A Reflection on the Movie SALT OF THE EARTH

Salt of the Earth is a story about low wage labor, workers fighting for unions, women fighting for a place outside of the home and finding their political voice, and it’s about the 1950s racial hostility of Anglos toward Mexican-Americans.  Because these issues about work, gender, race and social power still burden our society, with varying intensity, Salt of the Earth, a movie banned for decades because it was written, produced and directed in the heyday of anti-Communist fervor by members of the Hollywood Ten, is an appropriate movie for Labor Day.

Salt of the Earth begins with a personal narrative. With her softly accented English, Esperanza Quintero, played by the Mexican actress and dancer Rosaura Revueltas (later deported for her work on the film), locates the story in southern NM:  she explains that her village of San Marcos has been renamed by the Anglos and it’s now Zinc Town, NM.  With these few words, she sketches the power dynamics at the heart of the movie and embedded in the almost invisible power to name—power that is at once linguistic, spatial, religious, and racial.  She then articulates the moral claim based on the bond between place and identity for those who live in conquered lands, “Our roots go deep in this place, deeper than the pines, deeper than the mine shaft…”

My own family’s roots also go deep, deeper than the pines, deeper than the mine shaft in the land that is New Mexico.  My grandfathers, my uncles, and my dad for one long summer worked the mines, dug the copper, loaded the freight cars, repaired the train tracks, and my grandmothers, my aunts, my mom worked along side.

The movie is based on an actual labor strike against the Empire Zinc Co in Bayard, NM that began on Oct. 17, 1950 and ended on Jan. 24, 1952.  In June of 1951, a judge used the Taft-Hartley Act to declare that it was illegal for the workers to join the picket line.  The Taft-Hartley Act was passed after WWII to severely limit the power of unions and restrict the speech rights of workers.

There has been mining throughout southern New Mexico and Arizona since the mid 1800s, just after the U.S.-Mexico War in which the U.S. stripped Mexico of half of its land with its resources and more than 100,000 citizens. My father’s family lived in Santa Rita, NM, the location of one of the world’s largest open pit copper mines. Zinc and Copper are often mined in close proximity.  Santa Rita was a company town built and owned by several large corporations, including Kennecott Copper Mining Corporation, and finally razed to make room for a larger mine. (For more information about Santa Rita and its employment and social history, see Huggard & Humble, Santa Rita del Cobre: Univ. of Colorado Press: 2012).

Both zinc and copper were crucial metals for the industrialization and militarization of the United States.  Zinc is used to harden steel and for other construction materials.  Copper was necessary for the electrification of urban, rural and tribal America.  Together zinc and copper make brass.  These metals were used in the actual electrical wires as well as in the motors and engines that created new forms of labor, in and out of the home—for stoves, refrigerators, radios, musical instruments, and of course for bullets.

These mining enterprises were fiercely anti-union.   In 1935 Kennecott blacklisted employees and then evicted them and tore down their homes.  175 homes were destroyed and the NLRB and the Supreme Court ruled this was illegal and Kennecott was forced to rehire the workers. Without unions, workers like those in the movie live precarious lives—they have no job security, often are victims of wage theft, and enjoy few benefits.

My grandfather Felix Montoya worked in the Santa Rita mine from the 20s to the 40s, basically from the time my father was born until he went off to fight in WWII. My father was to become a social worker with a Masters Degree but as a teenager he was a dropout. On the Sunday evening after he quit high school, or so his story went, his father said, “tomorrow your mother will pack your lunch and you’ll go to work with me.”  My father shook his head, “Papa, yo no quiero trabajar en la mina.. . . I don’t want to work in the mine.” Mañana te vienes conmigo, tu mamá te empacara tu lonche, el viernes cuando te pagen, le daras tu sueldo a tu mama y te dara dos reales. . . You’ll come to work with me tomorrow and at the end of the week, you will give your salary to your mother and she will give you 50 cents for spending money.”  It was an experience my father never forgot; the work was inhumanly difficult, dirty, dangerous.  A couple of years later in November of 1939, his brother Rudolfo was killed in the mine; about the same time that my dad would join the Civilian Conservation Corps and then the military.

My other grandfather Simon Alarid worked on the railroad, he was the Section Foreman for the SFT&A track that ran from Whitewater to Santa Rita.  This heavily used section of track was built specifically to move the zinc and copper.

My mom and mi tias would tell stories about the harsh realities of segregated NM.  There was one theatre in Santa Rita called the Orpheum.  Anglos sat downstairs and Mexicans sat in the balcony, or maybe it was the aisle that separated them; either way, the theater and the town were strictly segregated.  Classrooms were also segregated row by row, and the use of Spanish in the schools was mocked and prohibited. Mine Mill Local 890, the same union local that is featured in the movie, fought hard against the segregation that began to slowly break down after WWII.

The toxic racial attitudes against the Mexican-American miners and their families are evident in an incident that occurred in Morensi, AZ in 1904. In Boston and New England, the Catholic Church was faced with relocating homeless and abandoned Irish children and infants.  Over 100,00 children were put on trains with nuns and priests and sent West.  One train headed to Morensi where arrangements had been made by the Bishop for Mexican families to adopt the children.  According to historian Linda Gordan in her brilliant book The Great Arizona Orphan Abduction, over the next four nights, after the children had been delivered to the Mexican families, a race riot and near lynching occurred led by the White women who argued that it was child abuse to place Irish children in Mexican homes.  Eventually there was a lawsuit in the territorial court of AZ and the Judge declared that the best interests of the White children were served by removing them from the Mexican families. This case was appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court which agreed, writing that because the adoptive parents were Mexican Indian, they were unfit by ”mode of living, habits and education . . . to have the custody, care and education” of white children.  This extreme racial hostility is the historical background for the story told in Salt of the Earth.

We have made enormous strides over fifty, one hundred, and one hundred and fifty years in dismantling the legal, and yes the social, architecture of racism—signs over water fountains—White, Colored—have disappeared; lynching is outlawed; the police power doesn’t maintain segregated schools.  Today no court, even the conservative wing of the Supreme Court, would prohibit cross-racial adoptions with such stark rhetoric.  Barriers have fallen, attitudes have improved, and stereotypes have been debunked.  Young people today are less prejudiced than my generation; my generation was less prejudiced than my parents.

This week we have been marking the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Dream speech delivered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.  The primary purpose of that historic March on Washington was to pressure Congress to enact civil rights legislation, but it was called a March for Jobs and Freedom and was a demand for an increase in the minimum wage to $2 per hour. Even with the many changes that we acknowledge, the demands of the marchers from 50 years ago for better wages and secure jobs have not been heard.  Today, opportunities for education, housing, employment, and access to capital are highly unequal; there is deep structural racism, sexism, homophobia, and other forms of discrimination. Income/wealth inequality for everyone except the 1% is the civil rights issue of our times.

The workers in Salt of the Earth picket and march for jobs and freedom. Last Saturday I was in DC with Alejandra, my younger daughter, for the March on Washington. We were again demanding Freedom and Jobs.

La lucha continua.  Si se puede.