I first came across The Devil’s Miner while channel surfing a couple of weeks ago. I landed in the middle of this film about children working in the silver mines of Bolivia and was immediately mesmerized by the main subject, 14-year-old Basilio, who is essentially the narrator of the film. Luckily, Netflix carries the film, so I was able to see the piece in its entirety.
Basilio is the stand-in for his father, who passed away when he was much younger. He cares for his mother, brother, and sister financially by venturing into the depths of the mountain to help crews tap veins of silver. And it’s as dangerous as you probably imagine. The film claims that more than 8 million workers have died in Bolivian mines over the years and that children make up a disturbing proportion of the workforce, in part because miners live very short lives in the country. Many of them fall victim to silicosis by the time they reach forty.
Though rather short (1hr 20min) in length, the film is able to show quite a bit about the culture of Bolivia’s Cerro Rico (“rich mountain”) mining community in Potosí. In particular, we see the miners’ devotion to Tío, the devil who controls the bowels of the mountain. “Outside we believe in God, our Savior. Inside the mines, we must believe in Satan, Tío.” Miners create shrines to the mountain’s Tío, offering cigarettes, coca, and other delights to the figure, in order to ensure safe work in the mines. Because the Tío, it is said, can eat the miners up if he wishes.
The film is simply made and quite powerful, but the sorrow of it makes your stomach hurt. However, the subjects are far from victims, at least in terms of their attitude. Basilio is constantly thinking of ways to avoid spending the rest of his life in the mines, though the viewer naturally worries about whether he’ll be successful or not (he is according to an epilogue included in the extra material on the DVD). And his maturity is amazing. Nonetheless, I couldn’t help but mourn the loss of his childhood while watching the film.
la mina : mine
el/la minero/a : miner
la plata : silver
el polvo : dust