Marie Arana, Silver, Sword, and Stone: Three Crucibles in the Latin American Story

Co-sponsored by the Chicano/a Studies Department and Southwest Hispanic Research Institute at UNM

Marie Arana is well-known in book circles for her work as literary advisor to the U.S. Librarian of Congress, director of the National Book Festival, former editor-in-chief of the Washington Post’s Book World, and Peruvian-American author, whose award-winning works of fiction and nonfiction span the continents.

With her new book, Silver, Sword, and Stone: Three Crucibles in the Latin American Story (on sale August 27, 2019), Arana weaves a magnificent tapestry of historical research with up-to-the-minute reporting and cultural analysis to give readers an urgent look at Latin America today. Silver, Sword, and Stone is a brilliant, kaleidoscopic book. Its extraordinary sweep artfully and perceptively traverses a wide terrain of time and topics, showing readers how the past lives on today. “History has a way of slipping fitfully into the future” (page 247), writes Arana, and nowhere is that clearer than in the people she profiles. They are emblematic of three obsessions that have held Latin Americans fast for the past millennium:

  • Silver represents the lust for precious metals—a fixation 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 bloody revolutions, addled the region’s stability for centuries, and morphed into Latin America’s best hope for the future. Arana tells the story of the extraction of silver, but ultimately, this section on mineral might stands in for other industries—bananas, coffee, sugar, oil, gas, cocaine and heroin—all of whose histories have reflected foreign greed. 

Silver extraction has been driven by exploitation, racism, and oppression—all of which are on display from the time of Montezuma to Leonor Gonzales. Arana introduces readers to Leonor, who 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, Leonor works the mines much as the Indians were forced to do at the time of the Spanish Conquest. Global economists say that Latin America is the most unequal continent in the world, and Leonor is that statistic personified.

  • Sword is Latin America’s abiding propensity to solve problems by a culture of the strongman with unilateral and alarming displays of power, brutality, coercion, and an overweening love for dictators and the military: la mano dura, the iron first. Violence was the easy expedient in the day of the war-loving Moche in 800 AD, 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, rank injustices, 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. Arana explains, “If history holds, the people’s fury will be followed by rebellion, and rebellion will be followed by despotic rule….It is a collective violence with a public and ritual character” (page 243-244). For, despite all the uprisings and bloodshed, the violence has never really advanced the masses. Today, the U.S. public is hardly aware of its government’s role in protecting North American interests and inciting more of the violence that, by now, has become endemic in almost every country in Latin America. The ten most dangerous cities in the world are in Latin American countries, and if body counts are any measure, it is the most murderous place on earth. Little wonder that the United States has seen a flood of desperate immigrants at its border.

Arana covers the key players listed in many of the struggles above, but also introduces readers to Carlos Buergos, a Cuban who fought in the civil war in Angola and now lives in the United States. He was among hundreds of criminals Cuba expelled to the U.S. in the Mariel boatloads of 1980. His story, as victim and perpetrator of violence, echoes the ferocious history that has coursed through the Americas.

  • With Stone, Arana addresses 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. Faith was a weapon of coercion as well as an instrument of cohesion. In colonial times, the bond between throne and altar was mutually reinforcing, unquestioned, and it resulted in a church whose rule would thrive, outlasting intuitions long after conquistador and colonizer were gone. 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. A full 40 percent of all the world’s Catholics reside here, and the Church remains the most trusted institution in all of Latin America.                     

This time  introduces readers to Xavier Albó, a Jesuit priest from Catalonia, Spain, 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. Still, as he is well aware, he is an inheritor of a checkered past, where priests marched alongside conquistadors. His aim is to learn rather than proselytize, and he is part of a generation of the church that reinvented itself, aligning itself with the people, rather than with the powerful.  

Ultimately, it is the people in Silver, Sword, and Stone, who tell us the most about the place. “Chroniclers of old have accustomed us to see history from the eye of the invader, from the perspective of conquest,” writes Arana. “We tend to think of the arc of these Americas as the story of Columbus and the Taíno. The story of Cortés and the Aztecs. Pizarro and the Incas. Cabeza de Vaca and the Guaraní. Spain and its colonies. The tinpot dictator and his unfortunate casualties. The Catholic Church and the pagans. The vast world economy and the coveted veins that lie dormant in the earth. Until we understand the ‘ands’ of history we cannot hope to understand the region as it is now” (page 362). Though Leonor, Carlos, and Xavier will probably never meet, their stories are inextricably bound by the hemisphere’s history. Through them, Arana writes about the “ands” of today.

In telling the history of Latin America—the region’s predilection for strongmen, the enduring role of the church and other indomitable industries—Arana gives texture to the region’s relationship with the West and illuminates both the modern border crisis and the North’s role in ensuring it goes on. Arana also warns readers that until Latin America and its neighbors understand how its people have been shaped, sharpened, and stunted by iniquities, the crucibles of silver, sword, and stone will continue to write its story.

About the author:

Marie Arana is a Peruvian-American author of nonfiction and fiction, senior advisor to the U.S. Librarian of Congress, director of the National Book Festival, the John W. Kluge Center’s Chair of the Cultures of the Countries of the South, and a Writer at Large for the Washington Post. For many years, she was editor-in-chief of the Washington Post’s literary section, Book World. She has also written for The New York TimesNational GeographicThe International Herald Tribune, Spain’s El País, and Peru’s El Comercio, among many other publications. Her biography of Simón Bolívar won the 2014 Los Angeles Times Book Prize; her memoir, American Chica, was a finalist for the National Book Award; and she is also the author of two novels. Silver, Sword, and Stone is her newest book. Visit her at

Event date: 
Tuesday, October 22, 2019 - 6:00pm
Event address: 
University of New Mexico
Dane Smith Hall Rm 123
Albuquerque, NM
Silver, Sword, and Stone: Three Crucibles in the Latin American Story Cover Image
ISBN: 9781501104244
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: Simon & Schuster - August 27th, 2019