Mexican women defy taboos, prejudice to work in mines


Chihuahua (Mexico) : Two hundred women have overcome male chauvinism and superstition to carve out a niche – albeit tiny – in Mexico's expanding mining industry, reports the Spanish news agency EFE.

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Resistance to females in mining springs both from the sexism that remains rampant in Mexico and from miners' lore, which holds that mines entered by women will experience accidents or see their mineral deposits run out.

Old-timers say such calamities occur when the feminine spirit that inhabits the mine reacts with jealousy to the presence of female rivals.

The president of the Mexican Mining Association, Xavier Garcia de Quevedo, said the country's entire mining industry, with a workforce of 279,000, employs a maximum of 200 women.

The first mining company to promote the employment of women was Peñoles, which began training women 10 years ago at La Herradura, located in the northern state of Sonora and is Mexico's largest open-pit gold mine.

Garcia de Quevedo said women had lower levels of absenteeism, alcoholism and accidents than men, leading the Mexican mining industry to welcome them "with enthusiasm".

One industry success story is Panamerican Silver's Alamo Dorado mine, also in Sonora, where 40 percent of the workers are female.

The trade association executive said, moreover, that since 400,000 people emigrated from Mexico each year, the majority of them men looking for work in the US, the mining industry provided an opportunity for women left behind to "improve their quality of life".

One example of this is El Sauzal, a mine in the northern state of Chihuahua owned by Canada's Goldcorp that employs 38 women.

In the middle of the Tarahumara Mountains, a region full of small isolated towns, the mine employs locals in its gold production operations.

Denise Castro, who started out as an assistant in the tool room after having a baby, works at El Sauzal.

The 23-year-old Castro drives cargo trucks and works as a welder, and she says no one in her family has criticized her for working at the mine because they know she is "courageous".

Castro said the work environment was positive and she had not experienced "machismo", although her male co-workers urged her to take off her overalls so a group of reporters could see what a great figure she had, something she refused to do.

Montserrat, a woman who lives in the nearby town of Batopilas, said she traveled five hours on horseback to get to El Sauzal, where she works with explosives and drills, putting in 12-hour shifts like the rest of her co-workers.

The gold mine's female employees, who work 14 days straight and then rest for seven, also drive huge $1 million trucks that can carry 100 tonnes.

Flor Portillo, 26, has been driving one of these behemoths for four months, having previously worked in the mining complex's cafeteria.

The young woman, who earns 4,000 pesos ($360) a month, said she found it easy to get along with the men and was happy because all the employees worked together and treated her well.

Sergio Martinez, the security director at El Sauzal, said the women "are more careful with the equipment assigned to them" and improved the work environment at the mine.

Brasilia Luna, director of community development at Naica, the largest lead mine in Mexico, told EFE that the women who work in the mines generally do so because their husbands also work there.

Naica, which is owned by Peñoles, is located next to its namesake town of 5,000 residents, a community that is still "closed", Luna said.

As a result, only about 20 women work at the mine, and the majority of the men do not allow their wives to work there because they prefer that they stay home and care for the children.

"There are problems with jealousies and rumours spread easily between the men and the women who work in the mine," Luna said.

For this reason, the women who work at Naica and in the majority of the mines in Mexico must have "a strong temperament", she said.