Interview with Manuel Cerrato Flores, living history of the ‘Tierrablanca’ mine

Manuel Cerrato Flores (La Zarza, 1922), is the oldest Tierrablanco native in the town. At 97 years old, he maintains an intact memory of the years he worked in the mine and as a mule driver in the towns of Extremadura. He has been widowed for seven years. He has four children, six grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren. He still enjoys watching ‘his own’ Real Madrid’s games, “when they win I have a glass of anise.”

When he was 13 years old, the Civil War broke out. Upon completion, he began working at the Juan Bueno mine.

How were your beginnings in the ‘Tierrablanca’ mine?

I started with the Trinidad. They were four brothers. Two were in charge of removing the white earth and two others were dedicated to selling it in the towns with the donkeys.

Sebastián ‘el Trini’, who was the smallest of them, went down to the mine and dug. I carried the basket and hooked it so that the colleague who was on top could pull it out using a rope.

How long were you working as a Tierrablanco?

I had two stages: the first, from the age of 16 to the age of 20, when I went to do military service. In a second, we leased between six partners and for 10 years a mine in ‘Orgao’, near the Don Tello farm. He was already 40 years old then.

Could you tell us what the mineral extraction process was like?

First, the mud was opened, which was a vertical excavation in the earth, rectangular in shape – approximately one meter long and half a width – that could be eight or ten meters deep, depending on whether mineral was found or not. Next, side galleries were dug to search for the ‘white earth’

How many people worked in the mudroom?

Basically, three. Two, down, and one, up. One was in charge of digging the gallery; another, to fill and load the baskets and the one on top, using a rope, to remove them.

How long was a work day?

Well, due to the hardness of the work, since everything was manual, the days could not be very long. Furthermore, the galleries were narrow, there was barely room for a person to kneel or crouch.

We were inside the mine for about three hours. We started work early and finished mid-morning. There came a time when, between the smoke from the lamp, the sweat, the fog… you couldn’t breathe and you had to get out. We spat ‘black’.

What tools did they use for extraction?

Little material. A lamp, a small pick or pickaxe and a bucket. And the hands. Nothing else.

How much did you earn per day?

Back then it was normal to charge in kind, and not in money. They gave me four buckets of ‘terrablanca’, which I collected and then sold. It was a poor job, little earned. But it was what it was.

How many sweepers were there in the mine?

Well, I think there would be about 8 or 10 sweepers.

Once the white earth was extracted, what did they do with it?

It was laid out and dried right there. The next day those who were in charge of selling it loaded three or four donkeys and went out there to sell it. People used it to ‘whitewash’ houses. Years later, the merchandise was already invoiced by train to a destination point, Cáceres, Seville… Later it was taken by donkey to that place – it took two or three days – and then it was sold in the towns of the region.

30 or 40 buckets could be removed daily, depending on the performance of the vein.

At what price was it sold?

Well, at first it was sold for a peseta per kilo. Then, it went up until it was paid five pesetas.

Did many families from the ‘terrablanca’ live in the town?

Well yes, because then there was little work. There were no wages. Many people worked in the sweepers or were muleteers who bought and sold skins, chickpeas, pigs, tripe and pepper for slaughter, depending on the time of year.

Until what year were you working in Tierrablanca?

Until I went to the military. Then I got married and spent about 20 years as a mule driver. At the age of 40 we leased the other mine, until I was 50. Then I was an emigrant in Germany for three years. When I returned we set up a churrería.

We assume that security measures were minimal or non-existent then. Did any serious accident happen in the mine?

Yes, an 18-year-old boy died. He was digging when an embankment fell away and he was buried. His name was Manuel.

What anecdote do you remember from that time?

When I got married they gave me a donkey, with which I took my honeymoon. We went to Valdemorales, a small town in the province of Cáceres, near Almoharín. I was very close to the family of a butcher there – they still call me his daughter – and we stayed at the inn where we stayed when we were in the area. After a few days, we returned by donkey to La Zarza.

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