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An Ofrenda for Emma Tenayuca, Civil Rights Advocate

During Hispanic Heritage Month, I thought an ofrenda for Emma Tenayuca would be in order.

Emma Tenayuca, born in 1916 in San Antonio, Texas to a Mexican-Comanche family, grew up politically aware of racism and economic disparities. Raised by her grandparents, she would visit the Plaza del Zacate in San Antonio’s Milam Park with her grandfather on Sundays, where people would read the latest newspapers aloud so that the community could catch up on news from Mexico and listen to political speeches. Her childhood circumstances helped her develop her social consciousness at a young age.

                      Emma Tenayuca, c. 1938. Tenayuca Family, licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.

In high school, she joined a reading group where the members read works by Thomas Paine and Karl Marx. She later said, “All of us were affected by the Depression. We became aware that there were some aspects of the free enterprise system which were highly vulnerable.” She was arrested for participating in her first strike at age 16, with cigar workers against the Finck Cigar Company. After graduating high school, she attended local colleges, worked as a door-to-door salesperson, operated an elevator, and washed jars in a pickle factory. She joined groups such as the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) and the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU), but she left LULAC after a short time because she felt that they encouraged U.S. Mexicans to set themselves apart from foreign-born Mexicans. She felt that Mexicans needed to band together, not “divide on the basis of citizenship, class, or educational status.” She joined the West Side Unemployed Council and the Workers’ Alliance of America and fought for more employment for Mexican Americans who were not getting equal access to resources from the Works Progress Administration.

At the age of 21, Emma Tenayuca found herself leading the pecan shellers’ strike. Pecan processing was one of the major employments, particularly of the local Hispanic people, in San Antonio. On the west side of the city, there were 400 pecan-shelling factories. Shelling pecans and getting them out whole, without breaking the meat into bits, is hard work. Although there were already pecan-shelling machines available, the factory owners found it cheaper to hire people to do the shelling during the Depression. Pecan shellers in San Antonio were doing the work for the sum of 6-7 cents per pound, or around $2 per hour. In early 1938, factory owners decided they could cut the workers’ pay to 3 cents per pound because the workers had few labor options (about $0.63 cents per pound today). Working conditions were unsafe as well; the fine pecan dust contributed to higher rates of tuberculosis in the workers. There were no bathrooms or windows in the picking sheds.

Russell, Lee, photographer. Mexican women separating meat from shells. Pecan shelling plant. San Antonio, Texas. 1939. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/fsa.8b21333

When the shellers’ pay was cut at the beginning of the year, approximately 6,000 and 8,000 shellers walked away from their jobs. Tenayuca organized them, and she found herself at the head of the strike. She was promptly arrestedfor unlawful assembly, assaulting an officer, and disturbing the peace.” The city’s police chief said, “…the Tenayuca woman is a paid agitator sent here to stir up trouble among the ignorant Mexican workers (González, 154). (She was unpaid for her labor organization work.) As soon as she was released, she resumed her organizational work. The Texas strikes gained national attention. Ultimately, the CIO successfully bargained for a wage increase of 7-8 cents per pound for shellers; this wage increased to 25 cents per pound (comparable to $5.25 today) with the passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, and soon after, the factory owners turned to shelling machines (González, 157).

After the strike, Tenayuca continued to advocate for Mexican Americans and workers. After organizing a Communist Party meeting in San Antonio, she could no longer find work in the area, even after she grew disenchanted with the party and left it. She moved on to San Francisco where she worked for 20 years until she returned home to San Antonio. On her return to San Antonio in 1968, she found that locals regarded her as a folk hero for her work on behalf of the disadvantaged. Over her years of civil rights and labor advocacy, fellow labor members called her “La Pasionara” (the passionate one) for her fiery public speaking. Tenayuca is still remembered in San Antonio for her campaigns for Mexican Americans and workers.

Resources

HD6509.T46 T34 2008 Tafolla, Carmen. That’s not fair!: Emma Tenayuca’s struggle for justice = No es justo! : la lucha de Emma Tenayuca por la justicia / written by Carmen Tafolla & Sharyll Teneyuca ; illustrated by Terry Ybáñez ; Spanish translation by Carmen Tafolla.

F787.S36 2008 Schmidt Camacho, Alicia R. Migrant imaginaries : Latino cultural politics in the U.S.-Mexico borderlands.

F790.M5 G46 2007  Castañeda, Antonia. Gender on the borderlands : the Frontiers reader.

HD8083.T4 T356 2013 Texas labor history / edited by Bruce A. Glasrud and James C. Maroney.   Lccn 2012044210

HD8081.M6 V36 2005 Vargas, Zaragosa. Labor Rights are Civil Rights: Mexican American Workers in Twentieth-Century America.

F395.M5 G665 2018 González, Gabriela. Redeeming la Raza: Transborder Modernity, Race, Respectability, and Rights.

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