Lorenzo Torrez, copper miner, Communist leader, dies at 84

Lorenzo Torrez, leader of the Communist Party, a staunch yet quiet spoken fighter for union rights and Mexican American equality, died New Years Day in Tucson. He was 84.

Torrez was born in Gila, N.M., May 18, 1927. He went to work in the underground copper and zinc mines at age 16 and toiled there for 25 years with a break during World War II when he served in the U.S. Army in Europe. After the war, he returned to the non-ferrous mines in New Mexico enduring with his fellow miners brutal exploitation and racist discrimination.

Torrez and his wife Anita, and scores of other miner families starred in “Salt of the Earth,” a film about a bitter 1950 strike at the Empire Zinc Corporation mine in Bayard, N.M. led by the Mine, Mill, and Smelter Workers Union (MMSWU).

The miners played themselves. Lorenzo had a speaking role in the film, and Anita and their children also appeared on-screen.

Later, Torrez described the conditions that drove the miners to strike, humiliated by racist discrimination, consigned to the dirtiest, most dangerous and lowest paid work underground: “Even the pay lines were segregated with Mexicanos on one side and Anglos on the other,” he told People’s World in an interview.

“We couldn’t sit together. The swimming pool was segregated. There was one day a week that the Mexicanos could go swimming, and then they would drain the pool and refill it.”

The segregated company housing was miserable with no running water for the Mexican American workers’ shacks.

When the striking miners were barred from picketing under a Taft-Hartley injunction, their wives took their place, were arrested and filled the jail, yet returned to the picket lines every day for seven months. Their courage and militancy was key to winning the strike.

That strike battle-and the making of “Salt of the Earth” –were turning points in Torrez’ life. He and Anita were married and both joined the Communist Party USA. Juan Chacon, a copper miner who played the leading role in the film, also joined the CPUSA. He served as president of that local of the MMSWU for many years. Chacon and his wife Virginia were lifelong friends of Lorenzo and Anita Torrez.

The film was banned from movie theaters during the years of the Cold War witchhunt. The actors were blacklisted and the MMSWU was expelled from the CIO. The union later merged with the United Steelworkers of America.

Unemployed, hounded and harassed by the FBI, Torrez moved from job to job struggling to support his family. He landed a permanent job as a Communist Party organizer in California, organizing in Los Angeles’ Latino community.

In 1974, Torrez moved with his family to Tucson where he served as chair of the Arizona CP for more than 30 years. He also led the party’s Chicano Equality Commission and was a member of the CPUSA National Committee.

He built the Arizona CP into an influential organization in all the progressive movements of Arizona. He also wrote and raised money for People’s World and its predecessors.

Torrez helped establish the Salt of the Earth Labor College in Tucson, which continues today.

Steve Valencia, president of the labor college told the World, “Lorenzo changed the political landscape of Arizona. For him, the liberation of the working class and equality for the Mexican American people were inherently tied together.”

Torrez called on the labor movement to organize undocumented immigrant workers. Even as his health declined, “Lorenzo urged us to join every action against SB-1070 and struggle to repeal that racist law,” Valencia said.

Voters last November recalled Arizona Senate President Russell Pearce, the author of the anti-immigrant racial-profiling law.

In 1981, Valencia was a copper miner, recording secretary of United Steelworkers Local 6912. “Lorenzo suggested that I write a letter to AFL-CIO President Lane Kirkland urging him to host Solidarity Day, which I did,” Valencia said.

Other local labor leaders also urged the federation to act. More than 250,000 marched in Washington Solidarity Day, Sept. 19, 1981 to protest President Reagan’s smashing of PATCO.

Valencia continued, “Lorenzo taught me how to work in the labor movement and work in coalitions. He told us to forget about our feelings of inadequacy and address problems that are shared by all workers.”

Torrez was also a pioneer in the struggle for Mexican American political representation, Valencia added. “I always say: Before Ed Pastor and Raul Grijalva, there was Lorenzo Torrez.”

Pastor and Grijalva are Arizona’s first two Mexican Americans members of the U.S. Congress. But Torrez ran for Congress before they ran, and also boldly ran against Republican Senator Barry Goldwater.

“Lorenzo told us it is time for these majority Latino districts to be represented by a Mexican American,” said Valencia. “He wanted voters to see a Latino name on the ballot.”

When Pastor declared his candidacy, Torrez rallied the Tucson CP club to join in the effort. Pastor’s victory in 1991 set the stage for Grijalva’s election in 2002. Pastor and Grijalva are members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus.

In 2004, the 50th anniversary of the release of “Salt of the Earth,” Lorenzo and Anita Torrez spoke at public meetings across the nation about the film. They were hailed as working class heroes. The Library of Congress in 1992 selected “Salt of the Earth” for inclusion in the National Film Registry as one of the greatest films produced in the United States.

Lorenzo Torrez is survived by his wife, Anita, and their three children Yolanda, Roberto, and Sally and by eight grandchildren and four great grandchildren.

Joe Bernick contributed to this article

Photos: Top, Lorenzo Torrez campaign photo. (Our Campaigns) Center, Lorenzo and Anita Torrez, far right, with CPUSA Chair Sam Webb and family friend Ana Felix. Bottom, Lorenzo and Anita with family.




Tim Wheeler
Tim Wheeler

Tim Wheeler has written over 10,000 news reports, exposés, op-eds, and commentaries in his half-century as a journalist for the Worker, Daily World, and People’s World. Tim also served as editor of the People’s Weekly World newspaper.  His book News for the 99% is a selection of his writings over the last 50 years representing a history of the nation and the world from a working-class point of view. After residing in Baltimore for many years, Tim now lives in Sequim, Wash.