History-makers reflect on Salt of the Earth: Even more relevant now

Anita and Lorenzo Torrez were a young married couple thrown into the midst of the Empire Zinc strike in Hanover, N.M., in 1950. They were radicalized in the course of the strike and became members of the Communist Party USA. They went on to become involved in the historic film, Salt of the Earth, with both having small parts. Lorenzo speaks a few lines in one of the union hall scenes. This year marks the 50th anniversary of that classic labor film.

Lorenzo worked as a miner for 25 years. The couple later left New Mexico and became active in labor and people’s struggles in California. They eventually settled in Arizona, where, among other things, they helped to found the Salt of the Earth Labor College in Tucson in 1992.

Lorenzo and Anita Torrez have been speaking throughout the country about their roles in the strike and the movie during this anniversary year. They will be honored at PWW/NM banquets in San Francisco on Nov. 9 and Chicago on Nov. 15. We had an opportunity to interview them during their recent visit to New York.



World: What was the political environment of the strike at Empire Zinc?

Lorenzo: The conditions were harsh. Zinc mining is underground mining. The miners were Mexican Americans. We came back from World War II with the idea of democracy in our heads, and we found the same discrimination we faced before. We rebelled against it. We used the union to break the discrimination that had existed all along. We were determined to break through and be treated equally.

This was a fight against racism and for equality. The union had 5,000 members. It was an amalgamated local of the Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers at six mines.

Even the pay lines were segregated, one for the Anglos, the other for the Mexicanos. Housing was segregated. The movie theaters were segregated, with Mexicanos on one side and Anglos on the other. We couldn’t sit together. The swimming pool was segregated. There was one day a week that the Mexicanos could go swimming, and then they would drain the pool and refill it.

The Mexicanos were fed up. The Anglos were in the skilled jobs. The underground work was for the Mexicanos or African Americans – the dirtiest, the roughest jobs. Native American Indians, who had been brought in by the company to work the mines during the labor shortage of World War II, had been forced to move back to the reservations. The company pushed them out and tore down their housing after the war.

World: Tell us about the women’s role in conducting the strike, and more specifically in staffing the picket lines.

Anita: There was no other way it could be done. There was a Taft-Hartley injunction. It meant they couldn’t picket anymore, and if there was no picket line, the strike would be lost. There was a lot of discussion within the union. Someone said the women were not the ones on strike, so they could take over the picketing. Either you give up the strike or bring the women in. Some thought it was the only way, but others were opposed. The word leaked out that the women were going to picket, so we, the women, said, why not? A lot of them came to the picket line out of curiosity. Once they got there, they decided to join the picket lines. In those times, women stayed home. Very few women were out working. The husbands went out to work. Women stayed home with the kids.



World: What was the response of the company?

Anita: The law and the company were surprised and shocked that this was happening. They thought these women were crazy, that they can’t survive, they can’t last, it’s not the proper thing for women to be doing. They took us to jail. As time went on, the company tried to start a “back to work” movement. They hired people from out of town to cross our lines. That created violence. It had been decided that the men would not get involved, so women were going to fight it, the best way they knew how. When the women wouldn’t get up, the police arrested them, but more women came to take their places. The jail was full. They didn’t know what to do.



World: What was the effect of this on the miners?

Lorenzo: When they saw the women standing up, when they saw that they were fighting back, it encouraged the miners to stand strong too. They saw these women are fighters, standing up to save our union. The men came and sat on the hillside and watched, but they were concerned not to give the cops the pretext they wanted to break up the line. They disciplined themselves.



World: What was the result of the strike?

Anita: Finally, the company called the union and proposed a settlement. Most of the demands were met. There would be equality in housing, sanitation. After the strike, the company put in running water to our houses. The pool and the theater were desegregated. Segregation was done away with. The workers came back to work. The strike had gone on month after month. Some miners had gone out to look for new jobs, especially those with the largest families. But even those who got new jobs were always supporting the strike, sending money back. But some of these workers were not called back.



Lorenzo: We broke through on the housing. It affected all mining camps in the region. The local law enforcement authorities told the companies that [labor relations are] a problem between you and the unions, and they would not get involved. There was another result. Previously the sheriff was always an Anglo. We ran a Chicano, a member of our own union local, for sheriff. We elected him and kept him there for years.



World: Where did the idea of this movie come from?

Lorenzo: Hollywood had a number of progressive writers and producers. Some had been in the [Communist] Party, and they defied the courts and were put in jail. They refused to answer the questions of the investigators. They decided to form their own company, and they were looking for an interesting film to make. They discovered the strike. So these blacklisted writers and directors came and shot it in Grant County. They expected trouble. They shot as much of it as they could on location, but other scenes were shot in Mexico and Los Angeles, and then it was pieced together. It was too dangerous to shoot the whole film in New Mexico.



World: Who were the actors?

Anita: The actors were almost all miners, workers. There were only a few professional actors.



World: Were you in the film?

Anita: Yes. At the time we had two kids, and all four of us were in it. I was interviewed for a role as one of the leading ladies.



World: Tell us about Juan Chacon.

Lorenzo: They couldn’t find a Hollywood male star. They went to Mexico searching for a leading male actor. They couldn’t find one. Biberman, the director, came to New Mexico and said the only chance was to interview the miners themselves. That’s how he found Juan Chacon. He was a natural.



Anita: Juan was a member of the Communist Party. We went to Party meetings at that time. It was very hard to meet. I didn’t know there was such an organization, but little by little I learned that it was Communist meetings that I was attending, and I told myself, if this is what you call a Communist, then that is what I am, because they were fighting for equality.



World: The film was blacklisted.

Lorenzo: Yes, the Hollywood monopolies would never allow it to be shown. They said it would cause “racial disturbances.” But it was shown throughout Europe and won prizes. It was premiered in New York a year after it was made. The union flew the cast in to New York for this premiere.



World: It’s been 50 years since Salt of the Earth was produced. How do you explain its influence, particularly on young people?

Anita: Young people today are going through the same struggles we went through. The struggles are not ended. It’s even more relevant now than when it was made. It’s important to show it again and again. Back in those days, the whole family – grandfathers, fathers and sons, would work in the same mines, but those jobs are lost now. Many young people take the benefits for granted, and they don’t know the struggle that it took to win those benefits, but now the corporations are taking those benefits away. That’s why seeing this movie is so important. They have to understand that these benefits were not given easily. We had to fight for them. And this film shows what it takes to fight and win.



Lorenzo: You have to unite. You have to have a union to win. If you are alone, you have no power. That’s why this film is so popular. There is also a change in the atmosphere. A lot of progressive people went through the struggles of the 1930s. Then came the McCarthy period. And a lot of people are realizing what a big mistake it was to retreat in the face of the witch-hunts. They see this movie and they say, here were women who stood up to the police and to the courts.

There are a lot of lessons for today. This was not simply a strike between one corporation and its employees. It was a corporate attempt to destroy a militant, progressive union.

We’re not going to get rid of this right-wing Bush administration if we all go in different directions. This film shows the strength of multinational and multiracial unity, and the unity of women and men.

I spoke to students at Northridge College in California about the film. One student said to me, “You’ve been in the movement a long time. Others get in for couple of years and get burned out. What keeps you going after all these years?” I told him I belonged to a Party, the Communist Party USA. That keeps me going.

The author can be reached at Tim Wheeler contributed to this story.

(See related story below)



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50 years of Salt of the Earth

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the making of the film Salt of the Earth, the only movie banned during the McCarthy-era anticommunist witch-hunts in Hollywood.

Salt of the Earth is based on the actual events of the Empire Zinc miners’ strike. It depicts the successful struggle of Mexican American miners and their families in a hard-fought, two-year strike for better wages, working conditions, and justice, with women playing a critical role – a remarkable story, particularly for the 1950s.

The movie was directed by Herbert Biberman, one of the Hollywood Ten defendants who spent six months in jail for refusing to “name names” before Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s committee.

James J. Lorence documents the right-wing campaign against the film in his book, Suppression of the Salt of the Earth. Lorence details how Hollywood studios, Congress, film critics and reactionary-controlled film unions all conspired to stop Salt of the Earth from ever reaching the screens. The filmmakers were barred from using Hollywood crews, equipment or post-production facilities. Rosaura Revueltas, the then-famous Mexican actress who plays the movie’s protagonist Esperanza, was deported in the middle of the filming.

However, when the film premiered in San Francisco and New York City, it received critical acclaim and garnered international awards.

Salt of the Earth is a landmark film. First of all, it was shot on location in New Mexico just months after the strike. Second, it used actual striking miners and their families as the cast of the film, and they decisively shaped the script, correcting initial drafts that underplayed the leadership of Mexican Americans. Lastly, the film was groundbreaking in its focus on the intersection of race, class and gender in the U.S.

After 50 years, the film is almost universally recognized as a classic of U.S. cinematography and has been chosen as one of only 100 films to be preserved by the Library of Congress for posterity.

Recently an opera entitled “Esperanza” was made based on the film and plans are in the works to remake Salt of the Earth, starring the children and grandchildren of the original cast. Moctezuma Esparza, producer of the film The Milagro Beanfield War, hopes to produce the remake. VHS and DVD versions of Salt of the Earth may be purchased from Harbor Electronic Publishing (www.hepdigital.com) or a number of other sources.

– Libero Della Piana