Solidarity in Paint
By David A. Fryxell
The 1950 strike at the Empire Zinc Mine, near Hanover, was immortalized in the film Salt of the Earth back in 1954. Now the miners' struggle, which would inspire generations of labor, women and Mexican-American activists, has been commemorated a little closer to home: in a mural on the side of the union hall in Bayard.
The mural, depicting striking workers and their families, will be officially dedicated on Saturday, June 18, at noon. Inside the union hall, the Salt of the Earth movie will be shown.
The artwork is part of the Youth Mural Arts Project, sponsored through a partnership of Grant County DWI and the Mimbres Region Arts Council. With funding from New Mexico Arts and the National Endowment for the Arts, Grant County youth ages 14-18 take part in the planning, designing and production of murals in the region. The Bayard Union Hall mural also received $750 of support from the Southwest Activities Network Society (SWANS). Local artist Fred Barraza was the lead artist on the project, working primarily with students from Cobre High School and with help from WNMU interns.
"When he was going through old photos, Fred found his grandfather in the picket line," says Diana Ingalls Leyba, who coordinates the mural program. "Everybody involved in this has been touched by it in some way."
Not all the individuals depicted were so readily identified, however. Ingalls Leyba hopes that readers of Desert Exposure can help put names to some of the faces in the mural. If you can identify one of the labor activists in the painting, contact her at Leyba & Ingalls Arts, 315 N. Bullard in Silver City, 388-5725.
"The mural is based on original photos, though of course it's a composite," she says. "By trying to identify the people in it, I also hope we can engage the community further, to look and guess and figure it out." Ultimately she plans to run a list of names of the striking miners across the bottom of the mural.
At one point in the painting of the mural, she adds, Virginia Chacon--widow of striking miner and union leader Juan Chacon--came by to watch the image materialize on the wall. It was, Leyba Ingalls says, a moving moment.
When Mine-Mill Local 890 struck the Empire Zinc Mine in Grant County in 1950, management tried to portray the Mexican-American workers as the dupes of "Reds." The strike, argued Empire Zinc bosses, undermined the battle against Communists then going on in Korea.
Clinton Jencks, a decorated World War II veteran whom the Mill-Mine union sent to assist Local 890, would later recall in a 2002 article in American History magazine, "The central issue, really, was dignity, equality, being treated like anybody else." By openly favoring Anglo workers, he said, the bosses tried "to keep people fighting each other instead of the company."
After eight months, Empire Zinc brought in scab labor and obtained a court injunction banning strikers from picketing--so the miners' wives took their place on the picket line. When police tried to disperse them, the women fought back and went to jail. Strikers' families—45 women and 17 children—chanted at the top of their lungs in crowded county jail cells until sheriff's deputies thought they'd lose their minds.
The strike was finally settled on January 21, 1952, with workers winning higher wages and insurance benefits. But the company denied demands for paid holidays and pay for all time spent underground.
By that time, the idea to film Salt of the Earth had already been born. The making of the film would prove equally a struggle, fraught with controversy in the era of Hollywood blacklisting. It was the brainchild of producer Paul Jarrico, director Herbert Biberman and screenwriter Michael Wilson (Jarrico's brother-in-law), all three of them leftists who'd been barred from the regular movie business by the McCarthy-era witch hunts. Jarrico, who'd learned about the strike during a family vacation to New Mexico, explained that making Salt of the Earth meant committing "a crime that fit the punishment."
Screenwriter Wilson came to Grant County, attended union meetings and visited miners' homes. The filmmakers involved the mineworkers in the process from the beginning, even inviting workers to debate and vote on the screenplay. Initially, Jencks recalled, people in the community "found it hard to believe that their lives were interesting enough to make a movie. I think we romanticized the Hollywood people, and the Hollywood people romanticized us."
Actual miners and their wives played key roles in the movie, which used only a smattering of professional actors, including Will Geer, David Wolfe and award-winning Mexican actress Rosuara Revueltas. Since Hollywood unions prohibited their members from working on the film, most of the crew came from the ranks of the blacklisted.
Even the local filming was controversial. A Silver City schoolteacher wrote the Screen Actors Guild to complain that Communists were taking advantage of the local Mexican-Americans. Congressman Donald Jackson called Salt of the Earth "a new weapon for Russia." "It's Time To Choose Sides," screamed a headline in the Silver City Daily Press. The following day, two carloads of toughs broke up the filming in front of the union hall, and vigilantes warned that if the filmmakers didn't depart on their own, they'd leave in coffins.
In 1954, the year the film debuted, Revueltas was deported to Mexico. Local 890 organizer Jencks was fined and sent to prison for perjury for signing a Taft-Hartley affidavit stating he was not a Communist. But Salt of the Earth went on to win the grand prize from the Paris Academy of Film.
The new mural in Bayard is unlikely to stir up such controversy, but it may remind passersby of the struggles and passions of that time. Previous works in the program have included the inaugural mural on North Silver Street, near the corner of Maple, completed with help from Ingalls Leyba; a Fort Bayard Medical Center mural, with help from Ingalls Leyba and Marilyn Gendron; and the side of the Silver City Coop. For more information on the mural program, contact the arts council at 538-2505.
David A. Fryxell is editor of Desert Exposure.