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“How shall I begin my story that has no beginning?” Esperanza Quintero says in her opening narration to “Salt of the Earth.” It’s more than a poetic line and it’s far more than just her story.
It’s as though Esperanza speaks of the human story – the constant struggle of mankind versus itself. Where does such a story begin and more importantly, how can it evolve?
“The Salt of the Earth” is one of very few films I’ve ever seen confront the question on a large scale and suggest an honest answer. Released in 1954, it is certainly the earliest.
Filmed in Grant County, N.M., the movie is based on the true story of a 1951 miners’ strike in Fierro, N.M., located near Silver City.
In the film, the miners of Zinc Town decide to strike after management’s abhorrent safety practices lead to a series of accidents. The men, all of whom are of Mexican descent, refuse to work until these practices are changed to resemble those in place for Anglo miners.
The miners’ wives, on the other hand, are more concerned about sanitation.
The miners and their families live on mine property and their homes lack hot water and indoor bathroom facilities. In addition to many other chores, the women have to chop firewood several times each day to warm water. Meanwhile, the Anglo families down the road have full indoor plumbing.
The film really takes off when the women join the strike, the men learn to trust their wives and the community realizes how many people outside of Zinc Town support their efforts against the mine.
The effect is graceful and stirring and the overall message is surprisingly simple: We accomplish more together. It could be trite in some other film, but not here.
The feminist message comes through very firmly as well. Leading lady Rosaura Revueltas, as Esperanza Quintero, confers boundless courage and integrity to the film as she transforms from traditional housewife to inspirational union leader.
When her husband Ramon, played brilliantly by Juan Chacon, begins to understand Esperanza has not become a threat, but rather a true partner, the entire geography of man-woman relations seems to shift, tectonic plates touching for the first time.
Everyone should see “Salt of the Earth.” It’s one of the most powerful, enthralling films ever made.
Yet no one saw it in American theaters until 11 years after it was released.
It had been blacklisted, and no theater dared to show it – and risk being associated with its Communist-leaning crew, including director Herbert Biberman, producer Paul Jarrico, screenwriter Michael Wilson and actors Revueltas and Will Geer (Sheriff).
Though contemporary viewers will likely find the idea that “Salt of the Earth” was banned more shocking than the content of the film itself, the film still retains a certain revolutionary vibe that’s rare indeed.
See “Salt of the Earth” at 6:30 p.m. Thursday in the upstairs meeting room theater as part of the Mesa Public Library’s Free Film Series.
Next up in the series is “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” (1969) on May 7, “Missouri Breaks” (1974) on June 4, “Atomic City” (1952) as a special event on June 11, “The Milagro Beanfield War” (1988) on July 2, “Contact” (1997) on July 30 and a collection of short films made in New Mexico on Sept. 3.
All films included in this season’s series were made in New Mexico and the library has chosen at least one film from each decade of Los Alamos’s history in celebration of the county’s 60-year anniversary.
Films are presented free of charge thanks in large part to donations from the Friends of the Library. The series is co-sponsored by the Los Alamos Arts Council.
Kelly Dolejsi is a member of the Los Alamos Arts Council.