In order to examine the narrative and the internal message of Salt of the Earth, it is necessary to understand the Cold War context in which the film was made and seen by its original audience. One of the greatest changes facing Americans after the end of World War II was the nation's unprecedented position as a leader in world affairs. Many hoped that America's new industrial and military might would be used to build a better, more secure post-war world. The Soviet Union also emerged from the was as a world leader, and one which, although it had been allied with the U.S. during the war, many U.S. leaders viewed with suspicion.
Many Americans believed that Russian Communists were dedicated to the overthrow of capitalism and democracy and were intent on world domination. The Soviet Union, a nation twice invaded by the West in the twentieth century, also viewed the U.S. with suspicion, believing that it posed an ongoing threat to its security. To counter further invasion, it sought to dominate bordering nations in Eastern Europe and to build its military might. Both nations engaged in acts that collectively raised tensions, generating a "cold war" between them.
Americans responded with rising concern to each communist "victory"--the extension of Soviet governance over Eastern Europe, captured spies, the development of a Soviet atomic bomb, the successful 1949 Chinese Communist revolution. The House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) charged that Communist agents and spies were actively subverting American life, the American economy and government. Most states, and many public and private institutions such as colleges and universities, joined the federal government in requiring loyalty oaths and establishing loyalty review boards. Many of these abrogated the constitutional rights of those under suspicion.
Among the industries most affected by the hysteria was the film industry. By 1947, HUAC had charged ten screenwriters--Communists, former Communists, and liberals--who came to be known as the "Hollywood Ten," with contempt of Congress for the refusal to name prominent Communists in Hollywood. Hollywood moved to remove the "blemish" of Communism from its reputation; in late 1947, fifty motion picture executives devised a "black list" of suspicious people who would be prevented from taking jobs in the industry. No studio would hire a blacklisted writer, actor or actress, director, or producer. Unable to find jobs, a number of blacklisted film artists formed their own production company in 1951. They were looking for good stories when told about a strike by Local 890 of the Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers Union against the New Jersey Zinc Company in Bayard, New Mexico. The Local was composed largely of Spanish and Mexican Americans. The Mine, Mill, and Smelter Workers Union had been expelled from the CIO in 1950 for alleged Communist influence.
The movie was to be the story of the miners fighting against a giant company, of Chicanos and Anglos, and of miners and their families. The miners were to play themselves, and it was to be filmed on site. The crew was made up of blacklisted technicians, and only two professional actors would appear in the film: blacklisted Will Geer (the Sheriff, and who later went on to play the Grandpa on The Waltons on television), and Mexican actress Rosuara Revueltas (Esperanza). The final result, The Salt of the Earth, was a controversial film. Not only was the film about striking miners, whom the general public viewed to be either Communists or Communist-influenced, but the story focused on a Chicano community at a time when attitudes about Chicanos were changing. Throughout the Great Depression, official attitudes toward Mexican immigration and trans-border migration had grown increasingly hostile, as Anglos clamored in the depressed economy to take jobs that had traditionally belonged to Mexican immigrants. Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, the movement towards closing the porous border at the Rio Grande had culminated in "Operation Wetback" in 1953, a government program designed to find and deport illegal Mexican aliens. These tensions were made more complex by the fact that many "Mexican-American immigrants" had, in fact, been on their lands longer than those lands had been a part of the United States, becoming U.S. citizens by virtue of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo that ended the Mexican American War in 1848.
2) What is the nature of the conflict between Esperanza and Ramón early in the film? What does the viewer learn from the scene at the Saint's Day party? Is Esperanza and Ramón's behavior toward each other different in public and private? Why?
3) The workers at the union meeting emphasize the "solidarity of the working men." Yet, the film begins by focusing on the women who are doing the work. Why?
4) Frank (the Union organizer) and Ramón have a serious argument about the portrait of Benito Juarez in Ramón's house. What is the nature of this conflict? How is Frank portrayed in his subsequent argument with Ruth, his wife?
5) How do the men react to their wives' offer to picket in their places? Why do they finally give their approval?
6) When violence breaks out on the picket line, how do the women react? How do the men react? What is the result?
7) What is the significance of the conversation between Ramón and Antonio as they are hanging out laundry? How have circumstances changed Ramón's opinions?
8) Why is the attempted eviction of the Quintero family a turning point in the film? How have both Esperanza and Ramón changed by the end of the film?
9) Why did Esperanza buy the radio? What does this reveal about the contours of their everyday lives?
10) How do the working conditions in the mine affect both the men and the women?
11) What do the following quotes from the film illustrate:
Consuela: "It's about time Ramón was housebroken."
Esperanza: "I want to rise and to push everything up with me as I go."
Esperanza: "Never strike me again--that was the old way. Sleep where you please but not with me."
Prepared by Professor Catherine Lavender for History 182 (Women's History and Feminist Theory), The Department of History, The College of Staten Island of The City University of New York. Send email to email@example.com
Last modified: Monday 30 March 1998.