Salt of the Earth Remains Relevant 60 Years Later

Salt of the Earth, 1954
By Deborah Rosenfelt
This year marks the sixtieth anniversary of the film Salt of the Earth. With a story based on an actual strike in southwestern New Mexico, the film represents the struggles of working class miners and their families for decent wages and working and living conditions. It explores the tensions between male and female, Mexican American and Anglo community members, who finally come together to win a victory for the community as a whole. 

The real strike had taken place two years earlier in Bayard, New Mexico. As in the film, the community was challenged and changed when, after an injunction against the striking miners, the women of the Ladies Auxiliary took over the picket line. The film evolved through an unusual collaboration between blacklisted Hollywood filmmakers and members of the mining community of Bayard, the headquarters of Local 890 of the progressive International Union of Mine, Mill, and Smelter Workers. Most of the roles in the film were played by members of the mining community.

The film, produced at the height of the “Red Scare,” encountered opposition at virtually every step of its production. The filmmakers were attacked on the floor of Congress. The International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE), the anti-communist entertainment workers’ union, tried to block the film crew from participating and to prevent access to editing facilities. Its female lead, Mexican actor Rosaura Revueltas, was deported before the film was finished. IATSE and the American Legion blocked its dissemination. And, vigilantes physically threatened the community, eventually burning down a Mine-Mill union hall and a miner/actor's home.

 I first wrote about Salt of the Earth in the early 1970s. I had seen it at a fundraiser for the Los Angeles Westside Women’s Center and had been deeply moved by it. I wanted to know about its background, most of all about the sources of what today we might call its multiracial feminism. Over the next year, I interviewed members of the mining community in New Mexico and members of the Hollywood group who had made the film. In retrospect, their generosity seems even more extraordinary than it seemed at the time, given my own relative ignorance not only about Mexican American and labor history, but also about the political investments and struggles that had led to the expulsion of the filmmakers from Hollywood and the expulsion of the union from the AFl/CIO.

Some of the filmmakers and some of the union members had belonged to the Communist Party. Although they spoke with varying degrees of openness about these still-suspect ties, part of the history lesson that I learned was the importance of good organizing, and of a capacious and extensive progressive political culture. I remain grateful to the remarkable men and women — among them screenwriter Michael Wilson, producer Paul Jarrico, Sonia Biberman, Sylvia Jarrico, union and community organizers Clint Jencks and Virginia Jencks, Virginia Chacon, activist Anita Torres, and many others — who continued over the ensuing decades to educate younger generations of students, scholars and activists by telling and interpreting the story of the strike and the film long after it was finished.

Salt of the Earth may or may not be a great film — opinions differ even among those who share its progressive politics. It has been praised as a stunning example of neo-realism and accused of being one-dimensional and propagandistic. I think of it as being less propagandistic than pedagogical, invested in teaching affectively about inequality and resistance. In any case, it is indisputably an important film, selected by the National Film Registry as worthy of permanent preservation. It remains one of the few American films to feature the experiences and narrative voice of a working class woman of color, Esperanza Quintero, unforgettably portrayed by Revueltas.

Salt of the Earth's “intersectional” perspective reminds us that a progressive politics of intersectionality linking class, race, and gender as identities and social formations existed long before that term was coined in academia. Its linking of productive and reproductive labor, of paid work and family life, its representation of the troubled negotiations of intimacy between women and men in duress and change, ensure its place in the canons of feminist art. Its making constituted a significant event in the annals of cultural history, a moment of speaking back to power in which film artists and mine workers, women and men, Anglos and Mexican Americans, collaborated in the expression of their shared commitment to social justice.

Salt of the Earth has enjoyed a persistent after-life (and is available through Netflix). It has inspired a documentary about its production, an original opera based on its plot, and a docudrama starring Jeff Goldblum as director Herbert Biberman. “Salt” has been the subject of five books. Reunions and anniversary celebrations have been held in Silver City and Santa Fe, New Mexico. The 2014 series of anniversary events in Silver City and Santa Fe included numerous screenings, panels and a guided tour of the mine and film sites, sponsored by universities, arts councils, and union locals, from the United Steelworkers (which absorbed Mine-Mill) to AFSCME, and prominently including IATSE in a moment of historical reparation. One event honored Angelina Sanchez, a Ladies Auxiliary member, actor in the film, and long-time activist; it was organized by her daughter, who continues the family tradition.

In the 1970s, I noted that the gains of the strike against Empire Zinc, while real, were limited, and that “sex equality” in both family life and the paid labor force in that region of New Mexico remained an elusive goal, though perhaps more consciously articulated than in the past. Needless to say, racial, gender and class inequalities remain entrenched in the U.S. today. Celebrations of “Salt’s” sixtieth have not only looked to the past but have also used the film to discuss contemporary violations of the dignity and rights of migrants, refugees and the displaced in the borderlands of the Southwest and around the world.

  Deborah S. Rosenfelt, a DSA member and Professor of Women's Studies at the University of Maryland, published an edition of the screenplay of Salt of the Earth. She has authored many essays on American women’s literary and cultural history, women artists and social change, and women’s studies and curricular change in higher ed.

 


 Individually signed posts do not necessarily reflect the views of DSA as an organization or its leadership. Democratic Left blog post submission guidelines can be found here.

 

 

Data Security for DSA Members

June 27, 2017

Ack! I googled myself and didn't like what I found!

WHAT: A DSA Webinar about "Doxing"
WHEN: 9PM EST, 6PM PST

We're proud of our organizing, and chapter work is transparent for both political and practical reasons. However, there are basic precautions you can take in this time of rapid DSA growth to protect your privacy.

Key Wiki is a website that meticulously documents DSA activity and posts it for the world to see. If you're an active DSA member, likely your name is on their website. This is an example of "doxing".

As DSA becomes larger, more visible, and more powerful, we might expect that more websites like this will pop up, and more of our members' information might be posted publicly on the web.

Join a live webinar on Tuesday, June 27 with data security expert Alison Macrina, to learn:

  1. what is doxing? with examples and ways to prevent it
  2. how to keep your passwords strong and your data secure
  3. where to find your personal info on the internet and how to get it removed
  4. social media best practices for DSA organizers
  5. what to do if you've already been doxed

Zoom Link: https://zoom.us/j/9173276528

Call-in Info: +1 408 638 0968
Meeting ID: 917 327 6528

Film Discussion: Pride

September 10, 2017
· 11 rsvps

Join DSA members Eric Brasure and Brendan Hamill to discuss the British film Pride (2014). It’s 1984, British coal miners are on strike, and a group of gays and lesbians in London bring the queer community together to support the miners in their fight. Based on the true story of Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners. The film is available for rent on YouTube, Amazon, and iTunes. 8 ET/7 CT/6 MT/5 PT.

Film Discussion: Union Maids

September 24, 2017
· 8 rsvps

 

Join DSA member and labor historian Susan Hirsch in discussing Union Maids (1976). Nominated for an Academy Award, this documentary follows three Chicago labor organizers (Kate Hyndman, Stella Nowicki, and Sylvia Woods) active beginning in the 1930s. The filmmakers were members of the New American Movement (a precursor of DSA), and the late Vicki Starr (aka Stella Nowicki) was a longtime member of Chicago DSA and the Chicago Women's Liberation Union. It’s available free on YouTube, though sound quality is poor. 8ET/7CT/6MT/5PT.