Yesterday, April 22, 2014, I watched as many as 600 men in their thirties and forties march down the middle of Hidalgo, Guanajuato’s one road in the bottom of the canyon that holds the small city. They were robust young men, and for that reason I guessed they were miners. I remarked to my partner that what we were seeing meant there must be something like a general strike in the surrounding mines—at least for that day. My partner read a banner and said, “They are commemorating seven miners, from seventy-seven years ago,” and then I knew what it was about.
To explain, I have summarized an article by Alfonso Ochoa in the Guanajuato newspaper Correo, from April 22, 2013.
Seventy-seven years ago, on April 22, 1937, seven labor organizers left the Cubo mine—an area I have visited several times—drove across the treeless ridges toward Guanajuato and were stopped by another car. Gunmen got out and shot the organizers down, finishing them off with a single bullet to the head, un tiro de gracia, a coup de grace. The names of the murdered men were: Reynaldo Ordaz, J. Jesús Fonseca, Juan Anguiano, Antonio Vargas, Simón Soto and Antonio García y Luis Chávez. The official story was that roving bandits had done it. The miners’ companions said the mine manager, a Mr. Quinn, had ordered it.
One source repeated what his grandmother Jovita Salazar had told him: that a certain “El Cojo” Severiano was in her store with a group of rough-looking men, watching for the departure of the labor organizers. When “El Cojo” saw the organizers leave, he told her something like “Ahora sí ya nos vamos, yo creo que ya va a estar el mole,” something like “Things are going just the way we want them.” And then they left, too, following the organizers’ car.
While the organizers were being murdered, a truck with men, women and children drove by, witnessing everything. The mine management wanted to crush efforts at organizing, an activity that was necessary because conditions in the mine was terribly dangerous because of unnecessary cave-ins and the lack of ventilation—which meant miners suffered terribly from silicosis by breathing particles hanging in the air.
Some time later, a miner by the name of Vicente Uribe managed to murder Mr. Quinn at the Dolores Mine. The union whisked Uribe off to Mexico City and hid him there, protecting him from the authorities—who, it was said, accepted the murder of union organizers but not of American mine managers. As the story goes, American President Roosevelt complained to Mexican President Lázaro Cárdenas that miners had murdered an American mine manager, and Lázaro Cárdenas had replied that the American-controlled mine had murdered seven Mexicans.
If you go to Cubo today, in the town’s modest plaza you can see the mounted seven bronze busts of the murdered miners. Conditions have not changed a great deal in the intervening years. The new owners are Canadians, not Americans. Miners still work long hours with low pay. Ventilation has improved but miners still suffer from dust particle illnesses. They still wear soft-toed rubber boots that expose them to crushing injuries. The mine owners do not equip them with emergency breathing kits that should be hanging around their waists. One day a year, the Día de las Flores, the mine owners serve free ice cream to the miners’ children. And year after year, the miners march down Guanajuato’s main street, Hidalgo, refusing to forget what happened to their fathers and grandfathers seventy-seven years ago.
Update: My former Spanish teacher, the wonderful Carolina Rodriguez, told me yesterday what her cousin’s grandfather told her cousin: that the seventh man—who was not a miner—had hitched a ride in the doomed car and was murdered along with the rest of the men.
For more on Guanajuato’s mining culture, please read my short story “Underground Amphibians” on this blog. Simply go to the search box on the front page of the blog and write in that title.