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, being children, had been for years eating the sweet-tasting chips of lead-based paint. Although Leadville, its colorless name notwithstanding, 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 dangerous occupation was a bonus. Despite no experience, I was hired as a molybdenum miner, working at a place on nearby Fremont Pass, 10 miles northeast of Leadville, called Climax.
At my job in the ski resort of Breckenridge, I had worked with no Latinos; today, I cannot recall engaging so much as a single Latino in Breckenridge’s various bars back then. The Climax mine, on the other hand, employed scores, if not hundreds, of them. They, too, wanted to make good money. They were overwhelmingly male and commuted from Leadville and the more distant towns of Buena Vista and Salida.
For the most part, I liked the Climax Latinos, for they were like everyone else who worked underground: basically happy, humble, and skilled union men who made extremely good wages, playfully taunted the 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 complete darkness, variously 300 to 600 feet underground, we were all one, each equally subject to a twisted ankle or the random plummet of a dangerous, if not deadly, rock.
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, insisted that I look at wallet photos of all the Latinas (he claimed) he had bedded. No soft-spoken, gentlemanly Eddie Espinosa, he was an annoying, cock-of-the-walk urban Latino giving me my first taste of the toxic Latin masculinity known as machismo.
There were undoubtedly Climax Latinos given to machismo, although I saw it exhibited only once during the eight months I worked at the mine. 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!”
I was certain the woman heard the remark. However, she simply smiled slightly without turning around. I had no idea what she was feeling, assumed she didn’t know the hombre. Today, feminists would likely characterize the remark as “controlling”; back then, the remark merely disgusted me. Sure, I reveled in my perceived bravado as a miner, but my sister had taught me to respect women, and this ape 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.