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Why trapped miners "unwilling to die in darkness"

By Ariel Dorfman, Special to CNN
  • Ariel Dorfman: Chilean miners, in a sense, have spent their lives preparing for this ordeal
  • Mining stories part of Chile's DNA, taught in school, he says, passed through generations
  • Luck saved their lives, but it's knowledge from forebears, he says, that lets them endure now
  • Dorfman: Event must prick Chile's conscience, spur laws to make mine accidents a relic

Editor's note: Ariel Dorfman, the Chilean-American author of "Death and the Maiden" along with a wide variety of other plays, fiction, poetry and essays, has written about the lives of Chile's miners for National Geographic in his book, "Desert Memories". He delivered the Mandela Lecture in South Africa this year. Dorfman is the Walter Hines Page Professor of Literature and Latin American Studies at Duke University.

(CNN) -- The 33 miners trapped deep inside the earth in the San Jose mine in Chile have been preparing all their lives for the ordeal of spending many months underground. It might even be ventured that they have been preparing for that battle for survival since before they were born.

And so has their country.

The story of men who go down into the mountain and chip away at minerals in the darkness and then suffer an accident that leaves them at the mercy of that darkness is part of the DNA of Chile, an integral part of the country's history.

It was one of the first things I learned about Chile when I arrived there in 1954 at the age of 12.

"Open your books to the story 'El Chiflón del Diablo,' " our Spanish teacher said on the first day of class. " 'The Devil's Tunnel' by Baldomero Lillo. Written in 1904."

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It was a story very much like the one that, many decades later on August 6, 2010, would afflict the miners of San Jose. It is all there -- how the earth devours those who dare to probe its depths, in that classic story and all the others that Lillo wrote at the beginning of the 20th century and that every child in Chile must study.

Those 33 miners could not know when they read those stories in school that they would someday be living that terror in the reality of their lives rather than in literature.

They could not know that more than 100 years after that fiction was penned that the conditions of mining life, the risks to the miners and the inhumane exploitation would be basically unaltered.

Mining created Chile.

It was in search of gold that the first conquistadores crossed searing badlands and forbidding valleys to found the first cities.

Other minerals were to follow: The iron to be smelted. The copper that today is still Chile's major export. And the coal in southern Chile that Lillo wrote about and was so fundamental to the ships from all around the world that docked on the way to the California gold rush.

In fact, many of the techniques used in California from 1849 onward came from Chileans born and bred in Copiapo, not far from where the San Jose mine now stands. Thousands of miners headed for the United States to try their luck in other latitudes.

But it was nitrate, above all, that forged modern Chile. Those crusty extensions of rock in the Atacama, the driest desert in the world, were the best fertilizer known to man and also the basis for explosives and weapons of war.

Hundreds of cities mushroomed in the hot wastelands in order to scrape millions of tons of nitrates that were sent off to a Europe in the throes of the late 19th century Industrial Revolution and desperate to increase its agricultural output.

As with the rubber of the Amazon and the silver of Bolivia's Potosi, the demand for nitrate subsided and all that was left were ghost towns, a skeleton of houses scattered across the desert, an army of ruined lives.

But nitrate left something more than desolation in its wake.

People around the world have been amazed at how the 33 miners have organized themselves in shifts, generated a hierarchy of command and crafted a plan for survival drawing from all the skills they have accumulated through their working lives.

I am not in the least surprised.

This has always been how Chilean workers have endured and persisted in the face of tremendous challenges. It is the legacy of those who extracted nitrate and who, at about the time that Lillo was writing about the torments of miners, were establishing the first trade unions, reading groups and newspapers of the Chilean working class.

Those lessons of unity, fortitude and orderliness were handed down from father to son to grandson. It was what each male needed to know in order to outlive the disasters that could befall him in a merciless environment.

Of course, it was luck that initially saved those 33 miners that recent day in August when the mountain collapsed. But it was not luck that kept them alive.

Inside them was the training and stamina inherited from forefathers who had lived to tell the tale, murmurs from those who were not willing to die over and over again in the darkness. There was a miracle at work, therefore, in San Jose, but to focus exclusively on good fortune is to perhaps miss the true and deeper significance of what happened there and is still happening. It begs the real question.

How is it possible that, more than a century after Lillo's stories denounced the inhuman conditions of men toiling underground, that insecurity and danger persist? How many more accidents like this one will be needed before legislation to mandate safeguards is enacted and workers can descend into the mountain without putting their lives needlessly at risk?

These 33 miners are now national -- and indeed international -- heroes, with all of Chile and a good part of the world attending to their every hardship, awaiting signs of their progress towards the light.

By one of those coincidences that history loves, these men have been buried at precisely the moment when the latest statistics shamefully show that the percentage of Chileans living in poverty has, for the first time since the end of Augusto Pinochet's dictatorship, gone drastically up rather than down.

Is it too much to hope that the tribulations of these men will trouble the conscience of Chile and create a country where, 100 years from now, the stories of Baldomero Lillo and the story of the 33 miners from San Jose, will be a thing of the past, a relic, something that is legendary but no longer prevalent?

Now that would be a real miracle.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ariel Dorfman.

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