The following is one of the entries from my 100 Greatest English-Language Films list, which I invite you to visit on this site if you haven’t already done so. — Dennis
During opening credits, Esperanza is shown, outdoors in a miners’ residential camp, splitting wood for a boiling pot and boiling water. Post-credits, in the mine, a defective blasting fuse causes a near disaster. The new rule is that Mexican-Americans must work by themselves, denying them the precautions that have been extended to “Anglo” workers. Esperanza and her husband, Ramon, quarrel. Ramon insists workers’ safety must be the union’s priority, while Esperanza pleads for sanitation. When Ramon accuses her of selfishness, Esperanza replies, “If I think of myself it’s because you never think of me.”
Seeking economic justice, Mexican-American workers went on strike, beginning in 1951, against the mining company Empire Zinc in Silver City, New Mexico. Salt of the Earth brings documentary realism to its fictional reconstruction of the event. Perhaps its most electrifying aspect, though, is its portrait of the womenfolk, who crash the barrier of Hispanic machismo in their parallel quest for marital and communal equality. They join their spouses in the strike, take over the picket line when necessary and endure consequent incarceration. Anything but a reductive “message movie” of the liberal sort that producer Stanley Kramer periodically discharged, this is a remarkably holistic account of a community’s multiple efforts toward equality.
The film, befittingly, is also an exemplary blend of objective and subjective, documentary and fictional elements. Playing Ramon, union president, Juan Chacon really was President of Local 890 of the International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers, other members of which populate the cast. Blending perfectly with these, in the film’s central role, is superb Rosaura Revueltas, the Mexican actress who plays Esperanza.
Salt of the Earth was made by a cooperative of blacklisted artists, among them writer Michael Wilson and director Herbert J. Biberman.
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