Only a few brown Mexicans died, so who cares?
It's interesting when people die. At least two and probably four formerly
brown-skinned workers died within earshot of Sparks last Wednesday morning.
Local earthquake watchers said the blast, which wiped the Sierra Chemical
explosives plant off the earth, registered 2.0 on the Richter Scale.
The dead didn't register at all while they lived, but their timing made
them starsdamned impressive and convenient on a slow news day between
the Kennedy and Bono funerals.
Officials unanimously beat their breasts and flogged their mea culpas, some in shocked amazement at how such a joint could operate so long without proper inspection.
Proper? Hell, it didn't even have a county business license. Any manager
will tell you that applying for a license triggers a neverending parade of
prissy inspectors and pesky paperwork.
Apparently the fat cats who have long owned Sierra Chemical could not be
bothered to operate legally.
The bodies were unidentifiable. So what became of Alberto Jacobo Acosta,
age 27, and Francisco Espinosa, 28? Who were Demetrio and Marcos Hernandez,
brothers aged 37 and 27?
Who cares. If we didn't while they lived, why should we care now? These
fine young men now lie well beyond belated respect.
They may be dead, but they are now upwardly mobile. In a culture that
evaluates on the most superficial, the Lockwood Four have attained equality
in white America: they have had their skins removed, giving them an
advantage in the glorified suntan judging we term equal opportunity in a
They were our worker bees, sweatshop labor we ignore right here in river
city. I know one engine plant that sickens people with just a walkthrough.
Would you work for lousy pay in sweltering, choking, unsafe conditions?
You wouldn't, but the darker-tinged have little choice. Often afraid to
speak and uninformed of their rights, they labor under this vague suspicion
that complaining won't do much good.
"Our inspections are complaint driven," said Calvin Murphy, local boss of
the combined federal-state occupational safety and health operation.
Why complain when you know the deck is stacked against you? If you were
critically injured by that blast and lay hospitalized in intensive care for
weeks, you would owe hundreds of thousands of dollars. Wouldn't workers
compensation insurance cover you? Not if you failed to file a claim within
seven days of the injury.
"But, I was in a coma!" you might complain
Too bad. You should have read the law before you got blown up. A few days
ago, Gov. Miller glowingly announced that employers will soon get a
whopping 22 percent cut in workers insurance premiums. "Efficiencies" like
the seven-day rule were not mentioned.
Any Nevada injured worker thus remains well advised to call a lawyer
before seeing a doctor. A guy I know slipped in a leaky, waterlogged
walk-in refrigerator which local restaurant management would not fix. It
ruined his knee and a possible pro basketball career. Because he sought
medical attention before he called a lawyer, he lost any recourse against
his oppressive and negligent bosses. Tell him about that 22 percent.
Perhaps the most maddening aspect of the death of the brown worker bees
lies in their pay: pittances for piece work, pennies per explosive prepared
without ignition. One former employee told the Reno Gazette-Journal he made
about $30 daily, subminimum wage. The company, of course, disputed it.
Salary and survival odds seem better driving a taxi. I hope the families
of the four Latinos end up owning the company, but it won't happen. Sierra
Chemical can afford better lawyers. They will probably offer a settlement
based on estimates of what these young men would have earned if their 1997
earnings continued until age 65. Low-paid in life, they will remain
evermore in death.
Our entertainment-driven society does offer one alternative to better
compensate the grief-stricken. The grateful dead can go into showbiz.
A display of bodies in Mannheim, Germany, is currently packing them in. "A
museum exhibit offering 'A Glimpse into the Human Body' - with real,
skinless corpses - is drawing crowds and criticism from church leaders
that it is degrading to human dignity," the Associated Press reported last
"'The authenticity fascinates,' said Gunther von Hagens, an anatomy
professor at the University of Heidelberg who developed the 'plastination'
technique used to preserve the bodies. It involves dunking the bodies in
chilled acetone and draining them of water, which is then replaced with
molten plastic that later hardens.
"No one's body was used unless they had signed a release form agreeing to
be put on public display, von Hagens said. None can be identified because
the skin has been removed."
Kind of like Sierra Chemical.
"'The human body shouldn't be used for amusement,' the Rev. Horst Schroff
Alas, there's the rub. The unimportant often only become valuable in
death. The same holds true here in the morally obtuse, color-blind,
equal-opportunity High Desert Outback of the American Dream.
May the dead rest in peace. May their families find comfort, however cold. May the despondent identify the responsible. May those responsible respond.
Be well. Raise hell.
© Andrew Barbano
Andrew Barbano is a member of CWA Local 9413. He is a Reno-based syndicated columnist, a 29-year Nevadan, and editor of U-News.
Barbwire by Barbano has appeared in the Sparks Tribune since 1988 and parts of this column were originally published 1/11/98.
Reprints of the UNR financial scandal newsbreaks remain available
for the cost of copying at
Nevada Instant Type in Sparks and both Office Depot Reno locations.