ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — A 1954 movie about a real-life miners’ strike that was blacklisted during the Red Scare is being celebrated in New Mexico as the 60th anniversary of the film approaches.
“Salt of the Earth” was blacklisted in the U.S. during Cold War retribution against communist filmmakers and gained an underground following more than a decade later when it was finally shown. The story was told through the eyes of a female character named Esperanza as Mexican-American miners barred by federal law from striking against a zinc company were replaced on the picket lines by their wives.
It became a feminist and Chicano Studies classic, and it was the subject of conferences over race, miner safety and the role of women.
The town of Silver City is scheduled to hold “Salt of the Earth Day” on March 14. The union representing deputies from the same sheriff’s office that once tried to break the strike and run over female strikers is sponsoring a screening and a bus tour of the mining site depicted in the film.
“I think there is a lot of atoning going on,” said Miles Conway, an organizer with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 18 in New Mexico, a group sponsoring its own anniversary celebration in Silver City, N.M. “After all these years, everything is going full circle and we are realizing that the film spoke to all of us.”
The film was a retelling of actual events involving Mexican-American miners and their wives in Grant County three years before the film. Director Herbert J. Biberman was one of the “Hollywood Ten” who refused to answer questions from the House Committee on Un-American Activities about being members of the Communist Party.
During production, filmmakers and crew faced harsh criticism from lawmakers and threats of violence from vigilante groups. In addition, the FBI scrutinized the film’s finances in search of communism connections, labs wouldn’t process the film and projectionists refused to show it. Mexican actress Rosaura Revueltas, who played the lead character, was even deported to Mexico.
Manny Maldonado remembers seeing the film “Salt of the Earth” in his high school. The 1954 movie at first appeared dated, but he recalled becoming a big admirer of the film as he came to understand the significance of the story.
“That was my family,” said Maldonado, now 35.
A deputy with the Grant County Sheriff’s Office and president of a union representing public safety and municipal employees in the area, Maldonado is now involved in promoting the film’s 60th anniversary.
In fact, many of unions and government entities that once opposed the strike and the film’s production, are involved in anniversary events to honor it. A film workers’ union, which once distance itself from the production, is also working to promote the film’s history.
William A. Nericcio, an English and comparative literature professor at San Diego State University, said the change in how the film in viewed in New Mexico was a sign of local progress and the transformation of the Southwest into a more Latino-friendly region.
“We still care about the film because it’s not dated at all,” Nericcio said. “We’re still talking about the same issues like the attack on organized labor.”
A number of anniversary events around the state are also scheduled this month, along with planned events in other states.
“We live in a different world now. We have women working at the mines and my (sheriff’s) department is mainly Hispanic,” Maldonado said. “But we need to remember this movie. It’s in our blood.”
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