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Silver, Sword, and Stone

Three Crucibles in the Latin American Story

About The Book

Winner, American Library Association Booklist’s Top of the List, 2019 Adult Nonfiction

Acclaimed writer Marie Arana delivers a cultural history of Latin America and the three driving forces that have shaped the character of the region: exploitation (silver), violence (sword), and religion (stone). “Meticulously researched, [this] book’s greatest strengths are the power of its epic narrative, the beauty of its prose, and its rich portrayals of character…Marvelous” (The Washington Post).

Leonor Gonzales lives in a tiny community perched 18,000 feet above sea level in the Andean cordillera of Peru, the highest human habitation on earth. Like her late husband, she works the gold mines much as the Indians were forced to do at the time of the Spanish Conquest. Illiteracy, malnutrition, and disease reign as they did five hundred years ago. And now, just as then, a miner’s survival depends on a vast global market whose fluctuations are controlled in faraway places.

Carlos Buergos is a Cuban who fought in the civil war in Angola and now lives in a quiet community outside New Orleans. He was among hundreds of criminals Cuba expelled to the US in 1980. His story echoes the violence that has coursed through the Americas since before Columbus to the crushing savagery of the Spanish Conquest, and from 19th- and 20th-century wars and revolutions to the military crackdowns that convulse Latin America to this day.

Xavier Albó is a Jesuit priest from Barcelona who emigrated to Bolivia, where he works among the indigenous people. He considers himself an Indian in head and heart and, for this, is well known in his adopted country. Although his aim is to learn rather than proselytize, he is an inheritor of a checkered past, where priests marched alongside conquistadors, converting the natives to Christianity, often forcibly, in the effort to win the New World. Ever since, the Catholic Church has played a central role in the political life of Latin America—sometimes for good, sometimes not.

In this “timely and excellent volume” (NPR) Marie Arana seamlessly weaves these stories with the history of the past millennium to explain three enduring themes that have defined Latin America since pre-Columbian times: the foreign greed for its mineral riches, an ingrained propensity to violence, and the abiding power of religion. Silver, Sword, and Stone combines “learned historical analysis with in-depth reporting and political commentary...[and] an informed and authoritative voice, one that deserves a wide audience” (The New York Times Book Review).



Peru is a beggar sitting on a bench of gold.

—Old Peruvian adage

In the stinging cold just before dawn, Leonor Gonzáles leaves her stone hut on a glacial mountain peak in the Peruvian Andes to trudge up a path and scour rock spills for flecks of gold. Like generations before her, she has teetered under heavy bags of stone, pounded it with a crude hammer, ground it to gravel with her feet, crushed it to a fine sand. On rare, lucky days, she teases out infinitesimally small motes of gold by swirling the grit in a mercury solution. She is only forty-seven, but her teeth are gone. Her face is cooked by a relentless sun, parched by the freezing winds. Her hands are the color of cured meat, the fingers humped and gnarled. She is partially blind. But every day as the sun peeks over the icy promontory of Mount Ananea, she joins the women of La Rinconada, the highest human habitation in the world, to scale the steep escarpment that leads toward the mines, scavenging for all that shines, stuffing stones into the backbreaking rucksack she will lug down-mountain at dusk.

It might be a scene from biblical times, but it is not. Leonor Gonzáles climbed that ridge yesterday during the pallaqueo, the hunt for gold her forebears have undertaken since time immemorial, and she will climb it again tomorrow, doing what she has done since she first accompanied her mother to work at the age of four. Never mind that a Canadian mining company less than thirty miles away is performing the same task more efficiently with hulking, twenty-first-century machinery; or that just beyond Lake Titicaca—the cradle of Inca civilization—Australian, Chinese, and United States corporate giants are investing millions for state-of-the-art equipment to join the Latin American mining bonanza. The business of digging deep into the earth’s entrails to wrest glittering treasures has long, abiding roots on this continent and, in many ways, defines the people we Latin Americans have become.

Leonor Gonzáles is the embodiment of “silver, sword, and stone,” the triad of this book’s title—three obsessions that have held Latin Americans fast for the past millennium. “Silver” is the lust for precious metals; the infatuation that rules Leonor’s life as it has ruled generations before her: a frantic hunt for a prize she cannot use, a substance that is wanted in cities she will never see. The passion for gold and silver is an obsession that burned brightly before Columbus’s time, consumed Spain in its relentless conquest of America, drove a cruel system of slavery and colonial exploitation, sparked a bloody revolution, addled the region’s stability for centuries, and morphed into Latin America’s best hope for the future. Just as Inca and Aztec rulers made silver and gold symbols of their glory, just as sixteenth-century Spain grew rich and powerful as the preeminent purveyor of precious metals, mining remains at the heart of the Latin American promise today. That obsession lives on—the glistening troves extracted and sent away by the boatloads—even though the quarries are finite. Even though the frenzy must end.

Leonor is no less a product of “silver” than she is of the “sword,” Latin America’s abiding culture of the strongman that accompanies it: the region’s proclivity, as Gabriel García Márquez, José Martí, Mario Vargas Llosa, and others have pointed out, to solve problems by unilateral and alarming displays of power. By brutality. By a reliance on muscle, coercion, and an overweening love for dictators and the military: la mano dura, the iron fist. Violence was certainly the easy expedient in the day of the war-loving Moche in AD 800, but it grew more so under the Aztec and Inca Empires, was perfected and institutionalized by Spain under the cruel tutelage of Cortés and Pizarro, and became ingrained during the hellish wars of Latin American independence in the nineteenth century. State terrorism, dictatorships, endless revolutions, Argentina’s Dirty War, Peru’s Shining Path, Colombia’s FARC, Mexico’s crime cartels, and twenty-first-century drug wars are its legacies. The sword remains as much a Latin American instrument of authority and power as it ever was five hundred years ago when the Dominican friar Bartolomé de Las Casas lamented that the Spanish colonies were “choak’d up with Indian Blood and Gore.”

No, Leonor Gonzáles is no stranger to oppression and violence. Her ancestors, people of the altiplano, were conquered and forced into labor by the Incas and then reconquered and enslaved by Spanish conquistadors. For centuries, her people were relocated by force at the whims of the mitmaq—the compulsory labor system that the Inca Empire, and then Spain, demanded of the vanquished. Or they were taken away in the Church’s “reductions”: massive resettlements of indigenous populations in the ongoing enterprise to save their souls. In the nineteenth century, Leonor’s people were herded at sword’s point to fight and be sacrificed on opposing sides of the revolution. In the twentieth century, they were driven higher and higher into the snowy reaches of the Andes to escape the wanton massacres of the Shining Path. But even in that airless aerie, eighteen thousand feet above sea level, the sword has continued to be master. Today in the wild, lawless mining town of La Rinconada, where murder and rape are rampant—where human sacrifices are offered to mountain demons and no government police chief dares go—Leonor is as vulnerable to brute force as her forebears were five hundred years ago.

Every day when she rises, Leonor touches a small, gray stone that she keeps on a ledge by her cot, near a faded photograph of her dead husband, Juan Sixto Ochochoque. Every night, before she crawls under a blanket with her children and grandchildren, she touches it again. “His soul rests inside,” she told me when I visited her in her frigid one-room hut, no larger than ten feet squared, where she lives on the lip of a mountain glacier with two sons, two daughters, and two grandchildren. She and Juan, the ruddy-faced miner in the photo, were never actually married; no one in Leonor’s acquaintance has ever taken the Church’s vows. To her, Juan is her husband and the father of her children; and, from the day a mine-shaft collapsed, and his lungs filled with the deadly fumes that killed him, that round, gray stone at the head of her bed has come to represent him even as it represents the whole of Leonor’s spiritual life. Like many indigenous people—from the Rio Grande to the Tierra del Fuego—Leonor accepts Catholic teachings only as they reflect the gods of her ancestors. Virgin Mary is another face for Pachamama, Earth Mother, the ground beneath our feet, from which all bounty springs. God is another word for Apu, the spirit that dwells in mountains, whose energy comes from the sun and lives on in stones. Satan is Supay, a demanding rascal-god who rules death, the underworld, the dark entrails of ground below ground, and needs to be appeased.

Leonor’s stone stands for the third obsession that has held Latin America in its grip for the past thousand years: the region’s fervent adherence to religious institutions, whether they be temples, churches, elaborate cathedrals, or piles of sacred rock. The first order of business when pre-Columbian powers conquered one another a thousand years ago was to pound the others’ gods to rubble. With the arrival of the conquistadors in the Americas, the triumphant monuments of stone erected by the Aztecs and the Incas to honor their gods were often reduced to mere pedestals for mighty cathedrals. The significance was not lost on the conquered. Rock was piled on rock, palaces were built on top of palaces, a church straddled every important indigenous temple or huaca, and religion became a powerful, concrete reminder of who had won the day. Even as time wore on—even as Catholicism became the single most powerful institution in Latin America, even as some of its adherents began to be wooed away by Pentecostalism—Latin Americans have remained a resolutely religious population. They cross themselves when they pass a church. They build shrines in their homes. They carry images of saints in their wallets, talk to their coca leaves, hang crosses from rearview mirrors, fill their pockets with sacred stones.

Leonor is not alone in her thrall to silver, sword, and stone. The majority of Latin Americans are bound to her by no more than a few degrees of separation. Extracting ore in Mexico, Peru, Chile, Brazil, and Colombia has resumed the primacy it had four hundred years ago, and the business of mining has gone a long way to redefine progress, boost economies, lift people out of poverty, and touch every aspect of the social fabric. Precious minerals pass from rural to urban handlers, from brown hands to white, from poor to rich. The gold that is dug from the rock beneath Leonor’s hut fuels an elaborate economy: the seedy beer hall a few steps from her door, the flocks of child prostitutes down-mountain in Putina, the bankers in Lima, geologists in Canada, socialites in Paris, investors in China. It is an industry whose profits ultimately go overseas to Toronto, Denver, London, Shanghai, much as gold once crossed the Atlantic Ocean in Spanish galleons and made its way to Madrid, Amsterdam, and Peking. The general flow of revenue has not changed. It lingers briefly—enough for a beer at the cantina or a fly-bitten shank of goat to hang from the roof beam—and then it goes out. Away. Over there.

The “sword,” too, has weathered history, from the keenly honed slate blades that Chimú warriors used to disembowel their enemies, to the crude kitchen knives deployed by Zeta gangsters in the Mexican city of Juárez. A culture of violence persists in Latin America, lurking in shadows, waiting to erupt, threatening the region’s fitful progress toward peace and prosperity. The sword has been the ever-ready instrument in this precinct of stark inequalities: as useful in Augusto Pinochet’s 1970s Chile, among a largely white, literate population, as in today’s blood-soaked streets of Honduras among the illiterate poor. The ten most dangerous cities in the world are all in Latin American countries. Little wonder that the United States has seen a flood of desperate immigrants fleeing Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador. Fear is the engine that drives Latin Americans north.

As for “stone’s” purchase on the spirit, there is no question that organized religion has played—and continues to play—a crucial role in these Americas. From the days of the Inca, when the great rulers Pachacutec Inca Yupanqui and Tupac Inca Yupanqui “turned the world” and expanded the empire by conquering vast swaths of South America and forcing the vanquished masses to worship the sun, faith has been a weapon of coercion as well as an instrument for social cohesion. The Aztecs shared the Incas’ appetite for conquest as well as a keen appreciation for the uses of religion. But they had a starkly different approach to conversion: they often adopted the deities of the newly conquered with the understanding that someone else’s god might have much in common with one’s own. Stroll through any Mesoamerican or Andean village, and you will find lively expressions of those ancient beliefs in contemporary art and ritual traditions.

Today, although various Amerindian, African, Asian, and European faiths are practiced in Latin America, the region remains firmly stamped with the one Spain imposed on it more than five hundred years ago. It is adamantly Catholic. A full 40 percent of all the world’s Catholics reside here, and, as a result, a strong bond unites the believers, from Montevideo, Uruguay, to Monterrey, Mexico. Indeed Simón Bolívar, who liberated six South American republics, imagined the Spanish-speaking, Catholic nations of those Americas as a potentially powerful unified force in the greater world. The Spanish Crown may have worked mightily to keep its colonies from communicating, trading, or establishing human concord, but it joined them forever when it led them to the feet of Jesus. In the end, Bolívar was never able to fashion a strong Pan-American union from the diverse, restless population of Spanish-speaking Christians that he liberated. But the Church today remains, as it was in Bolívar’s time, the most trusted institution in all of Latin America.

This is a book about three components of Latin American society that have shaped it for a thousand years. It does not pretend to be a definitive, comprehensive history. Rather, it is meant to cast light on the legacy of the Latin American people and on three elements of our past that may suggest something about our future. Certainly there are other obsessions we share that make for a brighter portrait of the region: our infatuation with art, for instance; our enthusiasm for music, our culinary passions, our love of rhetoric. The Spanish language that flows from the pens of Latin Americans has produced one of the most strikingly original literatures of our time. There are also few regional traits that shine more brightly than our fidelity to family or our propensity for human warmth. But none of these, in my view, has moved populations, marked the landscape, and written history as forcefully as Latin America’s fixations on mining, or its romance with brute force, or religion.

These obsessions are not tidy strands that can be addressed as independent narratives. Their histories over the course of the past one thousand years have clashed, overlapped, become intricately intertwined, just as gold, faith, and fear are tightly woven skeins in the life of Leonor Gonzáles. But Latin America’s inclinations to religion and violence, along with its stubborn adherence to an ancient form of extractive commerce that doesn’t necessarily lead to lasting development, have fascinated me for years. I believe the history of these inclinations can tell us much about who we Latin Americans are. And we are, as a historian once said, “a continent made to undermine conventional truths,” a region unto ourselves, unlike any other, where theories or doctrines fashioned elsewhere seldom have purchase. I also believe that, for all the years I have spent following the ways and warps of this skeined history, it cannot possibly tell the whole story.

How do you explain a hemisphere and its people? It’s an impossible task, really, made more complicated by five hundred years of skewed historical record. All the same, I am convinced that there is a commonality—a concrete character, if you will—that emerges from the Spanish American experience. I am also convinced that this character is a direct product of the momentous confrontation between two worlds. We are defined by a grudging tolerance born of this experience. There is no northern equivalent.

In Latin America, we may not always know exactly what breed we represent, but we do know that we are more bound to this “New World” than we are to the “Old.” After centuries of unrestrained mixing, we are more brown than white, more black or Indian than some might think. But, since raw political power has been held stubbornly by every anxious generation of “whites” since First Contact, a true reckoning of our identity has always been a tenuous proposition. Call it what you will, but the enduring presence of indigenous history in Latin America—quite unlike its counterpart in the North—suggests there is a very different explanation here. I offer mine in all humility in hopes of relaying something of the perspective it has given me.

Although my father’s family has had roots in Peru for almost five hundred years, my grandmother Rosa Cisneros y Cisneros de Arana was a great enthusiast of all things Spanish. She often spoke to me of Spain’s custom of sending sons into different walks of life as a way of building the pillars of a robust society. One son, as the logic went, would be a man of the world (a lawyer, politician, or businessman); the second, a military man; the third, a priest. The first would ensure prosperity by having a hand in the nation’s power and wealth; the second would maintain the peace by serving his country as a soldier; the third would throw open the gates to heaven by teaching us the way to God. I never saw reference to this custom made in history books, although I heard of it again and again as I traveled the countries of Latin America. In time, I saw that a banker, a general, and a bishop were indeed pillars of our shared society; they were precisely what kept the oligarchy, genders, and races in the rigid caste system that Spain had created in the first place. That triumvirate of sovereignty—of princes, soldiers, and high priests—had held for the Incas, Muíscas, Mayans, and Aztecs as well. In many cases, a supreme ruler was expected to be all three. Call it what you will, but the formula of triangulated control has worked for centuries in the Americas of the South. It allowed ancient cultures to expand and conquer. It allowed colonizers a firm lock on the pockets, fists, and souls of the colonized. For all Latin America’s gifts to the world—for all the storied civilizations of our past—the region continues to be ruled by what has always held sway here. By silver, sword, and stone.

About The Author

Photography by Frank Schramm

Marie Arana was born in Lima, Peru. She is the author of the memoir American Chica, a finalist for the National Book Award; two novels, Cellophane and Lima Nights; the prizewinning biography Bolivar; Silver, Sword, and Stone, a narrative history of Latin America; and The Writing Life, a collection from her well-known column for The Washington Post. She is the inaugural Literary Director of the Library of Congress and lives in Washington, DC, and Lima, Peru.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster (August 18, 2020)
  • Length: 496 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781501105012

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Raves and Reviews

“Marie Arana’s monumental, stupendous new history of Latin America, Silver Sword, and Stone, is a must-read for anyone who wants to understand this hemisphere and our current crises.”

– Julia Alvarez, author of In the Time of the Butterflies

“Meticulously researched, the book’s greatest strengths are the power of its epic narrative, the beauty of its prose and its rich portrayals of character. . . . Arana’s strength is the power and passion of her storytelling, and her explanation of what has shaped Latin America over the past half-millennium has the ring of truth. . . . [A] marvelous book.”

– Tom Gjelten, The Washington Post

Silver, Sword, and Stone, as Arana points out, is not a straightforward history of Latin America. Neither is it journalism. Rather, it’s a hybrid, combining learned historical analysis with in-depth reporting and political commentary. . . . [And] an informed and authoritative voice, one that deserves a wide audience.”

– Álvaro Enrigue, The New York Times

“Through the power and beauty of her writing, Arana brings extraordinary clarity to one of the most complex regions of the world. I have never before read a book of such astonishing breadth and intricate depth, capturing both the magnificent sweep of history and the gripping immediacy of journalism. The stories she tells will break your heart and blow your mind, but they will also give you a much clearer understanding of Latin America and a deep sense of wonder at the strength and resilience of its people.”

– Candice Millard, author of Hero of the Empire

“Gets at the identity conundrum of Latin America with storytelling that is both clear-eyed and evocative. . . . The sweep and soar of her narrative recalls Victor Hugo. . . . Arana gives us an epic story of stories — of regions conjoined by desire for treasure, power and control, and of the emotional mortar which binds people together through endurance.”

– Marcela Davison Aviles,

“An elegant and incisive writer and observer, Marie Arana has given us a thoughtful and revealing portrait of the fabled—and too-little-understood—world of Latin America. Combining history with contemporary reportage, Silver, Sword & Stone is compelling reading.”

– Jon Meacham, author of The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels

“Like a condor soaring above the Andes, Marie Arana gives a sweeping overview of Latin American history. History is usually written by the winners, but this book throbs with passion for the victims and underdogs. It also celebrates the cultural triumphs, exuberance and generosity that make Latin America so lovable.”

– John Hemming, author of The Conquest of the Incas

“To trace the soul of a continent is an extraordinary feat, and Marie Arana does it with scholarly precision, moral thoroughness and elegance of style. For anyone interested in understanding—really understanding—what Latin America is and where it comes from, Silver, Sword and Stone has to be the first step.”

– Juan Gabriel Vásquez, author of The Sound of Things Falling

"Peruvian-born author Marie Arana takes us directly to the mysterious and misunderstood center of Latin America in her latest book. . . . The sweep is enormous and complex, but Arana’s storytelling and her obvious compassion guide us through the past millennium as an absorbing, even poignant, kaleidoscopic journey to places it behooves us all to comprehend."

– Yvette Benavides, San Antonio News-Express

“Arana’s fluency in Latin American history blossoms in this unique and arresting inquiry into three ‘crucibles’ which have shaped Latin American life for centuries. . . . In this masterwork of exploration, connection, and analysis, Arana offers a fresh, gripping, and redefining perspective on a vital and magnificent region betrayed by toxic greed and vicious tyranny.”

– Booklist (starred review)

"The Peruvian-born author delves into the tripartite crux of Latin American exploitation by the Western powers. . . . [An] impressively concise yet comprehensive history. A profoundly moving and relevant work that provides new ways of thinking about the 'discovery of America.'"

– Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

“A sweeping history of Latin America . . . . As captivating as it is comprehensive. It’s a marvel for covering so much ground.”

– Publishers Weekly

"Beautifully written, meticulously researched. . . . A must-read for anyone struggling to understand Latin America’s tumultuous past and our fraught relationship with our southern neighbors. Arana has done us a service with her clear, even-handed treatment of the subject."

– Bárbara Mujica, Washington Independent Review of Books

Awards and Honors

  • Carnegie Medal Honor Book

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