“A Silent Fury,” translated from Spanish by Lisa Dillman, is Herrera’s fourth book but his first work of nonfiction. By bringing moral exactitude to a story long silenced for American profit, “A Silent Fury” joins that most vital of canons, the literatures of witness.
In Pachuca, Mexico, in 1920, a subsidiary of the United States Smelting, Refining and Mining Company burned 80 workers alive.
They died with their hands raised to a sky they could not see. Kneeling. Searching for a way out through unyielding walls. Ever focused on production, the corporation had sealed the mineshafts to contain the fire and its financial damage.
With “A Silent Fury,” Herrera redresses what scholar and historian Saidiya Hartman has defined as the violence of the archive, which suppresses marginalized voices to produce an official record that contains a deafening silence, in this case constructed by a U.S. corporation, the Mexican judiciary and too many visiting journalists.
A few hours after the fire erupted, company administrators argued that no one could have survived the toxic gas levels within the mine, so a local judge, taking that false claim at face value, authorized the corporation to seal mineshafts that had been closed just “twenty minutes after the miners’ rescue began,” according to miner Delfino Rendón.
The shafts were sealed without sounding an alarm or verifying the number of missing men. Instead, the logbooks were “rectified” to support the company’s tally of 10 dead.
Six days later, authorities entered the mine and found seven survivors, starving and afraid, among 80 charred and scattered bodies, which would be buried in a mass grave without the honor of funeral processions that might have rallied the town against this corporate atrocity.
Instead, the relatives and loved ones of these dead indigenous miners were interrogated about their familial bonds, the women cross-examined for their morality, requiring male neighbors to sacrifice workdays to attest to their good names and real losses.
“It did cross some people’s minds that perhaps the Company was in some way responsible for the tragedy,” Herrera writes. “But the journalists sent by El Universal and Excélsior made sure to discredit any doubts raised and point their fingers at the miners instead.”
Parroting the company line, journalists spread rumors that the miners themselves caused the fire; these “correspondents” praised the company for offering to compensate the bereaved.
Reading against the grain of official documents, defining what is there by what is not, Herrera bears witness to a crime that preceded his birth by 50 years.
The official report, generated by a government inspector who descended into the mines after the company had already cleaned and repaired much of the damage, found everything in good working order and “no crime to prosecute nor any person who might be held criminally responsible.”
Herrera shines in the details, whether his ekphrastic reading of the scant photographic records or his accounting of the instructions the inspector did not receive from the judge. “He did not instruct him to find out why there was so great a discrepancy in the numbers of dead miners given,” Herrera notes. “He did not instruct him to try to find out how many other people could have been alive when the shafts were sealed.”
Repeating, without evidence, the theory that a worker caused the fire, the report does not contain “the slightest suggestion that someone could be held accountable for the deaths caused by the sealing of the shafts while miners were still alive inside.”
With “this story of murder, plunder, and the determination to escape oblivion,” Herrera resurrects a century of dead files to disclose that which is “palpable” in this mining community: “I am from Pachuca and I still don’t know exactly what this unspeakable crime — and those before it, and those that followed — did to us, but there’s something there.”
Something “more than resentment and conformity.” Something like “A Silent Fury,” its title a testament to the endurance of people “determined to remember” and with their memory resist racist brutality that protects corrupt governments and corporate property instead of human life.
Kristen Millares Young is the author of the novel “Subduction.”
A Silent Fury
The El Bordo Mine Fire
By Yuri Herrera; translated by Lisa Dillman
And Other Stories. 120 pp. $13.95