Diving into the Wreck

By Eric FrithApril 16, 2015

Selling Our Death Masks: Cash-For-Gold in the Age of Austerity by Yesenia Barragan

LESTER LITTLE’s classic work on the origins of economic thought, Religious Poverty and the Profit Economy in Medieval Europe, opens with a pair of vignettes about buried treasure. In the first, a sixth-century Burgundian king named Gunthram dreamed the location of a cache of buried gold. Considering the find a gift from God, he had the treasure worked into a great golden canopy, which he gave to the nearby church of Chalon-sur-Saône, to hang over the tomb of St. Marcel. Four hundred years later, there was another find. The bishop of Orléans was beginning to rebuild the burned cathedral church of the Holy Cross when workmen unexpectedly unearthed gold. Though he considered the treasure a blessing, the bishop did not see it as a gift in need of reciprocation; rather, it was money in potentia. He converted the gold into coin and used it to purchase stone, lumber, and labor, to complete the construction already under way. The contrast revealed what Little considered an 11th-century sea change in the economic, intellectual, and spiritual life of Latin Christendom: “from gift economy to profit economy.” Selling Our Death Masks, a slim new book by historian and political activist Yesenia Barragan, deftly portrays a related process, 10 centuries later: the desperate, seemingly irresistible conversion of family treasures into money in the cash-for-gold shops of post-2008 Europe. 

The business model of cash-for-gold shops is simple. They operate like pawnshops, giving small sums of cash in exchange for collateral, sometimes redeemed by the original owner at a premium, but more often sold to a wealthier buyer who may repurpose it or melt it down. At a time when both credit and jobs are scarce, cash-for-gold shops provide cash for those stretching to make ends meet. But because these shops specialize in treasures, gifts, and heirlooms, they serve — to an even greater extent than pawnshops — as a barometer of hardship. Their numbers skyrocketed in the wake of the financial crisis, especially across debt-laden southern Europe, where the Eurozone Troika’s austerity measures — deep, immediate spending cuts, privatization, and deregulation — hit hardest. Barragan found that in one part of southern Spain, their numbers more than tripled. By 2011 there were more than 700 in Madrid alone. “In Greece,” she writes, “the European capital of the Regime of Austerity, 90% of […] officially registered cash-for-gold shops opened in 2010.” Many, of course, are not officially registered.

But Barragan’s book is not in any strict sense an economic history. Although she began with the simple question of why cash-for-gold shops multiplied so quickly after 2008, the answer she provides is anything but simple. Selling Our Death Masks flits across space and time, subject and genre, with dizzying freedom. The unsuspecting reader may be disoriented at first, but the ride is short, and the exhilaration comes upon reflection. She has written an original and memorable book, assembling small, seemingly unrelated fragments from five continents and many centuries into a montage of sight and sound. The individual myths, historical anecdotes, posters, lyrics, and brief interviews she collects surely would defy interpretation on their own. But in formation they illuminate one another, and confront the reader with an erased past erupting into the present.

Those who know Walter Benjamin’s work will recognize his influence at once. Benjamin’s unfinished magnum opus, The Arcades Project (Passagen-werk), assembled fragments of material culture from 19th-century Paris into “constellations” of texts and images. Shopping arcades, department stores, railway stations, museums, and their entranced or jaded bourgeois inhabitants revealed, in Benjamin’s hands, the triumph of fetishized commodities in the modern city. Paris was “the capital of the nineteenth century,” and Benjamin was fascinated by the way its streets and arcades apotheosized fashion and novelty. The newness of a commodity, he observed, was independent of either its use value or its exchange value. And yet in the arcades, novelty was everything.

Barragan’s method is a focused version of Benjamin’s, following the social life of a single commodity: gold. Her opening chapter explores the ways that gold has been mythologized in countless cultures across centuries. To the Inca it was divine sweat; to Nahuatl-speakers in Mexico, the excrement of the sun god, Tonatiuh; the Kedang people of the Indonesian archipelago imagine gold as semen; the Brahmapurāna counsels that “without gold nothing is possible, people are dead even while living.” She reminds us of the golden “Mask of Agamemnon” so ambitiously promoted by Heinrich Schliemann, and recounts French Renaissance writer Charles Perrault’s earthy folktale about a donkey who poops gold. Her grapeshot anthropology shows just how universal human fascination with gold is, and how equally widespread suspicion of it has been.

It’s the combination of extraordinary malleability and longevity that reconciles, in the human imagination, gold’s filth to gold’s allure. John Locke, one recalls, wove gold’s durability into his theory of the origin of human society. Mankind overcame spoilage — nature’s leveling constraint on excessive private accumulation — by means of “a little piece of yellow metal, which would keep without wasting or decay.” The result, for Locke, was nothing less than permanent inequality and the rise of states. Its durability gives gold the shimmer of immortality, and Barragan shows us that the Greeks of the archaic age were not the only people to fashion death masks from gold. In southern China, in the central Philippines, on the island of Java, in Egypt, Colombia, and Peru, golden death masks have carried human individuality into the hereafter. Her own death mask? She unwittingly began piecing it together as a teenager, starting with “the golden Yesenia,” a necklace whose pendant was her own name in gold, a gift from her mother to encourage and commemorate her high school graduation. The necklace became almost a companion, something to be proud of in the working-class dreariness of Hackensack, New Jersey — an identity and a promise. Over the years she added to it, accumulating “more and more little bits and pieces of the mask […] baptismal earrings here, a ring there.” We allow gold to stand in for our memories and our dreams.

Barragan’s actors are not Benjamin’s. She is not interested in the bourgeois and the flâneur, but in the downwardly mobile — an Arcades Project of austerity’s wreckage. The book opens in Spain and closes in Greece — arguably the two Eurozone populations most affected by debt, the financial crisis, and Frankfurt remedies. In Spain, Barragan interviews both “the compro oro guys” (cash-for-gold street hawkers) and those forced to sell to them. We are not surprised to find that compro oro guys are not “the architects of the crisis,” but its go-between stewards. Often they are immigrants, often from South America, often Afro-Latino; with standing orders not to discuss the business they advertise.

Like the vendors, customers are reticent. Those who find Madrid’s Puerta del Sol neighborhood to sell their gold and make the month’s rent exhibit, above all other emotions, shame. People only visit cash-for-gold shops when they have no alternative to sacrificing their memories to the market. Though their prevalence proves this level of desperation is now commonplace, for many the decision remains as humiliating as it is painful. “Pues, it’s like going to the psychologist, or better yet the soup kitchen […]. You don’t tell people that you need to go, because you’re ashamed, so we never know who among us has been.” As of 2012 there were 15,000 cash-for-gold shops in Spain.

In Greece, Barragan shows us the rise of the serendipitously or ominously named Golden Dawn party, the Greek Nazi movement that managed to send three delegates to the European Parliament in 2014. We read as if with a hushed voice when Barragan and her partner, fellow author and historian Mark Bray, explore neighborhoods where Golden Dawn is popular, and the gold talismans on display in storefronts include keychains with the party’s meander symbol — a kind of Greek swastika. Unfortunately we see little of Syriza, the anti-austerity coalition that surprised everyone by winning national elections in January. But we do get to meet the anarchists and activists who have galvanized Greeks’ confrontation with Frankfurt and their own compliant government — and perhaps that is better. Despite brilliant and bold analysis by Syriza finance minister Yanis Varoufakis, the Syriza government was forced in February talks to accept German deadlines Varoufakis characterized as “inhuman.” Young activists anticipated the capitulation, and never demobilized. They continue even now to pressure the Syriza government from the left.

But it is in the chapter titled “At the Bottom of the Mine” that Barragan’s constellation of present and past finally takes shape, and we understand for the first time how the narrow commodity specialization of Europe’s cash-for-gold shops illuminates the broader neoliberal crisis. The author leaves Europe behind for Spanish colonial Colombia, long one of the world’s most productive gold-mining regions. It was here that Spanish conquerors pursued “El Dorado” (contrary to popular belief not a city, but the rumor of a king ritually painted head-to-toe with gold dust and submerged in a lake). Throughout Colombia’s history, both before and after independence, African slaves performed virtually all the labor in the mines that fed the first global commercial networks. Barragan introduces us, for example, to one Rosalia de los Santos, who bit by bit saved 400 pesos worth of gold dust to purchase her own freedom and that of her daughter. (Spain’s Catholic monarchy required slaves be baptized and offered a route to manumission, though in practice this was impossible for all but a few.) Barragan forces us to think about gold’s quintessential durability and malleability, as it carries us backward and forward in time:

Soon, the gold dust would acquire a new life of its own, from the gold mines or rivers of Chocó, into the hands of Rosalia, perhaps to an overseer, then to her master Don Antonio, carried off by a local merchant, by boat or overland if the rainy season wasn’t especially heavy, eventually making its way to the port city of Cartagena, where it would be shipped off to London or Paris, melted away, finally sent off to …

But would the gold dust remember Rosalia […]? Or would it try to forget?

The long, hot hours at the river. The drops of sweat. The lash. The screams of terror. […] The unbearable desire to forget everything and nothing at once. Is it possible? They’re all there, trapped inside each gold dust particle […].

The gold outlasts the memory of the violence that produced it, and reaches out into the future to entrance and enslave new generations, oblivious to its past, in new ways. Gold may not be the architect of personal, family, or community crisis, but it surely is a steward.

Barragan writes in a deliberately open, conversational voice. There is nothing of Benjamin’s hermeticism in her. Selling Our Death Masks constructs its mosaic of images so that the reader can experience what one owner of seven cash-for-gold shops in Rome described with inadvertent precision: “Business is very good, you can really feel the crisis.” But feeling the crisis means seeing the past as well as the present. “The true picture of the past flits by,” as Benjamin wrote in Theses on the Philosophy of History:

For every image of the past that is not recognized by the present as one of its own concerns threatens to disappear irretrievably. […] To articulate the past historically […] means to seize hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger. […] [E]ven the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he wins.

We never read the words “commodity fetishism” here, but by the end of the book we understand implicitly what the phrase means. Trusting commodities to embody our hopes and memories while forgetting the lives and loves destroyed in their making is capitalism’s formula for helpless oblivion. The “social relation between [people] assumes […] the fantastic form of a relation between things.” We are surprised and ashamed that it has come to this — to auctioning our treasures and gifts for money in order to live — because we fail to recognize that the illusion of a free market has always depended on masking the atrocities that sustain it. We should feel outrage rather than embarrassment.

At times, Barragan’s effort to let the past and present appear and speak for themselves could leave the reader wishing for more explicit and sustained analysis. We sometimes miss the historian’s bird’s-eye view of global structures and connections, of causes and effects, of the arteries connecting the capillaries of power. She offers few such synthetic pronouncements. But in the age of austerity, perhaps no author should assume that readers can spare more than a few hours and a few passing glimpses, and must instead hope, as Benjamin did, that the constellation’s emotional immediacy awakens political consciousness. It may be that anything systematic by definition belongs to the status quo, and to the few who want it protected. This book was not written for them.


Eric Frith is a doctoral candidate in Latin American history at Columbia University, and assistant professor of history at the US Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs.

LARB Contributor

Eric Frith is a doctoral candidate in Latin American history at Columbia University, and assistant professor of history at the US Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. His research focuses on the history of political and economic thought in Europe and Latin America, and the emergence of the economy as a distinct field of knowledge. He also writes about religion and politics in the modern world, and has begun work on a history of suicide.


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