"I See Here Nothing but Miseries": Social Disease and "Humanitarian" Capitalism in En las tierras del Potosí


  • Ana Lucía Tello University of California, Berkeley




Capitalism, discipline, disease, hygiene, humanitarianism, mining


This essay proposes reading En las tierras del Potosí (1911), by Jaime Mendoza, as a diagnosis of the "national disease". In this novel, the author explores the multiple obstacles that the Bolivian nation faces on its way to modernity. On the one hand, by portraying worker’s health issues in the Llallagua tin mines, the novel denounces the exploitation by the mining company. However, the impact of the company's actions is much deeper: it produces the moral decomposition of the entire social body. In this way, the "barbarism" of the workers is produced by capitalism, and therefore cannot be reduced to racial or geographical factors. Yet, the solution that the novel proposes is not the eradication of capitalism, but the implantation of a capitalism driven by a “humanitarian motive”. On the other hand, the undisciplined bodies of women are pointed out as another cause of the failure of the modernizing project. Failure to adequately fulfill the maternal role puts the nation's "healthy future" at risk. Thus, there are two great obstacles that the modernizing project faces: a capitalism that produces poverty, disease and death, on the one hand, and indigenous women, on the other. While the first obstacle escapes the field of action of medical knowledge, the second  can be overcome through disciplinary practices such  as  hygiene. Confidence in overcoming the second obstacle, however, is more than anything a compensatory maneuver, because as long as the first obstacle persists, any attempt to turn the Indian into a modern, clean and disciplined subject is doomed to failure.


Author Biography

Ana Lucía Tello, University of California, Berkeley

I am a PhD student in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese at the University of California, Berkeley.