Red pen on white paper, stuck in a plastic bag, the six words went round the world.
“Estamos bien en el refugio los 33.” (“The 33 of us are OK in the refuge.”)
It was Aug. 22, the 17th day of the saga of the miners, and until then Chile and the world did not know if the men trapped 2,000 feet underground were alive or dead. At this moment, we knew they lived.
Their message — perfect in its concise, narrative elegance — spoke volumes for what it did not say. It did not say help us, get us out of here, we’re dying. Their attitude was quite the opposite. We’re fine, all of us, they said. Keep on trying to get us out. Keep doing your job, because we’re still doing ours.
It was something Chile needed to hear.
The dramatic story of our miners overlapped, coincidentally, with Chile’s bicentennial celebration. I had the good fortune to serve until last year on Chile’s Bicentennial Commission, a diverse group that debated the spirit and values that the nation’s 200th birthday party should reflect. When Chile reached its centennial 100 years ago, its citizens were looking across the Atlantic, trying to be more European. This time, as the occasion approached, we’d been talking about how to become a fully developed country by 2020, the first in Latin America to achieve that status, a model for the region.
But suddenly, with a potential tragedy unfolding deep within our land, Chileans began to doubt. Should we even celebrate the bicentennial if we have 33 compatriots underground, their fates unknown? How can we claim to join the top tier of nations if we allow private companies to subject their workers to the risks these men faced? Can society remain quiet before such injustice for those who are born without privilege?
With their message, the miners themselves gave us the beginnings of an answer. Their steely strength, that ability to avoid complaints or pleas and to reveal dignity and confidence in the face of hardship — these offered the greatest emotional lesson of this affair. Where utter despair was legitimate and understandable, we saw calm, logic, strategy, perseverance.
For the bicentennial celebration, no one could have imagined a better symbol than the 33.
Forget Europe. Now we just wanted to be Chileans. Better Chileans.
In a mining country such as ours, the accident on Aug. 5 at the San Jose mine near Copiapo was symbolic of our national condition. These were ordinary laborers, hardworking men who lacked formal education, hardened by the northern sun, by a life underground and by the physical and mental stress their work required. Mining is known as Chile’s “salary,” accounting for much of our gross domestic product. This mine, owned by two Chilean entrepreneurs, offered better pay than most but was rumored to be riskier for workers.
We all know what happened after the thundering mine collapse buried the 33; the actions and reactions have already achieved mythic status. The foreman, Luis Urzua, took control, rationing canned tuna and milk. The relatives came to get news about their loved ones and decided not to leave until they learned what was happening, enduring the sun, then the cold, then the wind. President Sebastian Piera insisted the miners were alive when others assured him it was impossible; then, on the same day his father-in-law died, he held the message from the miners triumphantly.
We celebrated the Sept. 18 bicentennial in their honor, and they danced a cueca on our national day.
While the men remained below us, here on the surface there was no other topic of conversation — and there still isn’t — beyond the fate and future of the miners. Their rescue last week, as dramatic as it was methodical, may be the memory that most endures in the world’s imagination, but for us it will be those black Chilean eyes in the first video, looking at us. Here we are, alive, they seemed to say, waiting patiently. Or their correspondence with their families. Or their request to watch soccer and our national team dedicating matches to them. Their paper chess sets. The prayers of Pope Benedict XVI. Steve Jobs sending iPods. A Chilean millionaire offering each family $10,000. Their laughter even through sadness, stress and suffering.
We will remember ordinary men behaving in extraordinary ways because they had no choice but to become heroes.
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