Independent Project: El Tío and Potosí

So I seem to have lived up to the promise of my first post of not really updating this…for the 4 of you who have checked this since late September (hi Mom and Dad), sorry about that. And I certainly can’t promise that there will be more frequent updates, since (as you 4 are about to learn) I’m about to be quite busy and probably with less internet access over the next month. Why? Our Independent Study Projects, or ISPs, are starting.

So tonight I leave: a 10 hour bus ride dropping me off in Potosí, Bolivia. Potosí is and has been the mining center of Bolivia (and during the Colonial period, mining center of the Spanish Empire) for the past 500 years. From the amount of silver extracted and the amount of workers who have died, you could make two bridges between Potosí and Spain: one of silver, one of bone. With this long, important history is a system of beliefs that has fascinated me since our group took a small trip to Potosí, which is what I’m going back to study.

At the heart of the belief system of miners is the figure of El Tío. El Tío, in part created by the Spanish conquistadors to have a power within the mines, resembles in figure the Christian devil, but his role is more complicated. El Tío is both protector and enforcer of the mines; the miners give him offerings of coca, cigarettes, and alcohol to appease him and have his protection from the dangers of the mine, and when accidents happen, it’s because El Tío is angry. There’s a statue of El Tío in every mine to whom they give the offerings.

One of the most interesting things to me about El Tío is the large amount of syncretism involved. One of the creation stories of El Tío (from a book I’m reading called Los Ministros del Diablo), roughly translates to this:

“According to the story most frequently told, El Tío is a fallen angel who responds to the name Jorge or Supay (devil in Quechua). According to an indigenous belief, this Supay is the brother of Jesus. But, unlike his brother, he the will of God, his father. As punishment he was exiled underground where he took control of underground wealth”

Most of the miners are Christians, but when they’re in the mines it’s another realm. In the mines, they do not mention Jesus, and generally continue to go to church. This relationship is something I’m interested in studying, but the thing I’m most curious about is the myths like the one above and how El Tío affects their daily life.

So over the next month I will be interviewing miners and folkloric experts, and with the information I gather I will write a creative story in 3 parts. The first section will be about the myths of El Tío, especially those of creation. The second will be about the Colonial period and look at how the Spanish used El Tío to help them control the indigenous population. The final section will be about the miners today and how El Tío impacts their lives. I’m hoping to use this story as a base for my final project in creative writing for my major.

I’m incredibly excited to start this project. It’s the largest creative writing project I’ve ever attempted, but I believe that I’m up to the challenge. If anyone has any questions for me or words of support, please comment here or send me an email!





It’s been almost a month since I arrived, jet-lagged and tongue flapping hopelessly in the familiar but uncooperative Spanish, and man, a lot has happened. I’ve went into the mines in Potosí and became fascinated by the legends of El Tío and the legends that surround mining culture, eaten an absurd amount of chorizo in Sucre, seen goats and cows at my micro (bus) stop (and the busses are all exactly my height or shorter, Bolivians are not tall…), and gotten way better at speaking Spanish.

Sorry for not keeping you all up to date on that, but they sure keep us busy here. What inspired me to write ahorita, as they say (all though it doesn’t always mean now, it could be any time in the next 24 hours, part of dealing with the inconsistency of BST [Bolivian Standard Time]), is el TIPNIS.

El TIPNIS is an enormous national park in the Northern part of the department of Cochabamba and the Southern part of the department of Beni that is home to an enormous indigenous population, coca farms, and wildlife. The issue is very complicated, but the short version is this: Evo Morales (el presidente) wants to construct a highway through el TIPNIS that would connect Cochabamba to the capital city of the department Beni, part of a larger highway that would connect Chile, Bolivia, and Brazil. In doing so, however, he would destroy an enormous amount of wildlife and part of an area that houses many of his indigenous supporters. It’s the most important political issue here, which essentially breaks down to this: development or the environment?

Everyone has an opinion, pro-highway for economic or development reasons, or pro-TIPNIS for environmental or anti-drug trafficking reasons. And all of this for a highway proposed by Evo, a president who’s very political platform is incredibly concerned with the environment and indigenous rights. But based on the events that occurred last night, he may lose all the support he’s gained over the past 6 years.

There have been protest marches from el campo for a long time now, but yesterday the police reacted with tear gas canisters, resulting in at least 2 deaths and 39 people wounded, at least for now. One of the deaths was a 3 month baby, killed by the gas. For more details on the confrontation, here are some good links.

With this police violence against the march has come an overwhelming sentiment of anger towards the police and the government. The details are still unclear, but it sounds like Evo is going to propose a referendum to allow the people to vote on the highway, but that won’t undo the damage to his reputation. Some Bolivian people now view Evo in a similar light to previous corrupt presidents. This afternoon I went to the Centro Franciscano, which is the hub of TIPNIS protests in Cochabamba, where there is an organized hunger strike as well as marches, with students and campesinos alike sitting in the middle of the street in protest, a busy street that my micro normally goes down on my way to classes. I spoke with a woman and her daughter who had come an hour and a half from the countryside to protest. The woman told me that she thinks that this event has changed the tides of Bolivian politics. They encouraged me to participate in the march that began at 6, but I had to return to Spanish class…

I don’t know what is going to happen in the near future, but it has the potential to be something big. Part of what fascinates me about the politics here is the initiative that the people have to fight for their rights and create change from these movements. The people of the United States could learn a thing or two about active participation in politics, something more than going to the polls every 4 years, voting for your party, and observing passively actions that may not be in the public’s best interest. Easier said than done, but I feel like people don’t even go as far as say it. The recent demonstrations in Wisconsin and even more recent actions on Wall Street (which I need to read about, as I feel out of touch with what’s going on in the US) may be the beginnings of a trend towards active participation, one that I hope continues.

I apologize if there are spelling mistakes, living in Spanish has taken a toll on my written English (as evidenced by my spelling of Constitution as Constitucion earlier today, followed by a struggle to figure out what was wrong with it).

I’ll try and update you all soon with more detailed and correct facts, please comment if you have any questions or (obviously) comments. I’ll also try and let you know more about my daily life and the many interesting things that have happened to me on this program. I love it here and am learning a lot.



Dia de la Peatón

Dia de la Peatón  (day of the pedestrian) happens 3 times per year in Bolivia. Today there were no cars in the streets, just bikes and people on foot. The biggest plazas and streets were filled with food stands like a street fair, making it almost impossible to bike through the crowds.

My host brother, Sergio, and I left at noon and didn’t get back until 7:30. We biked in many circles around the center of the city, saw a slaughterhouse (matadero) that had been converted into an cultural arts center (now called the mARTadero), and ate salteñas (like empanadas stuffed with a sweet sauce and chicken), all on a bike made for a 10 year-old. So it was an exhausting day, but wonderful.

When cars began coming out again at 6, it was sort of depressing. The whole city of Cochabamba was out biking in the streets, something I would absolutely love to see happen in the US, if people would ever do it.

Even if one city did it for one day, it would be beautiful. Is that too much to ask? Start working on it, Twin Cities.

So here’s a blog…

So I decided to at least create a blog for my semester abroad, whether or not I will use it remains to be seen.

Los Cochabambinos are the people of Cochabamba, Bolivia, that I have the pleasure of living amongst for the next 3 and a half months. The first month consists mostly of classes, with the majority of the time devoted to a seminar on the history and culture of Bolivia and 3 hour Spanish classes. The second month features many excursions to areas all over Bolivia, such as La Paz and Sucre. Finally I’ll spend most of November and December doing an independent study project, the culmination of all my work down here with SIT.

I’ve now moved in with my host family as of yesterday. Today is The Day of the Pedestrian, a tri-annual nation-wide day where no cars except emergency vehicles are permitted. Everyone walks or bikes through the streets, something I would love to see happen in any city in the US.

Tomorrow classes start, something both exciting and intimidating (mostly on account of the 3 hour Spanish classes), but everything is starting to come together in what I hope is a great semester.

Hasta luego,