How the Cheating Chilean Miner’s Wife Fell in Love With Herself

Tragedy, Hope & Betrayal: How The Cheating Chilean Miner’s Wife Fell in Love—With Herself

Emma Sepúlveda

Just hours before the 33 Chilean miners were to be rescued from their 69-day ordeal underground, there was one thing that Marta Salinas wanted her philandering husband, Jonni Barrios, and the other miners to know: “Women are fighters.”

It was a strong statement coming from a woman who was unwittingly thrust into the glaring media spotlight as part of an epic love triangle centering around Barrios, who infamously asked that both his wife and mistress be waiting when he emerged from his prison nearly a half-mile underground.

In response to the request, Marta remained strong and dignified. She did not bemoan the fact that her husband publicly humiliated her. She only wanted Barrios and the other miners to know that the women were behind their rescue. Because, in the midst of the worldwide media spectacle that focused on the miners and the mammoth rescue effort at the San José Mine, Marta Salinas found herself, her strength, and her dignity.

“I would like to remind you that the women were the ones that showed strength (and pressured authorities) when everything was lost for you all to be rescued, because women are fighters. Please tell this to the (other) 32.”

Those were Marta’s parting words in her final letter to her husband and partner of 28 years. It was the same letter that informed him that she would not be waiting for him outside the mine when he emerged from the Fenix rescue capsule.

Marta declined Mamiverse’s request for an interview through her friend Emma Sepúlveda, author of Setenta Dias de Noche (Seventy Days of Nights). However, Mamiverse has obtained exclusive U.S. rights from the author and Chilean publisher Catalonia to reprint Marta’s letter in its entirety, as well as numerous notes that Jonni sent Marta while awaiting rescue. All are reprinted in Seventy Days of Nights, which became available as an ebook this week. Although the title refers to the time the now world-renowned miners spent in the underground darkness, it highlights the women who played a key role in their extrication and who were waiting for them.

HOLDING ONTO HOPE
For most of the 69 days, Marta held vigil in Camp Hope. She was one of the first wives on the scene, having learned of his and the other miners’ entrapment, ironically, from her husband’s lover. Early on, she stood in the path of an earth-moving machine, staring down the operator, when she thought workers had given up on finding her husband and the other men, according to Emma. Every day, Marta washed Jonni’s underwear, she exchanged notes with him, she even sneaked cigarettes to him, despite authorities’ instructions not to send such prohibited items. Marta stood by her man until he asked of her what she could not—would not—give: She rejected his request to be there to greet him alongside his lover, Susana.

“Yesterday, you asked me to go there to meet you with your other woman, but my dignity as a woman is stronger than that,” Marta wrote to Jonni, whom she has not seen since before the collapse. “I wish you a great success in your new life, the life you have chosen.”

In her letter, Marta also tells Jonni that she went to the mine “to give you strength, courage and hope, and I had faith that you all were alive.” She writes that they both have learned from their experience—and they have both lost: “I, because you were the person that I loved the most, and you because I was the person that loved you the most. But between the two of us, you were the one who lost the most, because I will be able to love again as I have loved you, but you will not be loved as I loved you.”

Emma, who traveled to Copiapó to write a book about all of the women of Camp Hope, spent more than a month with all of the women and family members as they awaited the harrowing rescue. A professor at the University of Nevada-Reno, Emma was often interviewed by American television programs during the excavation to free the miners. She talked with and interviewed all of the women, including Jonni’s lover, Susana Valenzuela. But no one moved her more than Marta, to whom she devotes a chapter in her book.

“I have learned to respect and love myself and this is going to be the beginning of a new life for me,” Emma quotes Marta as saying on the day before her husband becomes the 21st miner to be freed. In fact, as the world watched the televised images of miners emerging one by one, Marta was one of few people not watching. It would be too painful to watch her husband embrace the other woman, she told Emma.

Tragedy, Hope & Betrayal: How the Cheating Chilean Miner’s Wife Fell in Love—With HerselfTHE LETTERS
Marta’s and Emma’s friendship endures today. In fact, Marta gave Emma all of the notes and letters that Jonni, who was known as “House” (the TV doctor) because he helped the other miners with their medical conditions and treatment with the support of doctors above ground, sent her as the world watched the unfolding saga. At first, the letters show Jonni asking for information about the rescue effort and happenings at the surface. A smoker, he asks for cigarettes and practical questions about his finances and paycheck. But he also expresses gratitude—and shame. At one point, Jonni writes that he prayed that God would not take him because he wanted to ask Marta for forgiveness. In one letter, dated September 4, 2010, he writes to Marta that “the only thing I am good for it to irritate you,” and that one day they will talk.

“I really know that you love me very much, but love should have a limit. I have done so many things to you, and you still love me,” he writes. Before asking for cigarettes again, he writes: “Marta, I love you too, but I do not want you to get irritated with me. Later, we will have a long conversation. Marta, I think you sing your own song, you have good experience, you are self sufficient.”

But eventually, the letters turn colder, more distant, a stark contrast to the letter he writes Susana, whom he lovingly calls Chanita. In addition to telling her about the conditions underground and how the miners initially felt “rage and helplessness,” he tells Susana how much he misses her and that she is “the only thing that keeps me alive waiting to get out of here.”

Meanwhile, he asks Marta to put himself in his shoes and bemoans the fact that if not for being trapped, he would not be in the predicament of having to choose two people (the limit set by authorities) to greet him. He says he inquired about allowing him separate reunions, but that the situation is out of his control, and adds that he respects Susana’s decision to be waiting for him. In his final note to her four days before the miners’ rescue, he writes that he’s “really sorry this situation is going on, this is very sad,” in reference to the reunion efforts. He will not even be able to speak to her by phone, he says.

Never does Jonni formally apologize or ask for forgiveness for his infedility. Nor does he have the heart or perhaps the courage to tell her that he has chosen Susana over her. The last words he writes to her are: “God willing you will be fine, I cannot do anything else, I am at peace, and I respect the other people´s decisions.”Emma, who has not decided what to do with the notes, keeps them in a safe place. She shared them with Mamiverse; you can read Jonni’s handwritten letters here. An excerpt from Emma’s book, which includes Jonni’s notes and has been translated by Mamiverse to English, can be read here.

DIVORCE & A NEW LIFE
A year after the mine collapse, Marta is in the process of getting a divorce from

Jonni, a time-consuming process and something that would have been impossible just 7 years ago in Chile, one of the last countries in Latin America to legalize divorce.

“She is doing great,” Emma says of Marta. “She wants to move on with her life.” Marta has a small store in one of Copiapó’s shanty towns. Hurt by many of the inaccuracies published in the press, Marta refuses to talk to reporters, says Emma, adding that despite verbal confrontations between the two women, “Marta never said a word against Susana.” Today, she is surviving and standing on her own two feet. One of her two sons (from a previous relationship) continues to work in the mines, having followed in Jonni’s footsteps. Her husband and Susana live just a couple of blocks away.

Tragedy, Hope & Betrayal: How the Cheating Chilean Miner’s Wife Fell in Love—With HerselfAsked what transpired at Camp Hope that accounted for Marta’s transformation, Emma indicates that Marta found her voice.

“She knew that she had leadership capacity. She was fearless. She could make decisions. She could put pressure on the authorities…She could demand rights as a miner’s wife, and for the miners,” Emma says, admiringly. “I saw her blooming…I remember when I first met her and I remember at the end…she found herself through all of this, not only the power of leadership, but that she was worth something as a woman.”

Emma says Marta discovered: “I don’t deserve to be with a cheater. I am much better than this. I can survive by myself, and I am actually helping.”

The author was especially impressed with Marta’s strength and her deep and unwavering faith, something all of the women shared in common.

“Marta will always be in my heart. She cut the abuse and learned to empower herself,” says Emma, adding, “These women taught me that they have faith that will never make them doubt. They never lost hope that they would find them. I was so impressed with them, their incredible inner strength. It was a strength that I had forgotten that women have.

“They’re incredible women. They have lived under the most incredible conditions. I have great admiration for how they survive and how they cope with life. We have so much to learn from them.”

Perhaps the chant for the one-year anniversary of the mining tragedy and triumph should be slightly revised to: Chi-chi-chi, le-le-le, las mujeres de Chile!