Mexican Workers Among the Trapped in Utah

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Three of the miners still trapped in the Utah mine collapse are from the state of Sinaloa in Mexico. Mining companies from the United States recruit laborers from Mexico, luring them with high wages and a chance to come to America.


Three of the trapped miners are from Mexico, the state of Sinaloa. Agriculture is the primary source of income in the rural village of Zapotillo. But these days the town is relying more and more on money sent back by local men recruited to work the mines in Utah.

Reporter Michael O'Boyle went there and visited the miners' hometown.

MICHAEL O'BOYLE: For at least two generations, men from here and other nearby villages have been heading north to seek their fortunes in Utah's mines.

Twenty-three-year-old Juan Carlos Payan is a native of this town. He is among the miners swallowed by the Crandall Canyon mine collapse. Victor Payan is Juan Carlos's uncle.

Mr. VICTOR PAYAN (Uncle): (Through translator) Many times I asked him why are you there down in the mines? You didn't have to live this way. You didn't have a wife to support. But he said he was making some real money there. He wanted to help his parents. We never thought this misfortune would happen.

O'BOYLE: As he speaks, Payan's eyes filled with tears. He was also a miner when he was younger. The dollars he and his brother earned digging coal bought them a tractor and a small cattle herd. Eventually they made enough to end their trips north.

Zapotillo is made up of several hundred homes along unpaved roads. Men who work the fields here can hope to earn the equivalent of $50 or $60 a week. In the mines, they can make more than $20 an hour. The draw of such wages has been draining the town of its families. Many of the homes are boarded up and abandoned.

Apolonio Acosta(ph) has two sons working in the mines.

Mr. APOLONIO ACOSTA (Father): (Through translator) I wish they had come back. But here they would suffer more. Up there, there is always plenty of work. But here there isn't enough. All I can do is tell them to be careful.

O'BOYLE: Down the road, 24-year-old Ulysses Bueno(ph), relaxes with his family. Outside the home are fine trucks and a trampoline for the kids, bought with cash from up north. Bueno is Juan Carlos Payan's cousin. And the two grew up together. Bueno recently came back from Utah, where he worked in another mine near the town of Price.

Mr. LUIS BUENO (Miner): (Through translator) The truth is, I go there for the work, not because I like living there. You miss Mexico, but there are times when you forget about home, when you are doing well and enjoying yourself. But when things like this happen, you want to come back.

(Soundbite of singing)

O'BOYLE: Some 40 miles away in the state capital of Culiacan, relatives of Jose Luis Hernandez gathered at a mass in a small Catholic church to pray for a miracle. Hernandez is another of the three Mexican miners buried in the collapse. The third is from Chihuahua. After mass, kids play in the churchyard. Hernandez's cousin, Zydar Rodriguez(ph), said the family were still clinging to hope.

Ms. ZYDAR RODRIGUEZ (Jose Luis Hernandez's Cousin): (Through translator) I can't imagine yet that something has happened to him. I still have hope to see him alive.

O'BOYLE: Crises like this are made more difficult by the family members' legal status. According to the Crandall Mine, their workers are legal. But the men of Sinaloa say they have found work without papers in other Utah mines.

Ms. RODRIGUEZ: (Through translator) Almost everyone is up there now. We miss them so much at times like Christmas. Before, they came home more often. It wasn't so hard to cross the border. But now that it's more difficult, they just stay.

O'BOYLE: Despite increased border security, the waves of migration aren't likely to end any time soon.

(Soundbite of video game)

O'BOYLE: Back in Zapotillo, Melvin Parra(ph) sits behind the wheel of a video arcade game, Cruisin' USA. He's hanging out at a grocery shop on the edge of town. Parra has just turned 18 and says he too will soon go up to the mines.

Mr. MELVIN PARRA: (Through translator) Here you only make enough to eat. You can never get enough money together to buy a car or a house. I have the dream to go up there and see what I can do. I'm willing to do anything. I'm not afraid.

O'BOYLE: Parra stops and takes a look out at the field stretching to the foothills. He turns back to his video game and races on down the California highway.

For NPR News, I'm Michael O'Boyle in Sinaloa, Mexico.

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