By JO LUTZ
Daily press staff
This Thursday, a new exhibition at the Silver City Museum opens to the public – “The Life and Times of Arturo Flores”, offering insight into the life and works of an activist, photographer and organizer of the strike of the Empire Zinc mine.
Arturo “Art” Flores recently passed away, leaving behind original photographs used as the model for the “Salt of the Earth” mural in Bayard as well as memories of his national political and union work. Beginning Thursday, museum visitors can view and learn about Flores’ photographs of the strike and life in a New Mexico mining community, his woodworking, an identification badge when he was invited to present at Lyndon Johnson’s historic “War on Poverty” lecture, a photocopier and printed flyers. The digital rights to the photographs have been granted to the museum, while the negatives and memorabilia are on loan from the late photographer’s son, Lorenzo Flores.
“After my father passed away in 2019, I was going through his papers and found a box of negatives,” Flores recalled. “We discovered that many of them were from the Empire Zinc strike. My dad was one of the first vice-presidents of Local 890.”
Most locals are familiar with the Empire Zinc Strike, also known as the “Salt of the Earth” strike after the movie it inspired. The 15-month-long miners’ strike against the Empire Zinc Company in Hanover began over discriminatory wages and working conditions, but demands grew to include equal sanitation and housing after the wives and families of the miners took control of the picket lines.
Not only was the film “Salt of the Earth” blacklisted as communist propaganda, but it was used to create actual Soviet propaganda posters – some of which are featured in the exhibit.
“The Empire Zinc Strike is one of the greatest events in Grant County history,” said museum curator Javier Marrufo. “It was a watershed moment for equal opportunity for Mexican Americans and a watershed moment in the history of labor in the United States.”
Local 890 was the union local that organized this famous strike under President Clinton Jencks and Vice President Art Flores.
“As we look at his life, we touch on bigger issues like discrimination in the South West and national labor movements,” Marrufo said. “He grew up in a system of oppression, and like a lot of people here, he joined the military, and that changed his outlook on things back home.”
“This collection of Flores memorabilia and photos is not only of local significance but of national significance,” said museum director Bart Roselli. “It’s important because the museum doesn’t have much representing the mining industry, the labor movement, and Mexican-American heritage.”
Throughout the exhibit, QR codes can be scanned using a phone camera to play audio of Art Flores himself talking about his life, including a clip about the all-important machine to mimeograph exhibited. Flores also organized in Texas and Arizona, according to Marrufo, and he would bring his mimeograph machine and teach activists in each community how to use it to make flyers.
The exhibit features a Hatch machine from the same year as the strike, along with copies of actual strike flyers, courtesy of Western New Mexico University.
A chess strategy book given to Flores by Jencks is also on display. Rumor has it that these chess strategies informed his organizing tactics, Marrufo said, but that cannot be confirmed.
A centerpiece of the exhibit is a mural of a strike mural by Grant County artist Fred Barraza painted on the side of Bayard’s former union hall. Sections of the original mural are actually images copied from Art Flores’ photographs, one of which is pictured alongside its copy. Eight specific individual men are repeated in black and white photos and colored paint.
It turns out Marrufo, who grew up in Grant County, also has a personal connection to the mural. He worked in the Youth Mural Project group which helped Barraza paint the mural.
“I did this guy’s face,” he said, pointing to a figure right next to Flores’ men.
According to Lorenzo, the Flores family has been trying to exhibit Arturo’s collection since 2019. They had held an event in Las Cruces, where Lorenzo now lives, which was canceled due to COVID-19. He said he was happy to have it landed in Grant County, where he and his father grew up, and said museum staff had been extremely involved with the family during the making of the exhibit. .
“It was a labor of love,” said young Flores. “I just want to preserve his legacy. Dad was a role model, he was a mentor, he did so many things. He was always learning, always teaching. If I could accomplish a tenth of what he did in his lifetime…”