Friday, January 31, 2014

A Mansion Nobody Lived In and Child Miners

You may be a bit confused about what the two parts to the title of my post could possibly have in common, but I promise you, there is a connection :)  Let's start with the mansion.

Unknown to me (but apparently told to me by my lovely middle sister Molly), Cochabamba can claim to be the birthplace of one of the five wealthiest men in the world during the time of World War II.  Yup.  This man's official name is Simón Patiño, but he is often referred to as "The Tin King."  How do I know this information you may ask?  Why I had the pleasure of writing an entire one-page single-spaced essay on him (in SPANISH of course) for one of my professors.  I can't even begin to tell you how much fun that was, OR how appalled a 4th grade teacher in Cochabamba would have been upon observing all of my grammar and spelling mistakes :)   However, before I go on to tell you about his life, let's have a picture of Mr. Patiño.

In short, Simón Patiño came from a very poor family.  His mother was Quechua (one of the very prevalent indigenous groups in Bolivia) and his father, whom he never met, was French.  As a young adult, he started working in the mining industry and by a stroke of pure dumb luck he agreed to take the deed to a small mine as payment for a debt owed to him by a prospector.  Best decision ever.  This mine--believed by many to be a pretty pathetic piece of land--happened to contain an INCREDIBLY rich vein of tin.  And this is where it all began.  With the money from this mine (ie. lots of money), Mr. Patiño bought more and more mines and then moved on to pretty much buyout the entire tin industry.  At his peak, he owned mines in Bolivia and Chile, tin smelters in England and Germany, refining and finishing companies, and multiple boats and train lines with which to transport his goods.  According to Wikipedia, by the 1940s, this man controlled the entire international tin market.  I'd say this makes his "King" title quite fitting.

But enough about him.  Let's talk about the houses he owned, which were lots.  And by lots, I mean LOTS.  By the end of his life, Mr. Patiño had houses in the U.S., France (where much of his family still lives today), Bolivia, Spain, and Argentina.  Last Saturday my host mom took me to one such of his "houses" located right here in Cochabamba.  The word "houses" is in quotes, because this establishment looked an awful more like a palace than a house...  Let's look at some pictures.



 Picture on the left is of the front entrance.  You can't really tell, but there are a WHOLE lotta stairs leading up to it.  Picture on the right is a side view of the house.  I couldn't find a great picture that showed the entire house--probably because it's TOO BIG.


 Picture on the left is of the main hall once you get inside the front entrance.  All of the materials for building the house were imported from Europe.  ALL of them--from the marble on the floor to the light fixtures hanging from the ceiling.  Mr. Patiño also imported all of the workers, artists, etc from Europe used to create the house.  The picture on the right is of the stairway leading from the main ballroom (below) up to a couple of guest rooms and his and his wife's bedrooms.  The ballroom, like many rooms in his house, was huge.


And here is a picture of a very small section of his extensive (and gorgeous!!) grounds full of trees and flowers with a couple fountains scattered here and there for good measure.  Ok.  And here comes the kicker.  As alluded to by the title, Mr. Patiño had this house built for him and then never once lived in it.  Not even for a day.  In fact, no one has ever lived in this house.  Ever.  It is now owned by the Simón Patiño foundation and is open to the public for tours and also provides space for free public concerts.  

As I think you can tell by the pictures of his amazing house, Simón Patiño very much represents the "good" side of mining--i.e. the side of mining where people earn enough (or as in his case, plenty more than enough) money to live on, and don't have to sacrifice their well-being to do so.  But sadly, like many lucrative endeavors in this world, this story also has a very very ugly side.  AND as fate would have it, the very.next.day. after visiting Simón Patiño's incredible mansion, I was assigned by one of my teachers to watch the movie "La Mina del Diablo"--translation "The Mine of the Devil."  Here's the link to the entire documentary on YouTube.  Sadly, I could not find a version with English subtitles, so you'll either have to watch it with someone who speaks Spanish (and doesn't mind explaining it to you), or just try to get what you can from the visuals.


The documentary follows the life of 14-year-old Basilio Vargas and his 12-year-old brother Bernardino as they work in the mines of Cerro Rico (a mountain) on the outskirts of Potosi, Bolivia.  It is heartbreaking.  You learn that Basilio's father died when he was 2 and because of this, as the oldest son, he has been working in the mines since he was 10 in order to help support his mother and two younger siblings.  As you can imagine, the work is very hard and very dangerous, but without it, he and his family would go hungry.  He does attend school, but the sacrifices his family has to make in order to save up enough money to buy the right clothes, supplies, shoes, and haircuts (yup, you have to have a specific hair cut in order to attend school) are unreal.  I'm pretty sure his mother said they all went without food for awhile (except the 6ish-year-old younger sister) in order to save the money.  Like I said, unreal.

One of the worst parts of the documentary is that it was not made a zillion years ago.  Nope, it was made in 2008.  However, there is hope.  There is a newish program in place in Bolivia called the Bono Juancito Pinto, which gives school vouchers to children (an annual cash grant of 200 bolivianos or roughly $28.50) to help offset education costs and facilitate school attendance for all children regardless of economic standing.  This program includes children in grades 1-8 and, according to one of my professors, seems to be helping a great deal.  But clearly there is still a lot of work left to be done.  According to an article I read, although the number of child miners (and all child laborers in general) is down in Bolivia, there are still thousands who work in the mines in Potosi.  Below is a link to a very short NPR All Things Considered story talking about child mining in Bolivia.

NPR: Thousands Of Children As Young As 6 Work In Bolivia's Mines

So there you go.  In two days I first learned about the man who made a MASSIVE amount of money off of mining in Bolivia and next had to stomach learning a little bit about the grave reality of the people who did a large amount of the dirty work needed to make his wealth a reality.  I do realize the documentary did not take place during the lifespan of Simón Patiño.  However, from what I've read, and learned from my teachers, the very poor, hard, and dangerous lives of the children and adult miners in the documentary are similar--if not better and safer--than the lives of the miners who worked back in Mr. Patiño's day.  Let's just hope and pray that the same will not be able to be said of the lives of the miners to come.

Ok.  Enough.  If you've read this blog post to the end, thanks for sticking with me.  I had no idea it was going to turn out this long OR this intense.  It kind of got away from me.  I promise a lighter topic for my next post :)

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