Nov 30 2010

Robert Alvarez: A Life

Published by at 10:15 am under Uncategorized

They hurt you at home and they hit you at school.  They hate you if you’re clever, and they despise a fool.  Till you’re so fucking crazy, you can’t follow their rules.

A working class hero is something to be.

–John Lennon, Working Class Hero

Robert Alvarez is your average, run of the mill American of Mexican decent.  He was born in a small, working class mining town.  His father was a blue-collar man, as were his grandfathers.  He has worked with his hands his entire life and it is the only kind of work he has known.  He knows what it is like to work hard for poor wages, struggle financially, and to surrender himself for the good of his family.  And it is because of all this that he is the perfect specimen of a blue-collar worker who deserves to have his story known to a world that has shunned him and his like in the past.

*                      *                      *

I met with Alvarez at his home in the rural farming town of Safford.  Outside the small house are five cars.  Only two actually run.  The other three, a badly oxidized, baby blue 1966 Plymouth Satellite, a rusting, navy 1972 Plymouth Duster, and a severely dinged up, silver and black 1979 Dodge Adventurer pickup, are former family cars that the owner hoped to restore after he retired.  Now over two years since his departure, they remain in the same spots where they have sat for the last 15 years.

Upon entering the house of the retired miner, one is taken aback by the heap of landscaping tools lying on his front porch.  After 36 years working as a copper miner at Phelps Dodge and serving as his family’s primary source of income, the aging man now works as a gardener and takes the back seat as the money earner to his wife, Anna.  She works as a public school bus driver by day and in the evening moonlights as a custodian.  For Anna, an 11-hour workday is not uncommon.  Since Robert’s retirement, however, she no longer has to work alone cleaning the Medical Center of Eastern Arizona, the Arizona State Savings & Credit Union, and the Graham County Chamber of Commerce.  He willingly lends her a hand.  “It gives us a chance to spend some time together,” she says.

He greets me as I enter and we adjourn to the dining room table.  He offers me a chair next to his.  I gladly accept.  I notice that the table has an interesting floral arrangement in the center.  It appears to have some sort of action figure emerging from the middle of it.  I take a closer look and realize that it is the black Power Ranger.  Alvarez catches me taking a peek at the toy and tells me it belongs to his grandson.  “He pretty much runs the place,” he tells me as I crack a smile.  I later learn that he was unable to be at the birth of his grandson–his first grandson.  He was gone on a two-week detail for the National Guard.

As I search my book bag for my tape recorder, Alvarez gets up.  “Would you like something to drink?  Soda, orange juice, beer?” he asks.

“No thanks,” I tell him.  I chuckle at the offer of beer.  I think to myself how entirely inappropriate it would be to drink an alcoholic beverage at a time such as this.

He returns to the table with what appears to be a 40-ounce bottle of beer.  I’m not able to distinguish what variety of beer it is; it’s still covered with the brown paper bag from the liquor store.  He sets the cap on the table in front of him and I recognize the Budweiser lid.  Indeed, a truly American beer.  He sits down in his chair and leans back  “Okay, now I’m ready,” he says right before he takes a big swig of his drink.

Alvarez is not like the average retired copper miner, if one can argue such a thing exists.  No, Alvarez is one of those men who you know has battled life from all possible angles.  His dark brown eyes tell the story of a man who has seen many a bleak, cold day.  His white hair is an indication of his age and acquired wisdom.  His dark, weather-beaten skin exemplifies the many hours he has spent working in the sun and the laborious work he has subjected his body to for the majority of his life.  He lifts up a cigarette and presses it between his lips.  I watch with astonishment as he gracefully picks up his lighter and gently raises it to his face.  His big, bulky fingers move with the greatest of ease.  They look strong, stronger than, I think to myself, any one of my arms.  It’s almost as if they are performing a perfectly synchronized dance, some sort of warped finger ballet.  With his right dancers he grips the red lighter loosely but still firm.  His thumb works as the resistance on the wheel of the lighter and with one stroke, a perfect quarter-inch flame is born.  With the cast of his left hand he creates a symmetrical half-dome shield to block any wind from extinguishing the flame.  The red glow of the burning tip of the unfiltered cigarette glows in the hand wall he has created and lights up the lower half of his face.  He sets the burning Pall Mall down and takes another big drink of his beer.  It doesn’t phase him a bit.  He looks at me, “Let’s get this started.”


Alvarez was born in Bisbee, Arizona.  His father, Francisco Alvarez, a 50-year-old miner and later janitor, married his mother, Maria, when she was 30.  Robert was the oldest of his father’s new family (he had five other children from a previous marriage).  His two brothers, Jim and Ronald, were nothing like their elder sibling.  Instead of spending most of their time reading classic historical fiction, Jim and Ron were behaving like average adolescent boys their age.  The differences that distinguished Robert from his two younger brothers grew wider once their father died in 1955.  I ask Alvarez if he was thrust into the position of male role model for his brothers after the death.  “Definitely not,” he tells me.  He fails to elaborate any more on the subject, and I, instinctively, decide not to follow up on it.  Something tells me not to press too deep into the subject.  It appears he is not comfortable speaking of it.  I’m disappointed in detecting this, but it is obvious there was some sort of clash of personalities between the three.  To this day, the brothers seldom speak to each other.

Little Robert Carlos Alvarez was born on March 14th, 1943.  From an early age, he was recognizably intelligent.  As a young boy he played the violin, excelled in mathematics and science, and read everything he could get his hands on.  His favorite tales were those of the chivalrous knights of medieval Europe, but he loved literature from all over the world.  The book case near the entrance of his house is filled with a diverse collection ranging from Dostoyevsky to Dante to the Bhagavad-Gita.  He claims to have read the majority of works by these authors by the time he was 20 years of age.  These authors gave him a view of a world that was much bigger than Bisbee.  And because of this, they were his passports to the rest of humanity.

At the age of 17, Alvarez enlisted in the Army.  His mother urged him not to leave, but he insisted.  He needed to see the world, he told her.  All the books he read as a youngster stirred his imagination.  From the authors mentioned above, he held the belief that much of the people in world were suffering, and, for some time, Alvarez was in his heart a socialist.

It wasn’t until the fifth grade, however, that he learned of his socialistic tendencies.  “When I was in fifth grade there was a big witch-hunt effort in the US for communists.  They were looking under every rock for them.  Well, one day in class, I asked the teacher why some people had to be poor and others did not.  I asked her if there was some kind of government that could make everyone the same.  She told me there was and it was called communism.  I almost shit!  I thought communism was something bad.  It really wasn’t bad.  People just didn’t understand it.  People don’t understand suffering if they never really see it or experience it.”

Once in the military, Alvarez’s idea of suffering changed.  “It was like the writers wrote but worse, way worse.  The worst thing was the hunger.  Starvation is a long, horrible process.  I saw people dying in front of me.  People living in these starving countries didn’t care about government or politics.  They just wanted to survive.  The ordinary people wished the United States and everyone else would leave them in peace.  They didn’t want to be bothered by political things.  They were more concerned about eating and staying alive.”

Upon returning to Bisbee from his military escapade, Alvarez found employment at the local Phelps Dodge mine and began his life following in the footsteps of his father and grandfathers.  He applied for a position on a whim.  “Well, I really don’t know why [I applied].  I just did.”  For Alvarez the prospects of becoming a laborer for the mine increased when he learned that the man in charge of employment knew his father.  “He said ‘I’ll take your application and give you a call.  Don’t even bother coming down.’  A couple of days later he called me at home.  ‘Come on down here and we’ll get the paperwork’.  Easy as that.”

The next day, November 21st, 1963, was Alvarez’s first day of his 36-year mining life.  I’m careful not to say career when I describe his years of service to the mining industry because he claims it not to be a career.  “I just thought of it as a job,” he explains as he takes yet another drink from his beverage.  “All my life I never worked at a place where I thought of it as a career.  I just worked and made the best of it.  A job’s a job.  As long as they keep paying me, I don’t give a care.”  And Phelps Dodge did continue to pay him.  At 20, he was earning close to $500 a month.  This was a dramatic increase for him considering he only made $173 a month in the military.  The increase in money prevented Alvarez from re-enlisting in the army and it kept him for the time being in Bisbee.

The $500 a month wages he received, however, came at a price.  Alvarez worked underground for ten years in Bisbee.  “It’s the dirtiest work you ever seen,” he tells me.  “There’s mud, heat, water.  It’s hot.”  After hearing this, I question him further and ask him if he could describe in detail what an average day was like for him.  He answers me, “a day in Hell.”  I think he’s joking and I giggle.  Alvarez’s face is void of emotion.  He takes another drink from his beer.

His time as an underground miner has paid its toll on his health.  Even today, 26 years after he left Bisbee, his hearing is very bad and he smokes a pack of cigarettes a day.  Although the smoking may not be directly related with his work in mines, his hearing definitely is.  Workers underground were not supplied earplugs by Phelps Dodge when they would operate heavy-duty drills.  Not that the earplugs would have made much difference.  He refuses to wear a hearing aid.  He prefers that people speak up to him instead.  Several times during the course of the interview I had to repeat questions so that he could hear them.  Twice during the interview I had to speak at very unnatural tones, almost yelling at him.  It seemed like my uncomfortableness in doing this humored him.

Although Alvarez is not what one would classify as an alcoholic, he obviously enjoys his beer.  Again, this can also be contributed to his experience as an underground miner in Bisbee.  Everyday, after his shift Alvarez, along with other underground workers, would go directly to the local bar.

“The bars would have what they called an after-shift drink, free.  You’d go in, and as soon as you got in, they gave you a shot of whiskey . . . Of course, they gave it to you so you would start drinking more.  You’d stay in there with the old timers.  A lot of us got there at about 3:30.  We’d stay there till about 5-6:00.  Except for the die-hard ones, they’d stay there half the night.

“The miner’s drink was called a boilermaker.  It was a shot of whiskey and a beer.  We’d have quite a few of those.  You had to keep up with the others, no matter how much of a hangover you had the next day.  You had to drink like Hell.  The next day at work you’d damn near die sometimes.  But, if you could keep up with them, you were one of them.  You were a part of them.”  Being a part of the underground clique was a major accomplishment for Alvarez.  The pride is evident in his disposition when he speaks of these miners.  His eyes light, and his voice picks up.  He produces a smile.  He even sets his beer down.  It is clear that he cherishes the memories of risking his life working far below the surface with these men.  “They were a different breed.  They were like the infantry in the Army.  The infantry was supposed to be the tough ones who could take anything.  That’s what the underground miners were.  They could take anything.”  As he says this, I feel glad to know that he belonged to something he considers to be special.  Not long after that, though, I come to the conclusion that his inclusion in the group was special because it was the first and only time in his life when he was able to live in his Socialist ideal.  All the men were equal.  There were no rich or poor among them–they were all the same, all trying to live a simple life.  Each person took care of themselves and everyone else.  Why it came to be this way, I do not know.  Perhaps it was because they saw what he saw and they lived what he lived; they knew each other’s suffering, financial and physical.  Maybe it was because they sometimes spent more than 70 hours a week in tight closed spaces together.  Who’s to say, but one thing is for sure: They were blue-collar men destroying their bodies for a company that could care less about them as individuals and more as a commodity.  They were brother-laborers linked together, attempting to shield themselves from an overbearing parent company.  When I think of it like this, Alvarez’s drinking, smoking, and hearing don’t seem like problems to me.  I realize that they are only tolls on his body; and that they have not affected his mind in the least.  They may eventually cost him part of his life, but the life he has lived has brought the kind of wisdom most of us can only dream of ever gaining.  He knows life and he knows how the world does and should work.  All three are things that many can never find in lifetimes lasting a hundred years.

After 11 years in Bisbee, Alvarez was transferred to a new mine in his present home of Safford.  As for the reason for the move, he says, “I got chosen to come over here.  The big producers got chosen, the ones who put out the most tonnage.”  Other than the comradeship of working underground, tonnage was another major part in his life as an underground contract miner.  Tonnage is a slang term describing the amount of copper a miner digs out.  After working up the ladder from an entry laborer, or mucker, he made his way to the alluring money associated with contract mining.  Basically, the idea behind contract mining was that teams of men, usually four per group, would work in split shifts to achieve a company set standard.  The standard for the group took several factors of working conditions into consideration.  Things like underground temperature, how far ore needed to be moved, how many times ore needed to be moved, how far underground the mining was being done, and if there was the possibility of the shaft caving in were all accounted for by the company in its decision of a standard.

For Alvarez, a common standard set for his crews was 80 tons per day.  Each man was responsible for 20 tons each.  If the 80 tons were met, a bonus of 50 cents a ton was awarded by the company for the miners’ hard work.  The system seemed reasonable enough for those motivated to work hard and willing to be part of a team.  However, problems often did arise in the arrangement.  “Sometimes you got teamed up with some other crew that didn’t want to work.”  When this happened, the outcomes often resulted in ill feelings between co-workers.  “It used to get bad to where the day shift guys would go into the bar and start drinking and at eleven o’clock they’d be waiting outside for the other guys to get out.  They’d start fighting.”

The selection of Alvarez for the Safford mine was a wise one.  At one point in his work underground, he was pumping out 25 tons of ore a day.  This is when he says he was making the best money of his young life.  “I was making really good money.  That in itself was motivating me to work harder,” he says.

The money wasn’t everything, however.  During this time, he met his first wife, Alice.  He was 24 and ready to settle down.  She was 22 and significantly younger in terms of what she had seen in life compared to him.  The two were married March 21st of 1967.  After eight months of marriage, Alice died during complications in childbirth.  Alvarez, destroyed and distraught, was also out of work.  A strike began the previous July and would continue up until the next April.  He remained out of work until then.  “It was a bad time in my life,” he says as he takes another drink from his beer.

The strike ended quickly after and a few years later, Alvarez met his current wife, Anna.  The two instantly fell in love.  Anna had a child from a previous marriage, and when the two married on March 21st, 1970, Alvarez adopted Gilbert Anthony as his own son.  “I always thought of him as my boy. He was born the same day my wife died.”  Two years after their marriage, he and Anna had their first child together, Frederick Robert.  Ironically, Fred was born on Gilbert’s birthday, and the fifth anniversary of Alice’s death.  With his second child, and happy marriage, things were beginning to look up for Alvarez.  Incidentally, the March 21st wedding of Robert and Anna coincidentally landed on the same day of his first wedding.  Both weddings fell on a Saturday, Alvarez’s day off from work.

*          *          *

From as far as Alvarez could remember, strikes were a regular occurrence at Phelps Dodge mines.  “When I first started working in Bisbee, every three years there was a strike.  Every three years, never failed.”  He pauses to take a drink of his beer.  “Every three years the union would call a strike to negotiate contracts.”  The union was something Alvarez never cared much for.  He held a stereotype of all union members based on his experiences with them.  Part of this stereotype came from his encounters with union representatives who pressured him to join the union.  “The union guy would come over there and try to sign you up.  When you signed up, they finally would leave you alone.  As long as you sign, they can take that money out of your paycheck.  They used to take about $10 out.  After that, they don’t bother you and you don’t bother them.  I never made a union meeting in my life.”

Other than the greed Alvarez saw in unions, the other part of the stereotype he held involved their indolence.  “A lot of the union members were the lazy guys,” he says.  He claims the union also prevented him from outputting tonnage by the number of rules and regulations it set up.  “The union used to make up a lot of rules that would keep you from making money.”  I ask for an example.  “Like at lunchtime.  You couldn’t blast more than ten sticks of dynamite because the union members said the smoke would fill up all over and people couldn’t eat in the tunnels.  It would be too much smoke for them.  For a lot of the real workers, the smoke would not bother them.  Lunch was to eat not enjoy.”

Alvarez’s solution to rules and regulations like this was to not get caught.  “At lunchtime I would use 50 sticks of dynamite but only say I used 10.  I wasn’t going to get less tonnage and lose my money for them.”  Alvarez was turned in a number of times by the union and was dealt with by PD.  “They just told me to stop,” he says.  He didn’t stop, however.  “I’d just cool it down for a while.  Then, the next chance I got, I would do it again.”

Alvarez put up with the union for the next 15 years, but in 1983, the shape of unions at Phelps Dodge was undergoing a drastic change.  More specifically, the company was in the process of eliminating them.  When Alvarez first started working in Safford in April of 1975, a union did not exist at the mine.  “They didn’t have a union in Safford.  PD didn’t want a union, so there wasn’t one.  The union was still around and real strong in Morenci, though.”  Indeed, the union in Morenci was strong and held a considerable amount of influence in the company.

Morenci is a 45-minute drive east of Safford.  The town was, and still is, completely controlled by Phelps Dodge.  The overwhelming majority of people who live there work for the mine.  The union had to be strong in such circumstances.  Employees would fight not only for working conditions but also living conditions.  Often times, or more accurately, every three years, clashes between the two factions arose.  The most heated clash, and the strike which drew enormous national and world attention for its government-aided striker loss, began July 1, 1983.  It eventually ended led to the fall of the union in Morenci.

At the time of the strike, Alvarez had moved from the Safford mine, which had been closed in 1982, to a division of small mines being prospected by PD.  However, for the two weeks preceding the strike up to the first day of the strike, he was working in Morenci as a loan from small mines.  “I was loaned by small mines to Morenci to clean copper out of a furnace.  There were a few of us.  We had to drill and blast it out.  The first day of the strike was the last day I worked in Morenci.  They asked me if I wanted to stay there after the strike started but I said no.  I left the mine, and outside thousands of people were lined up.  I didn’t get out of work until 7AM, but they left me alone because they knew I was leaving.  If they thought I was a scab, they probably would have killed me.  I didn’t want to be a scab.  I just wanted to go back to small mines.”

Alvarez did go back to small mines, but did not stay there long.  “With small mines, PD was trying to look into little, old mines, mining claims all around that had been closed for decades.  They were leasing them looking for ore.  The first place I went was Gallup, New Mexico.  We went around looking in the hills looking for ore.  PD thought that the old time prospectors had missed a lot of ore.”  PD was wrong.  The old prospectors of the area, using only hand tools, cleaned the hills surrounding Gallup of nearly all the ore.  “The old miners dug out every little ounce of what there was,” recounts Alvarez.

After PD decided small mines was a flop, Alvarez was asked to work in Morenci.  By this time, the strike was over a year old.  He started in August of 1984.  “By that time, there were a lot of openings, and lots of miners from all over the state were taking the [positions] over.”  Demonstrators still lined the gates of the mine, and they continued to yell and spit at scabs entering the compound, but Alvarez paid no attention to them.  Initially, Alvarez felt compassion for the strikers.  “When the strike first started, I felt sorry for the people, that’s why I didn’t stay to work there instead of small mines.  I didn’t want to take their job away.  They were just ordinary workers fighting for their cause.”  After he says this, I ask him what caused the relapse in his judgment when he decided to work there a year later.  To this he replies, “the people changed.  I didn’t feel sorry for them anymore.  A lot of the pushy, union strikers ended up going back to work a year later.  The one’s who made the most noise were some of the first ones to come back.  The strikers were outnumbered.  Most of them went back to work, and they weren’t as solid.  They got hungry.”  He takes another drink of his beer.

Alvarez was called a scab but it did not disturb him a bit.  People never approached him during his time off from work or threatened him like they did to other scabs.  “I don’t give a damn about people or what they think of me.  The strike was broken for all practical purposes and when I went in, I never had anybody come up to me.”  Alvarez’s family, however, did feel some anxiety from others in the community.  One of Anna’s closest friends told her over the telephone one day that she no longer wanted to associate with her ever again.  Debbie, Alvarez’s next child after Frederick, claimed to be threatened on the playground many a time at school by children of strikers.  Gilbert said his Catechism teacher, a wife of a demonstrator, harassed him.  All this did die, however, as the strike came to an end and his life amid the strike that was famous for failing went back to normal.

Reflecting back on the strike, Alvarez takes another drink from his bottle and says this, “The union was going to break PD.  It was too strong.  No one was able to work because there were so many rules and regulations.  That’s why they got rid of it, and they went into a lot of debt to get rid of it.  Looking back on it, though, I think PD had it all planned out for years.  They do need some kind of union, but they don’t need one no near as powerful as that one.  Under the new PD, it’s to the point to where they can’t form a union.  The still need someone to stick up for the ordinary worker.  It was just too powerful at that time.

“PD more or less dictates everything now for the worker.  But, I think this was planned a long time ago.  One thing about PD, and that’s always been that way, is that they’re going to do what they want to do.  It’s take it or leave it.  You don’t like it, tough.  You either keep working and not like it or you find another job.”

Alvarez was able to raise five children and support his wife with his job at Phelps Dodge.  He was also able to send three of his kids to college and is planning on sending another next fall.  He bought a house, 14 cars, and never missed a payment.  He built a life with the money he earned at Phelps Dodge.  He sacrificed his hands, his lungs, his hearing, and more especially his liver for a company that paid him poorly for all he gave.  Alvarez never complained about his job and still doesn’t.  “I made a living off of it.  If they go broke tomorrow, I don’t care.  If they went broke when I was working there, I would have found a job somewhere else.  I never thought of it as a career.  I’m not the type of person who is ambitious.  I’m not trying to come out ahead.  I’m just trying to make a life, that’s it.”

After Alvarez tells me this, he takes another drink of his beer.  As I watch him, I’m left breathless.  I think to myself that the man sitting across from me is the living quintessence of what the beaten up workingman is.  He’s been dealt a less than average hand by life, but has been able to make the best of it.  He’s a fighter who refuses to give up.  He’s independent and never depended on a union or anyone else to stick up for him.  He’s a family man who sacrificed himself to provide.  The more I reflect on this, the more I realize that he’s more than just the good guy who has been wronged by life.  He’s a hero.  But he’s a hero for more than just the workingman.  He’s a hero for anyone who knows what it is like to work hard and get paid softly.  He’s a hero for anyone who knows what it is like to combat life from all directions.  He’s a hero for all those who can relate to the education life gives.  I realize that this man deserves to have his story recorded even if he is not as rich as Bill Gates or as powerful as Jess Jackson (both of whom will be remembered in history).  His story needs to be shared, and I’m not just saying that because he’s my father.  He’s my hero too.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

7 responses so far

7 Responses to “Robert Alvarez: A Life”

  1. […] Robert Alvarez: A Life […]

  2.   Anonymouson 05 Sep 2012 at 11:46 pm

    Romanticizing the Alvarez family…disfunction is more like it. It would be a better (and true) story if the dirty laundry that happened between Francisco’s emigration from Mexico and his death. How the family was left in shambles and spurred 3 dysfunctional families in itself.

  3.   salvarezon 06 Sep 2012 at 10:23 am

    Yeah, as romantic as any Latino family could be. Folks always want that immigrant story, but this is the story of an American worker, and a copper strike. Wrote it when I was 19, and you’re right about dysfunction (,dysfunction&year_start=1900&year_end=2000&corpus=0&smoothing=3)

    but three families at the same time would have been cool, especially three dysfunctional ones–because they had a roving father, because single mothers raised children, because of the social and geopolitical situations which drove 1,000,000 Mexicans north of the border during the first World War? Yeah, I tried to do that in my dissertation thirteen years later, Brokering Literacies.

    Thanks for the comments, I’m glad somebody read this thing. Cheers.

  4.   Donna Kidneyon 23 Apr 2013 at 4:14 am

    Great information. Lucky me I discovered your site by chance (stumbleupon). I’ve bookmarked it for later!

  5.   rafon 20 Jun 2013 at 12:13 pm

    I’m amazed, I must say. Seldom do I encounter a blog that’s both equally educative and engaging, and without a doubt, you’ve hit the nail on the head. The issue is an issue that too few folks are speaking intelligently about. I’m very happy that I stumbled across this in my hunt for something relating to this.

  6.   şişme bebekon 14 Jul 2013 at 4:57 pm

    Spot on with this write-up, I truly believe this amazing site needs a great deal more attention. I’ll probably be back again to see more, thanks for the advice!

  7.   pia brochon 19 Feb 2020 at 4:45 pm

    pia broch

    QC Ethnographic Composition » Robert Alvarez: A Life

Trackback URI | Comments RSS

Leave a Reply

Spam prevention powered by Akismet

Skip to toolbar