From the Desk of Rocio Gomez: From Zacatecas to COVID

Rocio Gomez is Dr. and Mrs. Harold Greer Jr. Assistant Professor in Latin American History at Virginia Commonwealth University. She won the 2019 Edwin Lieuwen Award for promotion of excellence in the teaching of Latin American studies from the Rocky Mountain Council for Latin American Studies. Her book Silver Veins, Dusty Lungs: Mining, War, and Public Health in Zacatecas, 1835-1946 (July) is the newest book in the Mexican Experience Series.

Environmental Health: From Zacatecas to COVID

In recent days, universities across the country have revealed their plan for instruction as the fall semester approaches. Harvard announced that only forty percent percent of its students would return to campus while the University of Georgia System responded with a resounding, “Meh.” The disparate plans range from all online, as in the California State University system, or “hyflex” at my institution, Virginia Commonwealth University. This approach includes hybrid courses (a mix of face-to-face and online) or online instruction depending on the department. My department is, for the most part, online thankfully. However, I watch anxiously for my colleagues as other universities scramble to provide some patchwork of plans, plans of plans, and contingency plans to those plans. (So much planning!)

These reactions have resonated with me recently with the publication of my book, Silver Veins, Dusty Lungs: Mining, Water, and Public Health in Zacatecas, 1835-1946 because of its emphasis on environmental health, the study of how the environment affects human bodies. The book explores the environmental history of mining in the storied city of Zacatecas, Mexico. It delves into how mining affected water sources in the region as well as the public health of a community. It examines the dynamic exchange of the human body and its environment through water and the environmental effects of mining. I call this exchange the “ecology of extraction” because it involves power (from above) and acceptance (from society), both of which enable and facilitate this exchange further. I focus the analysis on the late nineteenth century during the dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz (1876-1910) and the Mexican Revolution (1910-1946). Governments in both time periods approached mining differently, the first opening the country to foreign mineral extraction and the latter unevenly handling the protection of mineral and natural resources.

Mining has never been an easy job. Georgius Agricola (1494-1555) and Bernardino Ramazzini (1633-1714) detailed in their classic works the diseases and accidents that shaped miners’ lives in Europe. Crushed limbs, lung diseases, metal poisonings—miners lived a life of risk. Indigenous peoples were drafted into forced labor, and enslaved peoples from Africa toiled in the infamous mine of Potosí in South America, which earned the ominous name “The Mountain that Eats Men.” In Guanajuato, miners today make a sign of the cross in front of an altar for a last-minute blessing before beginning their work. In Zacatecas, tourists can visit Mina El Edén, a former mine that still hosts the altar of El Santo Niño de Atocha before entering a large cavernous cut through the mountain. The dangers and personal fears of miners are ingrained in song lyrics, prayers, poetry, and novels.

While these dangers appear at first glance to be isolated to miners, we also have to look at the communities around the mines. Films depict mines as far-flung isolated desert spots. In contrast, mines in Mexico had communities around them, including cities and villages. The city of Zacatecas itself has entrances to numerous mines, all within walking distance of the main plaza.  Mining involved the occupational hazards of extracting silver while surrounding communities suffered from its environmental consequences.

In Silver Veins, Dusty Lungs, miners also suffer from the occupational disease silicosis-tuberculosis. Silicosis is caused by prolonged, repeated exposure to varying levels of dust. Exactly how severe the disease is in a patient depends on the level of dust in the area (low to high concentrations) and the time intervals of exposure (Daily? For how many hours?). An ancient malady of the occupation, silicosis affected miners in Mexico as U.S. and British mining speculators introduced drills and new technology that kicked up dust to a greater degree.  While employers recommended masks to protect themselves from miners’ lawsuits, many miners refused, citing inconvenience and the added unpleasantness of sweating through the mask. Silicosis was not isolated to Mexico by any means, and the emerging lawsuits against mining companies marked a turning point in global occupational health law.

Environmental health has a long history in Latin America. The European introduction of germs and animals wiped out a large swath of the indigenous population. The early mining methods introduced by the Spanish lasted into the early twentieth century and devastated miners’ health. Indigenous people suffered land dispossession that affected their livelihoods and their health. Rural farmers continue to contend with contaminated water sources. In short, the study of environmental health reminds us that our bodies and the environment are in a constant state of exchange and never isolated from each other. We are never too far away from the next cough, dust particle, or glass of water to remind us that our bodies are susceptible to environmental forces beyond our control.

More broadly, environmental and occupational health have been at the forefront of public discussions in the last decade—from lead contamination in Flint, Michigan to PCBs in Appalachia to the legislative scaling back of water regulations to the resurgence of black lung. Popular culture has followed suit with films and television series, such as Dark Waters (2019), Ragnarok (2019), and Chernobyl (2019). Meanwhile, the OneHealth program associated with the Centers for Disease Control has examined how humans have made pandemics increasingly likely. The mistreatment of animals for consumption and society’s venturing into the forest creates an opportunity for zoonotic disease transmission.

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When I wrote this book, I did not expect to encounter so many of its themes on the nightly news. My initial shock has given way to the expectation that my occupation is irrevocably changed, at least for the foreseeable future. As with miners, university and college instructors have to contend with power, from either their school’s administration or with the state’s directives.  Regardless of plans, there is an underlying anxiety over risk or variables deemed out of bureaucratic control—frat parties, faulty ventilation systems, crowded corridors. In many ways, faculty, instructors, and university staff find themselves at the center of an environmental health experiment: a classroom and an airborne virus that attacks the lungs.

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