Southwest union leader and Communist activist Anita Torrez dies at 94 – people’s world
The American working class suffered great loss on January 31 with the death of Anita Torrez. Torrez, who celebrated his 94th birthday last fall, has spent most of his adult life fighting for economic justice and against racist and gender discrimination.
Born and raised by farm laborers in the small farming village of Gila in southwest New Mexico, she faced racism from an early age. By the time she entered first grade, Chicano and Mexican children were punished for speaking Spanish, even outside of the classroom. She knew at that tender age that it was an unfair policy, but did not yet know how to defend herself. In high school, she fell in love with her classmate Lorenzo Torrez, beginning a romantic relationship that lasted until Lorenzo’s death in 2012.
Lorenzo dropped out of school for a tour of the United States Army near the end of World War II. They married after his release in 1948 and began to raise a family. No one would have expected at the time that these two young farmers would become great leaders of the working class.
Lorenzo found employment in the Empire zinc mine smelter in Camp Hanover, New Mexico, where workers lived in company accommodation. As was the case with most mines in the southwest, the miners in Chicano were paid less, had more difficult jobs, and lived in substandard housing with no running water.
In 1950, the Empire miners went on strike. They were represented by the International Union of Mining, Mill and Foundry Workers, often referred to as Mine Mill, a left-wing CIO union with a history of militant fighting, especially among workers in southwestern Chicano.
While not a big mine, the Empire strike has become a test for the union, miners and bosses in the region’s mining belt waiting to see the outcome, expecting it to establish the standard for contracts in other mines in the region. After months of picketing, the company, which belonged to all elected officials and county judges, obtained an injunction against the picketing by the union.
After a lot of hair-raising and debate, the mining families decided to give the picketing tasks to women, who were not unionized and therefore not covered by the injunction. The mines would not hire women until the 1970s. When news of the women’s picket line spread, they were joined by women from other mining towns. Anita was already involved in supporting the strike, but now she was on the picket line. Despite the harassment from the police and the company’s henchmen, the women held on and eventually the bosses were forced to surrender.
This long struggle was immortalized in the film Salt of the earth, the only American film ever to be blacklisted. Unavailable for decades, it is now listed by the Library of Congress as one of the nation’s top 100 films of all time. To date, few Americans have seen the film, although it has been shown widely across the world, especially in socialist countries. We say that Ear salthas been seen by more people than any other movie in the history of the world.
A Hollywood crew filmed the film on location in New Mexico and used premises for most of the roles. Both Anita and Lorenzo had roles in the film, with Lorenzo having a speaking role. Years later, he often introduced Anita as “my favorite movie star”. Like most mining camps in the southwest, the Empire union included Communists, who helped some of the more advanced leaders during the strike. When the strike and the film ended, Lorenzo and Anita both joined the Communist Party, where they remained active for the rest of their lives.
After the war, Anita worked for Planned Parenthood in the New Mexico countryside. Even later in life, she often spoke about the difficulty in convincing people to use contraceptives, especially men. She said women were often afraid to tell their husbands that they were relying on birth control, and that when women got pregnant less often, their husbands worried that something was wrong with their manhood. She explained that it was rewarding work, even when it came to combating the influences of church tradition and dogma.
Meanwhile, the red fear of the 1950s led to the persecution of communists and class struggle trade unionists. Lorenzo would get a job in this or that mining town, but within weeks the FBI would show up and ask the boss to fire him. In the 1960s, Anita and Lorenzo were in Los Angeles, where Lorenzo helped build the Communist Party among the workers of Chicano.
They moved to Tucson in 1975 when Lorenzo took charge of the Arizona / New Mexico district of the CPUSA. Lorenzo also chaired the party’s National Commission for Chicano / Mexican Equality. Anita got a job at a sewing factory, which she quickly helped organize with the International Ladies Garment Workers Union. She played a leadership role in this factory union until her retirement.
She actively distributed the People’s world newspaper for decades and collected signatures when Lorenzo ran for political office and for PC candidates Gus Hall and Angela Davis when they ran for president and meanwhile she and Lorenzo raised their three children and then helped with their grandchildren.
In 1992 Anita and Lorenzo were among the founders of Salt of the Earth Labor College. The Workers’ School is still operating at full capacity despite the ongoing pandemic and is a monument to the inspiration Anita and Lorenzo have been for the working class of the Southwest and the nation.
Lorenzo died in 2012, but Anita continued the work the couple dedicated her life to.
The twenty-first century has seen a resurgence of interest in Salt of the earth film and its anti-racist and feminist lessons. Anita has been regularly invited to speak about the film and the strike in middle and high school classrooms, particularly Chicano and Women’s Studies classes, and in sightings of the film’s 50th and 60th anniversaries in Arizona and New Brunswick. -Mexico. She was also present every year at the screening at Salt of the Earth Labor College. It wasn’t until she turned 90 that she started to slow down, mostly due to hearing loss and not loss of engagement.
One way to remember Anita is to watch Salt of the earth. It can be viewed free of charge online. And the best way to honor Anita Torrez’s contribution to the fight for a better future is to follow her lead and never give up. There is still so much to do.
Other People’s World articles on Anita Torrez’s life: