photo of person from Peru Cerro de Pasco
Peru glossary


(PERU 14)






retired miner







We’re in the community of Quiulacocha and we're going to take this opportunity to talk with Don Hilario Meza Alejandro who is accompanied by his wife, Señora Yola Justiniano. Don Hilario is originally from this community - he was born here - but let's leave it to him to tell us something about his experiences.

Don Alejandro, what was Quiulacocha like when you were a child and you began walking down these streets?
Section 1
Were you born here in the community?
Yes, I was born here in the community and, as I told you, I have spent a large part of my infancy, of my childhood, here...

What games did you play when you were a child?
Yes, of course, like all children I played football, and, as children, we would go to the lake. There were birds there and we children used to like going there, to the lake.

So one of your main childhood memories is of the birds, what type of birds were there, could you describe them?
They're called seagulls; they were very big seagulls and they were by the lake, in the lake. That's why it's called Quiulacocha. But because of the tailings - that contamination that has been dumped into the lake - the birds, like the seagull, have disappeared.

Do you remember how long ago the problems started? What year did they begin to dump tailings and mineral remains?
Well, it was in the fifties, I think. I think it was 1950, if I remember correctly.

They began to dump the tailings in the fifties, not before?
Well, there was some before of course, but it was mainly from the year I told you, and this is what caused the lake to die. I worked for Centromin then. I worked for Centromin for 24 years.

For Centromin? You've worked for Centromin?
Yes, but then it was the Cerro de Pasco Corporation, and I use to work with the gringos (westerners, foreigners, in this context North Americans who ran/owned the mines), I worked for the Cerro.
Section 2
And in what year did you begin to work in Cerro de Pasco?
I worked, well.... to be honest I don't remember exactly what year it was....I've worked in lots of places to be honest, even before I started working for Cerro I worked in other companies. I used to work in the haciendas (estate farms) as well. For fifteen years I worked in different places, I worked in an old mine called Jumacho, for fifteen years I worked. It had an extractor, a plant, a laboratory, it had everything.

And what about that mine, what happened to it?
It was paralysed, yes, it was all paralysed.

And is it still paralysed now?
Yes, it hasn't been going for a long time now. Since it stopped functioning, since that time they've never reopened the mine.

And who did this mine belong to?
It belonged to Julgica then, which was owned by the Fernandini's.

So you knew the Fernandinis? They were a fairly powerful family at the time, even before the fifties, I think.
The Fernandinis? Yes, I knew them, or, I should say, I worked for them, but I never knew them personally. They owned this area, the haciendas, a whole lot of haciendas. They had cows, all sorts of livestock, and mines as well.

How many haciendas belonged to the Fernandinis?
At least 20 or 30, they had loads, they were what are called hacendados (landowners). They had loads of money.

And this was before the gringos of The Cerro de Pasco Corporation arrived?
Yes, it was before. I don't really know, but as far back as I can, remember the gringos had just arrived, they had the mines then but they hadn't expanded so much and they didn't have the land that they came to acquire later.

But the Fernandinis, did they disappear from the area or do you think that they continue to have interests in the area?
The truth is that I think they disappeared; with the arrival of the gringos, the gamonales, the landowners, began to disappear.

Because of the gringos?
Also because of the agrarian reform of 1970, I think. This got rid of the haciendas and instead cooperatives appeared.

Did the agrarian reform produce a change in the area?
Yes, like I said, the haciendas disappeared and the development of cooperatives was encouraged.
Section 3
Were there any cooperatives before?
No, before there weren't any that I know of. Maybe in other places, but there weren't any here, I’m sure of that.

And the mine where you worked, what happened to it? Why did they close the mine?
The mine closed because the owners said they no longer wanted to commit themselves to mining, they sold their land, they sold the mines to the Cerro de Pasco Corporation, to the gringos, and then Cerro de Pasco didn't open them again, that's what happened.

So you're saying that the Fernandini family left the area - they sold their properties to the gringos?
Yes, that's what happened. At first we thought the gringos were going to reopen the mines, but it didn't happen. They bought a lot of property and made some of it productive, such as in Cerro de Pasco and other places, but in the case of the mine where I use to work, they didn't open it again.

What did they do with the property?
They kept it for a long time without doing anything. I don't know what happened afterwards.

Tell me, you left your community when you were very young to work in the mines or in the haciendas, didn't you?
Yes, that's right señor. When I was very young I had to work because our family was very poor and we children had to work to help our family, that's what it was like.

What age were you when you left Quiulacocha?
I must have been 15 or 16 years old.

And weren't there any possibilities of working in your own community? Didn't your family keep livestock or cultivate land?
No, the truth is we didn't have much. My own father made a living from mining, he was a miner as well.

Your father was a miner?
Well, you see my father had worked in the extractor in Tiuracocha. There in Tiuracocha they extracted minerals and my father used to work there. Cerro de Pasco used to belong to the same company.

Your father must have had some influence so that you could also go to work in the mine, did he influence your being able to work in the mines?
My father told me I should also be a miner, that in this way I could earn money, that it was a more secure job and he would introduce me to the mines, and so that's what I did ....

And what had your father told you about the work?
I don't remember exactly, the only thing I remember is that he told me he'd introduce me to the company and that's how I started. He'd worked in the extractor for quite a long time, I don't remember how many years, but I believe it was quite a long time, until they shut the extractor.
Section 4
They shut the extractor? So your father was left without a job?
Yes, well, only the mines in the area were left, I don't remember which year they dismantled the extractor. I'm a little old now, but I saw them dismantle the extractor...

And where was it? How did people go to Tiuracocha?
Following the mountain range in front of us, you see, that way, past Rancas. A lot of people worked there. I remember hearing that about 1000 labourers worked there.

Didn't this belong to Cerro de Pasco?
No, to another company.

Tell me Señor Hilario, what did it mean to you to go and work, to go and work in the mines like your father? Was it a big change in your life?
Well, you could say that it was a big change, yes, but I already knew quite a lot from my father who'd been working in the mines practically all his life. He went from Quiulacocha every week and used to return on Saturdays after work. He'd told us that it was tough, that there were accidents sometimes and that some of his colleagues had died. He'd told me this.

Did your father ever work as a herder or a farmer in Quiulacocha?
No, he said working in the mines was a better job, mainly because he didn't have any cattle or much land; he only had a small plot. He was a poor comunero (registered community member with rights and responsibilities) o stay in the community, so he went to work in the mines and so did I. He told me it was a better way for me to get by in life, that the work was tough, but you earned more than staying in your own community.

Was it the first time you'd gone away from your community when you left to work in the mine?
Yes, you see like I said, I was only 16 years old and it was the first time I'd left to stay away, to live away without my family.....

And was it a big change going out to live in another place which I imagine was different from your community, from the community of Quiulacocha?
Yes, it was a change, in Quiulacocha they lived differently, life in a community is always different, it's more peaceful, calmer than in the mining camps. The timetables are different in the community; the hours are more rigid in the mine, if it rains, thunders or even if there is an earthquake, you still have to do the hours and, if you don't do them, then you're punished. Those are the differences, I'd say....

And did this change affect you, or did you adapt rapidly?
At first you could say that it affected me enough, maybe because, above all, I was very young and it was hard to break away from my family. But I did it, I lived with some cousins, with family and the truth is that little by little I began to adapt, I became accustomed to things, you could say, and so the years went by when I was working there. It was about fifteen years before they closed the mines, like I told you. That's what happened.
Section 5
After working there for fifteen years, what did you do when the mine closed?
I worked for a while on the land, I also went to Huanca to see if I could work there, but finally I came back to Quiulacocha, to Cerro de Pasco which is close, to look for work. My children said to me, "Look for another job. Go to Centromin" That's how they brought me, you see.

So, you already had children, a family, you were already married?
Yes, of course, I got married during my previous job and I already had my children.

And was your wife from the community of Quiulacocha or from another place?
She was from the community of Quiulacocha, like me.

So, did you meet in the same community?
Yes, that's what happened señor.

And, when you started to work there, was the company already Centromin?
No, it was still the Cerro de Pasco Corporation when I started and then nationalisation came about and so we ended up with Centromin.

How did Cerro de Pasco treat you? Which field did you work in, which area?
The company treated us more or less okay, you learned, but the truth is that we were exploited really. We worked very hard and they paid us very little. I used to work hard I remember, I used to work in the camp here close to Quiulacocha.

And what did you do, what jobs did you do?
I worked in the laboratory, I used to take samples to the laboratory so the engineers could analyse them, to see if there was copper, gold, silver, zinc or bismute.

Did you always work in the laboratory?
I worked on different things, but I was in the laboratory quite a long time. Yes, I worked there preparing samples.

And what mine in Cerro de Pasco do you think was the richest?
Cerro de Pasco just has one part which is a mine, it doesn't have any more. In other places of course it has more but here, in Cerro de Pasco, there's just one, that's all. There is a pit too which was opened but the mine continued, on and on, the pit is different, it's separate, and they're taking minerals from there, the mine hasn't closed, the mine continues, señor. There are two parts like I said señor, and the mine is still open and they take minerals from there to La Oroya to the mineral foundry.

And did you process the mineral directly?
Yes, of course, I use to work with gold, for example. Gold is very small, a miserable size, like a bean, it's tiny like a bean.
Section 6
So, is that how they found gold?
Of course.

With what metals did you find gold mixed with?
I don't remember that, but I remember it was melted, there was a foundry there. They would melt it right there.

In the laboratory. There was a man who worked there and melted down the gold and silver. The silver was tiny and it was sent to the foundry.

To La Oroya?
Yes, to La Oroya and from there it was sent out, señor.

And what was the relationship like with the company? How did you get on with the owners and with the engineers of the company?
It was good and peaceful during the time of the gringos, they taught you how to do the job, how to hold the taps, how to handle everything - this they taught you. Some bosses would teach you, they would show you how to do the job, others wouldn't. That's what it was like, but in general it was good. What I can tell you though is that they paid us very little, the gringos paid us very little. When it was nationalised and Centromin began to operate, miner's daily wages improved a bit, but in fact it didn't last very long.

What did you think about the government's decision to nationalise the company? Did it represent a change for you?
Well yes, I agreed with the nationalisation [plan] of the government of Velasco then. The gringos were taking all our minerals and they didn't pay us anything for them, and they paid the workers very little. When it became Centromin we were okay, and after, although the wages improved a bit, little by little we realised that things were just the same and they even got worse.

In what ways did it get worse?
Well in many ways - like in the camps, for example, they ignored housing improvements; they were old, they dated back to before the nationalisation. A few have done something, but that's all. They did nothing and they even fired people later on and didn't pay good wages. There were strikes carried out by the workers...

Did you strike? Did you participate in any strikes?
Of course, I'm not a scab. I participated in the strikes as well. What's more, I can tell you, Centromin hasn't done anything for the neighbouring communities who've suffered because of the mining contamination. There's the case of Quiulacocha where, as I told you, at first the lake was contaminated. It's completely full of waste from the minerals at Centromin.

Tell me, you're one of the comuneros from Quiulacocha who's been a miner, you used to work in Centromin, how did you feel when you realised the company you worked for was contaminating your community's land?
Look, what I can tell you is that at first there was no real awareness of the damage being done to the land. I'll tell you this, the people believed what the company told them. They said it didn't matter, that they were going to clean up the mess afterwards, that we shouldn't worry. That's what they said. Just lately the company said they were going to give the comuneros money and so the people took this into account and didn't speak out. They believed that with that money they could sort everything out. Like I said, at first there was no knowledge of the danger, that's what happened.
Section 7
What about the people who worked in the mines, how did they see the problem?
Just the same as I said. I believe that in general we had no idea of the damage, we weren't conscious of the true magnitude of the problem as they say, whether working or not being part of Centromin. Now as the years have gone by the community has seen the damage, not just in the lake which I was telling you about, but also in the Quiulacocha's river. There's been a lot of damage to the pastures too. What I'm saying is that the company's done what it has wanted to do. They're even building an open sewage drain, out in the open, as they say, and this will harm us.

When the workers protested against the company, did they also tackle the problem of contamination? Did you protest about the contamination of the lakes, the rivers and the communities you come from?
Well, I'd say the majority of them come from different places; they weren't necessarily from the area, from Cerro de Pasco or from Quiulacochca, they come from different places.

Of course, but when they came to live in the Cerro or in other camps, they lived in the contaminated area, did this affect them?
Yes, of course, but like I told you, at first I don't think people were aware, neither the people from the community itself, like in my case, nor other colleagues. They were unaware and so they didn't protest. What's more, a miner, to be honest, is only interested in his salary - how much he earns and that's all - that's the bottom line, so that’s what happened, even now it happens. The people from the community they protested against the company, yes. The community, its leaders, protested against the company, especially when they realised that the contamination was increasing and the company wasn't doing anything about it.

Tell me, did you participate in the protests of the community of Quiulacocha?
We're all from the community, when the community protests against the company we have to support it, that is our duty as comuneros, of course. In general the protests were carried out by the leaders of the community against the company, they would argue, that's what happened. Quiulacocha has protested against Cerro de Pasco and Centromin to stop them from putting acidic liquids in the lake and rivers. We said to them, "What use is the lake now, it's just pure rubbish" and we've protested quite a lot.

And how did you feel about working for the company that was contaminating your community?
As I told you before, at times there was a lack of a true understanding of the seriousness of the problems. I don't think there was much awareness. When you are young sometimes you don't think very well and the truth is that when I was young I said, "I work and earn my money and that's it," and I wasn't really aware. But then you begin to realise the seriousness of the problem and, though it may be a little late, you react. Unfortunately, before, when I worked at Centromin and at the Cerro de Pasco Corporation, I felt more like a miner than a comunero, but then you think it over and you say, but this is my community and its my land and you finally realise that you're a comunero, because this is your land and you're going to die here. So you do something about it, because they are contaminating the land and, as you can see, sometimes the damage they do to the land is unrepairable, as they say. Take a look at the fields, the lake and other places. This hasn't just happened in Quiulacocha, but in several places.
Section 8
So you think the mine workers, in spite of being affected by the contamination of companies like Centromin in many cases, feel more like miners, especially when they're working?
I think that's what happens. In a way it's necessary, but then this happens, this change. That's what it's like, there are times when miners in general are very..., or better said they think of the present and that's all, as they say, they think about their money about their work and that's all. They're trapped by their surroundings so they’re not even interested in whether their lungs are being infected, or if they are going to catch something serious, or if they're going to die in the mines. They don't think. That's what happens. That's what happens with contamination, they don't consider that it's going to affect the community later, I think that's what happens and of course, as the company isn't interested in what might happen, they don't do anything in favour of the community. There have been all types of protests; there have even been confrontations in Quiulacocha and other neighbouring communities such as Rancas, this has happened. It's the same for La Oroya, isn't it? Do you agree with the pollution? I don't know if it's happened in La Oroya. I don't know if they're aware, but the community of La Oroya has been affected by the fumes. They chucked a lot of lead out of the smelter, also chlorine. The lead went into the air and filled the houses, it damaged the pastures. How many years has this gone on for? But now they're processing lead in La Oroya, aren't they? At least that's what I was told. Here, in contrast, the lake is now dead and the rivers are contaminated. There they are, in Quiulacocha, the San Juan River, the Rumiallama; our pastures of Quiulacocha are also ruined by the contamination. Of course you can't even bathe if there isn't clean water, you can only get clean water from the streams.

How long did you work in the mining company Don Hilario?
Well, as I told you, I worked there since I was young. I was 20, that's why I worked since I was young. Then I left Centromin because age took its toll on me. By 60 I couldn't work anymore, so now I'm retired.

And how long have you been retired?
It's been five years since I retired, señor.

And what did you do when you retired?
Well you see, I've always lived here in Quiulacocha, even when I was working in the company, so I became involved in the faenas here, looking after animals and helping my son who works for the cooperative. I've done this to keep myself busy and useful, as they say. Of course I'm old now, but if you don't work you get even older, don't you? You have to be active, you have to do things.
Section 9
What about your family Don Hilario, your children, how many children have you had?
Well, I've had six children, now I've got five children alive.

And what do they do, what are their occupations?
Well it's hard to say, they do various jobs.

Like what?
The oldest one worked in Centromin for a while, on a (temporary) contract. He worked in Cerro de Pasco itself, now he's still living in Cerro itself which is near here; you must have been there...

Yes, of course I've been. And now that he no longer works in the mine, what does he do?
Now he's involved in business. He's a grocer in the market, he works there selling things.

What about your other children?
Well, one of them, like I said, works here in the community cooperative. I have another son who's become a driver; he drives a lorry transporting cargo. He goes to the jungle or to Lima, depending on the owner of the Volvo. That's what he does to get by in life... My two daughters, well they have their families, their husbands and children.

Do they live here in Quiulacocha or are they further away?
One lives in Cerro (Cerro de Pasco) , she married someone who works in Centromin. My son-in-law works in Centromin.

So through your daughter and your son-in-law you continue the family mining tradition?
Well yes...., and my other daughter went to Huancayo where she lives with her husband. They're also traders. At first she was studying there, in Huancayo. She was continuing her secondary education and after that she got married and she’s there, married, now. That's all of them.

And so you'll have a lot of grandchildren now?
I have twelve grandchildren all together.

The majority of your grandchildren haven't stayed here in Quiulacocha, what do you think of this, Don Hilario? Would you have liked them to have stayed? Why do you think they left the community?
It's more difficult for the young people to stay here in their communities now, because there isn't much work, that's why they leave, to make a living, "to see what's happening" as they say, in other places. This is what happens, a lot of young boys want to study as well, it's not like before, before the young people didn't study, nowadays the majority finish second grade at least.
Section 10
Was it more difficult to study in your days?
Of, of course it was. You barely learned how to read and write. There weren't any secondary schools like there are today. Also, it wasn't, how can I put it, customary to go to school and you were satisfied just being able to read and write, to know the alphabet, as they say.

And has that changed now?
I believe so. They have now built a school here in Quiulacocha - there wasn't one before - and now young people can be educated, as they say. Now the parents themselves want their children to study - this didn't happen before.

Didn't your parents care about whether or not you studied? What was it like in your case?
We were very poor and we couldn't study. I went to school for three years, that's all. What's more, my mother, I was left - I haven't told you this yet, but I was left without a mother since I was very little.

Were you orphaned by your mother when you were a small child?
My mother died when I was very young and I had to, or more precisely, I made myself a man on my own.

Were you left alone with your father?
With my father and my brothers, but as I told you earlier, my father worked outside the community. He was away from the house nearly all week, he had to go to work in the mine. I grew up with my brothers and my uncles, so we grew up quickly and looked after ourselves.

And didn't your father get married again?
No, he never married again.

So, what childhood memories do you have?
Well, several memories, like when we use to play football and such children's games with the boys. It was great being a young boy.

And what things have changed since then?
Well, a few things of course, like the games children play. We used to go to the lake and to different places - you can't do that any more, it's all dry land now and all the waste that comes from Cerro passes by here.

How did you enjoy life, the dances, in your youth? How did young people have fun?
Well, in the fiestas (festivals, celebrations), although we still have fiestas now.

Really, like which ones?
For example, the one we call San Sebastian. This street where we are standing is also called San Sebastian. It’s a beautiful fiesta and, the carnival, during the carnival there's also a beautiful fiesta.
Section 11
The carnival, in the month of.....?
It's in February, in the month of February, and sometimes it goes on until March. There is dancing all month, it's really beautiful, there's dancing, they drink chicha (liquor made from maize), they eat pachamanca (meat and vegetables cooked in underground ovens).

You drink a lot of chicha? How do you make chicha, do you know how it's prepared?
Well, you prepare it with maize, chicha is made from crushed maize which is then left to ferment. It's the most common drink around here, I can say that.

And did young people dance at the fiestas in your days?
Yes, of course, we danced. We liked dancing and enjoying ourselves in the fiestas, it was really beautiful.

Have you seen a change or do young people continue to enjoy themselves and dance in the traditional fiestas of the community?
It's just the same. They still dance and enjoy themselves like before. Everybody in the village dances, it's - how do I explain? It's like the village fiesta of the patron saint or the carnivals. Everybody, young and old, dances and celebrates here. The whole village enjoys it.

Did you come and celebrate the fiestas when you were a miner, as well?
Even when I was far away I would make an escape to celebrate with my countrymen. Later, when I began to work at Centromin, right here, I had no problems and didn't miss a single fiesta....

Did you live here in Quiulacocha in those days?
Yes, that's right, I lived here with my family.

What about some things you think have changed over the years in which you've seen your community develop?
Well, above all there was more livestock before, this is a ranching community, that's the main activity. Rearing livestock was widespread here, if not what do you live off of?

Were you also involved in ranching?
Well, we had a bit of livestock, but that's all. In reality you can't really say that we were ranchers, but we had a few animals, yes, and we took them grazing.

When you were young or since you've retired?
When I was young we had a few [animals], and, with our cousins, we would take them grazing. Our parents entrusted us to do this, to work with the animals. That's what we used to do. Then when I retired from mining, we thought about having a few more livestock but we weren't able to. Anyway, my son and I have a little livestock and they graze with those of the cooperative. That's the way it is.
Section 12
And what do you think there's much less livestock than there was before?
The main reason is that we don't have grass anymore and there isn't enough water like there was before. Before you were able to graze the animals, the community had a mountain of grazing land but it's no longer like that, you see. The reason for this is the waste the company has thrown out. That has endangered the community's livestock, that's the main reason.

And have other activities replaced cattle rearing?
Well, some have, but I still don't think they make up for ranching, they don't have the same importance. Here in Quiulacocha the cooperative has a few animals and the day a member dies it contributes to the cost of our funeral. They also give us some carcass. We live off of that and when we are ill, he cooperative provides us with a food. We are members and it helps us.

How many members in the cooperative?
Sixty to 80 members, I couldn't say exactly how many. I'd have to ask the directors.

Have you always been a member, even when you worked for the company?
No, I wasn't a member then. I was from the community but I wasn't a member, it was like that.

And why weren't you a member?
Because, since I worked for the company, I didn't work here [in the community], I only lived here, as I was telling you. That's how it was.

But later you became a member?
Yes, of course, I became a member afterwards. My children are also members.

Don Hilario, how do you see the future of your community, the future of Quiulacocha?
Well, now things are a little better. They are doing a few things to improve things, for example we have some machines and lorries as well, they're doing some things. I think that we must have more livestock, this would be the best thing, I wish that we could....

But do you believe that it would be possible to develop ranching if the problem of contamination is still here or continues?
Well, we'll have to see what happens, because we have to demand solutions, they mustn't jeopardise us so we can develop ranching, as they say. This is what we need.

Do you think that if this problem was solved you would be able to go back to being a livestock community?
Yes, I think so; that would be the only way.

Don Hilario do you think that there is a future for your children and for your grandchildren in Quiulacocha?
Well, it depends on everything that we've been talking about. I believe that you bring about your own future as well, as they say.
Section 13
And will you continue to be based in your village?
Always here, if God permits I will die here in my village.

Well, Don Hilario, I thank you for this interview and I wish you a lot of luck.
You are welcome, señor.