The event that struck the match on this event was the breakdown of contract negotiations between the Empire Zinc Company and the miner's union, Local 890, of Hanover, New Mexico. Among these demands was an equalizing of pay between Latino workers and white workers, demands which were rejected, leading to a shutdown of the mine due to picketing. This strike lasted for more than a year.
One important component detailed by Baker in the book is the importance of women in the strike of this miner's union; "The strike began as a typical conflict between miners and their employer over work conditions and wages, but like many labor conflicts, especially in single-industry towns like Hanover, the strikers depended on a wider community, especially their wives, for support"1. Wives would often even take over the picket lines when their husbands were prohibited from picketing due to a court injunction. Of course, this raised questions regarding the equality of the genders; especially in Latin-American homes, while the men were out fighting and picketing for their equal rights, they were simultaneously admonishing women for wanting the same thing. Latinos still wanted women to serve the subservient role in the home, making the conflict a little more complicated when it came time for the women to fight for their men to have the same rights they themselves were denied at home.
Eventually, mining families decided their stories needed to be told; they then consulted blacklisted Hollywood filmmakers, such as Herbert Biberman, Michael Wilson and others, all of whom had been sacrificed on the altar of public opinion due to their refusal to participate in the House Committee on Un-American Activities. The production encountered many problems, with government and public forces attempting to shut down or hinder production in any way they could, though the overall goal of the filmmakers was to create an accurate portrayal of the miner's experiences. "The struggles within the production committee show how important it was to the mining families that the story be 'true'"2.
Many of the workers were used in the film, while only five professional actors took part; this helped to combine the efforts of the workers and the filmmakers in creating the film. The result was a rare collaboration between Hollywood and a leftist worker's union, together creating the 1954 film Salt of the Earth, a semi-biographical tale of the women who fought to be included in the picket line for the worker's strike. Immediately blacklisted as communist propaganda due to its leftist leanings and its blacklisted filmmakers, it was critically panned and many forces went into play to prevent the film from being shown in theatres3.
Baker's thesis in this film stands beyond mere racial and gender rights, however; she posits these events as a powerful message sent to capitalist America that a leftist alternative was possible, and creatable, even in that context. "The success in producing the film - and the failure in distributing it - show that leftists and working-class activists had some space to mark out an alternative to the emerging Cold War consensus, but not enough to give that alternative the power it would need to reshape the political and cultural terrain"4.
At the same time, Baker's work details the ways in which the film (and the protest) is a testament to the hard work put in by Latin-American women, who merely wanted to stand by their husbands and families as they fought for their right to equal pay and fair compensation for their work. It became a landmark feminist movement, a means of demonstrating just how powerful the right for women's rights could be, even if it was merely the right to protest. This small group of Mexican laborers, in their fight to gain individual rights, made substantial traction in the feminist, leftist and union movements, which is remarkable given the paranoid, anticommunist Cold War setting of the time.
Baker, Ellen R.. On strike and on film: Mexican American families and blacklisted filmmakers in Cold War America. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007.