Salt of the Earth and Environmental Justice: Human Ecology and Gender in the Mines
In Salt of the Earth (1953), the female star of the picture, Mexican actress Rosaura Revueltas, entered New Mexico illegally to complete her role in the film, a semi-documentary sponsored by the International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers which, according to a March 16, 1953 Time article, was “ousted from the CIO in 1950 for being Communist-dominated.” The resistance highlighted here in Silver City, New Mexico was fierce and resulted in townspeople threatening the movie-makers with guns and instigating fistfights with the film crew. According to Time, “50 Silver City men tussled with the camera crew until state police broke it up. U.S. immigration officers arrested the feminine star of the picture, Mexican Cinemactress Rosaura Revueltas, for illegally entering the U.S.”
The Internet Movie Database reveals more signs of resistance. According to IMDB, “Because the producers feared both sabotage and destruction of the film, the exposed footage had to be developed in secret, and at night, by a sympathetic lab technician, with the film delivered in unmarked canisters.” And Salt of the Earth was the only film ever blacklisted in the United States. Although the filmmakers’ physical resistance was short-lived and resulted in the film crew moving to Mexico by the end of the week, when the film was released in 1954, it was first shown in Silver City. The act of making and releasing the film served as a powerful act of resistance, an act explored in-depth in Deborah Silverton Rosenfelt’s commentary on The Salt of the Earth that accompanied its screenplay.
Salt of the Earth (1954) tells the story of a New Mexico coal mining community struggling to improve not only working conditions but (more explicitly) living conditions, the focus of the human ecology movement. Here women lead demonstrations not only to support their husbands’ efforts to improve working conditions, especially for Mexican miners, but also to improve their own home lives, again as active sources of resistance. Women’s efforts serve to improve sanitation in homes of non-white miners, bringing hot running water and electricity that increases their quality of life at home. In Salt of the Earth, women serve not only their men—the male miners—but work for themselves and benefit directly from their efforts. According to Rosenfelt, “Here was a film that presented housework, child care, sanitation as important political issues; that used humor to deflate macho attitudes; that recognized the necessity of rejecting the ‘old way’ but acknowledged the difficulty of creating something new; that had chosen a woman as protagonist and entrusted to her the role of narrator” (93).
Despite this clear female-centered resistance, because their efforts center on the home and on ways to ease their work there—usually seen as women’s work—women in Salt of the Earth maintain gender binaries and gain a sense of “sexual equality” only by leading a call for improved sanitation. Neither Salt of the Earth nor Harlan Country U.S.A., although clearly foregrounding women’s role in coal-mining resistance movements, shows us images of women coal workers like those in “A Day In the Life of a Coal Miner” or Coalmining Women whose resistance transcends their gender roles. Despite this missing element, both Harlan County U.S.A. and Salt of the Earth reveal women as active sources of resistance in movements to improve living and working conditions for miners.
Salt of the Earth foregrounds “the woman question” throughout the film, telling the story of a mining strike (in New Mexico) from the point of view of one female character. To emphasize the film’s feminine perspective, the film opens on a scene of a woman chopping wood and then boiling water over an open fire (she has lit) in the desert, with her daughter looking on. She carries a large tub of hot water towards a clothes line, and washes clothes, again outside. Only after the film’s union endorsement (“Independent Production Corporation and The International Union of Mine, Mil, and Smelter Workers Present”) and title (Salt of the Earth by Michael Wilson) comes on the screen does it show scenes of a mine. Women may not work in or above the mines in Salt of the Earth, but they do take center stage—because of their working conditions at home and their fight for equality.
After an inter-title explaining the film’s setting—New Mexico—the film shows a mine in the distance appearing out of the dark, and a woman’s voice asks, “How should I begin my story that has no beginning?” As in Harlan County U.S.A. the film shifts from the mine to the miners’ town—called Zinc Town, New Mexico, USA by the “Anglos.” The narrator reveals her name—Esperanza—and explains that she is a miner’s wife, who owns only the flowers around her house, even though the land once belonged to her husband’s grandfather. So from its outset, the film tells the story of a miner’s strike from Esperanza’s perspective, as a narrator and a woman seeking change. Esperanza, then, serves as a powerful source of resistance, as the film’s narrator and protagonist, as well as the Mexican actress playing her.
As a fictional narrative film, Salt of the Earth tells Esperanza’s story in a traditional fashion. After showing us visual representations of women’s suffering, the film establishes the plight of the local Mexican-American miners who are more exploited than their “Anglo” counterparts. Yet these same male miners exploit their women and deny them the equality they seek. The film sets up Ramon, Esperanza’s husband, as an example. When Esperanza asks him, “Why can’t you ask for different plumbing, too?” Ramon argues, “You’re a woman. You don’t know what it’s like up there. First we’ve got to get equality on the job. Then we’ll work on these other things. Leave it to the men.”
Women begin at the bottom of the hierarchy in Salt of the Earth, but the film is organized around a central theme: everyone, regardless of race and gender, should work to rise and push everything up. The Mexican-American (male) miners seek equality with the Anglo miners, but, according to the film, they should also seek equality for their women and allow them the same rights that they seek. After a mine injury caused by a company policy that requires miners to work alone, men gather for a strike, and the women join them and voice their concerns. Consuela, Esperanza’s friend, tells the men, “The ladies have been talking about sanitation, and if the issue is about equality, then maybe we oughta have equality in plumbing too. I mean, maybe we could make it a strike demand. Some of the ladies thought it might be a good idea to have a ladies’ auxiliary. Well, we’d like to help out if we can.” But the men refuse their help, table their suggestion, and adjourn.
The film shows the evolution of the women’s movement towards equality (as they have defined it) and toward becoming active sources of resistance. One older woman starts marching with the picketing men. Then women start bringing their husbands coffee and tacos. The food and drink women provide leads the union to allow a ladies’ auxiliary. Esperanza tells us (through her narration) that Ramon won’t allow her to participate, but because he prefers her coffee, he acquiesces. Eventually, after drama on the picket line that includes Esperanza having a baby while the police beat her husband, the company procures an order to stop the miners’ picketing. Since women are not miners, they are not prohibited from picketing and take their husbands’ places on the strike line.
On the picket line, women demonstrate that they are a source of resistance as they hold their ground so adamantly that they are arrested and jailed for four days until the police have, as Esperanza puts it, “had enough of them in jail.” That jail time gives men a chance to experience the hardships women endure at home. Ramon exclaims, “Hot running water should have been a union demand from the beginning.” And one of his friends talks about the “woman question” while hanging out laundry: “Give them equality in jobs, in the home—and sex equality.” But when Esperanza returns from jail and meets with other women about the picket line, Ramon rushes off in a huff to the beer hall. When he returns home, Esperanza explains that she’d like him to think of her as a friend, yet Ramon continues to “tell her to stay in her place, just like the bosses keep Ramon down.” Ramon goes hunting the next day instead of supporting the women’s picket line, but Esperanza’s (and the film’s) message is heard.
Ramon returns just in time to lead a revolt against the company’s attempt to evict him and his family. Together they return all the goods the sheriff and his men have taken from the house. Ramon’s last speech and Esperanza’s ending narration provide a clear explanation of the film’s point. It also illustrates the portrait of resistance presented there. Ramon explains, “Then I knew, Sisters and Brothers, Esperanza—thank you for your dignity…. Together we can push everything up with us as we go.” They had built solidarity around the concept of equality for all, and especially for women and their representative, Esperanza. Esperanza states it well: “We had won something they could never take away. And they, the salt of the earth, would inherit it.” Salt of the Earth presents images of resistance in a narrative where success is not only possible but inevitable.
The ending portrait of men and women joined together leaves us with a vision of hope that—even though the company men are just up the road—all their demands will be met, both in the mines and at home. The power of women’s voices—and especially of Esperanza’s voice—has been heard and images of women’s resistance heighten their force. Yet women work to improve their own traditional sphere—the home—in Salt of the Earth. Even though equality is described as extending to work, for women in this film work means completing domestic duties. Women’s strike efforts merely reinforce the need to lighten their burden and improve sanitation at home—with running water and indoor plumbing. Gender roles are maintained in Salt of the Earth and after the strike it seems that women will return to their rightful sphere and traditional feminine roles. Resistance in Salt of the Earth is limited for women. They can participate in the strike, but only if they are fighting for either their men’s protection or for their home’s improvement.