PUEBLO, Colo. (AP) — When Pueblo native Mercedes Granillo followed in her mother’s footsteps and took a job at the steel mill 43 years ago, she very much found herself a woman in a man’s world.
Many of the men she worked with would seldom let her forget it.
“There was 10 of us women they hired at one time,” Granillo said, recalling her first days at the mill. “When we came in, oh, the men in here were not happy with us.”
When Granillo moved home to Pueblo from California with her husband and children in 1976, her younger sister, Rebecca Ortiz, recommended she look into finding a job at the mill.
Knowing the work would be hard but the pay fair — and keeping in the back of her mind she had two young children to feed — Granillo applied for and got the job.
Her hiring marked another addition to what’s become somewhat of a family tradition: Granillo’s mother, Carman Hernandez, worked alongside three of her aunts, and her sister, Ortiz, began her own 44-year career there in 1970.
And though she was by no means the first woman to work at the mill, she found that many men still had little interest in working alongside a woman.
When she first started, the mill foreman told Granillo she would have to “earn her keep,” so her first role within the mill was anything but easy.
“The foreman told me, ‘Young lady, if you’re going to stay here in this mill, you’re going to go into the hardest job first,’” she recalled.
“So he tried to intimidate me. But I said, ‘OK.’”
Granillo was first tasked with the job of making barbed wire and was assigned to assist a senior worker, who promptly told the mill foreman that the job was too difficult for any woman to perform.
“So I looked at him and I said, “I can do the work!” Granillo recalled.
The foreman sided with Granillo and insisted the senior employee work with Granillo, so she returned to work under his supervision.
But the partnership was short-lived.
After about a week, the senior worker again said to the foreman, “No more. She’s working too hard.”
At that point, Granillo was handed off to a man she coincidentally knew from her childhood named Margarito Benegas.
Through their pairing, Granillo found an ally.
“Mr. Benegas showed me how to do my wires so I wouldn’t tangle them, and he just took me under his wing,” Granillo said.
“Once I got that ... and went in on my own, then I started matching what the guys were doing. And at that point they said, ‘I don’t think we’re going to get rid of this one.’
“So they started being a little bit more friendly once they saw I could pull my own weight and I wasn’t having anybody doing anything for me — that I could do it on my own.”
Even after showing she could do the work, her presence was met with skepticism and resentment.
“Some of the men were mean,” Granillo said.
“They’d say, ‘You’re taking a man’s job.’ Or, ‘You’re taking a job away from a man.’”
“And I’d say, ‘Well I have a right to be here just like you do.’ But in those days they didn’t want women here.”
At one point early on in her employment, Granillo said she began to question whether she wanted to continue working at the mill.
So she spoke with her mother, a longtime crane operator, who refused to let her quit.
“My mom always told us, ‘You’ve got to fight for what you want,’” Granillo said.
“She said, ‘No. You’re going to give me a year.’ So I said alright and I stuck with it and withstood. And things got easier.”
As time went on, things continued to improve for Granillo.
When new jobs would open up at the mill, she would exercise her right to “break in,” meaning her seniority at the mill gave her first priority when new jobs became available.
But once again, when she applied for new jobs, Granillo was met with resistance because of her gender.
She found another ally in union grievance man Mel Otero.
“Mel Otero was the best griever I ever had,” Granillo said.
“Every time a new job would get posted and come out, I’d say, ‘I want to break in,’ and I always used to get told, ‘No, you’re a woman. You can’t do that job.”
Each time she was told “no,” Granillo called Otero.
“He’d come in and the next day and he’d say, ‘You’re on the job Monday.’
“So I had to fight for everything. But I had already put it in my head that I’m not leaving. I’m not going. I’m staying.”
Granillo has worked in numerous roles within the many jobs at the mill, and at one point became the first woman foreman at the wire mill.
The promotion effectively made her the boss of many of the men who’d once questioned her ability to pull her own weight.
When new hires came onto the floor, many expressed skepticism at Granillo serving as their boss.
But with the men who worked below Granillo already familiar with her abilities, they quickly schooled the new employees on what to expect from their new boss.
“By that time I had already proved myself to the other guys, so any time I had a new hire, and I’d tell them, ‘You need to do this’ and ‘Do that,’ and I’d know because it’s a woman telling them what to do they’re not gonna have it,” Granillo recalled.
“But my guys would tell them, ‘You know what? She’s not asking you to do nothing she ain’t already done. So just do it.’... They stuck up for me.”
After losing her job in the wire mill during companywide layoffs in 1986, Granillo worked briefly as a park ranger and went back to school to secure her EMT license in order to be rehired in the plant protection division of the mill.
She was later rehired and has remained in plant protection — which includes firefighting, EMT and security services — ever since. She is now the longest-tenured employee in the division.
Granillo turns 72 in November. At this point in her career, she is considering retirement, but has no immediate plans to do so.
She’s been saying she might retire since her sister, Ortiz, did so in 2014, but for some reason, she just keeps coming back.
“I just, I don’t know. I love the mill,” she said.
“I don’t know why I’m like this but I like the mill. I like working here. I like the people here and the day-to-day different changes that go on.”
But even after her retirement, her family’s presence in the mill will likely continue; her son now works as a crane man, just like his grandmother did before him.
“We’re just mill people, I guess,” she said. “From my mother on down.”
When asked what people might be able to learn from her life and her story, Granillo said they should take away the fact that with hard work and persistence, there is little one cannot do to improve their circumstances.
“Just because you’re on the bottom, doesn’t mean you need to stay on the bottom,” Granillo said. “You can pull yourself up, go forward and create. Don’t think you can’t do it just because you’re a woman.
“I see all these young ones coming in now and some of them don’t stay. They say the work is too hard. And I say, ‘Well then you’re just not meant to be.’ Because it takes a certain kind of person — and for women it’s worse.
“But if you come in, be strong and do your job, they’re going to take care of you.”