Encountering Potosí

I wrote this newsletter a month ago following my participation with a Joining Hands delegation visit to Bolivia. It is posted here, and an archive of my official newsletters is available on my Mission Connections page.

Pack Nothing.
Bring only your determination to serve
and your willingness to be free.

We’ve packed “light,” but it’s a challenge fitting our bags into the taxis that will carry our Joining Hands delegation from Sucre up the winding road to Potosí. After several days of meetings, partners from San Francisco and Cascades presbyteries are setting out with staff and leaders of UMAVIDA to meet some of the individual organizations that comprise the Bolivian network. Approaching our destination through peaceful green mountains, I observe the setting sun’s glow on the barren slopes around the historic mining city. It comes as a shock, seeing this mountain visibly worn and stripped down by over 450 years of continuous exploitation.

We arrive and settle in to view a documentary called “The Devil’s Miner,” an introduction to the harsh reality of life in the mines. The Cerro Rico (“Rich Mountain”), source of much of colonial Spain’s silver, has had miners chipping and blasting away at its interior since before the city of Potosí was founded in 1546. Over 8 million people have died in these mines or from related health complications over the centuries.

The delegation visits a mining family.

Indigenous and African slaves were worked to death in the colonial period and today Potosí’s miners have a short 40-year life expectancy, with most contracting silicosis from breathing rock dust. But the most shocking part of the documentary is its focus on the life of child miners, telling the story of a 14-year-old boy named Basilio, his younger brother and sister, and their widowed mother.

Before getting to know the work of CDR (the Center for Regional Development, one of UMAVIDA’s nine member organizations) it had never occurred to me that child labor could be so commonplace, but now I know that boys as young as 11 begin working in the mines. CDR focuses its work on child miners like Basilio and mining families, offering academic support, special workshops in health and life skills, and recreational activities. The strategy is to provide long-term support so that these children and their families will have opportunities outside of mining. As CDR’s director and current UMAVIDA president Wilhelm Piérola puts it, “Remember that these children aren’t working so they can afford a car. They are working so they can eat.” Simply enforcing a prohibition on child labor will not solve the fundamental problems facing these young miners.

At CDR’s offices we meet several young men and women who have come up through the program and now are giving back by working with a new generation of beneficiaries. Their work is varied: carrying out environmental studies to determine health risks from local mining contamination and poor sanitation, and providing education about how to reduce risk; joining with other UMAVIDA youth in educational campaigns to protect water sources; helping the children grow vegetables in an experiential greenhouse; choreographing the “Little Miners,” the CDR carnaval troop that dances each year in the local parade. They have energy, enthusiasm, and plans for building a better future. Even here, where few plants choose to grow, hope takes root.

Our visit is a step in strengthening ties in the Joining Hands endeavor, which seeks to address the root causes of hunger in a new way, raising awareness and building a movement of people in the United States and around the world who are united in a quest for greater justice in our globalized society. It can be daunting to come together in relatively small groups and attempt to make a stand for God’s shalom in the face of social, environmental, or economic injustice. And yet this collective of ordinary U.S. Presbyterians and ecumenical networks in other countries is strengthened by its sense of call, of being set free from bondage to the status quo and sent forth on a journey of transformation.

This image of a journey out of captivity set the tone for the delegation. At evening devotions on the first night, companionship facilitator Chenoa Stock shared the poem “Passover Remembered” by Alla Renée Bozarth.* Here are a few excerpts from that powerful exodus retelling:

Set out in the dark.
I will give you dreams in the desert
to guide you safely home to that place
you have not yet seen.
Sing songs as you go,
and hold close together.
You may at times grow
confused and lose your way.
So long ago you fell
into slavery, slipped
into it unawares,
I am sending you into the wilderness to make a way
and to learn my ways more deeply.
Do not go back.
I am with you now
and I am waiting for you.

I am greatly privileged to accompany the work of the Joining Hands initiative here in Bolivia and in Perú. Joining in this delegation trip reaffirmed my commitment to the arduous, joyful journey of liberation, following our trusted Friend toward the homeland we have not yet seen, taking His yoke upon us even when we might prefer the familiar chains we’ve left behind.

I hope you too will share this journey in some way. Although at times it means setting out in the dark, trust that God will guide you, and know that you have fellow pilgrims on the way. As we go, let us sing songs and hold close together, always remembering that God is with us now and is waiting at each step ahead.

In hope and faith,


* “Passover Remembered” by Alla Renée Bozarth is included in several volumes, including Stars in Your Bones: Emerging Signposts on Our Spiritual Journeys by Alla Bozarth, Julia Barkley and Terri Hawthorne, North Star Press: St. Cloud, 1990.


About Sarah

I serve with Presbyterian World Mission as liaison to the Andean region. This blog is a place to share stories, experiences, and observations, both my own and those of friends and colleagues and the occasional item of news.
This entry was posted in Advocacy, Bolivia, USA and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Encountering Potosí

  1. Areta Crowell says:

    Thank you for this current “view” of the source of Spanish conquistadors wealth ..having read of Potosi in the book “Last Days of the Incas” I have extra appreciation of the centuries of exploitation which Potosi embodies. Blessings!Areta

  2. I’ll add my thanks to Areta’s. I’m glad your activities have proceeded well since we met In La Paz. You may look at photos of our tour after we left you, at .
    Cheers, Russ

  3. Sarah says:

    Thanks, friends! Russ, I don’t see the link, so I’ll send an email to catch up on your journey.

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