- From the Mines to the Streets: A Bolivian Activist’s Life by Benjamin Kohl and Linda Farthing
Linda Farthing, the late Benjamin Kohl, and Félix Muruchi have fulfilled the promise of the best biographies: to narrate one person’s life story in a compelling way while also illuminating his or her society and historical era. This narrative of the life of Félix [End Page 673] Muruchi, a longtime Bolivian union leader, intellectual, and activist, is a gripping read that speaks to a broad range of audiences. For newcomers to Bolivia or Latin America, including undergraduate students, the book offers a clear and engaging narrative that vividly conveys several central themes in the country and the region: racial and economic inequality, Bolivia’s history of vibrant unions and social movements, the violence and dislocation caused by military dictatorships, and the rise of neoliberalism and indigenous movements.
Born in the Bolivian highlands during 1946, Muruchi moved to the mining center of Siglo XX as a child. He eloquently conveys the racial discrimination he experienced at the mining center school as an indigenous, bilingual Quechua and Aymara speaker who did not yet know Spanish, the language of school instruction. He describes his dangerous work as a teenage black-market miner, the corruption among officers he observed as a young military conscript, and the racialized violence officers inflicted on low-ranking, often indigenous, soldiers. As a mining union leader and political activist, Muruchi provides the reader with a close-up and disturbing view of political repression, such as the 1967 San Juan Massacre under René Barrientos and the torture of political activists under Hugo Banzer. His sense of alienation as an exile in Chile and Holland emerges with poignancy. Finally, he shares his experiences in transforming himself from a union leader to the director of an NGO in the 1980s.
The book’s combining of historical depth and personal detail will appeal to lay readers and students: the heat and danger of miners’ underground work, the nearly 100 percent rate of silicosis among older miners, and the tiny living spaces, in which two families often shared houses of 10 by 13 feet. His evocative descriptions of being a stranger in a strange land as an exile in Europe are also moving. He shares, for example, his dismay on entering a robot exhibit at a Dutch technology exposition, as he realized that the automation of labor would spark a massive increase in unemployment around the world. He also shares his astonishment at the extent of waste and consumption in Europe, noting that some working-class Dutch people replace their living room furniture every two years. Muruchi’s long-time commitment to social justice is a thread running through the book that will also be compelling for newcomers to Bolivia and Latin America.
Callouts throughout the book provide introductions to important themes in Bolivian history, such as the nationalization of the mines, the miners’ union and co-government, racial formation in Bolivia, neoliberalism, and the Gas War. These short historical essays would allow this book to be used in place of a general history text in undergraduate courses. Furthermore, Kohl and Farthing provide a very helpful detailed description of the process by which they elicited and edited Muruchi’s narrative. They characterize the book as a cross between biography and testimonio: “a Western narrative grafted onto testimonial roots” (p. xvi). They thoughtfully explain how a testimonio can never be a simple self-description, but is always shaped by its intended audience.
For experts on Bolivia and on Latin American union and social movements, the book offers a surprisingly fresh history that synthesizes many of the shifts in Bolivia since [End Page 674] the second half of the twentieth century. Muruchi provides a vivid account of the political ferment prior to the 1952 revolution, the hopeful early revolutionary period, the dictatorships, neoliberalism, the rise of El Alto as a major urban center, and the...