Latinos at the Kennecott Copper Mine

Miriam B. Murphy
History Blazer, November 1996

During the copper strike of 1912 Utah Copper Company brought many Mexican and Mexican American strikebreakers to the Bingham mine. According to historian Vicente V. Mayer, most of them did not remain after the settlement of the strike. Company records reveal, though, that by 1918-19 large numbers of Spanish-surnamed individuals began to be employed at the copper mine, and additional Latinos were recruited during the labor shortages of World War II. For many of these men it marked the beginning of long careers as copper workers. Issues of the company magazine, Kennescope, in the 1950s emphasized the diversity of the work force, which in 1953 represented 20 different ethnic backgrounds, from Native American to Japanese.

The company especially liked to feature the children of its workers in articles and photographs. The April 1954 issue, for example, devoted a two-page spread to a PTA program put on by the children in Copperfield. One segment of the program highlighted Latino youngsters: “A Puerto Rican dance was presented by little Miss Jennie Rosa in full costume…. The pageantry of Mexican life and religion portrayed by Lawrence Lovato and Rubio Lopez was inspiring. This was followed by ‘Mariachis’ or troubadours singing and concluded with a Mexican ‘hat-dance.'” Photographs of Rubio Lopez playing a trumpet and Jenny Rosa dancing were included in the layout. Another photograph on a picture spread in the center of the magazine showed Rubio Lopez and Eloy Vigil holding U.S. and Mexican flags in front of a large crocheted image of Our Lady of Guadalupe “hand-made by Mrs. Lawrence Lovato, wife of a Mines employee.” This, too, was part of the PTA program and an effort to explain the differing religious practices of the community’s diverse population.

In June 1954 Kennescope reported on the annual Cinco de Mayo festivities, one of the big ethnic celebrations in Bingham Canyon each year. The magazine reminded readers that the May 5 anniversary of Mexican independence from the French was as important to people of Mexican heritage as July 4 to Americans of all backgrounds. Mine company families and many guests, including Mayor Dispenza and his wife, had attended the program. As usual, there was dancing, singing, and “an excellent Mexican meal.” The Felix Lugos Orchestra furnished the music, and dance performers included Theresa Rosales and Julian Lozano.

The achievements of children in school were often noted in the magazine. For example, Edward Aguayo, a senior at Bingham High School, was recognized for his outstanding athletic endeavors, scholastic achievement, and participation in student affairs. A son of Jesus Aguayo, a flagman at the mine, Edward was named to the all-region football team in his senior year, served as student manager of boys’ athletics at BHS, was sergeant-at-arms of the Prospectors Club, and maintained a B average in all his classwork. Another Latino student, Carmen Sanchez, placed second in the “I Speak for Democracy Contest” held at BHS; Andy Trujillo was a semifinalist.

The mine workers themselves were also recognized in articles and pictures. Pablo Lozano, for instance, was shown at the controls of a tram that hauled hundreds of workers into the mine each day. A native of Mexico, Lozano said he was very happy with his job and liked the U.S. “a lot.” Benjamin Cordova and Bernardo Suarez were pictured operating a new piece of equipment at the mine, a multiple tie tamper, that made track moving and construction more efficient.

Salvador Guitierrez, a trackman at the mine for nine years, had an unusual claim to fame, according to a light-hearted photo feature in Kennescope: “When he wears his broad-brimmed hat and glasses, his fellow-miners think him a dead ringer for Harry S. Truman,” the former president. When asked about his political affiliation, Guitierrez “grinned his best Harry S. Truman grin and said, ‘I do not know–me–I’m just a working man.'”

That many Latinos enjoyed long careers at the copper mine is illustrated in the periodic listings of employee service years in Kennescope. For example, in April 1958 a special awards dinner honored those with 20 and 30 years of service with Utah Copper. Among the 30-year veterans were trackman Felix Gonzales and tram operator Juventino Ramirez. Those honored for 20 years included trackman Fidel Gallegos, repair machinist Paz F. Gallegos, welder Tony M. Gallegos, shop tool operator Alex Montoya, and precipitation plant worker Juan Villalobos.

The distinctive characteristic of Utah’s Latinos in this period, according to Mayer, was their varied origins, including Mexican immigrant, Mexican American, Puerto Rican, and South and Central American. Prejudice and discrimination were undoubtedly facts of their lives. That Kennescope emphasized positive aspects of its “melting pot” work crew is understandable. Given that, however, the magazine remains an important source of historical data on the state’s largest ethnic minority.

Sources: Kennescope, monthly issues published during 1953-59, copies in Utah State Historical Society Library; Vicente V. Mayer, “After Escalante: The Spanish-speaking People of Utah,” in The Peoples of Utah, ed. Helen Z. Papanikolas (Salt Lake City: Utah State Historical Society, 1976).