The modern phenomenon known as “Reality TV” is a temporary media trend, one which ironically portrays a type of experience that is ‘unreal’. As a comparison, consider the Chilean miners who were recently trapped for nine weeks. That live-action rescue stands out because it was watched simultaneously around the world, but the ‘very real experience’ shared by those miners simply reflects the reality that has been experienced by countless others who anonymously have shared a particular identity.
Produced before the Civil Rights Era, Salt of the Earth is a phenomenal movie that portrays a real and timeless Latino experience. Salt of the Earth is also valuable as a comparative resource because it highlights some of the ways in which activism has evolved. With respect to contemporary Latino activism, several feminist writers have argued that a hierarchy of oppression does not serve the interest of the Chicanas within the larger movement. This hierarchy is evident among the Chicano families depicted in the film. For the miners who are demanding better conditions, gender equality is problematic; they seem to intuitively dismiss the concerns of “their sisters,” who are also demanding better conditions. Likewise, the women realize that their demands are being ignored, not only by the Anglo bosses but also by their own husbands. Later, when things get tough as a result of the organized labor strike, the miners discover that just as all members of a family are not equal, neither are all of the “union brothers.” The film demonstrates this by using a framed portrait of a Mexican, through which the Chicanos share a common experience. The portrait is hanging in Ramón’s house, where the members have organized a meeting. The Anglo labor organizer who makes well-meaning decisions for his brothers assumes that the image is of Ray’s grandfather when in fact, it is a historical portrait of a Mexican president, i.e. their symbolic father figure. Accordingly, a single person can be the symbolic father of many families. The portrait of Mexico’s president is a symbolic representation that is particular to a group but also one that is not exclusionary of those who share common interests and a common environment. The symbolic significance of a Mexican president could be compared to terms such as “jotografía” because the significance of what it represents is not assigned, it is chosen. As the modern world evolves it leaves behind the characteristics that defined it (such as the tendency to define everything) which permanently assigned everything a category by which it is judged. In the modern era, characteristics interpreted adjectivally. In the post-modern world, things are being interpreted substantively and adverbially. In other words, identity is not based on appearance; rather, it is being based upon one’s essence and interpreted in terms of action.
Progress in the mines is partially the result of those who suffered loss there just as the activism in the AIDS community is a response to the suffering and loss. A lot of activism is a response to the deaths of other community members, which continues to be experienced in the suffering felt by those members still living and working in the community. Accordingly, there are “ghosts without names” in the mining community, just as they exist in those communities that are affected by HIV/AIDS. ProyectoContraSIDA seeks to embrace the ambiguities of the post-modern era in a way that is inclusive, rather than exclusive. The reason that the ProyectoContraSIDA promotes this type of division is made clear through the film after the strike is underway and the mines are not producing. Attempts are made to weaken the group by forging divisions within it. These dynamics are present when other Latinos are introduced to the group from outside. For example, the Anglo boss begins to patronize Ray with suggestions about the good life he can expect after receiving the promotion he deserves (if only that mine were operating). The pivotal moment–a poster child snapshot of removing socio-cultural borders–occurs when Ramón’s choice of action influences the degree through which a potential human border is permeable. When Ramón confronts one of the strike-breakers directly there is the momentary expectation by all that his anger will lead him to hit the other Latino. But he doesn’t so rather than creating a formidable barrier, Ramón lays the foundation for an inclusive relationship.
Obtaining equality is costly because it means somebody else must, actually or seemingly, lose benefits that were enjoyed only because of their relative status. But there is a brief moment in Salt of the Earth where
Esperanza and Ramón achieve temporary equality with their Anglo peers of the day. It is in their kitchen when they are excessively happy about the flavor of his coffee. Viewed in isolation, that scene is equally as ‘cheesy” as other black & white productions of the time. It reminded me of the gleefully optimistic “Leave It to Beaver.” Perhaps they could get roles as Ray and Hope Cleaver.