Onofre Tafoya remembers ‘Mother Magma’

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By John Hernandez

Onofre “Taffy” Tafoya moved to Mammoth in April of 1956.

“Magma Mine was hiring like crazy at that time,” he said.

He had been working in a brickyard in Phoenix out in the hot sun for the past five years. He was hired the same day he interviewed at Magma and started work the following day. Now he was working in the shade 1,400 feet underground. Thirty-seven years later, he would retire as a General Haulage Foreman. Not bad for a man with only a sixth grade education.

Taffy was born and raised in Winslow, Arizona during the Great Depression. Winslow was a railroad town at the time. His father and grandfather had been sheepherders in New Mexico. Taffy said that during the Depression he saw the migrating families from Oklahoma’s dust bowl come through Winslow. His family was better off as even with their struggles, their family had a rood over their head and food to eat. He remembers seeing families sleeping in culverts or under trees. One of his father’s job during that time was as a caretaker of some land. He would have to tell the people that were migrating westward that they could only sleep on the land over night and then had to leave the following day.

When he was in kindergarten, his teacher opened up his world by introducing him to reading. She would read to the class acting out all the parts in the stories. “I fell in love with her and what she was doing,” he said. “Reading became a magnificent obsession.”

He used to hunt through garbage cans for newspapers, magazines and books to read. He remembers his kindergarten teacher’s name to this day some 60 plus years later – Mrs. O’Dell.

Onofre would drop out of school in sixth grade but was still a voracious reader. Education was not important to his father. His father’s thinking was “that the most important thing in life is a good wife and a steady job.” At 13, Onofre worked for the Santa Fe Railroad as an electricians helper. He worked on freight diesels. He worked in a bakery and still bakes today. When Onofre was 14 years old his mother died. Eight days later he joined the Navy. He told the recruiter he was 17. He lied and said both parents were dead and that he lived with an aunt who could only speak and understand Spanish. The school Truant Officer ended up signing for him.

Taffy really liked the Navy. He liked the discipline. He had been raised to respect authority and his elders. He had never eaten so well or dressed so warm, he said. He traveled from Camp Pendleton in San Diego to Pearl Harbor on a destroyer. It took them eight days to get there. The destroyer sailed all the way circling the aircraft carrier constantly to protect it from Japanese submarines. Then there were books – on board the ship were piles and piles of the 25¢ paperback books. He made sure he always had a stack in his quarters.

When the war ended he was to be stationed at either Pearl Harbor or the Bikini Atoll. His baking experience got him assigned to the commissary as a baker at Pearl Harbor. He was glad many years later when he found out that many soldiers and sailors stationed at the Bikini Atoll began dying from cancer and other complications caused by radiation. The Bikini Atoll area was used to test atomic bombs.

He was discharged at the age of 18 and got married shortly after and had four children. with his first wife. They adopted two more later on.

Onofre went to work for Magma and learned all he could about how the mine operated. He worked at many different jobs working his way into supervisory positions. He retired in 1993. He was a widower and decided it was time to start traveling and see the places he had read about. “I wanted to go and stand where Moses had stood looking over the Promised Land,” he explained. He traveled to the Egypt, and other countries. He traveled to China where he met his present wife Allison. He made numerous trips back and forth to China courting her. Allison is Chinese and was a child living in Shanghai during the occupation by the Japanese army.

On Friday, May 24, 2013, Onofre “Taffy” Tafoya will be talking about the history and operation of the Magma Mine at San Manuel. He will have a slideshow with numerous photos including some of the old Tiger mine. The presentation begins at 6:00 p.m. at the Acadia Ranch Museum on the turn off to Mt. Lemmon Road off of American Avenue. It is free to the public.

Taffy will tell you his version of how Magma Mine operated, the benefits of the mining and how the ore was taken out of the earth. Learn how it was mined and some of the many stories of the “mineros” who worked hard and even died underground. Mining was Taffy’s other “magnificent obsession”. He is proud to have worked in what was once the world’s largest underground copper mine. Taffy has written two books about the Magma mine in San Manuel, “Mother Magma” and “Los Mineros”.

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