A friend from my Summit County days, still living in the Colorado mountains, dangled the prospect of a job that would pay three times as much as I was making in Denver: working in an underground mine. So depressing was my employment situation in the city that I was willing to take another stab at mountain living. I rejoined my friend, who was now living in Leadville, Colorado. I couldn’t imagine a town with a duller name, and I was oblivious to the fact that this name was inspired by a neurotoxin that was poisoning American children who accidentally ate sweet-tasting chips of lead-based paint. Although Leadville played a significant role in Colorado’s history, I had no interest in learning about it. I was back in the mountains only for the big bucks, and identification with the adventure, romance, and manliness of what was commonly regarded as a very risky occupation was a bonus. Despite no experience, I was hired as a molybdenum miner, often working the same shift as my friend at a place on nearby Fremont Pass known as Climax.
Unlike the ski resort of Breckenridge, where I saw virtually no Latinos, at Climax I worked with dozens of them. They were overwhelmingly male and commuted from Leadville and the more distant towns of Buena Vista and Salida.
Prior to my arrival in Leadville, a young Latino with whom I worked at the shipping clerk job in Denver had managed to sour me, albeit all out of proportion, on his culture. Tossing his voluminous shag cut, he strutted around the warehouse in his platform shoes and bell-bottoms, insisting I look at wallet photos of all the Latinas he had bedded―an annoying, cock-of-the-walk, urban Latino giving me my first taste of the toxic Latin masculinity known as machismo. For the most part, however, I liked the Climax Latinos, for they were like everyone else who worked underground: basically happy, humble, and skilled union men who made very good wages, playfully taunted the (non-union) shift bosses, owned homes, and drove new cars and pickup trucks. Buried beneath hard hats, headlamps, ear protectors, thermal underwear, jeans, flannel shirts, rubber gloves, rubber boots, “self-rescuers” (emergency portable oxygen sources), and rain jackets and pants (the pneumatic rock drills showered water to keep the bits cool and suppress silicosis-causing dust), they shuffled and waddled through the caves and drifts like every other similarly dressed and accoutered miner. Swallowed in total darkness, we were all one underground, each equally subject to a twisted ankle or the random plummet of a rock.
Like my erstwhile urban co-worker, some of the Climax Latinos were undoubtedly given to machismo, but I only saw it exhibited once during the eight months I worked at the mine. And it was nasty. One morning, as a bunch of us were headed from the parking lot to the “dry,” the building in which miners clocked in, got their gear, and prepared to descend into the guts of Bartlett Mountain, one burly hombre in a group of muchachos, walking immediately behind a Latina I’d seen working underground, cooed, “A beeg ass for a beeg man!”. The woman smiled slightly without turning around. I was certain she’d heard the remark. I had no idea what she was feeling, but the remark disgusted me. Sure, I reveled in my perceived manliness and courage as a miner, but I had an older sister who taught me to respect women, and this controlling creep made me ashamed of and embarrassed for my gender. Yet I said nothing to him, for he was indeed “beeg,” “beeger,” in fact, than I. And, shy and verbally inept as I was in such a situation, I said nothing to the woman after we had all dispersed at the entrance to the dry.