On rituals and revolutions in the mines of Bolivia
- October 2, 2021
Land & Liberation
The rituals and celebrations of Bolivia’s miners created spaces for radical organizing and helped build solidarity during the 1952 National Revolution.
Musician wearing a miner’s hat during the Carnival of Oruro in Bolivia’s tin mining center. Photo: sunsinger / Shutterstock.com
The small K’illi K’illi park sits at the top of one of the hillsides cradling the valley that is home to Bolivia’s administrative capital La Paz, providing a striking view of the city below. To the east lies Illimani, a towering, snow-covered mountain. Below and to the west is the tree-lined Plaza Murillo, home to the seat of government and the site of dozens of coups and countless protests. Across the valley, set on the sweeping plains of the altiplano, is El Alto, a booming home to millions of largely Aymara working-class people.
The hills hold the rich past of this city in the clouds. Indigenous rebel Túpac Katari launched crucial assaults on Spanish-controlled colonial La Paz from K’illi K’illi during his army’s 1781 siege. After his brutal quartering by the Spanish, Katari’s head was put on display on this same hill to terrorize his followers. On a moonlit night about 170 years later, rebels crisscrossed the hillsides to launch the 1952 National Revolution, an event that abolished the hacienda, brought about massive land and educational reform and nationalized Bolivia’s lucrative mining industry.
Bolivian miners formed the radical backbone of this revolt, challenging the tin barons who controlled national wealth, pushing political leaders further to the left and demanding transformative change. Some of the roots of the miners’ historic solidarity and organizational power during and after the National Revolution reach back to age-old traditions and celebrations, as well as everyday forms of resistance.
Such cultural spaces and rituals forged by miners brought workers together to imagine and struggle for a better world. These traditions of resistance sustained miners in harsh working conditions and formed the foundations for Bolivia’s revolutionary movements.
Bolivia’s National Revolution
In the year prior to the revolution, the Revolutionary Nationalist Movement (MNR) party ran the popular pro-worker congressman and exiled party leader Víctor Paz Estenssoro as its presidential candidate. He won a resounding victory at the ballot box, but the military placed General Hugo Ballivián in the presidential palace instead. The MNR concluded that their only option for taking power was armed revolution.
On April 10, 1952, Ballivián called for the lights to be put out in La Paz in order to impede the advance of the MNR rebels — many of whom were factory workers — as they descended into La Paz from the neighboring city of El Alto. Yet a full moon lit the way for the rebels, providing guidance for their march down the steep hills from El Alto into the capital city. Many MNR rebels came from the working-class neighborhoods in El Alto and so knew the terrain well. These forces, along with the crucial participation of miners from Oruro, effectively cut off Ballivián’s troops by blocking key routes and rail lines on the outskirts of the city.
Conflicts flared up in the night, leaving many wounded and dead on both sides. Meanwhile, news of the MNR rebels’ advances in La Paz spread throughout the countryside, inspiring similar uprisings across the nation. Three days later, with over 600 dead from the battles, the rebels vanquished the Ballivián regime and took power.
Euphoria was high in the early days of the MNR’s leadership. Victor Paz returned from his exile in Argentina and flew into the El Alto airport on April 15, 1952. When he entered La Paz he was met by a crowd of some 7,000 people waving signs that read “Nationalization of the Mines,” “Agrarian Reform” and “Welcome, Father of the Poor.” The crowd was so massive that it took Paz a full 30 minutes to arrive at the presidential palace half a block away. As recounted in James Dunkerly’s Rebellion in the Veins, Paz greeted the assembled people in Aymara, the language spoken by most members of the largely Indigenous crowd: “Jaccha t’anta uthjani,” he said. “There will be much bread.”
Soon after, on October 31, the MNR signed a decree — largely the result of pressure from labor organizations and miners — that expropriated the tin barons and nationalized the country’s tin mines, putting the workers in control of management and production of this lucrative industry.
The next year, in August 1953, the MNR passed the Agrarian Reform Law, which sought to abolish pongueaje (a form of obligatory servitude hacienda owners forced on Indigenous tenants of hacienda land), expropriate hacienda land and ultimately redistribute it to landless farmers and Indigenous communities. The National Revolution made historic gains with expanded rights for Bolivian workers, land reform and national economic sovereignty.
Solidarity in the Mines
The Bolivian mines were one of the richest sites of resistance in the years surrounding the National Revolution. Following the Spanish colonization of the Andes, miners in what is now Bolivia maintained certain Indigenous traditions and spiritual beliefs that contributed to cultural and physical survival in harsh working conditions. Such practices contributed to the miners’ power and role as a radical labor movement during and after the National Revolution.
Indigenous spiritual traditions had a central place within this labor legacy deep in the mines. Mountains were worshiped in Indigenous Andean cosmology; worshipers requested safety and health from the mountains. The mountains were also spaces where various gods resided and required special attention, sacrifices and offerings. In this spiritual landscape, the figure of Tío plays a special role. Tío is a religious figure widely present in the mines in the form of a statue with horns; he represented both good and evil. Tío has played an important part in the labor and political spaces of miners in Bolivia.
Dating back to the extensive mining industry in colonial Bolivia, Tío functioned in the mines as a bridge uniting European modes of production and Andean Indigenous spiritual beliefs toward nature. As anthropologist Michael Taussig writes, “Each change in the mode of production and each new development of political struggle add new meanings and transformations to the symbolization and understanding of the spirit owner of nature.” In this case, Tío came to embody a god of the mountain, an extension of Indigenous beliefs outside of the mine, but one that translated into the underground reality of the mines born out of colonial exploitation.
Miners provided Tío with cigarettes, food, coca leaves, confetti garlands, chicha (a corn-based beer widely consumed in the Andes) and hard liquor as offerings to keep him happy and to bring good fortune and safety to the miners. The miners combated the dehumanizing labor within the capitalist work model with their own spiritual traditions and meaning. “The cult of the Tío, then, serves to translate the miners’ resistance to alienation and exploitation by the mine owners,” writes Peruvian anthropologist Heraclio Bonilla.
The rituals of the ch’alla, in which miners offer liquor to mother earth or Tío in return for good luck, safety or success in the mines formed important spaces for gatherings between workers. Such practices surrounding Tío strengthened solidarity among miners. Longtime scholar of Bolivian mines June Nash writes in We Eat the Mines and the Mines Eat Us, “That solidarity, cemented by collective complicity in the cult of the gods of the underworld, created the strongest platform from which to resist, and successfully reject, the demands of the so-called tin barons.” These tin barons — the three leading families who owned many of Bolivia’s tin mines — were key enemies in the National Revolution.
Bolivian miner and organizer Manuel explained the political impact of the rituals and ch’allas surrounding Tío: “This tradition inside the mine must be continued because there is no communication more intimate, more sincere, or more beautiful than the moment of the ch’alla, the moment when the workers chew coca together and it is offered to the Tío. There we give voice to our problems, we talk about our work problems, and there is born a generation so revolutionary that the workers begin thinking of making structural change. This is our university. The experience we have in the ch’alla is the best experience we have.”
In this space of self-education, communication and empowerment, Bolivian miners humanized and gave deeper meaning to their working experience and developed personal relationships that led to political action such as strikes, union organizing and outright rebellion.
Celebrating the Revolution
The years before and after Bolivia’s 1952 National Revolution saw a significant rise in the frequency and length of celebrations and ceremonies in mining communities. With the nationalization of the mines, the workers won more control over their workspaces and production; the celebrations corresponded to this expansion of workers’ power and autonomy.
The autobiography of one of the miners, Juan Rojas, includes vivid descriptions of the many festivals that were organized in the months following the nationalization of the tin mines.
On July 31, three months after the revolution, Rojas and the other miners organized a k’araku, a sacrificial offering to the spirits of the mines, including Tío, awichas, the women spirits who accompany him and Supay, the spirit of the hill. The offering was a goat, whose blood miners sprinkled on the entrance to the mine and various workstations. In another offering to the spirits, the miners made a stew from the goat’s meat. In his book, Rojas relates the details of these rituals, which included an elaborate ch’alla, in this case a ceremony involving large offerings of alcohol, red and white wine, beer and papaya juice.
“That night I was at the mine until at least four in the morning,” Rojas recalled. They spent the next few days drinking and celebrating with other workers and bosses around the mining community. “Oh, it was a k’araku that we’ll never see again in a lifetime!” he reminisced in his memoirs.
The extent of this ceremonial fiesta and ritual is significant in that its richness and length reflected the celebratory feelings of revolutionary Bolivia. Miners were not only celebrating their own political victory, but also the camaraderie that had made the revolution successful.
The joy felt toward the political changes brought about by the revolution was further illustrated in Rojas’ account of the Bolivian independence celebrations on August 6, 1952. During the events surrounding the anniversary, miners hired bands and organized parades and dances. Rojas recounts a bullfight, a contest to catch a greased pig, and a milk and bread-eating competition. Dancing went on late into the night.
In the wake of the revolution, the celebrations became more political, an opportunity to bask in an impossible victory. Such celebrations reflected the inversion of power structures the revolution had won; the fiesta symbolically turned an unjust world upside down, where the marginalized were crowned as owners of their labor, land and power.
“It was a grand celebration, such as I had never seen in previous Augusts when the company ran them,” Rojas recalled. “That was the first year that the engineers celebrated with the workers. … That was the one hundred and twenty-eighth year of independence, but, for the first time, we were the lords of national wealth.”
The Bolivian miners’ cultures of resistance demonstrate the importance of such rituals, social spaces and celebrations in the processes of movement building. Far from a distraction from organizing, they can form its very basis. In a global capitalist culture seeking to extract every possible minute of labor from workers, it is important to create and defend spaces for celebrating and socializing beyond labor.
Such practices not only provide much-needed breaks, they can build solidarity, raise consciousness and strengthen crucial social bonds. As the miners’ rituals and celebrations surrounding the National Revolution demonstrate, such bonds and spaces can feed directly into radical organizing and action.
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