Salt of the Earth

Released:  1954

Cast:  Rosaura Revueltas, Will Geer, David Wolfe, Mervin Williams, David Sarvis, Ernesto Velazquez, Juan Chacon, Henrietta Williams

SUMMARY:  In the small town of Zinc Town, New Mexico, Esperanza Quintero (Rosaura Revueltas) lives with her husband, a zinc miner for Delaware Zinc Inc, and two children (she is seven months pregnant with her third).  Her husband, Ramon Quintero (Juan Chacon), is an important man at the mine, but can be cruel to his wife, both emotionally and physically.  The couple is having trouble making ends meet, as their home and land are owned by the company, as is their local store.  The mine has recently changed its policy of having miners working in pairs:  now, each man works alone, which has resulted in a number of accidents.  Most of the miners are Mexican-American, and they resent that they are forced to work in worse conditions than their “Anglo” (white) counterparts.  Ultimately, they decide to go on strike.  For several months they picket in front of the mine, as things get harder and harder at home.  When one of the men crosses the line and joins the bosses, Ramon beats him up; on the same day, Esperanza gives birth to their third child, a boy they name Juan.  When he returns home from jail, Esperanza warns him from becoming too involved in the strike, as he cannot support his family from jail.  However, Ramon argues that a successful strike will improve conditions in both the short-term and the long-term, as their children will benefit.  At the beginning of the strike, the women discuss making some demands of their own, namely hot running water and indoor plumbing.  When they broach the idea to the men, though, they are shot down, saying that safe working conditions are more important.

Quite a few months into the strike, the company gets a injunction that prohibits mine workers from standing on the picket line.  However, one of the women points out that the injunction does not say anything about the wives of miners.  The next day, the women — minus Esperanza, who is forbidden by Ramon to participate — take over the picket line, as most of their husbands watch from a hill.  The authorities attempt to drive through the line.  The women stand in front of the car until they are knocked over, then push the car back; when tear gas is fired into their midst, they simply cover their faces and keep walking.  Against Ramon’s wishes, Esperanza soon joins in, and when Ramon refuses to take care of the children during the day, she takes them to the picket line with her.  The company orders the women to be arrested, and many of the ringleaders are singled out, Esperanza among them.  They spend four days in jail, during which time they chant constantly and loudly, nearly driving the jail staff to distraction.  They are released because the sheriff cannot take it anymore, which they consider a success, but when Esperanza gets home Ramon wants to call of the strike.  He believes that there is no way to outlast the company, saying that it will simply starve them into submission.  Esperanza strongly disagrees, saying that they will be successful.  She also questions Ramon’s lack of faith in her, and why he refuses to treat her as an equal.  The next day, the men go hunting in an attempt to find food for their families.  Back in town, the sheriff and his men arrive with a new tactic:  the company has ordered the eviction of the Quintero family.  Word gets to Ramon, who hurries back, as do other town members and the workers of other nearby mines.  Eventually, a huge crowd gathers outside the house.  Ramon has changed his mind while hunting, and now tells Esperanza that everybody can work together.  The women then begin picking up the belongings that have been brought out of the house and simply taking them back in; groups of men stand in front of the deputies until the men drop the items and simply leave.  The sheriff gives up, and the company authorities decide that it is time to settle the strike.

MY TAKE:  If you’ve never heard of this movie, there’s a reason:  it was basically blacklisted until the mid-60s, as it was seen as a communist film (a lot of the staff really was blacklisted in Hollywood).  I actually found this surprising, because that was not the vibe I got.  What I saw was racial, gender and socioeconomic conflict and an underdog story, both for the Mexican-Americans and the women.  The blacklist attitude also puzzled me because I feel like the United States has a great history of organizing and demanding better conditions:  wasn’t that what we fought most of our wars for, and created a new country for?  Striking and labor unions, specifically, played a huge role in the Industrial Revolution, and were responsible for the creation of safety laws and regulations.  I love an underdog story, but I really liked that the women played a huge role in this movie, especially since it was made in the 1950s.  When they first go on the picket line, nobody believes that they will last, but they physically fight off the authorities on several occasions.  They also have some pretty ingenious ideas:  when they’re in jail, instead of getting violent, they simply drive the guards crazy.  During this time, they also get the unintended benefit of respect from their husbands for the work they do at home:  with their wives in jail, the men are forced to take care of the house and the children, and they realize that the demand for hot running water and indoor plumbing are justified.  I also had to laugh during the eviction scene, when the women, in a single-file line, simply take items back into the house as they’re brought outside.  The poor sheriff doesn’t know what to do — as Ramon points out, he has no desire to lock them in jail again.  In addition to the progress these actions made for the women, I think they probably also sent a stronger message to the company:  now, the whole town was striking, not just the men.

RATING:  Interesting and empowering.

 

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