click to enlarge image

Holding The Line: Women In The Great Arizona Mine Strike

Chapter 1: The Devil’s Domain

Flossie Navarro is a sturdy woman, strong-boned and handsome, with a lightness in her bearing that has stood up to some seventy years of living a rock-hard life. Those years have neither dulled her mind nor dented her will. She says she isn’t leaving Clifton, Arizona—not now, and not ever. There has been talk of moving people out, but she and her husband Ed, are permanently settled here in their weathered-white frame house on the floodplain of the San Francisco River.

But back in 1944, when she left her family farm in Arkansas and struck out for Arizona, Flossie was footloose and on her own. She’d heard that the copper mines out west were hiring women to keep the smelter fires burning while the men were away fighting World War II. The rumors proved true: the Phelps Dodge Mining Company promptly hired her on at the mine of her choice. With a trace of lingering homesickness, she picked the one near Clifton because someone told her—when she asked—that of all the Arizona mines, that one was the closest to Arkansas.

The next day she embarked on the career of her life. “I did anything,” she says. “I’d get a shovel and shovel, push a wheelbarrow, load that wheelbarrow and dump it on a belt, whatever they said. I was raised on a farm, and we girls did everything there was to do on a farm, but not necessarily like that. It was hard work, and when we went to the bucket room where they run the samples, it was extra-hard work. We’d have to stand and collect mud and water and put it in a bucket for eight hours straight. On our shift it was all women, except for the floorwalkers.”

A floorwalker, according to Flossie, is a man who “noses around and sees what he can find out to go tell people to get them in trouble.” These were the only men she ever saw in the concentrator and the ball mill. She declares simply, “Those women kept that mine going.”

Even so, the women who walked to work every morning in their coveralls, hairnets, and hard hats, telling jokes and swinging their lunch buckets, were tugging at the moorings of the status quo. Clifton was a traditional Catholic town where a woman’s world was quietly but firmly defined by the walls of her home. Those who worked in the mine were considered unwomanly at best, and at worst, unladylike. Some people hinted that they were prostitutes. It didn’t slow Flossie down. “Well, sure, the men would call you a nasty name, but you’d learn how to call them one back, and go ahead. I always said if I wanted to go and do such things I would sure find a nicer place to do them than in the muck and the water on that ball mill floor!”

The notion that women don’t belong in a mine still persists in the copper pits of Arizona and is just as likely to surface on the iron range of Minnesota or the Kentucky coal fields. In fact, the exclusion of women from mines is a tradition probably as old as mining itself, rooted in the mineral-rich soils of the Andes, where the Incas opened mines before European ships ever reached the shores of the western hemisphere. To this day, the miners of the Bolivian altiplano divide their world into two domains. The world of agricultural production, home, and family is overseen by Pachamama, a benevolent earth mother with an eye for continuity; the stony underground world, carved out by a hundred generations of miners seeking copper, tin, and silver, is the devil’s domain.

Anthropologists who scour the world for pockets of ancient lore are unlikely to find a devil older than this one, whose name is Supay. He has ruled miners’ lives from underneath their floors since before the Spanish conquest, and his age hasn’t weakened his influence. When the mine shafts rumble and threaten to collapse, the miners assume it is Supay begrudging the ore they tap, little by little, from his glittering black veins.

The mountain town of Oruro, in the heart of the Bolivian mining region, was the ancient ceremonial center for the Incas. The high priests allegedly traveled from Peru through tunnels, passing secretly under the core of the Andes, and in full ceremonial dress leaped out of the ground in Oruro. The tunnel’s mouth is blocked with boulders now, but the festivals celebrating the powers of Supay and Pachamama are still honored there, unaltered by centuries. During the week of Carnival, Devil Dancers in red-tipped shoes and horned masks jam the streets in a wild procession leading to the Church of the Mine Shaft. The festivities end with a ceremonial offering to Supay, held deep in the mine—where women can’t go.

More than anything, the devil’s domain is masculine, not just on Carnival days but on every working day of the year. June Nash, in her book We Eat the Mines, the Mines Eat Us, says that women in Bolivia may earn subsistence wages by picking through the slag heaps for overlooked bits of ore, but mining itself, the central economic pursuit of the region, is closed to them. According to persistent tradition, a female presence in this special corner of hell would anger Supay terribly and cause a cave-in. If a woman went into the mines, disaster would follow her.

The people of Oruro say their world wasn’t always organized this way. Originally they were agrarian people like their northern neighbors in Guatemala, who still ask the earth’s forgiveness for wounding her before they plant their seeds. But when the Incas came to the altiplano and forced the farmers into mining labor, Pachamama’s earth and the subterranean world parted asunder, like some oddly vertical version of the Red Sea. Before this, there was no hell.

So the strict male-female dichotomy of Pachamama and Supay was already established in legend and in fact by the time the Spaniards reached Oruro in 1535. Ancient tradition has gradually been overlaid with a Catholic veneer, but the European conquerors had no reason to change the underlying beliefs that admitted only men into economic productivity.

In the open-pit mine in Morenci, Arizona, the steady motion of mechanized shovels raises a yellow haze of fine dust. Yielding 290,000 tons of metal in a good year, it is the most productive copper mine in North America. The smokestacks of the copper smelter rise like a pair of giant horns out of the mountain’s granite pate. Below the horned promontory, the earth’s entrails are laid open in a pattern of circular, descending steps, exposing the strangely delicate colors of a mountain’s insides: lavender, pink, and blue-gray. If the miners who work there are in the belly of a beast, gutting it a little more deeply every day, then the beast is as tough as Prometheus, the fire thief in Greek mythology whose punishment was to be disemboweled every day for eternity. The twin stacks of the Morenci mine have stood over this scarred landscape for decades.

Around the mine and in the river valley below it lie the ordinary mining towns of Morenci and Clifton. Each has its high school, its main drag, its dust-coated, blinking neon signs, and its sundry collection of bars and drive-in restaurants. Nowhere could one be less inclined to look for vestiges of Andean tradition: no devil dances in these streets. But the germinal social order of Oruro that predates all other mining traditions in the New World seems to have influenced much of what has come after, even in Clifton and Morenci. A mine is a masculine enclave, not just in the Andes, and not just in Latin America—the exact same social prescriptions surface wherever the earth is scratched. Flossie Navarro heard many a time that female workers would jinx the mine. When women began working the Appalachian coal mines in the late 1970s, they confronted a centuries-old folk belief that a woman underground was bad luck and could cause a cave-in merely by her presence.

Excerpt from Holding the Line: Women in the Great Arizona Mine Strike of 1983. Copyright © 1989 by Barbara Kingsolver. All rights reserved.