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“Salt of the Earth” at 60

31 March 2014

What I think is probably the first “Chicano” film, certainly the first with dialog in English, Spanish AND Spanglish, a Hollywood classic almost no one know about, premiered 60 years ago.. and quickly faded from view.  It was banned for over ten years in the United States, and I first saw it on Mexican television (on May Day, shown on May Day, of course).


Made during the height of the McCarthy era, the story of a strike at the Empire Zinc Mine in Grant County New Mexico, the story of the making of Salt of the Earth is almost as interesting as the film itself … being a collaboration between the Mine Workers’ Union, the Wicked Queen from Disney’s Snow White, Grampa Walton, and… in the role of the heavy, the FBI and the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees — which … fearing they’d be “contaminated” by their cooperation with a “Communist” film would get them blacklisted.  (I wrote more about “Salt of the Earth”… and some personal matters, back in August 2007).

Although the strikers are “radical” in the 1950s film, their demands today don’t seem all that unreasonable:

Empire Zinc mine had one of the smallest work forces, and its workforce was almost entirely Mexican American, according to retired miner and local historian Terry Humble.  Wages there were 15 cents an hour lower than at the other mines, there was no paid lunch, no paid vacation, and workers did not get the same “collar to collar pay.” Workers in the other mines got paid from the time they arrived to work at the mine “collar.” At Empire Zinc, you didn’t get paid for lunch even though you spent that half hour underground in the mine. Safety conditions also suffered. And there was neither equality nor dignity when it came to company housing for the Chicano workers’ families. Unlike the homes of the Anglo miners, those of the Chicanos had neither indoor plumbing nor hot water.

Which isn’t to say that “communist” fears were unfounded.  As if having a strike leader (“Ramon Quintano”) played by the real strike leader, Juan Chacón… who was a communist party leader in subsequent years.  Or casting left-wing Mexican actress Roasario Revueltas as the real-life Virginia Chacón (called “Esperanza Quintero” in the film),

What was radical was that Esperanza transforms herself  from a meek housewife to a “Women of Steel”… an equal of the miners, and of the Anglos… anticipating a much more radical social change  in terms of racial and sexual equality  than any union contract could have brought about.  Perhaps, then, it was only right that Revueltas was deported during the production, for fears she might “contaminate” the fairness in the mines might have brought about.

No longer seen as radical, those who helped celebrate the anniversary included the descendants of those that back in 1954 went out of their way to stop Salt of the Earth… and that the best coverage comes from the descendant of the old Communist Party newspaper, Daily Worker, the on-line  People’s World:

It wasn’t coincidental that the impetus for the 60th anniversary celebration came from the union that now represents the Sheriff’s Department employees, according to American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees Council 18 Communications Director Miles Conway. The union members, upon learning of the dastardly role played by deputies during the strike, were eager to put themselves on the better side of history, Conway explained.

International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, IATSE, the union representing movie projectionists, also wholeheartedly pitched in. They wanted to atone, said their president Jon Hendry, for the role that union played, succumbing to anti-communism, in suppressing the film. Hendry, who is also head of the New Mexico AFL-CIO,  recalled how the FBI successfully pressured the union to order its members to refuse to screen the movie.

The 90 minute (more or less) Salt of the Earth on youtube here:

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