{ subscribe_url: '/share/sites/library-of-congress-blogs/law.php' }

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.


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.


Subscribe to In Custodia Legis – it’s free! – to receive interesting posts drawn from the Law Library of Congress’s vast collections and our staff’s expertise in U.S., foreign, and international law.

Hispanic Heritage Month 2022: New Acquisitions

The United States has been commemorating Hispanic Heritage Month since 1968. The celebration honors the civic and cultural contributions and achievements made by our fellow Americans of Hispanic heritage, and also Mexico’s independence day (September 16) and the anniversaries of independence for Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua. To honor these people and celebrations, […]

Herencia Hispanic Heritage Month Transcribe-a-thon Recap!

On Wednesday, October 7, the Law Library of Congress, in collaboration with By the People, the Hispanic Division, and the African, Latin American and Western European Division (ALAWE), hosted a second Transcribe-a-thon for our crowdsourcing campaign, Herencia: Centuries of Spanish Legal Documents. This event was held in celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month and the release […]

From the Serial Set: Celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month and Libraries

In recognition of Hispanic Heritage Month, the Digital Resources Division would like to highlight some of the documented accomplishments of Latin America in our collections. The Serial Set contains bulletins from the Pan American Conferences. Initially known as the International Union of American Republics, the Pan American Union became the Organization of American States (OAS) […]

Hispanic Heritage Month On the Shelf: What’s New

Last week, Geraldine talked about the events the Library is hosting to celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month. Hispanic Heritage Month commemorates Mexico’s independence day (September 16: ¡Viva Hidalgo!), and the anniversaries of independence for Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua. With these celebrations in mind, we’ve compiled a list of some of the new materials […]

Viva la Causa! Dolores Huerta and Hispanic Heritage Month

During Hispanic Heritage Month, we remember Americans of Hispanic heritage who have positively shaped the society of the United States. Dolores Huerta is definitely a highlight on that list—and hers is a name prominent on lists of civil rights, women’s rights, immigration rights, and labor rights activists as well. If you listen to Ms. Huerta […]

Worst. Birthday. Ever. Puerto Rico and the United States Virgin Islands, United States Territories

After Hurricanes Irma and Maria devastated Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands (USVI) this September, a survey revealed that only 54% of Americans know that the 3.4 million Puerto Ricans are American citizens. Many Americans are also unaware that the USVI are part of the United States. Paradoxically, 2017 was not only the year […]

100 Years of Puerto Rico: Puerto Rico Becomes a U.S. Territory

The United States made a deal 100 years ago today, on March 2, 1917, when the Jones-Shafroth Act became law making Puerto Rico a territory of the United States.  The passage of the law guaranteed U.S. citizenship to Puerto Ricans born on or after April 25, 1898. The legislation was sponsored by Rep. William Jones […]

Hispanic Heritage Month 2016—Hispanic Americans: Embracing, Enhancing, and Enriching America

Each year, from September 15 to October 15, Americans observe National Hispanic Heritage Month with the aim of celebrating the contributions of our fellow Americans of Hispanic ancestry. This year’s theme is Hispanic Americans:  Embracing, Enhancing, and Enriching America. The observation of this month—in which we bring forth the histories and cultures of people whose […]