photo of person from Peru Cerro de Pasco
Peru glossary


(PERU 32)








La Oroya





Section 1
We are in La Oroya and are going to talk to a friend who is currently a primary teacher here and he has lived here for many years. What's your name?
My name is Alejandro Perez Granados

How did you come to La Oroya?
I came here through a transfer with my job. When I finished university I went to work in a mining settlement belonging to the Rio Pallanga company. Shortly afterwards as a result of a mining crisis the company closed down and we had to come to La Oroya to organise our transfer to another education centre. Centromin Peru invited me to work for them as a teacher in the Cobriza mining settlement but I didn't go because it was very from Huancayo. When they told me it was a 15-hour bus ride I lost heart, whereas it's only three hours from La Oroya to Huancayo.

What do you remember about your parents?
Well ... my father worked in the Mines Volcan Company in Yauli. As it was close to La Oroya I used to visit my aunt here every weekend even though transport was scarce up till Santa Rosa de Sacco. I was a small child then and always went with my aunt. We had to walk from Santa Rosa de Sacco to the social security hospital, 12 blocks, to take my uncle his lunch. Then we took a blue trade union bus which took us to Old Oroya to the terminus which was the hospital. Nowadays the minibuses and buses go as far as Huaynacancha and the new settlements round there.
I remember once we came to La Oroya to look for a room which was hard to find, I could see the enormous slum areas in Old Oroya. Finding a house was like finding gold, the rooms were so expensive and the landlord could throw you out when he felt like it. But this has changed with the new settlements and towns and the town has stretched out mainly towards the Lima end and also the Tarma one. It's easier to rent a room now and it's cheaper.

What stories do you have from the period your dad worked as a miner - what was his job?
When my father went into the mines we had already lost our mother. There were three children and my dad brought us up as a very close family. He would tell us abut his week every Sunday. He worked in the pipe and track section and had to be down the mine near the workers every day. Everyone was terrified whenever there was an accident because at first you never knew where it had happened nor how many workers were trapped or injured.
I remember on one occasion the mine collapsed and there was a kind of hollow down there. Many died and disappeared. As my father was a pipe-worker he always had to be on hand in the rescue operations to ensure there was air and water to dig people out and clear the galleries. It was a kind of river which washed away everything in its path, especially the workers who were clearing the galleries. A number of workers and some engineers disappeared in the mud and water.
The families and the town moved quickly but they wouldn't let anyone into the hospital. They tried to calm the families down by putting tree-trunks in the coffins which were sealed up so no-one could see their dead. I remember the case of an engineer from the north who died in this accident. One thing for sure, they never took his body north, the company took a coffin with a trunk up north and wouldn't let the mourners open it. That's what they did because they guarded it to make sure no one opened it and they only went back to Yauli after the burial. So everyone or nearly everyone disappear in the mud avalanche. Only one worker came out of this alive, they found him after three days, he says he heard a great roar and only had time to squeeze himself into a corner which is what saved him.
Section 2
What happened ... they must have broken into an underground river?
My dad says it was underground water which they hadn't calculated properly, so during drilling the explosion blocked up one side of the river resulted in the disaster.

What other stories do you have?
My father says they used to chew coca, especially at night, so they wouldn't get sleepy and they could work easily. Sometimes my dad came later than usual so me and my brothers would begin to worry, we were always anxious. But it was usually because he stayed to do overtime.
He also told us about the Muqui (mythical dwarf connected with the mines). It's a little dwarf who likes to play with children, not with the workmen, but the company wouldn't let children in. It's a mythical way of explaining what mining life is like, with its worries and dreams of good-fortune, because the Muqui doesn't exist. There's also the story of the condemned person the bad air which often come together. According to the belief when someone is going to die the spirit leaves the body a few days before to gather up its steps, and when you bump into something and get dizzy or faint your body breaks up.
My father experienced this. He says he was leaving the mine very late one night and felt a little draft, then he fainted foaming at the mouth. He doesn't know what happened because he woke up in hospital. When he was back home he told us he had met the spirit of someone who was about to die. The belief goes that only bad spirits cause harm, that is the spirit of people who have been bad, otherwise nothing happens to you, so the spirit of someone who has led a good life won't harm you. My father remembers this because a few days later someone from the settlement who wasn't well liked, died.

What's the story of the condemned people?
People who haven't been able to die in peace because they have caused a lot of harm in their lives are condemned, and they drag their chains. Neither the spirit nor the body rests in peace. The story goes that the condemned roam around far-off places and if they happen on someone they attack them to steal their life and spirit. Itís the only way they can be redeemed and discard their chains. According to my dad, my grandfather had an encounter with one of the condemned in the Junin highlands. This creature wanted to go into his house and made an infernal noise so my grandfather tried to defend himself with an iron bar. He was only able to rest with the light of day.
On another occasion my dad told us he was walking from Yauli to Ticlio, when I was still a kid and Ticlio was still in operation. It was night-time with a full moon and he came across a ccalcareas (pronounced jaljareas), a kind of animal or rather it had the form of an animal. The ccalcarea is someone who has lain with close family, close kin, and they wander round the countryside in the guise of a llama or some other animal. They're hard to get hold of, you can only do it with a rope. When you catch them they say who they are and what they've done.
Section 3
And have you managed to capture one of the condemned or a ccalcarea?
No ... they're popular tales about the never ending struggle between good and evil. Life experience has produced these moral values and norms which are reflected in these stories. Possibly they make the link between someone's life and the story which is where the ccalcarea tales come from. You know there's a saying which goes "...small town, big hell..." and that's life in a settlement, it's a village where everyone knows each other.

And do these stories go back through time?
Some are from very far back and they are part of the tradition which is handed down through the generations, but I think you don't hear these much these days, not in La Oroya, perhaps you do in small towns like Yauli or Marthunel.

How long were you in Yauli?
My dad worked there for 15 years and then he moved to Ticlio which was still in operation then, for another three years. The Mining Volcan company worked a deposit in Ticlio. Ticlio was also known for the passenger train crossing which is the highest in the Andes at 4,850 metres above sea level. The train went through a very long tunnel up there which affected everyone but especially the children. People from Lima would get soroche (altitude sickness), and they needed oxygen with essences, like thyme oil, or alcohol, etc.
The Lima-Huancayo passenger train was the main mode of transport. There was also a bus company but buses were few and far between and accidents were common from the holes in the road, crashes or vehicles fell over the precipice because the road was so narrow. The trains were first and second class then. The first class train was quite comfortable, passengers had good food and good seats. The second class train had nothing but seats and most passengers carried big loads with them so each carriage was so full it was uncomfortable to travel from Lima to Huancayo. You couldn't do that on the first class train, all luggage was stored in the deposit. The second class train had no food on board or stewards to look after you, so at every stop the people tried to sell passengers food, sweets, cakes, fruit, etc. They wouldn't let them on the first class train so if you wanted to buy anything you had to do it in the few minutes when the train stopped.
Section 4
Why did your dad leave the mining centre?
My dad was the breadwinner and the truth is we lived in constant fear that one day the bad news of an accident would come, my dad knew this and he was well aware of the dangers of the mine, no-one could count on escaping an accident. He decided to leave after 18 years of service in the Volcan company. After my dad left work we heard that many of his colleagues who had worked the shifts with him had had fatal accidents. Once we were in Huancayo I went to the National University of the Centre and I graduated as a secondary school teacher in Biology and Chemistry.

When did you come to La Oroya to teach?
I came to La Oroya in March 1982 and I've been here since then.

But you're working as a primary teacher at the moment.
Yes ... as I said I studied to be a secondary teacher. I wasn't given the chance to be one here but I made good use of my training, it's great to teach children and watch them grow up.

And how do you feel about being here in La Oroya?
It wasn't easy for me ... there are two education systems here. On the one hand there is the fee-paying side which is part of Centromin Peru and then there's the state system which is part of national system. There were enormous, awful, differences between the two. The fee-paying schools had all they needed from school infrastructure to text-books and that was all paid for by the company. The state schools were always limited by the lack of educational materials and the poor buildings, etc. Any improvements had to be paid for by the parents. This is a kind of marginalisation, discrimination, for example, the private schools' processions were always well turned out with good bands with new musical instruments. The state schools still use old instruments with drums made from sheep or llama hide.
The economic aspect is important for the quality of teaching. The private schools gave each student tokens, text-books, books, etc., whereas not all parents in the state sector could cover all these things. Why's that? It's because they don't work for Centromin Peru they're small-time traders, tricycle riders, bricklayers and casual workers. Despite the differences and limitations I've been pleased to see my students going on to the Engineering University in Lima, San Marcos or the Centre ... All this is changing now because the private schools are being transferred to the state sector as a result of the forthcoming privatisation of Centromin Peru.

You must have developed many social links with parents and students quite beyond your role as a teacher.
As a teacher you learn to be aware of the reality around you, you come to understand local characteristics and ways of behaving, reactions to certain situations and you are part of the same economic reality as the people. You are part of their daily lives and you move into the same environment as your students. This is the way I learned to develop my teaching approach. Basing myself on their reality I learned to stimulate the children's interest, making good use of their skills, which is what I've done in Maths. Since I was trained to teach science teaching Maths comes easily, so they haven't had any problems when they've gone on to secondary. As I said many of them are in university now which greatly satisfies me. When they come back to La Oroya some of them visit me and remind me of what I taught them in primary.
Section 5
You have seen considerable changes in La Oroya, which are the most important in your opinion?
During the time of the old Cerro de Pasco Corporation the number of gringos (westerners, foreigners, in this context North Americans who owned/ran the mines) in important administrative and technical management positions was significant. The gringos used to live in areas which weren't affected much by the foundry fumes. One area, Shinca, had a well cared for golf course. All the gringos went there on Saturdays and Sundays, it was there main source of entertainment and they organised championships, picnics and parties there.
When the firm was nationalised in 1974 the golf course was passed over to the new company, Centromin Peru. The golf course was later expropriated by the Oroyan municipal government, in 1986 if I remember correctly. It's in a real state now, all neglected with dried-up grass, it doesn't look like a golf course any more. Our people are to blame for this because they don't take any measures to stop the course being spoiled by the rubbish each family leaves. The municipal government is short of money so no-one tends the golf course. It could be our local park, a place to breathe slightly less polluted air.
I remember as a child I used to come to La Oroya from Yauli with my dad and we would shop in the Mercantil store which belonged to the old Cerro de Pasco Corporation. It was an enormous shop which stocked everything, all imported goods. You could get things, tools, imported from the US and there were toys which is what interested us. I remember one Christmas my dad bought us toys in the Mercantil. He bought us some metal dump-trucks from the US, they were special, exact copies of the original dump-truck with a hopper and a hydraulic lift. The Mercantil has gone now, these things don't exist now and people miss them.

Where was the Mercantil?
In what used to be Wilson Avenue, over the Peru Club bridge in the building next to the company's Relations Office.

The fumes from the foundry and the pollution have always been a major problem in La Oroya. You school is right opposite the foundry. As a teacher what do you think of this and how has it affected the children?
Collective pollution is a serious problem in Old Oroya but I was told the fumes were worse before. Nature is dead here you can see that when you look at the outskirts of the town. And all the children are ill with respiratory, stomach or teeth problems. Pollution and treatment of these illnesses shouldn't be only in terms of the workers.

Are schools teaching people about environmental conservation, the causes and the degree of pollution we live in?
In the state schools we had an environmental campaign which included a Forestry Programme. The idea was to foster awareness in the children and get them to participate in reforestation activities. We had support from the micro-region and the Community Education Group. We gave a course in Forestry instead of the one on Labour issues and each student was given a piece of land which they had to tend and sow. I worked with 5th and 6th grade children and we planted trees on Chacarpata hill, the one opposite the foundry. We carried up the cypresses and quimales (?) ourselves, but there's nothing left now, some saplings disappeared and others got broken. It shows that forestry education is not enough when the people who live round about don't contribute to the conservation. You have to teach ecology to everyone, to the whole town. If they had been looked after and had grown from when we planted them in 1985 they would have served to counteract the fumes to some extent as trees produce oxygen. As a reminder there are a few holes on Cerro de Pasco where they had sapling-beds. As a result of this they stopped the programme in Old Oroya but it's still going in rural areas such as Sacco, Paccha and Huari. Other children went to places outside Old Oroya and now it's a real pleasure to see those trees growing.
Section 6
Don't they teach children about the importance of breathing in clean air?
The subjects are very general in primary school, we teach them about pollution and the impact on health but we don't go further. Perhaps they do this in secondary school in the course on Nature and Community or in Natural Sciences.

Does the Oroyan Education Group have any proposals in their education programme to assess the degree of pollution from lead, arsenic and sulphur, etc., in the air, the soil and the people?
No, no ... the truth is they don't, ... we don't get any further in having a serious, comprehensive study of the issue which would cover education in the home to ensure the success of the anti-pollution campaigns and prevention. We have to find a way of getting over the overwhelming sense of resignation here. There are other interests which affect the local political authorities. They mostly depend on the goodwill of Centromin Peru which is probably why the sub Prefect or the Education Co-ordinator never do anything. To avoid confrontations with the company they shirk the issue which is why there is no serious study available. Even the curriculum structure is flexible enough for us to be able to research our own reality, so if ours is polluted we should give it priority and establish the causes, effects and the possible alternatives, the feasible solutions, to bring in students and their parents.

If the foundry has not brought about development in the province what do you see as alternatives for La Oroya, how should economic growth be approached?
It's a difficult issue ... I don't think there are many options for development in La Oroya. The foundry is everything and we only have a few workshops in the town, the small firms are very artisanal. Our cattle and crop farming are limited and are more in the province of Oroya. The town itself can't do much. The rest of the population which doesn't work in the company is either in the public sector, services or in business.
All raw materials are brought in and we'd need a market beyond Oroya if we were to go into industry. Perhaps we could have industry based on derivatives of the foundry or that link into it. We could make more of cattle farming, industrialise it and cut out intermediaries. The truth is I don't know of any detailed study of the area which would be the basis for a better use of our resources. You know we still have villages which use barter or exchange. We have to move beyond these narrow production margins. Oroya is tending to stretch out towards the Lima and Tarma exits.
Section 7
Coming back to development and the possibilities of cattle for industry?
Well, ... when I was in the Cerro de Pasco Corporation I could see that large-scale cattle farming and industrial development was feasible. The Algodon company in Cerro de Pasco was another big firm. We need to take these business initiatives into account. Our compassion communities haven't been able to make the shift and they haven't had much help from the state either.

So the foundry is the backbone of the Oroyan economy, therefore if Centromin Peru collapsed the foundry would have to close. What do you think?
It would be a catastrophe if that were to happen ... though privatisation is inevitable now. They must have looked at how to make it more profitable by bringing in new technology and renewing the machinery and the plant. I don't know how much they'll invest in this but the government already helped them out by cutting staff by 50% and their health system is now part of the Peru Institute for Social Security. All the schools are also in the process of being integrated into the state system. So the state company has already reduced all their social expenditure and the new owner only has to worry about production.
But if the foundry were to close - I'd never thought of that ... the truth is I hadn't. The effect would be disastrous ... I don't have words for this. It would bring a wave of migration to Tarma, Juaja and Huancayo. Mining and metalworking has a tremendous role in he local economy so it wouldn't be just a question of unemployment. The closure of the foundry would have a ripple effect throughout the region. There would be no more commerce and Oroya would soon be a dead town. There is already a similar experience - the Tinjahuaro foundry operated for 20 years and the local town lived from the bonanza. The only currency used was the American dollar, people boasted that their homes were as good as those in the US. Just a few years after the foundry closed their homes were nothing but ruins. In sum, if the foundry closed Oroya would have no future and only pure-blooded Oroyans would be willing to stay here, all the rest would look elsewhere.

Have you heard stories abut the origin of Oroya?
Yes I have heard some ... there are two opinions on this. One comes from a rope bridge which was part of a kind of pulley system for carrying people from one side of the Mantaro river to the other in a kind of basket. The bridge was called Oroya or Guaro and this was the way the San Geronimo campesino community kept in contact with the Huaynacancha community which was located where the foundry is today.
The other version talks abut two north-American gold prospectors. When one found the precious metal he called out "oro, oro ..." (gold, gold) and the other who was on the other side of the river answered "ya, ya,..." (right, right) so this conversation would be the root of the name Oroya. The second version is completely unreal because there has never been a gold mine in Oroya. The first version is more credible because Oroya in Quechua is pronounced quaro which means bridge.
I have something else to say about the Mantaro river. The kids from San Geronimo and I used to go down to the river to fish for trout and catch frogs but there's no life left in he river now, nothing can live there, not fish or anything else. The town also has another characteristic, the siren sounds at certain times and in the days of the old company it was never wrong but now it's sometimes slow or fast.
Section 8
What impact have the mixture of regions and cultural heritages had on local culture?
Well, ... we have a tremendous mestizaje (mixture) here of men and women from north and south and each has brought his or her own so you have whole neighbourhoods from different localities and they each celebrate their own feasts. For example the Children of Huancavelica Association celebrates in pure Huancavelican style and the northern people do it in the coastal tradition.
Oroya doesn't have an authentic folk tradition of its own, no dances or music. But the Huanca culture is a powerful influence perhaps because it is so close to the Manataro Valley whereas the Cerro doesn't have much influence. Another cultural trait is the surnames, the Huancavelican ones are Huamanchaqui and Huaman and those from Mantaro Valley are Tupac, Yupanqui and Sachahuaman. We don't have authentic or autochthonous (aboriginal?) Oroyan surnames.

Do you have anything more to add?
I would like to reiterate that we need more information on the Oroyan situation. We really need an in-depth study of the issues which will affect the future of the whole town and the population.

The San Geronimo Campesino Community has played an important role in recovering local history and culture, hasn't it?
The community has been marginalised, its members, the comuneros (registered community members with rights and responsibilities) keep their animals out of town. Some of them don't have cattle any more and only take part in social events. People here don't even take notice of the campesino community and they feel distant because they don't value their work. The town is not a good place for communal activities like collective work, the minkas (voluntary communal labour). The community can't muster people, for example, if Chacraca river needed new channels the whole of Oroya would have to be called out which only the municipal government could achieve.

As a teacher what do you think the future holds for young people in Oroya?
One has to be frank here. La Oroya doesn't offer them much so they have to go to the big cities. If they want to study they go to Lima, Huancayo or Cerro de Pasco and it's hard because these places have nothing to do with life in Oroya. Those who can't leave often waste their time and give in to drinking or dancing. Oroya doesn't have any university faculties to train new professionals for local needs. We have the Technological Institute and the Education Institute which young people are not very keen on. We need to open a few faculties around the foundry, such as Metal Engineering, Mechanics, etc. When I was at university they were trying to open a Metal Engineering faculty but unfortunately it failed.
Section 9
Studying is usually linked to employment and it would be good to study her in La Oroya but could all these professionals find work here?
Yes of course ..., they'd have to create industries to generate employment or enlarge Centromin Peru. Opening up university faculties would also enhance local socio-cultural levels.

Are you working on this in the Education Sector?
Yes of course we are, but there's still a lot to do.

Thank you so much Teacher Alejandro Perez.
Not at all, I hope we can talk about these issues again.

Until the next time.