‘A Silent Fury’ Is an Act of Witness

What is to be done with a lacuna so obvious that it stands out like a spotlight? What does it mean for a government to have constructed an absence, a carefully wrought hole, a “persistent silence” full of “extraordinary omissions”? These are the questions that author Yuri Herrera asks in his most recent book, A Silent Fury: The El Bordo Mine Fire.  Herrera grew up in Actopan, Mexico, in a family “where the history of the mines and the stories of the miners were always present.” One of the oral memories he received from his family led him to an enormous silence: the state sanctioned cover-up of the death of at least 87 people in a fire inside the El Bordo mine in the district of Pachuca-Real del Monte, on March 10, 1920. 

Herrera admits on the first page that “traces of this history are few.” A lesser writer might have struggled with the lack of available information but Herrera weaves the scarcity in as an important aspect of the narrative itself, showing how the fragmentary nature of what was reported and recorded about this event is not at all accidental but rather an orchestrated act perpetrated by those with power. The lack of information about the tragedy is part of the tragedy. There was murder and there was a cover-up. Herrera confronts this cover-up head-on and uses it to develop an overarching narrative about state sanctioned violence that makes A Silent Fury an incredibly apt text for 2020. 

Out of the fragmentary scarcity and contradictions, Herrera builds a beautiful testament to truth. He does not dodge the fabrications of the state government and American businessmen who owned the mine, instead he lays them out side by side, opening the archive and showing the “judicial truth” as well as the oral accounts and all of the discrepancies between them. “Silence,” he writes, “is not the absence of history, it’s a history hidden beneath shapes that must be deciphered.”

It is this work of deciphering that Herrera manages so symphonically in A Silent Fury. He brings the silence to life and makes it speak, makes it sing. He parses the absence in a way that is not unlike the work of Anne Carson who claims “the word mute is regarded by linguists as an onomatopoeic formation referring not to silence but to a certain fundamental opacity of human being, which likes to show the truth by allowing it to be seen hiding.” The truth about the El Bordo mine fire is seen hiding throughout all of official documents and even, to this day, in the town itself. The truth — that at least 87 men lost their lives so that the mining company could seal off the fire and thereby curtail its financial losses — is recreated carefully and lovingly through Herrera’s research. 

Within its slim 104 pages, A Silent Fury contains a murder mystery, a historical reconstruction, an ekphrasis, an homage, and above all an act of witness. “The bells never rang,” the book begins, “the ones that were there expressly for that kind of event, even though, as the agent from the public prosecutor’s office noted months later, they were indeed functioning properly.” The tragedy begins with an absence, a silence, a set of bells that never rang. “There were some who later said they first smelled smoke at two o’clock in the morning, but it was at six that Delfino Rendón raised the cry of alarm.” Herrera turns the discrepancies into a looping chorus: two o’clock, six o’clock, seven o’clock, 400 people working, no, 346, 42 still inside, no only 10 dead. Meanwhile, the governor was “listening to classical music” and the mine owner was busy calculating exactly how much money would be lost. 

The entrance to the mine was the source of oxygen for the fire, and also of course for the miners left inside, but it was swiftly decided that the entrance must be sealed. When seven men emerged, alive, six days later, they were not heroes but rather errors, disproving the official statements regarding the possibility of surviving. Their suffering was written off as they were dehumanized in official documents that claimed that these men showed “indifference” and “disregard for life.” It didn’t matter that they had been buried alive because life did not mean the same thing to them as it did to the powerful man listening to classical music. 

Through the simple act of gathering together all possible information about these men, Herrera affirms the importance of their lives. He describes in careful detail the few photographs that exist and in doing so he demonstrates that the lacuna at the heart of the tragedy is entirely fabricated. There was not a lack of information at the time, the information was simply erased. Their humanity was actively erased, but by describing them, by taking note of every detail — their white shirts, hands in their laps, the resting of one man’s arm on another’s shoulder, their mustaches, arched eyebrows — Herrera brings their humanity back. 

The tragedy at El Bordo is reminiscent of the death stories from other extractive industry sites, the Upper Big Branch Mine collapse and of course the Hawk’s Nest Tunnel Disaster that occurred only eleven years after El Bordo and was eulogized in Muriel Rukeyser’s The Book of the Dead, but the resonation of the story that Herrera is telling is not limited to industrial tragedies, the work that he does to demonstrate complicity and the brilliant essaying on the true meaning of public monuments links A Silent Fury and the El Bordo incident to the state sanctioned violence we have all been grappling with this summer. This beautiful book is a brilliant testament to the breaking of silences and to acts of radical witnessing. 

NONFICTION
A Silent Fury: The El Bordo Mine Fire
By Yuri Herrera
And Other Stories
Published June 16, 2020