Workers’ Leader and Martyr
(Translation by Elizabeth Gamble Miller)
Along with a handful of dirt that I brought from Bolivia, I also brought your photograph. It passed through the hands of the miner in charge, Cirilo Jiménez, to my mother, and from her to me. Since then I've looked at it daily; it's in a favorite spot on my desk. You are with me for the long hours spent there and are the first to read what I've written. Moreover, your image has been with me since my childhood, since the time I lived in the town of Siglo XX, where the sun hit the earth like lead, and gusting winds made the roofs fly through the air. Perhaps that's why I sense the odor of copagira water from the mine, while I'm writing these lines.
In this photograph, taken in the Empresa Minera Catavi office, you are proudly wearing your regular mining clothes: overalls with suspenders and big pockets on the chest, a sweaty, dusty, flannel shirt, a jacket stained by the grease of the drilling bit, and a guardatojo hardhat splattered by drops of silica.
Your image, with the aura of a leader, seems sculpted in massive granite rock that shows your features precisely. The vivacity of your slanted eyes is impressive as you stare at a fixed point. Your partially opened lips seem to be saying something, and we see fine, closely spaced teeth. The arch of the moustache is black like the arch of your brows; you have a firm jaw, sideburns, and rebellious, overly abundant hair that protrude from under your guardatojo hardhat.
Yours was a sharp wit with a gift for speaking. In meetings and assemblies you scarcely stood up ready to speak to the concerns of your conscience, and there would be a sudden silence. Those were times when speaking was dangerous, the flame of labor complaints already ignited. You were of average height, but your physical strength had been forged since childhood. You were master of the mountains and rugged terrain of Panacachi –land of your father's old ranch– where you raised goldfinches and took care of cattle, while you enjoyed reading Don Quixote, sometimes sitting on a tree branch, other times stretched out on the river bank. You had a cat's agility and the speed of a deer; you could catch the frightened fox at a full run; you tamed the wildest colt or turned the bull by its horns with the same strength and facility you used to down a billy goat, tying its hooves with the swirling string of the stone ball boleadoras.
As a child you shared table and bed with laborers of your father. He never doubted your unmeasured love for the humble poor. You possessed a noble heart, unlimited goodness, and modesty, which among those around you, became generosity in giving. You gave clothing to those in need and money to those who asked you for it. As your older brother said, You showed no interest whatsoever in money and material comforts. You lived like a monk and gave the impression of having been born to be an apostle.
Your desire for justice cried out with volcanic energy from your inner being and placed you against forces of law and order of a military authoritarianism. This failure to comply and constant friction with your superiors cost you dearly. The punishment dealt you by the commander of the regiment was dispatch to the hostile region of Curahuara de Carangas, and there, you and the most belligerent soldiers mutinied against the military hierarchy. Then came torture in jails. You were judged by a War Tribunal and condemned to two years in prison, with no consolation other than a straw mat and a plate of food.
When you signed up to work down in the mine, inside semi-darkness and hard rock, you were the only miner who could climb the ladders carrying a drill on his shoulder, and the only one capable of jumping the sluices in one leap. In your work you demonstrated an iron will and in combat an indomitable courage that made you innately an outstanding leader to head up a line of workers armed with guns and dynamite sticks.
On those days when the cold and the wind were strong and when the sun hid behind the hills at dusk to give way to the night spilling its blood into stars, you would seek refuge in the gloomy alcove of the Tío, God of the Mine.
Although your sayings and deeds were appropriate for Materialism, you would sit next to the Tío drinking sips of brandy and chewing coca leaves, not to lighten your fatigue or open your mind to superstitions. You just wanted to share the beliefs of your compañeros of indigenous roots, who intuitively could recognize your intelligence and perceive the deepest feelings hiding in your soul.
Shortly after the counterrevolution led by René Barrientos Ortuño, in November of 1964, your life changed direction; you left the mine after the persecution unleashed by the government against its opposition, and you took refuge in a small village to the north of Potosí, where your assassins were waiting for you, ready to obey the orders issued by the Military Junta and the CIA.
Isaac Camacho, the faithful compañero and eye-witness to the act, left a written testimony of the hour and the day you were victimized: On the 29th of July of 1965 you were in the outskirts of Sacana, which is three leagues from San Pedro de Buena Vista. When you reached the confluence of the Toracarí and Ventilla tributaries; you encountered a group of civilians under the command of Próspero Rojas, Eduardo Mendoza and another called Osío. Enrique Moreno, who rented you the mule, took it upon himself to denounce you. Once caught, you were being taken to San Pedro, but on the way, a few meters from the previously mentioned river crossing, they began to beat you, and suddenly a shot was fired from a revolver. It was then that you fell to the ground, blood running from your head, and your heart stopped beating. The shot, accurate and quick, killed you instantly.
When the assassins left by the same road they came in by, Isaac Camacho, on his knees, holding you in his arms, confirmed that the bullet entered your right brow and went through your skull. They killed you at 38 years of age, and you could just as well have been 60 or 90, since you lived against the clock and facing your own fate.
Your body was transported to Siglo XX and the wake took place in the union hall, where the humble poor filed past your casket. The rural campesino laborers, with grim expressions, wrapped in their black ponchos, came in caravans from far-away villages to give you burial, while the miners with fury in their eyes and fists raised, watched over your grave day and night until it was time for the casket to be raised high on the shoulders of the youngest miners and carried through the streets, making its way through crowds that attended your funeral.
In the Plaza of Llallagua and at the gate of the cemetery an enraged, tumultuous multitude praised you beyond belief. The miners and campesinos, for whom you dedicated your fight and your life, rendered a just tribute and said good-bye with speeches that promised to avenge your death; bursting from their hearts were tears of sadness and from their lips words of deep sorrow.
© Víctor Montoya, Elizabeth Gamble Miller
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