Just as xenophobic and racist responses have been triggered by the influx of undocumented workers from south of the border, full-fledged American citizens of Mexican descent have endured such hatred for more than a century. Hector Galan’s “Los Mineros,” a fascinating segment of “The American Experience” (at 9 tonight on Channels 28 and 15), invokes the battles of Mexican-American copper miners in Arizona as symbolic of this history.
It’s an extraordinary piece of human theater, played out against the stark backdrop of the desert landscape broken by clusters of miners’ shacks facing down on the giant Phelps-Dodge mining operation. (Galan’s raft of archival photographs scream out to be filmically re-created by David Lean.)
On one side of the town called Clifton-Morenci were the white workers, and on the other were los mineros , neither Mexican nor fully accepted as American. They suffered under a “dual-wage system,” in which white miners were paid at least twice as much as their Spanish-speaking co-workers, who also were forced into the most dangerous jobs.
Here are all the conditions for a violent workers’ overthrow of the bosses, but even when the anarchist IWW helped organize los mineros for a strike during World War I, any efforts to stop Phelps-Dodge’s exploitative policies were met with harsh measures. After this strike, for example, the company rounded up strikers into boxcars and drove the boxcars into the remote desert with no food or water.
It was the next war that brought Mexican-American men a new sense of identity--and a new will to demand their rights in a country they valiantly helped defend. Galan’s camera captures the passionate memories of living mineros veterans, such as Ed Montoya, whose Okinawa tale lends “Los Mineros” extraordinary moral power. Strangely, this same passion is missing from the narration by stage and film director Luis Valdez, who knows a thing or two about dramatic effect but seems to have forgotten it this time.