silver was interpreted as divine judgement on the miners’ wickedness and sin. Spectacular masses became a thing of the past: like the banquets, bullfights, balls, and fireworks, luxury religion had, after all, been a subproduct of Indian slave labor. In the era of splendor the miners made princely donations to churches and monasteries and sponsored sumptuous funerals, all solid silver keys to the gates of heaven. In 1559 the merchant Alvaro Bejarano directed in his will that “all the priests in Potosi” accompany his corpse. Quack medicine and witchcraft were mixed with authorized religion in the delirious fervors and panics of colonial society. Extreme unction with bell and canopy could, like Communion, succor the dying; but a juicy will that provided for building a church of for a silver altar could prove much more effective. Fevers were combated with the gospels. In certain convents prayers cooled the body, in others they warmed it: “The Credo was cool as tamarind of sweet spirit of nitre, the Salve warm as orange blossoms or conrsilk.”
In the Calle Chuquisaca one can admire the time corroded facade of the palace of the counts of Carma y Cayara, but it is now a dentist’s office; the coat-of-arms of Maestro de Campo Don Antonio Lopez de Quiroga, in the Calle Lanza, now adorns a little school; that of the Marques de Otavi, with its rampant lions, tops the doorway of the Banco Nacional. “Where can they be living now? They must have gone far ….” The Potosian old lady, attached to her city, tells me that the rich left first and then the poor: in four centuries the population has decreased threefold. I gaze at the Cerro from a roof in the Calle Uyuni, a narrow, twisting colonial lane with wooden-balconied houses so close together that residents can kiss or hit each other without having to go down to the street. Here, as in all of the city, survive the old street lamps under whose feeble light, as Jaime Molins relates, “lovers’ quarrels were resolved, and muffled caballeros, elegant ladies, and gamblers flitted by like ghosts.” The city now has electric light but one barely notices it. In the dim plazas raffle parties are conducted at night under the ancient lamps: I saw a piece of cake being raffled in the middle of the crowd.
Sucre decayed along with Potosi. This valley city of pleasant climate, successively known as Charcas, La Plata, and Chuquisaca, enjoyed a good share of the wealth flowing from Potosi’s Cerro Rico. Here Francisco Pizarro’s brother Gonzalo installed his court, as sumptuous as any king’s; churches and spacious residences, parks and recreation centers sprouted continuously, together with the lawyers, mystics, and pretentious poets who put their stamp on the city from century to century. “Silence, that is Sucre – just silence. but before … “ Before, this was the cultural capital of two viceroyalties, seat of Latin America’s chief archdiocese and of the colony’s highest court of justice – the most magnificent and cultured city in South America. Doña Cecilia Contreras de Torres and Doña Maria de las Merceds Torralba de Gramajo, señoras of Ubina and Colquechaca, gave Lucullan banquets in a contest to squander the income from their Potosi mines. When their lavish fiestas ended they threw the silver service and even golden vessels from their balconies to be picked up by lucky passersby.
Sucre still has an Eiffel Tower and its own Arcs de Triomphe, and they say that the jewels of its Virgin would pay off the whole of Bolivia’s huge external debt. But the famous church bells, which in 1809 rang out joyfully for Latin America’s emancipation, play a funereal tune today. The harsh chimes of San Francisco, which so often announced uprisings and rebellions, toll a death knell over torpid Sucre. It matters little that Sucre is Bolivia’s legal capital, still the seat of the highest court. Through its streets pass countless pettifogging lawyers, shriveled and yellow of skin, surviving testimonies to its decadence: learned doctors of the type who wear pince-nez complete with black ribbon. From the great empty palaces Sucre’s illustrious patriarchs send out their servants to sell baked tidbits down at the railroad station. In happier times there were people here who could buy anything up to the title of prince.
Only ghosts of the old wealth haunt Potosi and Sucre.