the Book Cover
(Translation by Elizabeth Gamble Miller)
This handsome photograph is on the cover of Interior mina (Inside the Mine), a book by René Poppe. The author, having worked for a while in the mining town Siglo XX, where the best vein of ore was discovered in that century, recognized that no better face existed to represent the laborer in the subsoil of Bolivia than Víctor Siñani's. The fact is that this man, with pride in his bronze race, besides having been a miner, was a leader of the campesinos in the countryside north of Potosí, where he shared the struggles and fortunes of his class brothers. He was aware that the land was for those who worked it, just as wheat was for the bread of those who sowed the seed.
In this photograph Víctor Siñani is shown staring into the gallery, his face lighted by the lamp on his guardatojo hardhat. He has prominent cheekbones and an expressive nose. The letter R that shines on the breast of his jacket could be a quiet abbreviation for the word: Revolution. The jacket is suede and corduroy, rather fine for working the mine, for him an unimportant detail in comparison to working hard to bring home bread for his children's mouths.
Because of his rural campesino origen, he was a person who liked the outspoken truth, even if violent; and although he was of a taciturn nature, he used to amaze his listeners whenever he was getting across an idea. It seemed like he said a lot, while actually he said very little. Like most altiplano men, Víctor Siñani, miserly with his words, was suspicious of strangers, and unwilling to share his thoughts with anyone who didn't share his reality or his time.
He was a legendary porista fighter of the militant revolutionary labor party, the POR (the Partido Obrero Revolucionario). Not only was he able to stay faithful to his political ideals, he also knew how to fight, gun and dynamite in hand, against the enemies of day laborers and campesinos. They tell many anecdotes about his deeds. Justifiably so. In January of 1960 he was one of those who led the sudden takeover of the square in Huanunni. Without warning, the miners swept over the plaza like a tornado. They fought hard and even forced armed guards to leave their trenches. That’s how it is: when the khoyalocos start to fight, no Christ can stop them.
This miner of stern character confronted the military dictatorships. He survived the events in Sora-Sora, in 1964; the massacre in San Juan, in 1967; and the military coup of Hugo Banzer, in 1971. Of his fights, his courage, and his character, his closest companions gave witness: El Victuquito, donde ponía el ojo, ponía la bala, había dejado fuera de combate a cuantos se le ponían en el flanco. (Little Víctor, where his eye went, the bullet followed, he took out of combat however many they threw on his flank). Which is to say that what he couldn't resolve with words, he resolved with bullets.
Midway into 1976, after the failure of the undefined general strike decreed by the miners' labor union, the Federación Sindical de Trabajadores Mineros de Bolivia (FSTMB), he was pursued and caught in the city of Oruro, tortured, and incarcerated. Government spies knew Víctor Siñani had a long background as a miner-campesino leader. He was one of its most genuine representatives, one who remained faithful to the interests of his class, never wavering from his political principles or becoming a turncoat like some. He remained convinced that, in spite of the closing of the mines and the decrees against the people in 1985, the miners would show the way, would lead the oppressed nation to free itself from the lashes of imperialism and the despotism of its native lackeys. Meanwhile, having been fired and now in his confined condition of relocated, like anyone accustomed to comply with the measures of direct action of the masses, aware that the emancipation of the workers would be the labor of the workers themselves, he waited with determined patience for the first bells to ring out the final protest.
Víctor was one of those men who, by his own nature, attracted the attention of the petit bourgeois intellectuals. They sought to discover this militant worker's special secrets, and how, being subjected to the hard knocks of poverty and exploitation, he still reached a high level of ideological awareness. In him, the program of the revolutionary vanguard of the proletariat became flesh, and through him, the echoes of the protests of workers and campesinos were heard.
During holidays you could find him in the chicha bars of Llallagua, on Omiste Street (where the valiant die) or on Ballivián Street. A charango was sufficient for him to bring the girls from Chayanta and Pocoata out to dance -their pleated blouses, mantillas to their shoulders and little hats tilted to one side- and they clapped their hands so Don Víctor would strum the charango to the rhythm of northern Potosí tunes. Sometimes you would hear him sing, with a sorrowful voice of lament, the wuayño dedicated to his friend and comrade César Lora: Los mineros lloran sangre / por la muerte de un obrero / ese ha sido César Lora / asesinado en San Pedro. / Para el minero no hay justicia / para el minero no hay perdón / más bien tratan de aplastarlo / capitalistas sinvergüenzas.... (The miners cry tears of blood / for the death of one who labored, / the man was César Lora, / assassinated in San Pedro. / For the miner there is no justice, / for the miner there is no pardon; / shameless capitalists / they try to smash him flat.) Then charango in hand and guardatojo held high, you would hear him yell: Vivan los mineros, carajo! ¡Gloria a César Lora e Isaac Camacho..! (Long live the miners, by damn! Glory to César Lora and Isaac Camacho...!)
It was to be expected; from the time Víctor Siñani left the countryside and joined the proletariat in the mines, he followed in the footsteps of César Lora, for whom he felt clear admiration and respect. He believed blindly in his words and actions, for he knew he was speaking with the wisdom of the people and his heart on his lips, and that where only pain and a clamor for justice now existed his actions were making headway toward a more just and equitable society. His confidence in this labor leader was so great that he often thought that Lora was the only man on earth who could make it possible for the workers to be the absolute owners of their fate, the eyes of the blind to be opened, the ears of the deaf to hear, and the tongues of the poor to be free for happiness. But this dream turned into a nightmare on the 29th of June of 1965 when the jackals of the dictator René Barrientos Ortuño, under the strict orders of the Military Junta and the CIA, assassinated César Lora, with a shot to the forehead and a sentence that read, Death to Subversives.
I still remember that hot summer afternoon in 1974, when Víctor Siñani, followed by a few miners, traveled to the cementery of Llallagua, on the other side of María Barzola pampa, with the disagreeable purpose of removing the remains of César Lora, in whose niche he planned to place the casket of his deceased father. As soon as we arrived at the cemetery, whose walls seemed to hang down the hill towards the river’s bottom, Víctor Siñani opened the niche with a hammer and chisel. He dragged the wooden box towards himself and asked that we leave the place for fear that the fetid odor of the decomposing cadaver would cause us to become sick. We complied with his request while he remained there, alone, crouching and ready to remove the coffin’s nails with the point of a knife. He covered his nose with his jacket and, soon after uncovering the body of César Lora, which a decade after his murder still retained its facial features, stood up suddenly and said “It is not yet time to evict this body”. Then on the edge of tears, he nailed the box shut and closed the niche tight.
Víctor Siñani (Victuquito, to his friends), just as he
appears pictured in this photograph, which today is on a book cover, was a miner
of pure stock and an exemplary militant, as is every revolutionary who won't be
bought or sold.
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