Photos by Karla and Ivan
Text by Karla Gachet
“Jallalla maestritos!” “Jallalla,” they all respond.
In complete darkness, illuminated only with the lights on our helmets, I was chewing coca leaves with five miners and a devil-head figure, better known as Uncle Lucas. In front of him, coca leaves, alcohol, cigarettes and llama fetuses had been left as offerings. One by one, the miners told horror stories of the apparitions of the Uncle of the mine while they passed around a small plastic bottle of alcohol, which was probably not meant for human consumption.
At 1,115 ft underneath the Earth, not even rats survive. A slight hammering could be heard from the dynamite detonating on the levels above. Suddenly there was a landslide behind us and the miner stopped telling us his tale and looked into the darkness. He then accused the rest of us, “You are not drinking with faith, and the Uncle punishes us when you don’t drink before him with faith.” Ok. Jallala (this means cheers).
The miners say that many of them have run into the Uncle. Sometimes it takes on the body of a regular miner, other times it looks and grunts like a gorilla. This was better than any episode of the Twilight Zone, any Stephen King or Allan Poe book, or any psychological-terror movie. I thanked hell with all its incubi and succubi for granting me this unique opportunity. I silently prayed for an intra-terrestrial encounter with the Uncle, Huari, Hades, Satan, Big Foot, anyone, even a small glimpse of a shadow or a faint roar. The coca leaves grinded inside my right cheek as each story or landslide behind me made the hairs on the back of my neck stand erect. The morbid desire for pure terror filled my soul with incomparable joy.
February is the month dedicated to the Uncle in the mining town of Oruro. During these dates, the Uncle leaves the mine and dances, preferably on rooftops. Dancers, from all around the state, invade the streets of Oruro. Many have seen the Uncle in disguise, dressed like the other dancers but instead of boots you could see its claws. The “Diablada of Oruro” is much more than a popular celebration during carnival. It is a dance dedicated to the most misunderstood character in human history: our brother Satan, the Uncle, who lives in the guts of Pachamama or mother Earth.
The Tuesday of carnival all of Oruro and its surrounding areas get together within their families. In the Hacienda Cotochullpa, the Condarcos celebrate every year. A llama is given alcohol and coca leaves. Then they ask the animal for permission before they slice its throat with a knife. The blood is then collected in small bowls and poured over cars, tractors, and houses for good luck. It is a type of bloody blessing, Friday the Thirteenth style. The heart is removed and placed along with the head and feet on a fire pit. All the meat must be consumed the same day. The bones are then burned and buried. Any similarity with witchcraft is pure coincidence.
The Andean Oruro dances are an amazing parade of costumes full of color and imagination. When arriving to the Church of the Cavern, after a 3 km. dance, the devoted dancers collapse in front of the Virgin with fatigue and faith. They do the dance for the “Virgencita” who grants them miracles every year. Some don’t even drink water as a sign of penance for the Virgin, who waits for her faithful children up on her decorated gold and silver altar, dressed in pristine robes.
In the mines, one week later, everything goes back to normal, and the men return to the entrails of Earth with their coca and alcohol. One of the men explains, “The Uncle is a familiar friend. You cannot call a saint a fucker, but you can tell the Uncle, ‘You fucker, I bring you coca, I bring you cigarettes and you are not helping me find the metals, what is your problem you asshole?’ You can talk to him like that because he is someone much closer to us that lives in this place and protects us. It’s something you feel in your blood.” In the end, I think we have a lot more in common with a cigarette-smoking coca-chewing devil than with a virgin.