“Outside the mine we are Catholics,
and when we enter the mine, we worship the devil.”
This jarring quote is found in an excellent story on BBC News about the grim working conditions on Bolivia’s Cerro Rico mountain, where men and boys scratch out a precarious living in the place known as the Mountain That Eats Men. The article reports that an average of 14 women are widowed each month and life expectancy is about 40.
Cerro Rico has been mined for 500 years, and the mountain is a lethal honeycomb of tunnels and shafts where the poor try to scratch out the last bits of silver in order to make a meager living.
Local superstition holds that El Tio, lord of the underworld, rules the mountain. In order to appease him, the miners make regular offerings and prayers:
The men and boys all chew coca leaves, saying it helps filter the dust. They also make offerings of these coca leaves along with alcohol and cigarettes to El Tio – the devil god of the mines.
Each of the 38 businesses running mines on the mountain has a statue of El Tio in their tunnels.
“He has horns because he is the god of the depths,” says Grover, Marco’s boss.
“Usually we gather here on Fridays to make offerings, in gratitude because he gave us lots of minerals, and so that he will protect us from accidents.
“Outside the mine we are Catholics, and when we enter the mine, we worship the devil.”
The story, derived from an upcoming BBC show on the miners, makes for disturbing reading for both the wretched conditions faced by the poor miners, and the terrifying superstitions that still have a hold half a millennium after the population was Christianized.