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 stars—damned 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 "color-blind" society.

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.

Of course.

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 week.

"'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 said.'"

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.