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.

 


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