For those of us who grew up in southern Colorado, what occurred on April 20, 1914, will forever and always be known as the Ludlow Massacre. Today, I honor the memory of those lost souls, and all they sacrificed to help build our nation.
HIGHLANDS RANCH, Colo. – April 20 is a date that is marked widely each year in the United States for one of two reasons. To the chagrin of law-enforcement officials, thousands of young Americans gather on college campuses and in public parks on 4/20 each year to light up joints and pipes in a self-indulgent display of support for the nation’s cannabis culture and the legalization of marijuana. Meanwhile, in homes, public schools, hospitals and elsewhere, those devastated by the April 20, 1999, Columbine High School shootings — survivors, their families and others — quietly, soberly and sadly mark another anniversary of the Littleton, Colo., tragedy.
But for me, April 20 will always be the day two women and 11 children burned and choked to death in a cellar beneath a tent set afire under suspicious circumstances, and the day several male coal miners – one as young as 12 – died when militiamen shot them while trying to break up a long labor strike in southern Colorado.
History books refer to that day and the events leading up to it and after it as the “deadliest labor strike in U.S. history.” For those of us who grew up in southern Colorado, however, what occurred on April 20, 1914, will forever and always be known as the Ludlow Massacre. It’s hard to grow up hispana, mestiza or American Indian in southern Colorado and not have the Ludlow and Sand Creek massacres and all that these infamous names represent seared into your psyche and historical and cultural memory.
My grandparents and their parents were from the storied San Luís Valley. My grandfather, Silvano Vigil, was born in Trinidad, Colo., in 1901, and worked in coal mines near La Veta (Spanish for “the mineral vein”) for years. He died in old age and with black lung, a stark reminder of his coal mining days.
It’s hard to grow up hispana, mestiza or American Indian in southern Colorado and not have the Ludlow and Sand Creek massacres and all that these infamous names represent seared into your psyche and historical and cultural memory.
My Tata would have been only 14 years old when the Ludlow killings occurred, but they left an indelible mark on him, and, by extension, on me. I still remember sitting on his lap as he talked about Ludlow in a reverent tone. He didn’t want history to be forgotten, and I feel compelled to honor his legacy.
The original players and high-profile observers of the infamous coalfield war of southern Colorado have figured heavily in historical accounts of the Ludlow Massacre. There was the illustrious Rockefeller family, which owned the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company (CF&I), the largest coal mine operator in the West, and the United Mine Workers of America, one of the most powerful labor unions in the nation.
Among the observers and those who have honored the fallen strikers over the years are Mary Harris “Mother” Jones, the American labor and community organizer, historian Howard Zinn, the author of “A People’s History of the United States,” and legendary folk singer Woody Guthrie, who recounted the bloody strike in his brooding 1944 song “Ludlow Massacre.”
Following the killings at Ludlow, Mother Jones is said to have remarked, “Little children roasted alive make a front page story.” In a documentary shot only three years before his 2010 death, Zinn described how Guthrie’s song inspired him to learn more about the labor dispute, “which nobody had ever mentioned in any of my history courses, (and) which no textbook of mine had ever mentioned.”
~ Following the killings at Ludlow, Mother Jones is said to have remarked, “Little children roasted alive make a front page story.” ~
Even less mentioned than the major players in this historical drama are the individuals who died that day at Ludlow. Their names reflect the rich ethnic diversity of people who helped build Colorado’s coal mining industry, and by extension its cities, roads and other infrastructure. Some of the mine workers were Italian and Greek immigrants.
Many were hispanos who had lived in the southern Colorado and northern New Mexico territory for generations. Among the dead were people with Spanish surnames such as Pedregón, Rubino and Valdez. Italian surnames included Bartolotti, Costa and Petrucci. Other names were Fyler, Snyder, Tikas and Ullman.
~ Many were hispanos who had lived in the southern Colorado and northern New Mexico territory for generations. Among the dead were people with Spanish surnames such as Pedregón, Rubino and Valdez. ~
The oldest was 56. The children ranged in age from 11 to three months. Several people named Costa died together that day, and one can only assume they were a family: Charlie, 31, Fedelina, 27, Onofrio, 6, and Lucy, 4.
In his Bancroft Prize-winning 2008 book “Killing for Coal: America’s Deadliest Labor War,” University of Colorado Denver history professor Thomas G. Andrews cites court testimony in describing the hours before the killings at Ludlow, where 1,200 striking coal miners lived with their families:
“The sounds of exploding powder and shrieking bullets echoed between piñon-covered canyon walls, rousing the many strikers who had decided to sleep in, following Orthodox Easter festivities that had run late into the night. Women grabbed the children and hid with them in cellars dug into the hard adobe and below the colony. The men of the camp, meanwhile, took their weapons, hurried to defensive positions via a nearby arroyo and returned fire in hopes of drawing the assault away from the colony.”
Years after my grandfather died, his Ludlow stories would come back to haunt me. I was working the news desk as an Associated Press journalist in Denver in 2003 when reports emerged that vandals had smashed the heads and limbs of the man, woman and child statues sculpted into the granite base of the Ludlow Monument. Photos released by law-enforcement authorities showed the decapitated, disfigured statues.
The images took my breath away, and instantly connected me to my past. Why would anyone dishonor the dead? That night, I was working alongside reporters from other parts of the country who did not understand the significance of April 20 in Colorado and U.S. history. Like Zinn and many other Americans, they had never heard of Ludlow.
~ Years after my grandfather died, his Ludlow stories would come back to haunt me. ~
Today, all that remains of the bloody labor dispute site is a ghost town in Las Animas County, and a granite monument with the epitaph, “In memory of the men, women and children who lost their lives in freedom’s cause at Ludlow, Colorado, April 20, 1914. Erected by the United Mine Workers of America.”
Early Spanish-speaking settlers gave the county in which the monument sits its original full name, “La Ciudad de las Animas Perdidas en Purgatorio,” or “the city of lost souls in purgatory.”
Today, I honor the memory of those lost souls, and all they sacrificed to help build our nation.
Deborah Méndez-Wilson (née Quintana-Vigil) is a fifth-generation Coloradan whose mestizo family roots in the United States date back to the early-1700s in Spanish colonial New Mexico. A graduate of the University of Colorado at Boulder School of Journalism and Mass Communication, Méndez-Wilson spent nearly 20 years working in professional journalism for news organizations such as the Associated Press, Reuters, Wireless Week and others. She also has worked as a public relations professional in state government, health care and higher education. She lives in Highlands Ranch, Colo., with her husband and son, and also shares her life with her adult daughter and grandson.