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The Matriarch

By Adrianna Abreu

[1] Whether it be the role of a mother, caretaker, friend, or damsel in distress, women have been gracing film screens since the early days of cinema. In The Grapes of Wrath (1940) and Salt of the Earth (1954) audiences find two lead female protagonists who act as the mother, caretaker, and as the matriarch of the family. Their plot lines illustrate the tension and hardships of the working class and the outcome of newfound strength in the role of the women. Perceivably, the women -- Ma Joad from The Grapes of Wrath and Esperanza Quintero from Salt of the Earth -- that step up to care emotionally for their family sacrifice their most prized possessions and keep their family together even in hard living conditions. These women not only represent the hope that one can find in hardships but also the strength for fighting for that hope.

[2] One of the most memorable moments in The Grapes of Wrath takes place when upon crossing the California state border, the Joad family looks out upon acres of orange groves. Tom Joad runs to Ma Joad and upon seeing her solemn face asks, "Is Grandma bad?" As Ma Joad looks up towards him, she responds, "Grandma's dead . . . I told Grandma, I told her when she was dying that the family had to get across." This single line represents Ma Joad and her strength to not only keep her family together but her determination to keep on going forward to a place of salvation for her family. She evens states herself that "thank God we're all still together." In this short scene like others, audiences are shown Ma Joad's transition to the head of the family, which was, of course, originally the place of Pa Joad. Without Ma Joad and her willingness to put others first -- not only her family but also the hungry children in the camp that are not even hers -- audiences can only imagine that the Joad family would be broken. Later in the film when trying to sway Tom to stay with the family and not leave, Ma expresses her despair for him to stay for the sake of the family: "Pa has lost his place, he ain't the head no more . . . we're crackin' up Tom, there ain't no family anymore."

[3] The transition to the head of the family can also be found in Salt of the Earth. Esperanza Quintero, a miner's wife, joins a union strike picket line with other women and miners' wives after the men legally cannot strike. Clearly this is a transition of power. The men either stay at home or sit along the picket lines watching the women fight for the cause. In one particular scene audiences see Ramon, Esperanza's husband, hanging clothes up and complaining about how long it took to heat water just to wash clothes. He continues in his complaining rant that if the strike ever ends one of the demands should be to have running hot water in all homes. In another scene we see Ramon complaining again about how he took care of the kids all day, and Esperanza responds that she has been taking care of them since the day that they were born and that either he takes care of them or she will bring them to the picket line tomorrow.

[4] While the role of the head of the family transitioned to the lead woman in both films, another similar characteristic was sacrificing what both women treasure. For Esperanza in Salt of the Earth it was her radio that was repossessed after the bill could not be paid. It became clear to the audience in the beginning of the film that Esperanza loved the radio because while she and Ramon argued over bills to be paid, she told him that the radio gave her comfort along with something to dance to when guests were over. Even though the radio was something that Esperanza loved and treasured, she was the one who had to stop Ramon from attacking the police for taking it away. She pushed him away from the officer and told him, "can't you see they want to start a fight so that they can lock you all up at one time?" The sense of being calm and controlled in this situation in which Ramon was in a hysterical anger further depicts Esperanza as the head of the house and the one who controls the outcomes of situations. Salt of the Earth "takes its stand on the ‘woman question' even more forcefully by its very choice of a woman as both protagonist and central consciousness" (Rosenfelt).

[5] A moment of sacrifice on the part of Ma Joad comes when the family begins their trip out west. Al asks if she is going to turn back and look at the house and the land one last time, and Ma Joad responds, "Well, we're going to California ain't we? All right then, let's go to California." Al then responds, "well that don't sound like ya', Ma." With her house and land stolen, her family forced out on the road, and even after losing everything that she owned, Ma Joad in this scene did not even shed a tear or look back like the rest of her family at the land that was once theirs. Even when burning the few possessions that she owned, she smiled and laughed while reflecting on her life on the land. These scenes, if nothing else, simply foreshadow Ma Joad's emergence as the strength that her family needs to keep them together, which audiences see when Casy dies, Tom gets in trouble with the police again, and the family leaves the safety of the Department of Agriculture camp. At the end of the film, Pa Joad even says himself, "You're the one who keeps us going, Ma. I ain't no good no more and I know it."

[6] In poor living conditions, whether it be a dirt floor or no running water. In poor health, death, and harsh treatment from others. It is the characters of Ma Joad and Esperanza Quintero that represent the ability of the matriarch to take their struggling family and help them fight through rough conditions to make a better life. Both protagonists care for their family when the men are unable, and in the end of both films they are literally fighting for what is right. Or as Ma Joad put it: "Men live sort of in jerks . . . with the women it is in one flow like a stream."

Bibliography

"Salt of the Earth" by Deborah Rosenfelt." JCsplash. Web. 01 May 2011. .
"Salt of the Earth (1954) Movie Script - Screenplays for You." Screenplays for You - Free Movie Scripts and Screenplays. Web. 01 May 2011. .