The Miner's Mistress and Chile's Etiquette of Love

Much was made over the miner whose mistress greeted him as he emerged from the ground. But if nothing else, it put normal, middle-class adultery in the spotlight in a most refreshing way.

Johnny Barrios Rojas embraces his girlfriend Susana Valenzuela after being rescued from the San Jose mine, near Copiapo, Chile, Oct. 13, 2010.(Photo: Hugo Infante, Government of Chile / AP Photo).

The rescue of Chile's paramedic miner Yonni Barrios Rojas was heartwarming, but complicated by the involvement of two women: his wife and his mistress, both of whom the world was watching when he emerged from the ground. Ultimately, his mistress was the one who embraced him in front of dozens of cameras, while his wife stayed away, declining to even watch the rescue on TV.

I'm not the only one who watched the reunion of Rojas and his mistress, Susana Valenzuela, with mixed emotions. For one split second, she seemed to be fluffing up her hair, a vulnerable gesture. Then she threw her arms around him. And though his legal wife, Marta Salinas, decided not to show up, we don't really know what that means: Every emotional triangle is unique.

If you've occupied the different points on a romantic triangle, your heart might ache just a bit thinking about these three. According to the Daily Telegraph, Yonni has said "that he loves them both, that they are both important to him and he wants them to be friends with each other." He asked both women to be present at the moment of his rescue.

Arthur, a London journalist who has been in lots of triangles, says, "What happened here wasn't anybody's business. The media should have butted out. Without media interference, one woman might pretend not to know about the other, and all three might have been happier." In 2001, Arthur's wife and his girlfriend accidentally met while he was recovering from an appendectomy in Middlesex Hospital. "I was hooked up to an IV with stitches in my abdomen when they encountered each other." Arthur felt like a victim—"things happen to me!"—and he thinks that's how Yonni must have felt 2,300 feet below the earth, hearing about Marta and Susana.

What guy doesn't need a hug after being trapped underground for two months?

However, Marta's decision to stay away was understandable. Feminine pride is one explanation, but perhaps, after 28 years of marriage, Marta cares about Yonni in a more complicated way than Susana does.

While it's tempting to believe that people in other countries are more open-minded about infidelity, it's never simple. We remember Francois Mitterand's funeral in 1996—a wife, mistress, and illegitimate daughter standing together—but France has changed. Polygamy, which was officially tolerated while Mitterrand was president, has become an anti-immigration issue. In cultures where things seem more relaxed, battle lines still form around legal status. Susana, who met Yonni five years ago, keeps telling the media that he's planning to divorce his wife, while Marta has proclaimed that the other woman has "no legitimacy."

Nevertheless, his idealistic request for wife and mistress to be present confers symbolic legitimacy on both. Can you imagine Bill Clinton ("that woman") or John Edwards (who boorishly told us he didn't love Rielle Hunter) being that much of an egalitarian? By comparison, Yonni's romantic etiquette looks positively heroic.

Far more interesting than those with lavish lifestyles or public careers is the guy with a union job who must cook up creative excuses while leading two lives.

Susana's love etiquette is another matter: Her revelations post-rescue ("Marta only paid attention to him when she wanted money.") are beginning to sound vindictive.

There was a monastic quality to their lives when the miners were trapped below ground, but these men weren't monks before they entered the mine. At Camp Esperanza last month, a Red Cross worker spoke to the Telegraph about girlfriends who are surprised to discover their men are also married. A few miners have parallel families who didn't know about each other until they arrived at the site.

A New York friend heard about the miner with four different families and began to tell me about her great-grandfather. "He had a family in New York and a family in Pennsylvania," Hannah told me. "I'm not sure how he pulled that off. My mother was his favorite person in the world. Every few years, she will call and say, 'You have to come over, your cousins are here.' I'm not sure who these people are or how we're related, but they're my cousins." As a child, Hannah wasn't aware of her great-grandfather's reputation. "One day my grandmother drove us to a farmhouse—she called it the old homestead—where her father's other family had lived. It was eastern Pennsylvania, close enough to New York so he could get back and forth without expecting everyone to run into each other. If there was a scandal, she has long since got over it."

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In recent years, we've been subjected to a barrage of scandals involving Olympian hypocrites, wealthy celebs. Naive theories circulate about powerful men and their sense of entitlement, as if ordinary guys don't also have multiple partners. A parade of superhuman satyrs, saints, and sluts is presented to the public by the interpreters of boldface adultery, and we project our animosity and longing, wishful ideals and partisan spite onto people we'll never meet.

It's easy to judge people harshly when multiple mansions are on the table and child support is in the millions, easier still to lampoon a scandal involving a state governor like Eliot Spitzer who was a prosecutor. The professionally virtuous public figure is an obvious target, along with any rich athlete.

Far more interesting than those with lavish lifestyles or public careers is the guy with a union job or the moderately successful boot strapper who must cook up creative excuses while leading two lives.

An opera buff I know describes the celebrated Neapolitan tenor Fernando de Lucia as an archetype for middle-income two-timers. The first to sing Pagliacci at the New York Met, de Lucia was a successful and popular artist; not exactly wealthy, he managed to provide a decent bourgeois lifestyle for two families—one of which he kept secret. He had four children with each woman, and managed to hide his second family from his wife for two decades by feigning a gambling habit. The supposed losses were used to support his other children. In later years, he bought the floor above his marital residence and had a private staircase built at the back. The arrangement, while ingenious, wasn't lavish, and de Lucia worked hard to maintain it. He left a modest inheritance, but it was divided between the two families as he intended, thanks to a conscientious adult son from his marriage.

In today's environment, de Lucia's house of cards would have been exposed by now, treated as news, and that's too bad. "In these situations," says Arthur, "nobody wants to rock the boat. You're in a triangle because you care about two people."

But media attention can turn a delicate situation into a catfight. In my perfect world, Susana wouldn't want the woman who was in Yonni's life for 28 years to lose; Marta wouldn't be invested in denying Susana's legitimacy. Yonni did the right thing when he asked two women to treat each other decently—simply because he loves them both.

Tracy Quan's latest novel is Diary of a Jetsetting Call Girl, set in Provence and praised in The Nation as a "deft account of occupational rigors and anxieties before the crash." Tracy's debut, Diary of a Manhattan Call Girl, and the sequel, Diary of a Married Call Girl, are international bestsellers. A regular columnist for The Guardian, she has written for many publications including Cosmopolitan, The Financial Times, and The New York Times.