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Salt of the Earth (1954)

 





Title Screen
Movie Title/Year and Scene Descriptions
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Salt of the Earth (1954)

In director Herbert J. Biberman's and writer Michael Wilson's independently-made, political and social commentary historical drama about American working people - the only theatrical-length film ever openly made in the US by a group of blacklisted film-makers:

  • the film was based upon a real-life zinc miners strike in Grant County, New Mexico of Mexican workers in 1951 against the Empire Zinc Company
  • one of the title cards explained: "our scene is NEW MEXICO, LAND OF THE FREE AMERICANS WHO INSPIRED THIS FILM. HOME OF THE BRAVE AMERICANS WHO PLAYED MOST OF ITS ROLES"; in the film, "Delaware Zinc" was the company, located in "Zinc Town, New Mexico"
  • the story was personalized by taking the feminist view of the film's narrator and heroine, Esperanza Quintero (Rosaura Revueltas), living with her oppressed miner husband Ramon Quintero (Juan Chacón); they were a typical impoverished Mexican-American family with two young children, living in a run-down shack (without utilities) owned by the mining company (Delaware Zinc)
  • the expressive opening narration (voice-over) of 35 year old Esperanza: "How shall I begin my story that has no beginning? In these arroyos, my great grandfather raised cattle before the Anglos ever came. Our roots go deep in this place, deeper than the pines, deeper than the mine shafts. This is my village. When I was a child, it was called San Marcos. The Anglos changed the name to Zinc Town. Zinc Town, New Mexico, U.S.A. This is our home. The house is not ours. But the flowers, the flowers are ours. My name is Esperanza, Esperanza Quintero. I am a miner's wife. Eighteen years my husband has given to that mine, living half his life with dynamite and darkness. The land where the mine now stands - that was owned by my husband's own grandfather. Now it belongs to the company. Who can say when it began, my story? I do not know. But this day I remember as the beginning of an end. It was my Saint's Day. I was thirty-five years old. A day of celebration. And I was seven months gone with my third child. And on that day, I remember I had a wish, a thought so sinful, a thought so evil that I prayed to the Virgin to forgive me for it. I wished, I wished that my child would never be born. No. Not into this world"
  • the early scene of miner Ramon's nearly-tragic dynamite explosion at a time when there were multiple accidents in the mine; the miners were concerned about the lack of safety codes, bad equipment (faulty fuses), poor wages and working conditions (working singly rather than in pairs), and they insisted on equality with other "Anglo" miners
  • with other miners in the union, Ramon complained to the company's white representative Chief Foreman Barton (David Wolfe), who only threatened to replace him with "an American"; there was obvious racial discrimination and prejudice at the mine, even in the housing - the homes of the Anglo miners had hot running water, but not those of the non-Anglos
  • after another accident, Ramon and the other union members confronted the Superintendent Alexander (David Sarvis) and argued for better working conditions - he only feigned concern: ("I'm as sorry about it as you are. Savvy? Accidents are costly to everyone -- and to the company most of all. And now, I see no reason to treat the occasion like a paid holiday. Suppose we all get back to work"), but the miners' union threatened to stop their work and initiate a strike signaled by turning off the mining equipment (the primary rock crusher); during the stand-off (and walk-off), everyone glanced to the hillside where the women (and their children) held a sign in solidarity: "WE WANT SANITATION, NOT DISCRIMINATION"; the wives also were also quietly organizing for their own demands, including equal housing with sanitation
Mine Superintendent Alexander (David Sarvis)
Stand-Off Between Management and Workers
The Struggle of the Mexican-American Women for Sanitation in their Homes
  • during a union meeting's speech to organize a strike (with a vote of 93 to 5 to strike) for equality that evening, Esperanza's voice-over commented on the strategy of management that would be counter-acted by the workers: "The bosses would try to split the Anglo and Mexican-American workers and offer rewards to one man if he would sell out his brother" - the only answer to that was the "solidarity" of the working men; one woman Consuelo Ruiz (Angela Sanchez) also advocated "equality in plumbing too" and proposed a ladies' auxiliary to support the men, but the union responded by tabling the discussion
  • the sequences of the "David and Goliath" months-long struggle of the striking miners (and their picketing wives in support) to overturn the oppressive system and its owners, provide safer working conditions, equal pay for equal work, better sanitation (hot running water, plumbing) and health care; miners (on strike) marched in a counter-clockwise circular direction outside the mine, with picket signs, however, management often fought back by hiring out-of-town strikebreakers (or "scab" workers) but they had little impact, as Esperanza noted: "..they usually lost their nerve when they saw the size of the picket line"
  • a shiny Cadillac drove up to the marching picketers, holding Supt. Alexander and the mining company's NY representative Hartwell (Mervin Williams) who were momentarily blocked; Alexander informed the outsider about how to demeaningly treat his workers: "Well, they're like children in many ways. Sometimes you have to humor them, sometimes you have to spank them -- and sometimes you have to take their food away"; he also mentioned how Ramon was one of the troublemakers: "He's quite a character. Claims his grandfather once owned the land where the mine is now"
  • in one instance, two "scabs" were detected on the outskirts of the mine and after a dramatic chase sequence, Ramon confronted one of the men whom he knew - a desperate Mexican-American named Sebastian Prieto (Victor Torres) - and called him "You Judas ... blood-sucker"; Ramon was handcuffed, arrested by two bigoted policemen, beaten in the back of a squad car, and jailed for a month - charged with assault and resisting arrest, and meanwhile Esperanza gave birth to their third child; the baby Juanito was baptized the day Ramon got out of jail
  • after his release from jail, the miners celebrated in Ramon's home with a poker game amongst some of the miners (with the women segregated into the kitchen); the distrustful Ramon was criticized by Sal Ruiz (Joe T. Morales) for his distrust of the Anglos: ("You lump them all together -- Anglo workers and Anglo bosses"); Ramon exemplified his feelings by confronting Anglo union leader Frank Barnes (Clinton Jenkins) for being ignorant about Mexican culture; Barnes admitted he had a problem ("I've got a lot to learn"), but also mentioned how Ramon hurt the movement with his paternalistic view of women: ("If the women are shut off from life in the union ... We can't think of them just as housewives -- but as partners. And we have to treat them as such")
  • with his newborn child in Esperanza's arms in the kitchen, Ramon vowed to her that they must win the strike: "We're going to win this strike....Because if we lose, we lose more than a strike. We lose the union. And the men know it. And if we win, we win more than a few demands. We win something bigger. Hope. Hope for our kids"
  • the strike was extended for many months when the company refused to negotiate, forcing some mining families to leave the area; there were dwindling supplies of rationed food (a sign at the company store read: "NO CREDIT TO STRIKERS") and funds; Esperanza's voice-over described the desperate situation: ("They tried to turn the Anglo miners against us. They said that all the Mexicans ought to be sent back where they came from....And the seventh month came. We couldn't buy food at the company store. By now, the strike fund was nearly gone. A few families couldn't take it any longer -- and where they went, we do not know...")
  • Esperanza explained how a new strategy had to be devised; fortunately for the strikers, aid in the form of letters and contributions began to pour in from everywhere to support them: "And so it was decided by the union that hardship cases should seek work in other mines. And this was done. Strikers who found jobs divided their pay with the union, so the rest of us might eat. Ramon was not a hardship case. Only three children to feed. Even so, the mine owners might have starved us out were it not for the help we got from our International in Denver, and from other locals. And we who thought no one outside our county knew of our troubles, or cared if they did know -- found we were wrong. Letters came from our own people of the Southwest, from far away -- Butte, Chicago, Birmingham, New York -- messages of solidarity and the crumpled dollar bills of working men. We women were helping. And not just as cooks and coffee makers. A few of the men made jokes about it, but the work had to be done -- so they let us stay. No one knew how great a change it was, until the day of the crisis"
  • a crisis arose when the Sheriff brought a Taft-Hartley Act injunction (supportive of the mine owners) against the unionized male miners to end their strike: (Esperanza's voice-over: "The Sheriff was smiling -- so we knew he brought bad news. The company had got a court injunction ordering the strikers to stop picketing. A Taft-Hartley injunction, they called it. It meant heavy fines and jail sentences for the strikers if they disobeyed. A decision had to be made at once -- whether to obey the order, or not"); in the Union Hall, Frank Barnes described the dilemma of choice for the miners: "If we obey the court, the strike will be lost. The scabs will move in as soon as our picket line is gone. If we defy the court, our pickets will be arrested, and the strike will be lost anyway. So there it is brothers. The bosses have us coming and going"
  • in response, Ramon stood up and pledged to resist: "If we give up now, if we obey this rotten Taft-Hartley, we are fools and cowards. There is only one way: Fight 'em! Fight 'em off!" - however, other miners were skeptical and feared arrest; after quarreling amongst themselves, Teresa Vidal (Henrietta Williams) suggested another creative approach - the wives could picket for the men to bypass the injunction: "Brother Chairman, if you read the court injunction carefully, you will see that it only prohibits striking miners from picketing. (A pause) We women are not striking miners. We will take over your picket line -- Don't laugh. We have a solution. You have none....If women take your places on the picket line, the strike will not be broken, and no scabs will take your jobs"
  • after some intense debate and just before a vote was to be taken, Esperanza rose to advocate that the woman vote on the motion: "But you men are voting on something the women are to do, or not to do. So I think it's only fair that the women be allowed to vote -- especially if they have to do the job"; in order to allow the women to vote, the official union meeting was adjourned and a community mass meeting was called to order; a vote was taken and although it was a close vote (103 in favor, 85 opposed), the motion carried to allow the women to picket for the men
  • a picket line was formed (with wives of the miners and many others), although Esperanza was - at first - denied participation by her husband Ramon and she complained: ("It's not fair. I should be there with them. After all, I'm the one who got the women the vote"); the women stood fast when the Sheriff and his deputies attempted to disperse them, and successfully fought back (with her shoe, Esperanza helped by whacking the wrist of a deputy holding a gun); the ladies reformed the picket line while singing 'The Union Is Our Leader'
  • encouraged by her newfound power, Esperanza joined the picketers (with her baby child) for many weeks: (voice-over: "And so I came back the next day -- and every day for the next month"); the police authorities began to harass the women again, as she explained: "For a while the Sheriff's men left us alone. But then it started again. They cursed us, insulted us, called us foul names. It started again" - they even used tear gas, but Esperanza claimed that they remained strong: "But they couldn't break our line. They couldn't break it"
  • in retaliation against the resistance, the Sheriff (with pressure from Alexander, Hartwell and the company) was given orders to arrest the determined Esperanza (and other leading female ring-leaders); he shouted threats: "Go home or go to jail...Get off the picket line or get arrested," and then began a series of arrests; Esperanza refused to be separated from her baby and children and was hauled off in the back of a pick-up to the local jail; the group loudly protested their imprisonment in a crowded cell without beds and demanded food (and the proper milk "formula" for Esperanza's baby -- "WE WANT THE FORMULA!"); they also refused to be coerced into signing a pledge to NOT return to the picket line; Ramon visited the jail and took his three children home - he would serve as their housekeeper while his wife was jailed for a few days; he realized her point-of-view about how difficult it was to keep house without hot running water: ("It should have been a union demand from the beginning")
  • after Esperanza's release from jail four days later, she told Ramon that they wouldn't be arrested again: ("The Sheriff had enough of us. We drove him crazy!"); in the middle of the night, Esperanza and Ramon (who had spent most of her first night home in the beer parlor) had a domestic argument - the prideful patriarchal Ramon felt that she was neglecting her maternal role - and not staying in her place - after becoming so involved in the strike activities; she told him that she thought he was disrespecting her: ("Have you learned nothing from this strike? Why are you afraid to have me at your side? Do you still think you can have dignity only if I have none?...Do you feel better having someone lower than you?"); and then she passionately lectured him about her demands for equality: "Whose neck shall I stand on to make me feel superior, and what will I have out of it? I don't want anything lower than I am. I am low enough already. I want to rise and to push everything up with me as I go...And if you can't understand this you're a fool -- because you can't win this strike without me! You can't win anything without me!"; he was tempted to slap her but she restrained him by confronting him defiantly and powerfully without flinching: "That would be the old way. Never try it on me again -- never"
  • the authorities had one final, back-breaking tactic in "the lull before the storm" - sensed by Esperanza; they issued eviction orders to remove all of the striking families from their company-owned homes, beginning with the Quintero family; the officers led by the Sheriff carelessly moved out and dumped all of their belongings on the ground in front of the home
Eviction at the Company-Owned Quintero Home - Removal of Items
Resisting the Eviction
The House Surrounded by Supporters of the Quinteros
  • although tempted to use his gun, Ramon whispered instead to Esperanza to urge everyone gathered around the house to defy and resist the eviction order peacefully - with solidarity and dignity: "This means they have given up trying to break the picket line. Now we can all fight together -- all of us"; with support from all of the other gathered union members, miners and striking families, they vastly outnumbered the police (seen in a slow panning shot); they picked up the strewn-around possessions and returned them to the inside of the house through a side entrance; they were able to successfully protest the unjust eviction by their adversaries and save the home from eviction
  • realizing that they were outfoxed and defeated again as they watched from afar in the Cadillac, Hartwell muttered to Alexander: "I think maybe we'd better settle this thing for the present"
  • in the conclusion, the Delaware Zinc Company admitted defeat and began negotiations with the union of mine workers to settle the strike
  • outside the home in the yard, Esperanza delivered another voice-over: "We did not know then that we had won the strike. But our hearts were full"; Ramon thanked all of his "sisters and brothers" for their victory - and then publically praised Esperanza for her strong and defiant "dignity" against the autocratic bosses; he admitted her approach had worked: ("Esperanza. Thank you for your dignity. You were right. Together we can push everything up with us as we go"); they ultimately won the strike and found "hope" for their children (the "salt of the earth") as he had wished earlier
  • the film ended with her final voice-over: "Then I knew we had won something they could never take away -- something I could leave to my children -- and they, the salt of the earth, would inherit it"
  • the ending credits were individual pictures of the "professional cast" with their actor/actress names

Esperanza Quintero (Rosaura Revueltas)

Esperanza's Miner Husband Ramon Quintero

Devout Catholic Esperanza Praying to Virgin Mary in Her Home's Shrine: "I wished that my child would never be born"

After a Blast, Ramon and Other Miners Angrily Complained to Chief Foreman Barton About Working Conditions

The Poor Quintero Family

On a Hillside, Women in Solidarity with Their Miner Husbands

Strike-Protest Sign of Mex-Am. Miners' Union

Mine Workers Marching on the Strike-Picket Line for Many Months

Mine Representatives: Hartwell (l) and Alexander (r) in Shiny Cadillac

Ramon Hand-Cuffed and Beaten by Police in the Back Seat of Cop Car

Barnes (left) with Ramon (right)

Company Store Sign: "NO CREDIT TO STRIKERS"

Letters of Support for the Striking Miners

Frank's Distressing Announcement to the Union after the Issuance of a Taft-Hartley Injunction: "The bosses have us coming and going"

Teresa Vidal's Proposal: "We will take over your picket line!"

The Audience's Stunned Silence After a Vote to Allow Women to Picket

The All-Female Picket Line

The Jailed Female Picketers With Children - Protesting Conditions

Esperanza in Jail

Late Night Argument Between Ramon and Esperanza


Hartwell: "I think maybe we'd better settle this thing"

Ramon's Thanks to "Sisters and Brothers"

Praise for Esperanza from Ramon

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