Don Justico is one of thousands of campesinos who live in the uplands of the Andes. When I ask him about coca, he tells me:
"In the last ten years its cost has skyrocketed from 10 loaves per pound to 50. This hurts me deeply because these little leaves, I see them each time moving farther away from my family. I chew my coca to guide me in the planning of the dates for sowing my land. I chew my coca to begin the harvest, and its sweet or bitter taste is a microcosmic prediction of the success or failure of my efforts.
"The relationship between coca and myself (which cannot be said the other way around) is a companionship that’s almost biological and magical. It is biological in the sense that each leaf I lift to my mouth is intertwined with an intimate need whose purpose only it, in communion with humans, can comprehend. It is magical in the sense that it guides me to plan the fiestas of happiness or sadness of my community. You see, a secret exists between coca and Justico that can only be transmitted in the moments when I chew the leaf."
Coca also allows the people to see, identify, and resist that double borderland that exists between the modern/individualistic and the natural/communal life of the people. Would that it could facilitate dialog with those who show not one face, but two distinct and antagonistic personalities — sometimes expressing words of solidarity, other times of authoritarianism. But such can never be real dialog; it is hierarchy.
Yes, a deep secret resides within coca, the land, the sky and the people; a secret that will stay etched in memory. It is a secret that cannot be determined by the conviction of economic value, nor is it subject to the influences of temporary association with mercantile and mining exploits, but rather it is held in communal feelings of happiness, sadness, love, outrage, equanimity and passion. These things are not always understood by other minds or modes of life that value ounces of gold, quarts of oil or the gold dental caps of a grandmother.
When Justico wants to end the discussion, he tells me, "Look, I just bought this little coca, and her little leaves are good and green. With her face so beautiful, she seems to look at me, to smile at me and converse with me, saying, ‘Let’s continue laboring and going forth.’ I see her very healthy and strong like the heart and mind of my people."
Don Justico concludes his conversation with the coca, expressing his hope for the future: "I ask that very soon these hands be able to write the words of my son Julian, my daughter Bartolina and, with certainty, my youngest Esperanza, who will finally be able to rest from writing hundreds of letters on my behalf and that of my people."
J. Carlos Escalera López is an ethnomusicologist, agronomist, and participant in the work of the indigenous communities north of Potosí. This article was translated from Spanish by Chellis Glendinning. All photos by Benjamin Dangl