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More Hispanics Are Working Utah's Mines

By GARANCE BURKE
The Associated Press
Thursday, August 9, 2007; 11:23 PM

HUNTINGTON, Utah -- The Utah mining accident has illustrated the way increasing numbers of Hispanic immigrants are working the mines in this heavily white, mostly Mormon state.

Three of the six men trapped in Monday's cave-in are from Mexico, according to the Mexican Consulate.

"People come here because they know that there's enough work to go around," said Salvador Lazalde, a local Hispanic leader whose cousins work in a nearby open-pit copper mine and who worries that one of the trapped miners is from his hometown, a village in the Mexican state of Zacatecas. "If the pay is good, people say the risk is worth it. They know that starting the job."

Exactly how many Hispanics are working the mines in Utah is not clear. But as the global coal market has heated up, some mining companies across the West have filled a rash of new jobs in recent years with immigrants from Mexico.

Immigrants are often more willing to settle for low wages and accept the dangers involved in digging coal thousands of feet beneath the surface.

Little is known about the trapped miners. But relatives have confirmed the names of five of them to The Associated Press: Manuel Sanchez, 41; Kerry Allred, in his late 50s; Carlos Payan, in his early 20s; Don Erickson, no age available; and Brandon Phillips, no age available.

The Mexican Consulate in Salt Lake City had no information on their hometowns. Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman said he was told by the consulate that the Mexican miners are legal immigrants.

Sanchez's sister said Wednesday that relatives had not been given enough information about the rescue efforts, and that three Spanish-speaking families were not provided an interpreter in the first three days of the crisis.

"We've provided translators for the Hispanic families and crisis counselors," said Bob Murray, chairman of Murray Energy Corp., part-owner of the mine. "We've kept them sequestered and I feel we've administered to their needs very much."

The influx of Hispanics is part of a dynamic that has been going on in Utah since pioneer days.

Chinese, Greek and Mexican miners first flocked to Utah _ and other Western states like Montana and Wyoming _ in the 1880s, lured by work in the coalfields. They settled in mining centers like Emery County, a region of towering red and brown rock formations that is now home to many of the workers in the collapsed mine.

A new wave of immigrants _ many of them believed to be illegal _ came to Utah when the coal industry started booming again.

"A lot of these coal miners are trained and knowledgeable miners," said Ricardo Silva, a community activist who volunteers with the Utah Coalition for La Raza and Jobs with Justice. "They need a job and they'll do anything for it, including working in these really dangerous conditions."

The number of Hispanics in Utah grew from about 200,000 in 2000 to about 230,000 in 2005, constituting 11 percent of the state's population, according to Census figures.

University of Utah demographer Pam Perlich said that as of 2000, Hispanics accounted for about 7 percent of Utah's mining-industry work force of 8,150.

By June of this year, about 11,000 people were working in Utah's mining industry, according to the state Department of Workforce Services. Economists said they believe the percentage of Hispanics in mining has grown over the past few years, but that data is not collected at the state or federal level.

"The fact that half of the trapped workers are Latino tells us a lot about the mining industry," said Theresa Martinez, a sociologist at the university. "I would hope that people come to terms with the fact that we have fuel and energy because of those mines and that may be thanks to men and women who are considered illegal aliens."

Even with starting salaries as low as $8 an hour, Mexican miners are still sending thousands of dollars back home to pave streets and build church steeples through groups like one Lazalde named for his village. It is called the Club Santa Rosa, named for a region where residents have mined the silver ore for generations.

On Tuesday, at a Spanish-language Mass where families gathered to pray and console one another, some mining families wondered quietly if they would now have to pool the money they send home for a funeral.

"I just wish there was more we could do to help," said Jose Salazar, a Mexican immigrant, after an invocation to the Virgin of Guadalupe.

© 2007 The Associated Press