Longform

What Do You Do After the Company Leaves?

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And Mario Terrazas, a local roofer in his late twenties, hollered down at a visitor from atop a Main Street building: "Everybody thinks we're done for! But we're gonna come back when you least expect it! We're not that sick!"

Superior had been Magma's town since 1910. (The town, which first formed in 1874, got its name from an earlier mining company.) Magma mined more than two-and-a-half billion pounds of ore in Superior. The town's smelter closed in 1971, but there still was ore and most Superiorites believed the company would be there forever. No wonder they went into shock when Magma suddenly said good-bye.

At first, there was disbelief. Then, fury. Then the townspeople started grieving. The recovery process should have started next. But that has taken longer than it does after a death in the family.

"When the mines closed, it was like the sun missing in the morning," says Yolanda Ewing, editor of the weekly Superior Sun and president of the school board. Her husband now works at Magma's San Manuel mine, about an hour southeast.

"People kept saying, `It's going to reopen. It's going to reopen.' My mother's like that. It will take something shocking to really wake this town up--like the whole mine up there caving in like a big pile of junk. That might make everyone finally say, `We're no longer Magma.'"

More than six years after the layoffs, many prematurely retired miners haven't snapped out of it. Several sip on their Buds most every night at local bars and still badmouth the company.

"They gave us nothing, the bastards, they just left," says Abelardo Bingochea, a miner for 26 years who does odd jobs around town. The only skill the 56-year-old Bingochea ever learned was how to mine.

Not yet old enough to collect Social Security, Bingochea's monthly retirement check from Magma of about $450 probably will be his only steady income until he's 62. "I ain't leaving," he says, from his perch at the Triple-X Bar. "Can't afford to and I don't want to anyway. This is my home."

Gilbert Aguilar, too, was laid off by Magma in 1982, but he landed on his feet. A former Superior High football star, Aguilar moved to Mesa and found work with Southwest Gas Corporation. He returned to Superior a few years ago as the gas company's representative there.

"It worked out fine for me in the long run to get laid off," says the 32-year-old father of three, whose wife works at a high-tech factory in Florence.

"But how about those old guys who never learned much English? The mine was just hard work, and those guys loved to work. That's all they knew," Aguilar says. "If you had a good back, fine--Magma didn't care if you spoke English. Now a lot of them have `retired,' and all they do is little odd jobs."

Hundreds of other ex-miners commute from Superior to jobs in Florence--many work at the state prison there--and to Apache Junction. Some mine at Globe or Miami, in what's left of Arizona's Copper Basin. Others work in San Manuel, one of the few remaining active copper towns in the state.

Those who have stayed in Superior own homes or rent for almost nothing from Magma, which still owns numerous houses and lots in and around town. Magma's Frank Florez says his company wants to get out of the landlord business. But, he adds, not out of mining.

"We still think the mines have a future here," says Florez, who was Magma's general manager in Superior during the 1982 layoffs. He now is the company's "manager of special projects" in Superior and bosses about 25 Magma employees. "There's still a lot of ore down there, and if we reopen or sell it, it would probably be on a smaller scale. But it's still one of the richest mines in the world."

It sounds like fantasy. Florez says the firm pulled out its underground power lines in 1986 and has stopped pumping water out of the mines. He concedes it would cost millions just to see if the mines could be revived. And he says it's unlikely that today's heady $1.50-per-pound copper price--more than double the 1982 price--will hold up. Arizona's copper industry is thriving, but most of the state's once-huge number of miners aren't.

Florez and his wife have lived in Superior since 1954. They raised their six children there. Nowadays, he says, the townspeople generally are courteous to him. But he knows they are bitter.

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Paul Rubin
Contact: Paul Rubin