GRANT COUNTY, N.M. – “Where is Anita Torrez?” growled the sheriff’s deputy at the young pregnant woman sitting at a table stuffing envelopes inside the union hall’s doorway.
“I really have no idea,” answered Anita Torrez with a good show of calm. The deputy had come on the sheriff’s orders to round up those on a “wanted list” of union wives. The frustrated deputy finally went on his way and the women laughed heartily. But it didn’t take away the fear.
More than 60 years later, Torrez is still iron-willed but soft-spoken, so she is reluctant to talk about herself and didn’t tell that story when she spoke on Mar. 15 at the University of Western New Mexico on a panel titled “From Women’s Auxiliary to Women of Steel.” But she did eagerly share it with family and comrades over a plate of carne asada, beans, rice, and plate-sized flour tortillas. The meal preceded the panel and was prepared by brothers from a steelworker local in nearby Tucson using a portable grill outside the same local hall where Torrez outwitted the sheriff’s deputy.
The confrontation took place in 1951 during a miners strike here. The strike was marked by government and company intimidation and violence and a new role for women. The story of the courage of the women led to the making of a unique movie, “Salt of the Earth” whose 60th anniversary was commemorated last weekend.
The movie depicts how wives, sisters, and mothers from miner families stepped up with women supporters from surrounding communities to take over the miners’ picket line after the Empire Zinc Company’s lawyers got a judge to issue an injunction barring the striking miners from picketing. Both management and the workers knew that it was only a strong picket line that could keep strikebreakers from defeating the strike; the purpose of such Taft Hartley injunctions was to defeat strikes.
Torrez shared more details. The sheriff deputized 25 thugs whose wages were paid by Empire Zinc. There was no semblance of impartiality: they cursed and beat, tear gassed, arrested, and even ran over the pickets – men, women, and children.
“Bob Hollowwa had warned me that they would probably be coming for me so I was ready,” she related. Hollowwa, a grizzly-bear-sized foundry worker was an organizer from the International Mine Mill and Smelters Workers Union who had come to help out the strike. Off the frontlines, Hollowwa was a gentle and intelligent organizer, and a master of strike tactics. He was a veteran of Mine Mill, as the union was known. Mine Mill was the successor of the militant Western Federation of Miners. It was a rank and file controlled union in the tradition of the IWW, representing “hard rock miners” in the mountain states of Idaho, Colorado, Nevada, Utah, Arizona and New Mexico.
Bob was there to share the lessons from a lifetime of struggle. A member of the Communist Party, which had been the backbone of Mine Mill, Hollowwa paid special attention to young comrades Anita Torrez and her husband Lorenzo, as well as to Virginia and Juan Chacon. Organizers Clint and Virginia Jencks were also part of the group that included the two young couples and many more at their club meetings. There they discussed how to build unity and solidarity for the union and community.
In a 2003 interview, Lorenzo Torrez explained joining the Party at the height of the Red Scare: “Anita and I joined the Party just when McCarthyism was strongest. Many others got scared and tried to hide. But there’s no hiding place.”
Knowing the sheriff was out to arrest Torrez, Hollowwa advised her not to go home, so, she recalled with a laugh, she and Lorenzo just drove around till late into the night.
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