Salt of the Earth (1953)

 

 

 

 

Director:  Herbert Biberman.

Starring:  Juan Chacon (Ramon Quintero), Rosaura Revueltas (Esperanza Quintero), Will Geer (Sheriff), Mervin Willilams, Frank Talavera, Clinton Jencks, Virginia Jencks.

1950 zinc mine workers go on strike in Silver City, New Mexico.

Black listed in Hollywood for making the film were the director, actor Will Geer, producer Paul Jarrico and screenwriter Michael Wilson.

 

Spoiler Warning:  below is a summary of the entire film.

A Mexican-American woman says that her family has deeps roots in New Mexico.  Her village was once called San Marcos, but now it is called Zinc Town.  They have a home, but they do not own it.  Her name is Esperanza Quintero.  Her husband is a miner and works with dynamite.  The land where the mine stands now was owned by her husband's grandfather. 

Esperanza Quintero is 35 years old and seven months pregnant with her third child.  She feels guilty about it, but she wishes that her child would not be born in this cruel world.  Her young girl is Estella.  Her boy Luis comes home after another fight with the Anglo kids.  She sends the boy over to the mine to tell his father that after work he is to come straight home. 

In the mine of Delaware Zinc Inc. Ramon Quintero works with a defective fuse and the dynamite that goes off too soon.  The men go to complain to the foreman, who isn't interested in their complaints.  The men don't like this work alone situation, because there is no one there to help if something bad happens.  The foreman tells Quintero that if he doesn't like it, he can always be replaced by an "American". 

The family bought a radio on installment, but now they are one payment behind.  The company store which sold it to them is now threatening to repossess the radio.  Quintero says this installment plan is the curse of the working man. 

Quintero is going to talk with the brothers about working conditions.  They have a union of sorts.  Esperanza tells her husband to ask the bosses to give them some decent plumbing in the company houses.  Quintero says they can't get everything all at once.  It takes time.  And there are more important issues, Quintero says, like mine safety.  They had five accidents this week alone, because of this "speed up" policy. 

Esperanza is resentful of the union.  The union only seems to care about the issues of the men, but never the wives of the miners.  And if they have a strike, no hospital will take her in to deliver her child.  And the children will have to go hungry.  Quintero tells her to stop only thinking about herself.  Esperanza replies that she has to think about herself, because he never thinks about her.  She starts to cry and he tells her to be quiet because she will upset the children. 

The union is characterized by race prejudice because none of the Anglos have to work alone.  The Anglos work in pairs.  Quintero tells some of the white workers that this just isn't fair.  The whites say this complaint is in the demands and they are in current negotiations with management.  Quintero complains that they have been in negotiations for three months and nothing tangible has been done for the workers.  Another white miner asks why has the company signed union agreements with all the other mines, but not theirs?  Because, says Quintero, the majority of the workers at this mine are Mexican-Americans and they are asking for equality with whites.  He goes on to say that sure discrimination ultimately hurts the Anglos too, but it hurts the Mexican-Americans the most and he is sick of it.  Quintero's boy shows up at the bar and reminds his father that it's his wife's saint's day.

Esperanza and Estella are already in bed when a rather large group comes to serenade Esperanza on her saint's day.  Mother tells her daughter that they are singing for her.  Estella asks if now they can light the candles and Estella says yes.  They get up and invite the singers in.  Quintero is with them.  They have brought a case of beer with them and they start handing out the opened bottles to the people.  Quintero feels guilty for what he said to his wife and tells her he is a fool. 

One day a delegation of miners' wives comes over to speak with Esperanza and her neighbors.  The delegation women say that the Anglos have bathrooms and hot running water.  The women are tired of their concerns being ignored by the union and the men.  The women are planning a protest with protest signs that say things like: "We want sanitation not discrimination."  Esperanza is reluctant to accept the idea thinking that her husband won't approve.

Just then a siren goes off at the mine.  There's been another mining accident.  The women and children start rushing down to the mine.  A miner named Polinski is brought up out of the mine.  He is put on a stretcher and put in the ambulance.  The mine manager asks how this happened?  Quintero steps forward to say it's all because of this work alone policy.  The manager asks why didn't Quintero give some signal, but Quintero says that the foreman told him that it's his job to sound the warning.   The foreman said he checked and it seemed all right with him, but Quintero reveals that the foreman was nowhere around the area.  The foreman calls Quintero a liar and the two men start to fight.  The fight is broken up. 

The boss now tells everyone to get back to work.  But the miners don't move.  So the boss tells his foreman to tells his men to get to work.  The foreman tells the men, but the miners still don't move.  The boss asks some of the union reps to tell the men to go back to work, but the reps says that's up to the men.  They start to ask the miners and a lot of them are saying they should go back to work.  But Quintero has the mine machinery turned off.  The women are all up on top of a hill.  That one sign demanding sanitation summarizes what they want. 

The miners have a walk-out.  That evening they vote in the union to make it official.  Esperanza and three other women reps walk into the meeting toward its end.  The message of the meeting is equality for all the workers.  The company deliberately tries to set Mexican-Americans against Anglos and vice-versa, in order to keep the workers disunited.  The workers must remain united.  Now the ladies are recognized.  The ladies want sanitation.  We ought to have equality in plumbing too, they say.  And the women want to establish a woman's auxiliary to help the union.  The chairman, however, moves to table the demand and adjourns the meeting. 

Now the miners get an earful of complaints from their wives.  Quintero tells his wife that he doesn't want her being a rep for the women.  One wife says why don't the men just put up a sign at the mine saying:  No Dogs!  No women! allowed.   

The men put up a picket line.  The company recruits strike breakers, but the scabs usually lose their nerve when they see how many men are on the picket line.  The sheriff's men are always there, showing off their weapons.  The union brings some rations out to the striking families, but it's hard to make the slim rations last until the next go round. 

Miss Salazar comes out with her knitting to be beside the picket line to show her support.  Her husband died in a mining accident.  Some of the wives then start bringing out food to their hungry and thirsty husbands on the picket line.  So the union decides to set up a woman's auxiliary.  Esperanza starts making coffee for the men and it's a great improvement over the previous coffee offered on the picket line. 

A man comes to tell Quintero that the bosses offered him a supervisor position if he would just start up a "back to work" movement.  Two other men come to talk about chasing away some Anglo scabs.  The mine president, Mr. Alexander, comes up to the picket line in his car.  The sheriff talks to the president and says that Ramon Quintero is quite the tough hombre.   Quintero comes over to talk to the president.  He says the men want to know who is the passenger in the car.  It's a Mr. Hartwell from the New York headquarters. 

Alexander tells Quintero that he was in line to become a foreman.  In fact, he had a real future with the company.  But no, Quintero had to go with the reds.

Luis and his white friend yell to Mr. Quintero that they know where the two scabs are hiding.  Quintero rushes out to the boys.  He brings three men with him.  The men surround the two men.  Quintero knows one of the men, a Mexican-American mine worker.  Quintero calls the man a traitor to his own people.  The man says his children are hungry, but Quintero says that his own kids are just as hungry and he doesn't try to get a job.as a scab  The police arrest Quintero.  On the way to the station, the policemen stop the car and start abusing Quintero.  The guy who hits him says:  "That's no way to talk to a white man."  The policeman named Vance repeatedly hits Quintero in the stomach area. 

Mrs. Quintero is having her baby.  A striker runs over to the sheriff to ask him to get a doctor for the pregnant woman, but the sheriff has lots of reasons why not to help the men and women.  The painful beating of the arrested husband is contrasted with the painful birth process for the wife.  They both call out to each other. 

Ramon was in the hospital for a week because of the beating.  Then he was sent to the county jail for 30 days for assault and resisting arrest.  After Ramon gets out the family holds the christening for their new daughter Juanita.  There is a get together after the christening.  The Anglo union reps tells Ramon that he has to have a change of attitude toward the whites.  He lumps them all together and says they are bad. If he is going to be a union leader, he is going to have to represent all the men, Anglo and Mexican.  In turn, Quintero tells the Anglo union leaders that they know nothing about Mexico or Mexicans.  He asks them who the man is in the portrait hanging on his living room wall.  The Anglos don't know.  The picture is of the one-time president of Mexico Benito Juarez.  The main white union leader, Barton, says that Ramon is right -- he does have a lot to learn about the Mexicans. 

The wife of union leader Barton comes out to be sarcastic about her husband trying to appear as the new champion of women's rights.  She has to follow him from state to state to organize one mine after another.  She adds that Anglo women don't get treated any better by their husbands either.  Quintero is also singled out for how poorly he treats his wife.  Quintero goes over to his wife and new baby.  He tells Esperanza that in jail he would think about her and how he loved her. 

Two policemen come into Quintero's place to repossess the radio.  Quintero tells the police officers don't touch the radio.  Esperanza asks her husband:  "Can't you see that they want to start a fight so they can lock you all up at one time?" 

The strike goes on and on.  It's been six months with no negotiations.  The company keeps trying to turn the Anglos against the Mexicans.  In the seventh month, they can't buy food at the company store. A few families start leaving.  The strike fund is almost exhausted.  The union allows hardship cases to go work in other mines.  Esperanza says they survive only by getting help from the International and the local unions.  A truck with a sign "Miners Relief from the Building Trades Council" comes in to distribute some goods.  They get letters from all over the United States.  Many of the letters contain a few dollars. 

Then the day of crisis arrives.  The company got a court injunction for the strikers to stop picketing.  Anyone who disobeys the injunction will spend time in jail. The union knows that if they obey the injunction, the strike will be lost.  If they disobey the injunction, the picketers will land in jail.  It seems to many that the strike is lost.  A woman stands up and says the women will take over the picket line.  Another woman says what's worse:  that a man go behind a woman's skirt or he has to kneel in front of his boss?  Quintero speaks against the idea saying that the police will beat the women up and then the men will be worse off, because they will feel humiliated too.  Esperanza gets up to say that the women who will be picketing should be able to vote on this motion.  The chairman of the meeting says that it would be unconstitutional to allow the women to vote.  The women don't like that at all and say a collective:  "Ahhhhhhh!!"  So they take a vote.  The idea passes by 103 to 85. 

Esperanza is amazed that not only did most of the local women join the picket line, but women from all around joined in on the picket line.  Esperanza, however, cannot picket.  Her husband won't let her.  She tells her husband that men like him are "backwards". 

The police try to ram through the picket line with their cars, but the women stand firm.  One lady is knocked down by a car and the women really get mad.  They start pulling the police officers out of their cars.  The miners want to get at the policemen too, but the women hold them back.   So the police use tear gas on the crowd.  The women are fighting with the cops.  Esperanza goes down there and with her shoe knocks a pistol out of a lawman's hand.  The policemen now withdraw.  The women pick up their signs again and start walking in a circle. 

When Esperanza comes back home, her husband complains about having had to baby-sit their children.  Esperanza makes the good point that she has to do that job everyday.  Ramon says he won't stay home with the kids, so Esperanza says okay, then she'll just take all the kids with her.  So for a month Esperanza is working at the picket line with her three children.  Ramon comes everyday just to watch. 

The police try to ram through the women again.  A woman opens up the hood and yanks some wires out.  The police use tear gas, but the women maintain the picket line.  The police ask the women to leave or they will be arrested.  The women refuse to leave.  So the police have a local man point out the women ring leaders.  They grab Teresa, Salazar, Luz, Mrs. Kalinski (the Anglo), Ruth Barnes (the organizer's wife) and Esperanza. The baby and the children go with Esperanza.

In jail the women shout out protests:  "We want to use the bathroom!"  "We want food!"  One of the policeman explains that they have no food and they have no beds.  Esperanza's baby can't drink just milk.  Little Juanita needs formula.  The women start chanting about the formula.  The sheriff comes out to talk with the women.  They all boo him.  The women tell him that he will be responsible for the death of the baby, if he doesn't get the formula to her.  The sheriff says they can all be out of here in one hour, as long as they sign a promise not to go back on the picket line.  The women say they will not sign.  So the sheriff asks Ramon to come in and take his baby home with him.  Now the women start chanting again. 

Oh, poor, Ramon.  He actually has to do some work at home along with the other men.  And now, since he has to do the wash, he wants running hot water for the job.  He wants to make it a union demand now. 

Luis is now a junior shop steward and there is a meeting of these stewards.  Esperanza comes back home.  The women leaders come over to Esperanza's house.  Ramon gets mad and leaves.  The women want to know when that Ramon is going to be "house-broken".  They suggest that the delegation of women speak with him, but Esperanza says she will have to work it out with her husband. 

The miners sitting at the bar and drinking hang their heads low.  They look so sad and forlorn.  They talk about going hunting to get some venison.  They ask Ramon about it and he says if they want to go over the hill, they better check with the women's auxiliary.  Ramon is just as surly  at home as in the bar.  His wife tries to talk with him, but he is very obstinate.  He starts cleaning his rifle to go out hunting tomorrow.  Ramon says he wants to go down fighting, but Esperanza says she wants to win.  Then she assures her husband that they are stronger than ever.  She then finally confronts her husband about his terrible attitude toward women.  Ramon raises his right hand to strike her, but he holds back.  She tells him that's the old way of doing things and he better not try it again on her.  Esperanza then says:  "I'm going to bed now.  Sleep where you please, but not with me." 

When hunting with the guys, Ramon lags behind them.  He keeps thinking about the fight he had with his wife.  All of a sudden he tells the men:  "Brothers!  We got to go back."

The company now has an eviction order for the miner families still remaining.  They start with Ramon's house.  They figure that this will show the others that they mean business.  Everybody starts heading to the Quintero place.  Ramon arrives and watches.  More and more people come to his house.  This gives him an idea.  He tells his wife to start picking up the things taken out of their house.  All the women start picking up items that belong in the house.

A group of Anglos show up and the strikers feel even more united.  The sheriff gives up and leaves with an empty truck.  The sheriff talks to the two higher-ups.  The guy from New York says maybe they should settle the strike, at least for now. 

Esperanza says:  "We didn't know then that we had won the strike, but our hearts were full."   Ramon says thanks to all his sisters and brothers and then thanks Esperanza for her dignity.  He says she was right.  United they can put up with the ugly things as they go along.  Esperanza says:  "Then I knew we had won something that they could never take away.  Something that I could leave to my children and they, the salt of the earth, would inherit it."

 

There were three important conflicts in the film.  There is labor versus management, of course, because the film deals with a labor strike, but there are other conflicts within the strike.  One problem is the division between Anglo-Americans and the Mexican-Americans.  There is discrimination against the Mexican-Americans both by management and labor.  The white workers get paid more than the brown workers.  And the housing is better for the whites than the browns.  The browns don't have any hot running water or bathrooms.  The employers exploit the rift to keep the workers from becoming totally united.  And a divided labor movement is a much weaker movement.  But many of the white workers are also racists independent of what management wants them to do.  And a third prominent dispute is between men and women.  The women had to pitch in to save the strike from defeat.  Many of the women had no real freedom of expression and couldn't join in because their husbands disapproved.  The heroine of the film, Esperanza Quintero, is at first prevented from working on the picket line because of our hero, Ramon Quintero, who sticks to the old-fashioned ideas.  Ramon creates great problems for himself and his wife and the labor movement by being as stubborn as a jackass. 

So the one conflict, labor versus management, is complicated by the racial division and the sexual division among the strikers.  Things that should have been easily accomplished were delayed a lot of times because of all this other conflict going on within the bigger conflict. 

Rosaura Revueltas (as Esperanza Quintero) was very good and Juan Chacon (as Ramon Quintero) was good in the film. 

A few of the workers on the film were blacklisted by the anti-communist witch hunters.  But when you look at the film now, it hardly seems controversial.  There are many other films that cover the same themes.  But the 1950s was characterized by an overblown version of the power of communists in the USA. 

Patrick Louis Cooney,  Ph. D. 

 

 

 

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