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Excerpt from Silver, Sword, and Stone by Marie Arana, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Silver, Sword, and Stone

Three Crucibles in the Latin American Story

by Marie Arana

Silver, Sword, and Stone by Marie Arana X
Silver, Sword, and Stone by Marie Arana
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  • First Published:
    Aug 2019, 496 pages
    Aug 18, 2020, 496 pages


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Print Excerpt

No, Leonor Gonzáles is no stranger to oppression and violence. Her ancestors, people of the altiplano, were conquered and forced into labor by the Incas and then reconquered and enslaved by Spanish conquistadors. For centuries, her people were relocated by force at the whims of the mitmaq—the compulsory labor system that the Inca Empire, and then Spain, demanded of the vanquished. Or they were taken away in the Church's "reductions": massive resettlements of indigenous populations in the ongoing enterprise to save their souls. In the nineteenth century, Leonor's people were herded at sword's point to fight and be sacrificed on opposing sides of the revolution. In the twentieth century, they were driven higher and higher into the snowy reaches of the Andes to escape the wanton massacres of the Shining Path. But even in that airless aerie, eighteen thousand feet above sea level, the sword has continued to be master. Today in the wild, lawless mining town of La Rinconada, where murder and rape are rampant—where human sacrifices are offered to mountain demons and no government police chief dares go—Leonor is as vulnerable to brute force as her forebears were five hundred years ago.

Every day when she rises, Leonor touches a small, gray stone that she keeps on a ledge by her cot, near a faded photograph of her dead husband, Juan Sixto Ochochoque. Every night, before she crawls under a blanket with her children and grandchildren, she touches it again. "His soul rests inside," she told me when I visited her in her frigid one-room hut, no larger than ten feet squared, where she lives on the lip of a mountain glacier with two sons, two daughters, and two grandchildren. She and Juan, the ruddy-faced miner in the photo, were never actually married; no one in Leonor's acquaintance has ever taken the Church's vows. To her, Juan is her husband and the father of her children; and, from the day a mine-shaft collapsed, and his lungs filled with the deadly fumes that killed him, that round, gray stone at the head of her bed has come to represent him even as it represents the whole of Leonor's spiritual life. Like many indigenous people—from the Rio Grande to the Tierra del Fuego—Leonor accepts Catholic teachings only as they reflect the gods of her ancestors. Virgin Mary is another face for Pachamama, Earth Mother, the ground beneath our feet, from which all bounty springs. God is another word for Apu, the spirit that dwells in mountains, whose energy comes from the sun and lives on in stones. Satan is Supay, a demanding rascal-god who rules death, the underworld, the dark entrails of ground below ground, and needs to be appeased.

Leonor's stone stands for the third obsession that has held Latin America in its grip for the past thousand years: the region's fervent adherence to religious institutions, whether they be temples, churches, elaborate cathedrals, or piles of sacred rock. The first order of business when pre-Columbian powers conquered one another a thousand years ago was to pound the others' gods to rubble. With the arrival of the conquistadors in the Americas, the triumphant monuments of stone erected by the Aztecs and the Incas to honor their gods were often reduced to mere pedestals for mighty cathedrals. The significance was not lost on the conquered. Rock was piled on rock, palaces were built on top of palaces, a church straddled every important indigenous temple or huaca, and religion became a powerful, concrete reminder of who had won the day. Even as time wore on—even as Catholicism became the single most powerful institution in Latin America, even as some of its adherents began to be wooed away by Pentecostalism—Latin Americans have remained a resolutely religious population. They cross themselves when they pass a church. They build shrines in their homes. They carry images of saints in their wallets, talk to their coca leaves, hang crosses from rearview mirrors, fill their pockets with sacred stones.

Excerpted from Silver, Sword, and Stone by Marie Arana. Copyright © 2019 by Marie Arana. Excerpted by permission of Simon & Schuster. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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