Mexican writer Yuri Herrera is mostly known for works of fiction, but his latest release is his first non-fiction book. A Silent Fury is an investigation into a mine fire in 1920 Pachuca, Mexico—Herrera’s hometown—that claimed the lives of 87 workers. Herrera uses official documents to piece together what happened in the mine, and the events that followed. His descriptions seem almost clinical at the start, with little traceable emotion between the words as he recounts what the documents say in a straight-forward manner. However, as he writes, the reader begins to see what is not there in these historical pages. As the book progresses, Herrera reveals what little was done, how much was erased. Then I could see how truly scathing Herrera’s words are, and how they nearly tremble with rage.
“Silence is not the absence of history, it’s a history hidden beneath shapes that must be deciphered.”
Herrera explores silence throughout the book, because so much of what is not said in the documents can be easily inferred. And the story is a tale as old as time, really. A tale we hear over and over again, that I see in the modern landscape repeatedly, these one hundred years later. The El Bordo mine was owned by a United States company, the administrators made decisions in the interest of the mine’s profitability, not its workers. And it would seem, as demonstrated by some of Herrera’s court documents, the presiding judge also worked in favor of the company. The judge ruled for the mine to be cleaned before the fire investigated, and therefore no true reason for the fire came to light. Nobody was held accountable.
I’m writing from my house, the place I’ve been mostly secluded since March, venturing out only for grocery store runs or walks around the neighborhood with my kid. I’m writing from the United States, the country where a news story came out this week about it hitting the highest daily record of coronavirus cases. Where our president has done no form of leading with intention to save people from a disease that will likely kill them. His intentions are always about power and making money. A mask, an easy deterrent from spreading the disease, has become politicized. This morning I watched a video of a woman in a grocery store, screaming at everyone for not letting her shop without a mask. She threw her grocery basket in indignation. This president, leading by example, and this woman, do not think of anyone but themselves. They certainly are not thinking about the Black and brown people who are dying at a disproportionately higher rate, who are doing most of the ‘essential business’ work like at that grocery store.
You’d think the tie to modern-day would be the fact that the deadly influenza epidemic was mentioned several times in the book. But, no.
The administrators of the U.S.-owned mine were not thinking about their miners. They were thinking about how long that mine would have to be closed before they could get workers back in there, mining for more metal to make more money. They made the decision to close off and seal the exits to the mine within hours in order to contain the fire faster, sentencing 87 people to certain death. There were seven survivors, found days after, when the exits were unsealed. The seven who survived were photographed after being treated and cleaned at the hospital, and from this photograph Herrera’s title comes, because he writes:
“They don’t look like they just escaped from hell: their week of underground starvation is not reflected in their expressions or on their bodies, with the exception of one, the first man on the left, who seems to betray a silent fury: lips clamped together, brows arched. But, again, no one recorded what they thought or felt at that moment.”
While the photograph was not included in the book, I searched high and low for it—I had to see this face, and I’m sure Herrera stared at it intently while writing. Herrera continues by exploring the silence that seeps through this incident’s history. The silencing of the victims that survived, the silencing of those that died. The bodies never made it to the hospital and the judge decreed them buried in a mass grave. There were still a few never identified. This decision robbed the families of the poor workers a traditional burial, and the families of the victims were further demoralized by having to prove they were even related, this amidst their grief. There’s an entire section of the book also called “The Women’s Fire” about the impoverished grandmothers of teenage victims, the wives, the unmarried girlfriends whose relationships were subject to scrutiny by authorities.
Herrera’s words, translated from the Spanish by Lisa Dillman, puncture the page with precision. He deftly makes his case, with little speculation and nothing but reconstruction of facts. The gaping holes of the story are alluded to and feel just as present as what is known. Those crevices are filled with the ringing echoes of what we all have always understood: those in power seek to protect the powerful and themselves. They create worlds in which they can easily silence those with opposing views. They go on, accumulating wealth on the backs of workers, and leave their misdeeds to fade into innocuousness with the passing of time. A hundred years later, and Herrera will remind you that it’s never too late to relook at history, and A Silent Fury will make sure you remember.
A Silent Fury: The El Bordo Mine Fire
By Yuri Herrera
Translated from the Spanish by Lisa Dillman
120 pages. 2020.