Salt of the Earth film and discussion


Salt of the Earth portrays the Empire Zinc strike miners in New Mexico that turned into a celebrated historic struggle for Mexican American and women’s equality. It was shot on location in 1953 by blacklisted filmmakers.

Salt of the Earth movie poster

The miners were members of the CIO’s International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers (IUMMSW) Local 890. The politically active union was among the first to address the problem of discrimination on the job and in the community.

Last summer I traveled to the Silver City, New Mexico mining district to get a better feel for the strike and to research the union’s political activities during the 1940s.

The trip included a wonderful visit with Art Flores, one of the surviving union leaders during the strike. Flores, a World War II veteran, later served as an elected official in New Mexico. His stories of racism and economic hardship in the mines and in the community were so compelling that I will never watch the movie the same way.

I also had the honor to speak with striker and retired union leader Lorenzo Torrez on my last visit to Tucson. Hopefully he will attend the upcoming film showing and discussion, which will be led by veterans of the strike and the film.

This special showing will be held Saturday, March 6, 2010, at 2 p.m., at the Salt of the Earth Labor College, a unique community space named after the movie. It is located at 1902 Irene Vista, Tucson, Arizona.

For those who can’t make it to Tucson, you can see this important movie on YouTube.

Readers might also enjoy James J. Lorence’s The Suppression of Salt of the Earth: How Hollywood, Big Labor, and Politicians Blacklisted a Movie in the American Cold War.

This entry was posted in Books, Southwest, Unions, Veterans and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Salt of the Earth film and discussion

  1. James Lorence says:

    Any union activist or historian interested in labor who has not seen SALT OF THE EARTH should take advantage of this opportunity. The film marks an important moment in the development of Chicano/a history and is itself an important document of American labor history. Blacklisted in its own time, this film represented a powerful challenge to the Cold War anti-Communism that divided the labor movement during the age of McCarthism. It also contains a powerful feminist argument that is remarkable, given the time and historical context of which it was a part.

    It is now ten years since the publication of my SUPPRESSION OF SALT OF THE EARTH, a book that grew out of my experiences with college students in the 1990s, who responded enthusiastically to its message. The story of the Empire Zinc strike of the early 1950s, the entire film production process, and the brutal suppression of this work of art offer an excellent vantage point from which to view the intersection of race, class, and gender in modern American history.

    One of the key figures in the development of Mine-Mill unionism in the Southwest was the Anglo labor activist, Clinton E. Jencks, whose lifetime commitment to social and racial justice are well-known among labor historians. Jencks is equally respected by the Mexican-American communities he served in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Now, having thought about the importance of the Empire Zinc strike and the SALT story, I have embarked on a biographical study of Jencks’s remarkable life and career. I have talked with many of Jencks’s colleagues about his life following his work with IUMMSW, and am about to embark upon a Southwestern research trip that will bring me into contact with Lorenzo and Anita Torrez, veterans of the worker struggles associated with the strike and the film production process. I hope to contact Art Flores and others, while visiting Arizona and New Mexico research sites. I welcome any suggestions concerning the identities of strike veterans or other research leads that readers of this blog might have to offer. I’m especially interested in recollections of Jencks’s work and significance to the communities of the Southwest.

    Jim Lorence

    Professor Emeritus
    Dept. of History
    University of Wisconsin-Marathon County
    518 S. 7th Ave.
    Wausau, WI 54401

  2. Gail Ryall says:

    Dear Ken, Thanks for sending me a reference to your blog. I am going to find Lorence’s book at the public library, and hope I’m still around when his biography of Clinton Jencks is published. It’s been some years since I traveled to Tucson, but I remember Lorenzo Torrez and his wife Anita very fondly. About seven years ago I performed at the Salt of the Earth Labor College some labor history stories featuring women.

    There have been some well-known more recent movies with labor heroines, like “Norma Rae” and “Matewan”, but “Salt of the Earth” was the pioneer of them all, and much more realistic, and I have always been impressed by the fact that most of the actors were miners and not professional actors, especially the male lead, Juan Chacon.

    Gail Ryall,
    Labor History Storyteller

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