Bolivian documentary protagonist Basilio Vargas visits Dr. Howard Tsai’s LACS 321 course: “Indigenous Communities vs. Globalization in South America”
“The Devil’s Miner” (2005) stars Basilio Vargas, a 14-year-old boy who, along with his younger brother Bernardino, works in the silver mines of Potosí, Bolivia. The miners of Potosí extract ores from dwindling veins in Cerro Rico, a nearby mountain that has been exploited since colonial times. For more than four centuries, tunnels of varying sizes have been excavated into the bowels of Cerro Rico, and inside each tunnel sits a statue of the devil known as “El Tío.” The miners propitiate El Tío with offerings of coca leaves, cigarettes, and alcohol so that he will protect them against fatal accidents and injuries – routine hazards of an extremely dangerous profession. The film’s producers Kief Davidson and Richard Ladkani have captured fascinating footage of the rituals and ceremonies associated with El Tío, but even more impactful is their poignant exposé of the harsh and hard lives of Bolivian child miners.
LACS lecturer Howard Tsai showed “The Devil’s Miner” to his students when he first taught “LACS 321: Indigenous Communities vs. Globalization” in 2014. At that time there was little information on what happened to Basilio after the documentary was made:
“In the past couple of years I would routinely search for Basilio on the internet and social media, at least once or twice a year, to see how he’s doing,” says Tsai. “But I couldn’t find anything. Finally, this year (2021) in February, when I once again attempted my normally unsuccessful search, a webpage from St. Lawrence University popped up and mentioned Basilio’s visit to their Spanish 201 class.” The instructor, Joseph Boyle, managed to track Basilio down through a Facebook page. “I immediately contacted the instructor to see how I can reach Basilio.”
Tsai contacted Basilio and invited him to speak to his students in LACS 321. Fifteen years after the documentary, Basilio, now a young man, continues to mine the mountain of Potosí. Basilio connected to Tsai’s classes via Zoom in the Winter 2021 and Spring 2021 semesters from his longtime worksite, Cerro Rico. Basilio cheerfully showed students the new equipment the miners had acquired since 2004. The pandemic had halted their work for a while, but now the mines are back in operation. Tsai and his students had a wonderful time conversing with Basilio over Zoom.
LACS looks forward to working with Dr. Tsai in hopes of inviting Basilio to the University of Michigan campus in the future: “In the documentary, Basilio mentioned how he very much would like to visit different countries in Europe and North America. Fifteen years later, he has yet to visit the United States. It would be neat if his first stop in the US is Ann Arbor, Michigan. My students and I look forward to meeting Basilio and showing him the Big House, the Diag, Kerrytown, Detroit, etc.”
Basilio can be found on Facebook, Instagram, and TikTok. He is always happy to have new social media friends and followers. “The Devil’s Miner” is available for viewing through Kanopy for University of Michigan students, staff, and faculty.
LACS 321 "Indigenous Communities vs. Globalization in South America" (cross-listed with INTLSTD 385) is typically offered in the Winter and Spring terms. The course provides students with the theoretical and analytic tools to examine the effects of globalization on indigenous communities of South America. Tsai utilizes videoconferencing technology to connect students with indigenous community members from South America: a Quechua language teacher, a government worker, a machine operator working in the mines, and a community organizer. The course allows students to learn about indigenous experiences of current social and economic conditions. Tsai invites students from different majors and disciplines to take this course: “If you want to travel to South America to study abroad, do an internship, or sightsee, this class will give you the broader social, economic, cultural, and historical contexts to deepen your understanding of indigenous societies.”