Digging into New Mexico’s long fight for workers’ rights with “Salt of the Earth”

For Labor Day, a look back at the landmark pro-labor, Chicano and feminist American film 

By: - Monday September 5, 2022 4:30 am

Digging into New Mexico’s long fight for workers’ rights with “Salt of the Earth”

For Labor Day, a look back at the landmark pro-labor, Chicano and feminist American film 

By: - 4:30 am

Rep. Donald Jackson reads the Un-American Committee statement on Actress Lucille Ball’s Communist Party registration in 1936. Jackson would go on in 1953 to question the filmmakers who produced “Salt of the Earth.” (Courtesy of the University of California)

Rep. Donald Jackson reads the Un-American Committee statement on Actress Lucille Ball’s Communist Party registration in 1936. Jackson would go on in 1953 to question the filmmakers who produced “Salt of the Earth.” (Courtesy of the University of California)

Exactly 69 years ago, a group of blacklisted filmmakers and a cast of professional and local actors completed the filming of “Salt of the Earth” in Grant County, N.M., over Labor Day Weekend in 1953.

That’s according to a declassified report by an FBI informant, now part of the archives at the Center for Southwest Research and Special Collections at the University of New Mexico.

Before the movie even came out, the House Committee on Un-American Activities called Simon Lazarus, the founder of the film’s production company, to testify as part of its anti-communist investigations during the era of McCarythism.

Earlier that year, California Republican state Rep. Donald Jackson said the movie was “deliberately designed to inflame racial hatreds,” and was “a new weapon for Russia,” according to the American Film Institute.

Vigilantes attacked the set, assaulted the cast and crew, blared music, fired bullets into an empty car owned by one of the actors, and burned down one of their homes, according to the Guardian. Before production finished, immigration officials even deported the leading actor in the film, Rosaura Revueltas.

The theatrical release poster for Salt of the Earth reads: “At last — An Honest Movie about American Working People.” (Public domain)

How could a movie inspire such violence, government backlash and scrutiny from FBI agents before it was even released?

It probably has something to do with the film’s depiction of a successful labor strike against racist bosses and their collaborators at every level of government, based on a real 15-month strike by white and Chicano members of the International Union of Mine, Mill, and Smelter Workers against the Empire Zinc Company in Grant County.

Initially, the film relays, the strike started over a racist safety rule that allowed white miners to work in pairs but not Hispano miners.

When the leading man, played by real life UMMSW Local 890 President Juan Chacón, tells the company to negotiate, the bosses tell him, “You let those Reds stir you up.”

And as the strike dragged on for months, miners were arrested or starved out, and forced to find work elsewhere.

When the miners’ wives and families demand to join the picket line and that they include in the union’s demands indoor plumbing and hot water for their homes near the mine, they are rebuffed by their husbands, who are stuck in their sexist views about who gets to take part in the strike.

“You’re moving too fast,” a man tells one of his union sisters in the film.

Chacón’s character prohibits Revueltas from joining the picket line, and sounding a lot like his own boss, says: “You let those Anglo dames stir you up.”

But the women convince the men that they need them to keep the strike going by exploiting a loophole in a court order declaring the strike illegal. The order only prohibited miners from striking, not their wives, they argued.

Chacón’s character finally realizes that Revueltas has been right all along, and that the women should have just as much say in the union’s activities as the men.

So the movie opens with the women marching in a circle in front of the mine, singing “We Shall Not Be Moved.” In real life, they also sang “Solidarity Forever” with help from folk singer Jenny Vincent, according to music critic Bill Kohlhaase.

One of the movie’s core messages is that organizing around issues of class is inextricably linked to issues of race and gender, and limiting perspective to one side those fault lines as Chacón did will get you nowhere, and blinds you to a more nuanced view of what it means to be New Mexicans.

That view is summed up in a line by Revueltas character at the beginning of the film: “Our roots go deep in this place, deeper than the pines, deeper than the mine shaft.”

Further reading:

See the film for free here, or on many streaming services including Pluto TV and Amazon Prime.

The Suppression of Salt of the Earth: How Hollywood, Big Labor, and Politicians Blacklisted a Movie in the American Cold War

Women Labor Activists in the Movies: Nine Depictions of Workplace Organizers, 1954-2005

Citations Needed Ep. 165: Labor Union Depictions in Hollywood (Part II): The Rare Pro-Worker Narrative

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Austin Fisher
Austin Fisher

Austin Fisher is a journalist based in Santa Fe. He has worked for newspapers in New Mexico and his home state of Kansas, including the Topeka Capital-Journal, the Garden City Telegram, the Rio Grande SUN and the Santa Fe Reporter. Since starting a full-time career in reporting in 2015, he’s aimed to use journalism to lift up voices that typically go unheard in public debates around economic inequality, policing and environmental racism.

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