Women of Silver and Tin: Photographs from the Bolivian Mines

Bolivian silver and tin miners have traditionally been one of the most exploited working class populations in the world and their plight has been well documented since colonial times. Although work in the mines has traditionally been reserved for men, due to the belief that women’s limited intelligence and physical strength justify their exclusion, over 30,000 women currently work in some capacity in the tin and silver mining industry.

While many Bolivian women don men’s pants under their polleras (Indian skirts) and enter the mines to work alongside the men, the majority of them work outside the mines, prohibited either by cooperative mining regulations from taking a man’s job, or by the simple superstition that women cause bad luck. These women are called palliris and are typically widows of miners or single mothers. Many of them are over forty years of age, often illiterate, and may have four to twelve children to support. As widows, they lose the benefits provided for families of miners. With no resources, such as shopping privileges in mining stores, health care, or pensions, they must search for other ways to provide for their families. The only work available to them is what they call chancar or machucar, which means to break up or crush rock in order to extract what minerals may be left in the tailings.

This difficult labor involves a ten- to twelve-hour day, pounding and breaking up rocks by using the most basic tools, like picks and small hammers, in harsh climatic conditions at high altitudes often over 12,000 feet. The women earn between ten and twenty dollars per month, depending on the amount of mineral that they are able to extract.

This photographic exhibit is the result of field work undertaken in Bolivia (2004-2008) in four mining towns: Potosí, Llallagua, Oruro, and Huanuni. Most of the women who appear in these images work as palliris at the mine entrances, but a few (such as those from the San José Mine in Oruro and the Posokoni Mine in Huanuni) work inside the mines, undertaking the same work as the men.

These courageous women were anxious to share their experiences with me, a foreign researcher, in the hope that their stories and images would be widely known outside of Bolivia.

— Kathy S. Leonard

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