Documentarian Raul de la Fuente Exposes the Dangers Faced by Bolivia’s Female Miners in ‘Minerita’

“Latin America is the region of open veins. Everything from the discovery until our times, has always been transmuted into European – or later U.S. – capital, and as such has accumulated on distant centers of power. Everything: the soil, its fruits and its mineral-rich depths, the people and their capacity to work and to consume, natural resources, and human resources.”

When Eduardo Galeano wrote Open Veins of Latin America in the late 1960s, he centered much of the book’s focus on the colonial genocide committed against the indigenous communities forced to work in the tin and silver mines at Potosí in today’s Bolivia. Cerro Rico, which provided vast sums of European wealth, became a black hole into which Indian lives were poured by the million. Galeano estimated that up to 8 million people had died in the mines of Potosí since the 16th century, as he detailed a legacy of imperial pillage long overlooked by mainstream historical narrative.

For many of its inhabitants today, Potosí remains mired in the poverty and exploitation that Galeano sought to bring to the world’s attention. Minerita is a 27-minute film that addresses the lives of a group of women – 40-year-old Lucía and teenagers Ivone and Abigail – who live and work on Cerro Rico. Through these womens’ lives, the film highlights the dreadful conditions faced by those at the bottom of the global chain of consumption.

Directed and produced by Spanish husband-and-wife team Raúl de la Fuente and Amaia Remírez, Minerita has been well-received in Spain, picking up prizes at both the Goyas and at the San Sebastián Film Festival. We caught up with de la Fuente to talk about Minerita and the broader social reality for the women of Cerro Rico.

“I immediately realized that the biggest danger faced by these girls is not found inside the mine, but outside.”

Where did the idea for the film come from?
I read a report about Abigail, a teenager who worked in the Potosí mines in Bolivia. Her story fascinated me and I thought that if a story is unknown, it practically doesn’t exist. So I decided to go to Bolivia and make Minerita. There, I met Abigail and other girls who work in the mines. It’s dangerous work, where the passages are in very poor condition, at the point of collapse. But I immediately realized that the biggest danger faced by these girls is not found inside the mine, but outside. They spend 24 hours a day in fear of being raped by the miners. To defend themselves, their only weapon is dynamite.

How did the women react to you? Was it difficult to earn their trust?
It was complicated, with them telling us about the abuses they suffer from the men. So we had to be very careful; the miners didn’t want the girls to speak to our camera. One of our protagonists, Ivone, told us that she was even afraid in her home. Her father, an alcoholic, hit her and Ivone was afraid he would abuse her. She didn’t even feel safe in her own home! It was a very tense shoot, including for us; a member of the film crew even nearly died from a respiratory attack brought about by the altitude: 4,700 meters.

“On Fridays, when they finish work, the miners get drunk and celebrate. And then starts the ‘hunt of women.’ Driven by alcohol, they assault and rape the women on the hill.”

Eduardo Galeano wrote that the Europeans plundered enough silver and tin from Potosí to build a bridge between South America and Europe. He also writes of the millions of Indians who died in the mines. Your film suggests things haven’t changed that much.
It’s said that there are 6 million dead in the mines of Cerro Rico. The indigenous population was diminished so greatly that they even had to bring black slaves to work inside the mine. The conditions of security have not changed much today. Around 300 people a year die in the this mine. They call it The Mountain That Devours Men, but for me it is The Mountain That Devours Women.

In the mines of Cerro Rico in Potosí, there are currently around 120 women working. Many are widows, as miners have a very short lifespan, and the miners are aware they are unlikely to grow old. That’s why on Fridays, when they finish work, the miners get drunk and celebrate [that they have] one more day alive! And then starts the “hunt of women.” Driven by alcohol, they assault and rape the women on the hill. The mix of alcohol and extreme poverty is lethal. This is the story told in Minerita.

Minerita is a hard story, of struggle and survival, with a happy ending.”

Are there any social or political projects which aim to improve the conditions for communities such as that in Minerita?
Yes. During the film, I was supported by CEPROMIN, an institution which works closely with mining communities, especially with women and children. CEPROMIN works to improve the living conditions of the population, creating schools, health centers, and awareness workshops.

The current Bolivian government, led by Evo Morales, also works to improve life on the hill. It is the first government to address the issue, but it is not an easy task, [since] for the people who risk their lives here, there is no other option. It is very dangerous, but at least they can gain a salary to support their families. Even children defend their right to work. Abigail told us that she risked her life inside the mine to be able to buy medicine for her sick mother. It’s a question of survival.

How do you hope people will react to Minerita?
Last week I called Bolivia. It was emotional; they told me that our protagonist Abigail has left the mine and now lives in the capital city, La Paz. She’s training to be a police officer! Ivone is also no longer working as a miner; she currently works for a local NGO which defends the rights of women and children in Cerro Rico. And Lucía has saved enough to buy a piece of land; she will soon leave the mine.

Minerita is a hard story, of struggle and survival, with a happy ending. I hope the public will realize there is always hope and even the most adverse situation can improve, if you really fight for it.