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Dreaming of El Dorado

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By Marie Arana
In La Rinconada, Peru, the highest human habitation in the world, legions of miners seek gold and one young girl seeks an education.

For as long as Senna can remember, she has worked to support her family. She began at four, helping prepare food that her family would hawk about town, when her father was too sick to pick rock in the gold mines. She would accompany him to market three hours away, bumping down mountain roads in a dilapidated minibus in the freezing penumbra of dawn. She’d haul bags up the slippery inclines, lug water down from the trickling glacier. To earn a few extra cents, she’d drag rocks from the maws of mine shafts, apply her tiny frame to the crushing of stones.

When she turned ten, she was hired to run one of seven public toilets that served the town’s 20,000 inhabitants. There is no sewage system in La Rinconada; no water, no paved roads, no sanitation whatsoever in that wilderness of ice, rock, and gold, perched more than 18,000 feet up in the Peruvian Andes. Senna’s job—from six in the morning to ten at night—was to hand out tiny squares of paper, take a few cents from each customer, and muck out the fecal pits at the end of the day. When she was twelve, she took a job that paid a bit more so that she could buy medicine for her dying father. Trudging the steep, fetid roads where the whorehouses and drinking establishments proliferate, she sold water trucked in from contaminated lakes.

Senna has pounded rock; she has ground it to gravel with her feet, she has teetered under heavy bags of crushed stone. But she was never lucky as a child miner; she never found even the faintest glimmer of gold. Today, with her father dead and her mother bordering on desperation, she makes fancy gelatins and sells them to men as they come and go from the mine shafts that pock the unforgiving face of Mount Ananea. When she is asked why she slogs through mud and snow for a few hours of school every day, as few children do, she says she wants to be a poet. She is fourteen years old. . . .


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La Rinconada, Peru

La Rinconada, Peru


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