I had only known José for an hour when he implied I wasn’t a real woman.
“Women aren’t allowed in mines,” the self-taught, “artisanal” miner told me. “They scare away the gold.”
The thing is, we were far enough into the dank, rock-walled tunnel that the darkness had extinguished the sliver of sunlight from the mine’s only exit. Did he not know my gender? I’m tall – even by US standards – and was wearing a nerdy baseball hat to block the pounding coastal sun. But I’d like to think my femininity still shined through.
I’d followed José into the mine to get a better idea of what his work is like as an informal, essentially illegal, gold miner. His well-worn hammer and stake were tucked into his track pants, and his elastic-banded headlamp was the only light illuminating our path in the 5-foot-wide and 5-1/2-foot-high tunnel.
I’d spent the entire week leading up to this visit learning about the controversy around mineral mining in El Salvador, and had yet to meet anyone actually doing the work. There has been a de facto ban on mining since 2008, and many activists are pushing to make this small Central American country the first in the world to make mining illegal.
José and his ragtag team of five young men had already shown me how to test rock samples for gold. I’m not a natural prospector: The ground-up stone and water combinations all looked like muck to me. So we headed into the mine to see other steps in the process.
The first 10-foot stretch of the tunnel was supported by rough-cut wooden beams, and my feet sank in the mud near the entrance, where the air smelled like fresh rain.
As I moved deeper into the blackness, I could stand up a bit taller. The air was increasingly chilly, and my right hand trailed along the damp contours of the wall as I tried to stay close to José’s light. The silence was deafening after an hour of hammering and scratching stone amid a chorus of crickets outside the mine.
About 50 yards into the mine, I crouched next to José as he shone his headlamp down a 10-foot hole that he and his team had dug, and I asked about his family. Did they worry about his dangerous work?
No, he said, his family was proud.
Did he have kids? I asked. And would he ever let them do this kind of work?
Two daughters, he said, and no, they would definitely not follow in his footsteps.
Why not, I prodded, though I was already mentally ticking off all the risks of his job: handling mercury with his bare hands, cooking the chemical on the same kitchen stove where his family’s supper was prepared, and the constant chance of being buried alive if the mine collapsed from human error or natural disaster.
“Because they’re girls,” he told me matter-of-factly. The belief, he explained, is that mines are female and they hide their golden veins out of jealousy over the presence of another woman.
I realized in that pitch-black, quiet moment deep in the earth of El Salvador that my gender didn’t matter to José. I was there as an observer, asking questions and listening.
I only hope I didn’t scare away his gold.