“The people who work at Ward live in little flat yellow houses on stilts that look like chicken-houses. They seem mean and flimsy on the sides of the hills and at the bottom of the hollow, in contrast to the magnificent mountains wooded now with the forests of mid-June. Between those round and rich-foliaged hills, through the middle of the mining settlement, runs a road with, on one side of it, a long row of some obsolete kind of coal-cars turned upside down and, on the other, a meagre trickle of a creek, with bare yellow banks, half-dry yellow stones, yellowing rusty tin cans and the rustling axles and wheels of old coal-cars. There are eight hundred or so families at Ward, two or three in most of the houses and eight or ten children in most families. And they are as much prisoners, as much at the mercy of the owners of their houses and land, as if they did actually live in a chicken-yard with a high chicken-wire fence around them."
Noted intellectual Edmund Wilson wrote these lines when covering the West Virginia Coal Wars of the 1920s, a Dickensian tale of countless miners and families protesting for decent pay with real money instead of scrips, better working and living conditions, fighting for their rights and their lives against powerful owner barons, country sheriffs, even federal troops, even bomber biplanes. It’s such a long time ago, over a century ago now, and it’s not much discussed today (I myself came across the history by chance in Wilson's 'American Jitters' book, published in 1932, no idea why I picked it up as often happens hehe). But culture has a way of so vividly resurrecting the lifeline of human history to the present, and the lines immediately reminded me of – among other things – 'Salt of the Earth' (USA, 1954), the movie I'd like to share with you, telling the story of New Mexico zinc miners.
When you see the film, or if you recall the film, it feels so uncanny to see the depicted homes of the miners resemble these houses so intensely, down to the shrubby outcrops in the lands that surround them, the riches of the cavernous earth beneath them, and the invisible, man-made prison that sought to confine them. And of course, there's the same bruised, resolute spark burning on the inside, daring to alight. It's a story just dying to be made into a movie, but in fact it was a miracle 'Salt of the Earth' was made and preserved at all. Created by a team of blacklisted artists, and starring untrained locals and Local 890 union members, the film fought covert surveillance and sabotage, interference and suppression, threats and deportation, and most ironic of all, myopic resistance from unions including the Congress of Industrial Organizations, film-processing lab workers, and projectionists. The film footage had to be developed in secret at night, and even after many scenes were excised and dialogue diluted, there were still vengeful acts against this contentious project. After the crew (who at one point were told to 'get out of town [or] go out in black boxes) wrapped and left location, unknown attackers setting the town's real-life union hall on fire.
Some watching it today might find it a little tame, not-so-incendiary, though this story about the power of people united before people in power was so controversial that for many years it was never really shown publicly except in China, Mexico, and parts of Europe. It's earned plenty of recognition and love over the decades, however, and I find myself thinking back to it quite often, especially now as the title is turning 70 years old and like all great works, feels ever more fresh, ever more relevant. In case you haven't seen it yet, the film is based on the story of another popular action, the 1951 Empire Zinc Strike in Hanover, New Mexico, where the men of the Empire mining company fought for a bitter 15 months against discriminatory work conditions and unequal pay for the Mexican-American miners.
After months of unsuccessful bargaining with uncooperative management, the local chapter of the International Union of Mine, Mill, and Smelter Workers (IUMMSW) decide it is time to strike. Much like Frank Keeney's men in Blair Mountain all those decades before them, those fighting for their rights faced violent opposition: having to deal with the county sheriff's department, strike-breakers and vigilante groups, hostile indifference from district judges and attorneys, not to mention bigoted local newspaper columnists who unabashedly blamed the group's suffering not on the unjust in power, but on the strikers themselves and their like, the 'swarming aborigines' who spoke. When an injunction put pressure on the union men, their wives and children opted to join the strike alongside them, and in their place, as unofficial members of the 'Ladies' Auxiliary.' This uniquely feminine, family-centred dimension harnessed unusual weight to their case, and the ongoing struggle finally drew wider media attention. Thanks to this community struggle, with activists from out of town joining in to bolster their efforts and take the place of those arrested, the Company were eventually forced to begrudgingly make some concessions to their demands. You can see how all this fascinated ‘Hollywood Ten' director Herbert Biberman (fresh from serving time for 'contempt of Congress' and recovering together with a secret colony of fellow artists) and together with blacklistees writer Michael Wilson and producer Paul Jarrico, he decided to portray this remarkable event for posterity.
You may recognise in the film a grim sadness and passion and a quotidian harshness/softness, shades of the 'social problem' films of the 1920s and 1930s or the neorealist films of the 1950s, the eras in which Biberman and his friends were mostly active, with the seeds of revolutionary spirit in the march-like musical themes by Sol Kaplan. Filmed by Stanley Meredith and Leonard Stark, 'Salt of the Earth' is full of long, continuous takes charged with tension and emotion that take up the narrow intimate indoor spaces and the wide-open outdoor setting, punctuated by increasingly emotive, tempestuous moments that shake and tremble on screen. The camera lens narrows and widens to portray scenes that are sometimes mystical in their expressionist, poetic elegance (the sheriff and his deputies are imbued with a mild malevolence that reminds me a little of the black-booted troopers from Charles Laughton's ‘The Night of the Hunter’ made in the same year), and sometimes alive in documentary-style that is simultaneously staged as if a painting, like an amateur Eisenstein could have dreamed it up himself (consider a scene with an almost medievally vertical set-up, of the police and company cars parked stubbornly at a slant in the sloping hill, watching while the strikers quietly circle in the dirt above them).
We open with a glimpse into the life of protagonist and narrator Esperanza Quintero (Rosaura Revueltes, one of only five trained actors in the film), a miner's wife magnificent in her noble steadfastness and aching tiredness, a Mexican Madonna bearing child, head heavy with dark braids and deep worries. Esperanza opens the film with this: ‘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 Zinctown. Zinctown, 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.'
The end, as she calls it, begins with Esperanza's contemplating growing older, and the despair she feels bringing her third child into a world full of deep difficulty and injustice, with no perceivable way out. Though her husband is tireless in devoting himself both to his backbreaking work and efforts with his union, he is frustrated and sullen when he comes home, ignoring her timid, equally frustrated requests that their housing conditions be addressed at his meetings. Once Esperanza inadvertently becomes more present at the meetings beyond serving coffee, she and her neighbours and friends become emboldened in their desire to get involved. The strike becomes not just a question of labour rights but of life and livelihood. Her uncertain, growing involvement inspires a slow embrace of equally involving the miners' wives to support their husbands' strike and demand better sanitation and safer accommodations for everyone. The Quintero family easily and seamlessly weave back into the greater collective, their community, everyone shares their experiences. The camera casts a patient, deeply interested eye over its seas of faces, young and old, a crowd of amateur, self-consciously shy and heartfelt natives and unionists (including real-life local leader Juan Chacón as Esperanza's husband Ramon, whose own wife Claudia was the inspiration for the movie's heroine). This common bonding extends to the plot too, as the initial tension and ensuing solidarity between husband and wife works through them as it does through the rest of their community.
The narrative moves in a somewhat didactic way, a trademark of the film's blacklisted artists who were used to creating and probably also unafraid to create works with agitprop and social polemic in mind. It shows most visibly when the group debates and votes to turn the cause into a 'community' issue that involves the menfolk and womenfolk alike. There's also a moral grounding to the symbolic groups of good people and not-so-good, a mostly charcoal-black-and-white clean divide between company and law enforcement men, with their polite disingenuousness and polished cars and jail cells, concealing flagrant disrespect for law or decency, and the noble heroism of unionists and families sacrificing everything to come to each other's aid. But think if these seemingly naïve approaches might be met with cynicism by the jaded modern viewers (and maybe even then, in the golden age of my favourite grey-area works), it's also not a bad thing at all.
In fact, I feel it’s largely and precisely the film's unguarded sincerity and lack of restraint that contribute to its big heart, its simple focus to the people's cause. The Quinteros and their friends learn to confront gender stereotypes and expectations so they can become stronger together and fight for equality on all fronts. The company does its best to scare down the strikers, punishing, starving, paralysing, weakening the community and resorting to unlawful evictions and mass detentions of women and children. There's also a lot of old-world-style 'operatic' melodrama: in an unreservedly biblical climactic moment, Esperanza finally gives birth while her husband languishes, beaten, in jail, their new child baptised on his father's eventual release. Later, she must hand over her infant and older children to her husband to care for when she herself, together with dozens of women, are imprisoned themselves, each shouldering a great burden for the other.
I do in fact think that this directness is a wonderful thing for this film, and in fact it might be one of the best instances of this kind of work, the kind of thing that made Clifford Odets’ audiences spontaneously leap up in their theatre seats to shout ‘Strike! Strike! Strike!’ with Lefty, as though they were witnessing, responding to, a real call for action, like a charge that galvanises something electric, deep inside the soul. The film, initially intended by Biberman and Jarrico to resist unaccommodating capitalism, evolved through their time spent with the miners and unionists, becoming something significantly different: a culturally sensitive story of a Mexican-American woman and her community who struggle to protect their families from unjust forces seemingly larger than themselves. The dignity afforded to the portrayal of Esperanza's community, and the strength with which their alliance and solidarity can face down and triumph over oppression, give it a lot of truthfulness that softens all its edges. How nice, occasionally, to believe in the possibility of good overcoming the ills of the world, of the strength we have when we lean into our unwavering love for one another, of the power of hope, of esperanza. If the story seems to begin with an end, the ending celebrates a beginning of freedom, justice, peace, prosperity: ‘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.’
All of this to say sometimes films like this can offer a way in the real world, a promise and reminder to hold on to hope for a better future for the world, for a free Palestine. Lately I haven't had words to adequately express my pain or feelings about what's been happening in the last few months, in the last eight decades, but I remembered I have this page to actually say something, and this has helped me, writing through the lens of another story. And even if you can’t act or advocate, I feel in my heart that reflecting, connecting with others, and praying if praying is your thing, must help bring about some change, to aid those fighting oppression and persecution, for those fighting for humanity everywhere and anywhere.
PS I haven't been on here – or online, most anywhere in general – in a really long time, things have been a little overwhelming for me in general, though I'm trying to get out of my cocoon! I thought I could at least come back for now, to share this, hoping it can help the way it's helped me. I love you all (and I miss connecting with you all, a lot! :'( I hope I can reply to everyone properly and be back on here like before, soon :')) Xo