Emma Tenayuca: The Labor Rights Activist You Haven’t Heard Of Who Changed Society

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When we think of Latina political powerhouses our minds turn to figures such as Democratic Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and labor rights activist Dolores Huerta. One of the women who set the stage for the rise of these Latina leaders, however, is a tenacious labor leader and educator who is egregiously missing from history books.

Emma Tenayuca was in many ways a woman before her time. Born in San Antonio in 1916, she witnessed how the lack of basic needs such as food and shelter affected her family and community during the Great Depression. Even before she reached young adulthood, Tenayuca felt a sense of responsibility for underserved communities and joined labor protests on behalf of the working poor. Her first encounter with police came in 1933 when she was arrested for joining a picket line of workers striking against Finck Cigar Company. She was only 16 years old.

Tenayuca led the 1938 Texas Pecan Shellers’ Strike, which was largely composed of Mexican-American workers who kept seeing their pay cut amid unsafe working conditions faulted for a high rate of tuberculosis among the workers.

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Historians say Tenayuca had to be “incredibly persuasive” to convince workers to strike given the threats they endured for standing up to the company’s owners. However, on January 31, 1938, some 12,000 workers walked off their job and elected Tenayuca, their strike leader. She was 21 years old.

“She was single-mindedly courageous in her effort to provide opportunity to an entire population of disempowered pecan-shellers; they were primarily Mexican-American, primarily women, and some children living in a time period when it was considered ridiculous for Mexican-Americans to speak up, even more ridiculous for women to speak, and disrespectful for the young to speak up,” said Dr. Carmen Tafolla, who co-wrote children’s book That’s Not Fair!: Emma Tenayuca’s Struggle for Justice with Tenayuca’s niece, Sharryl Teneyuca (who spells her last name with a second “e”) and Terry Ybáñez.  

The workers organized under the International Pecan Shellers Union (IPCU) Local No. 172 and got support from up to 8,000 other workers; bringing the city’s largest industry to a halt.

According to libcom.org, when pecan production stopped, the owners retaliated, resulting in police gassing and arresting hundreds of strikers, while beating some of them.

Support from the San Antonio community grew as it learned of the strike and the movement turned into a city-wide uprising of the economically disadvantaged and oppressed. Pecan producers agreed to arbitration 37 days after the strike started and gave the workers a pay raise weeks later.

“Asked years later, ‘They jailed you, they tried to lynch you, an entire mob plus the KKK came after you, they blacklisted you so you could not get a job anywhere --- Weren’t you afraid?’ and she answered, ‘I never thought in terms of fear. I thought in terms of justice.’” Tafolla said.

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Tenayuca was eventually exiled and maligned and forced to keep a low profile once her family was threatened. Tafolla said the FBI kept tabs of her, classifying her as A1-Most Dangerous because of her ability to incite a crowd.

Those who knew Tenayuca or have studied her legacy and consequently have fought to keep her story alive describe her as a woman filled with compassion, courage, bravery, and committed to the values of justice, equality, and the American Constitution. The strike is but one example.

“Emma’s life is so significant because it proved a change of expectations on what a Mexican-American community and a young woman committed to justice could do with their mere voice and conciencia (conscious) to change society,” Tafolla said.

She said the historic strike is the first successful action in the Mexican-American struggle for social and economic justice. Tenayuca helped organize two branches of the Ladies Garment Workers Union in San Antonio and became a known figure in every protest by Latino workers in the area. She helped create the National Workers Alliance in 1937 and served as its general secretary. The organization successfully fought for jobs, a minimum wage, right to strike and an end to beatings of Latinos by border patrol agents.

Affectionally called “La Pasionera” by her supporters, Tenayuca was at one point a member of the Communist Party before it became associated with the ‘Red Scare.’ Her goal was always education, justice, equality and the pursuit of happiness for all as the founders of the American Constitution desired.

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Today, the city of San Antonio keeps Tenayuca’s legacy alive through performing arts, including via the play, No Es Justo! Emma Tenayuca’s Struggle for Justice, at the Guadalupe Theatre to “educate, inspire and touch the hearts and minds of audiences from all walks of life.”

The play has further developed since its 2009 introduction at the SAY Si Blackbox Theatre by Tafolla and Guadalupe Director of Performing Arts Joel C. Settles said the play last played in February and discussions about its future are in progress.

“Speaking for myself, when it comes to young people, not just children but teenagers and young adults, there is a real sense of urgency and desire among this population now more than I’ve ever seen in my life to be involved in their community and in politics,” he said. “Whether it’s the environment or LGBT rights or the #MeToo movement, whatever it is, so many folks want to be part of this conversation and want to make the world a better place.”

Today’s young generations don’t stop at ranting about injustices on social media or participating in a rally, they educate themselves on issues and then take appropriate action, he said.

“If they watch a show like this, they realize it’s not just some story. They think, ‘It’s a real woman who was my age when she took real action,’” Settles said. “I really think a show like this on Emma’s story could really serve young adults very well in that they see a roadmap to long term strategic action.”

WRITTEN BY CHRISTINE BOLAÑOS


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About the Writer:

Christine Bolaños is a Salvadoran-American journalist based in Texas who writes about social justice, women's empowerment and Latino issues for numerous national media outlets.

You can follow her work at https://twitter.com/bolanosnews08