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

    Paperback:
    Aug 2020, 496 pages

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CHAPTER 1
STILL SEEKING EL DORADO

Peru is a beggar sitting on a bench of gold.

—Old Peruvian adage

In the stinging cold just before dawn, Leonor Gonzáles leaves her stone hut on a glacial mountain peak in the Peruvian Andes to trudge up a path and scour rock spills for flecks of gold. Like generations before her, she has teetered under heavy bags of stone, pounded it with a crude hammer, ground it to gravel with her feet, crushed it to a fine sand. On rare, lucky days, she teases out infinitesimally small motes of gold by swirling the grit in a mercury solution. She is only forty-seven, but her teeth are gone. Her face is cooked by a relentless sun, parched by the freezing winds. Her hands are the color of cured meat, the fingers humped and gnarled. She is partially blind. But every day as the sun peeks over the icy promontory of Mount Ananea, she joins the women of La Rinconada, the highest human habitation in the world, to scale the steep escarpment that leads toward the mines, scavenging for all that shines, stuffing stones into the backbreaking rucksack she will lug down-mountain at dusk.

It might be a scene from biblical times, but it is not. Leonor Gonzáles climbed that ridge yesterday during the pallaqueo, the hunt for gold her forebears have undertaken since time immemorial, and she will climb it again tomorrow, doing what she has done since she first accompanied her mother to work at the age of four. Never mind that a Canadian mining company less than thirty miles away is performing the same task more efficiently with hulking, twenty-first-century machinery; or that just beyond Lake Titicaca—the cradle of Inca civilization—Australian, Chinese, and United States corporate giants are investing millions for state-of-the-art equipment to join the Latin American mining bonanza. The business of digging deep into the earth's entrails to wrest glittering treasures has long, abiding roots on this continent and, in many ways, defines the people we Latin Americans have become.

Leonor Gonzáles is the embodiment of "silver, sword, and stone," the triad of this book's title—three obsessions that have held Latin Americans fast for the past millennium. "Silver" is the lust for precious metals; the infatuation that rules Leonor's life as it has ruled generations before her: a frantic hunt for a prize she cannot use, a substance that is wanted in cities she will never see. The passion for gold and silver is an obsession that burned brightly before Columbus's time, consumed Spain in its relentless conquest of America, drove a cruel system of slavery and colonial exploitation, sparked a bloody revolution, addled the region's stability for centuries, and morphed into Latin America's best hope for the future. Just as Inca and Aztec rulers made silver and gold symbols of their glory, just as sixteenth-century Spain grew rich and powerful as the preeminent purveyor of precious metals, mining remains at the heart of the Latin American promise today. That obsession lives on—the glistening troves extracted and sent away by the boatloads—even though the quarries are finite. Even though the frenzy must end.

Leonor is no less a product of "silver" than she is of the "sword," Latin America's abiding culture of the strongman that accompanies it: the region's proclivity, as Gabriel García Márquez, José Martí, Mario Vargas Llosa, and others have pointed out, to solve problems by unilateral and alarming displays of power. By brutality. By a reliance on muscle, coercion, and an overweening love for dictators and the military: la mano dura, the iron fist. Violence was certainly the easy expedient in the day of the war-loving Moche in AD 800, but it grew more so under the Aztec and Inca Empires, was perfected and institutionalized by Spain under the cruel tutelage of Cortés and Pizarro, and became ingrained during the hellish wars of Latin American independence in the nineteenth century. State terrorism, dictatorships, endless revolutions, Argentina's Dirty War, Peru's Shining Path, Colombia's FARC, Mexico's crime cartels, and twenty-first-century drug wars are its legacies. The sword remains as much a Latin American instrument of authority and power as it ever was five hundred years ago when the Dominican friar Bartolomé de Las Casas lamented that the Spanish colonies were "choak'd up with Indian Blood and Gore."

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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