The communist witch hunt of the late 1940s and 1950s led to the Hollywood Blacklist, which kept writers, actors and directors accused of communist sympathizing from plying their trade. Some worked under false names, and others found work in foreign countries. Three victims of the blacklist used the freedom they found in Mexico to make "Salt of the Earth," a movie based on a real strike by zinc miners. The film cast mostly non-professionals, including some who'd taken took part in the actual strike. This rousing revolutionary call to arms had practically no distribution in the United States.
Real Life Inspiration
"Salt of the Earth" is based on the events surrounding a strike at a zinc mine in New Mexico that last more than a year. The end of the actual strike came after wives of the miners stepped up to take their husbands' place on the picket line after an injunction based on the Taft-Hartley Act forced the men to stop their protest.
Working Conditions in the Mine
The movie begins when Ramon Quintero, a zinc miner, barely averts death after lighting dynamite that has a defective fuse. The real events of the story are kicked into gear when Quintero dares to complain about working conditions, and he is essentially told that he can be easily replaced.
Working Conditions in the Home
Quintero's wife, Esperanza, has some complaints about her own working conditions in their home, where she must chop wood several times a day to ensure hot water. Quintero puts off her complaints by suggesting that the issue of working conditions at the mine takes precedence.
Call to Strike
A group of wives approach Esperanza to join them in a protest of unsanitary conditions at the mine. Before she can make a commitment, an alarm goes off, indicating another accident. Quintero again complains, but his suggestion -- that improved working conditions would have prevented the accident -- results in the mine's company man calling him a liar. The resulting decision sends the miners on strike.
Life During Strike Time
As months go by, the strike increasingly dominates all aspects of the lives of the families of the miners. Quintero discovers that one of the scabs is a Mexican-American, whom he chases down and spits on. Later, Quintero is beaten by policemen expressing bigoted views toward Mexicans. Esperanza Quintero has a baby, and all the families must deal with how the lack of income means a dearth of food and clothing.
Injunction Changes Things
When the sheriff delivers the Taft-Hartley injunction to break up the strike, the women decide to take their husbands' places on the picket lines, though Quintero forbids Esperanza from taking part. At this point, the story of "Salt of the Earth" engages in role reversal: The women become empowered by their liberation from the drudgeries of housework without that liberation becoming threatening to the role of men in society.
Climax and Strike Settlement (Spoilers)
The film builds to a climax after the men go off on a hunting trip, and the mining company seeks to end the wives' picketing by obtaining orders of eviction. The sheriff and his deputies remove the Quinteros' belongings from their home. Quintero returns from the hunting trip and finds a crowd of supporters surrounding his home. He is empowered to take his things back inside the house, and the sheriff leaves because he does not want the women inside his jail. The strike is settled, and Quintero lavishes praise upon the strength, courage and determination of his wife for her dedication to the idea that the strike could be won merely by outlasting the mining company.
- Organization of American Historians: Salt of the Earth Overview
- "Guide for the Film Fanatic;" Danny Peary; 1986
- "A Short History of the Movies;" Gerald Mast and Bruce Kawin; 2000