I pointed this out to Cercs’ deputy Mayor, an affable guy named Jesus Calderer, and he smiled with weariness. Yes, he told me just before our interview, ‘Santa Barbara’ was once busy here. Back in the days when the local lignite mine was employing 3,000 people, and the coal-fire power plant another 300.
Today, he told me, both the plant and the mine are closed. Saint Barbara’s flock has been severely culled.
Still, the poster, which featured a black and white photo of a helmeted miner, piqued my interest; it listed the date and time of this year’s celebration, and mentioned a dinner and a dance up at ‘the colony.’
Calderer explained that the colony was the miner’s settlement another 20 minutes up the mountain highway. After our interview, I made the drive. Along the way I passed an old castle-like mansion, set nearly as imposingly on a ridge above Cercs as the coal plant itself. The mansion, I would learn, was built by the Basque businessman who once owned the mine. Out front hung a huge for-sale banner – another sign of the times.When I reached the miners colony I saw a series of huge stone dormitories set out on a wind-swept ridge. In the mine’s heyday 3,000 people lived here. Now the colony was remarkable for how empty it was. I made my way to the only building that looked open: the Mining Museum.
Inside, a guide named Montse told me that only a handful of people still lived up here. “Everyone who can leaves,” she said. “My whole family worked in the mines, except for a cousin who went to study in Barcelona.” Even just a generation ago, she told me, when you finished your mandatory public education – at age 12 – you either went to work for the mine or you left.
Montse said she barely remembered the Saint Barbara festivities from when she was a small child. “Better to talk to Ferran,” she told me.
Ferran was Ferran Perarnao, a retired, camera-shy miner with a thick head of white hair and a beer in hand. I met him up at the colony’s bar, called, of course, Santa Barbara’s. I asked Ferran if he could describe the atmosphere of old, on the day of his patron saint.
“Ooooh,” he began, standing up with some trouble, “it was something else. The biggest party of the year. We miners looked forward to it more than any other day.”
For starters, it was a rare day off, he said. In the afternoon there was a mass, then people started piling into this very bar. “There wasn’t a better celebration in the entire region,” he said. “We had all of the best orchestras. We had such a great time.”
Ferran said he still lives up here at the colony, because his daughter works here and he wants to be close to her. He’s one of just a handful of miners who’s stuck around.
“There used to be a ton of people up here,” he said sadly. “But then they stopped offering work to young people. And so everyone left.”Back outside I took a quick look around. It was freezing cold and windy. No signs of life. I popped into the one other business, a sandwich shop and convenience store called The Pick and Shovel. An elderly woman and one sullen customer nodded hello.
A stark, sad place all around, I thought, with its inescapable air of abandonment. But what made it even sadder is this fact: though this mine is closed, and mines across the country are losing the government subsidies that kept them open for years, Spain is actually burning more coal than ever.
It’s importing it, from the US and elsewhere. The reason: natural gas prices in Europe have gone so high that coal is a cheaper option. And nearly five years into a brutal economic crisis, cheapness is everything. Even if it pollutes.