Twenty years ago, I gave a lecture to my History of Texas class at UT San Antonio about Emma Tenayuca, a labor organizer who inspired me. After class, a young woman came up to me to tell me that Tenayuca was related to her but that the family kept it a secret because they were ashamed of her. No other student in the class had heard of her. Today, when I talk about her in class a few more students are familiar with her, but few people know about this fierce organizer born a little over a century ago.
Emma Tenayuca, born in San Antonio in December 1916, was a woman fierce beyond fear. She became a renowned labor organizer in the 1930s when she organized thousands of pecan shellers, mostly Mexicanas and mostly women, to strike against low wages and worsening working conditions. During the Great Depression, it became cheaper to hire Mexicanas to shell pecans than to maintain the machines that had already been developed to do the shelling mechanically.
Tenayuca remembered that she had been aware of injustice since her childhood. "On my father’s side, we never claimed anything but Indian blood, and so throughout my life I didn’t have a fashionable Spanish name like García or Sánchez, I carried an Indian name. And I was very, very conscious of that. It was this historical background and my grandparents' attitude which formed my ideas and actually gave me the courage later to undertake the type of work I did in San Antonio. I had wonderful parents and wonderful grandparents."
Photo by Michael Heinich, February 28, 2015 from The Historial Marker Database
The San Antonio in which Tenayuca came of age was a place of limited opportunities for Mexicanos. The Mexican population, representing almost half of the city, was very poor. There was limited opportunity. Tenayuca recalled, "what it meant to be a Mexican in San Antonio." She remembered that "There were no bus drivers that were Mexicans when I was growing up. The only Mexican workers employed by the City Public Service and the Water Board were laborers, ditch diggers. I remember they used to take the leaves from the pecan tress and they would put them on their heads in order to go out and dig ditches. I came into contact with many, many families who had grievances, who had not been paid. I was perhaps eight or nine years old at the time."
As she entered young womanhood, her anger at the injustices she saw turned into action and she became involved with the Finck Cigar strikes. The Texas Women’s Bureau had cited the cigar factory as being the least sanitary and lowest paying employer in the city, right along with pecan shelling. Workers had initially gone on strike against factory policies instituted in 1932—rollers, 90% or more who were Mexican women and girls, could roll only 500 cigars (at the wage of 21 cents per 100 cigar rolled). The workers were not allowed to roll any more cigars nor were they allowed to leave the factory either.
Tenayuca’s participation in the strike, beginning in 1934, personified her politics. The way for workers to achieve the American ideal of equality was to organize. By 1938, Tenayuca had become a leader of the pecan shellers strike. Like the cigar rolling industry, the majority of workers in the pecan shelling plants were Mexican women. Over 20,000 women were employed in San Antonio alone and Texas, producing half of the nation’s pecan crop, was the "pecan capital" of the United States. The working conditions were horrendous. The work was all manual—the industry had been mechanized years earlier but employers found it cheaper to hire laborers than to keep the machines running. The wages were extremely low (about $2.25 week for a 40-48 hour week) and the shellers constantly breathed in the fine pecan dust.
The San Antonio police department responded to the strike with increased harassment of the strikers. Of the 6,000 to 8,000 on strike, 1000 strikers were jailed for charges as ludicrous as obstructing the sidewalk where there was no sidewalk). When the Fair Labor Standards Act was passed in 1 938 and pecan shelling companies had to pay 25 cents per hour (up from about 5 cents), the companies closed down rather than pay the higher rates.
Emma Tenayuca eventually had to leave Texas, unable to obtain employment and facing continual threats. Decades later, she returned to San Antonio where she taught before retiring.
"I think it was the combination of being a Texan, being a Mexican, and being more Indian than Spanish that propelled me to take action. I don’t think I ever thought in terms of fear. If I had, I think I would have stayed home."
Emma Tenayuca was a woman fierce beyond fear.
Rio Vista Farm, Socorro, Texas 2016
Years ago, I studied with Mariano Leyva, un gran maestro and co-founder of Universidad Nahuatl in Morelos. I remember one visit to Mexico City where we attended a ceremony at the Zócalo. He introduced me as his prima from the United States and concocted a story that I was the daughter of his long-lost uncle who had come to the United States as a bracero and never returned. No one questioned it. I grew to like the fictionalized details of our connection. No one questioned the story that a man could leave his village to work in the U.S. and never return. In Mexico, the people know about the migration of men from villages to U.S. fields. In Mexico, people still remember the decades that men left with hopes of earning money and returning to their families.
Last summer, while teaching my Mexican American history class, I talked about the Bracero program and asked who had relatives who had participated in the program. Surprisingly no one raised a hand. After lecturing about the program, we watched the heart-breaking documentary, Harvest of Loneliness. (Click below to see the entire documentary.) When I turned the lights on after we watched the video, the students sat there in complete silence. They looked shocked at the conditions that braceros survived. I told them to take a break.
After our class break, one student told us tearfully that she had called her mom during the break to ask if she knew anything about the Braceros and she learned that her abuelito had come here as a bracero. He never talked about it, nor did his family, because it was too traumatic and he was ashamed. She asked, "How could I not know?"
It is a question that my students have asked me for almost thirty years as they learn the history of the border, of Mexican Americans, of their community. "How could I not know?" Sometimes they ask in tears, sometimes in anger or disbelief. I never let the question go unanswered. Why are some histories told and others not? Why are some histories silenced in the classroom, in the textbooks? Why are some histories hidden within our own families? And, as importantly, how can we learn to listen and to gently prod those memories from their hiding places?
In El Paso, the memories reside in century-old buildings like Rio Vista, in the forty-year old class assignments of students, and in the rooms of a south side farm workers center.
In the summer of 2016, I walked the grounds of Rio Vista Farm, a complex of buildings that served as a Bracero processing center from 1951 to 1964. Sehila Mota Casper, field officer with the National Trust for Historic Preservation had invited me. The Trust was going to name Rio Vista Farm a national treasure a couple of months later. The wooden buildings' shadows and the adobe peaking through the plastered walls told of a history that many don't know anymore, even the people who live around Rio Vista. The announcement of Rio Vista as a treasure brought together community members, former braceros, and their families. For many, it was the first time this part of their history had been acknowledged.
Rio Vista Farm, 2016.
For over forty years, the Institute of Oral History at UTEP has gathered oral histories that tell us the stories of braceros and the people associated with the program. In 1976, UTEP student Olivia Roman interviewed Dr. Jose Roman who had worked as a physician with the Trans-Pecos Cotton Association. Dr. Roman remembered that some braceros arrived to Texas speaking Indigenous languages. It was only working among other Mexicans in the cotton fields that they eventually learned some Spanish. He recalled that they were given instruction through simple signs since the work was a "mechanic sort of thing." (Interview with Jose Roman, MD, by Olivia Roman, Interview 219, Institute of Oral History, UTEP.)
Men waiting in line at Rio Vista Farm. Photo courtesy of the USCIS.
For several years, my students have worked with the Center for Border Farmworkers, helping to organize thousands of documents left with the centro by former braceros and their families. They receive as much as they give, reading letters and bracero contracts, scanning micas and looking into the faces of young men unsure of their futures. It has humanized and complicated the history of braceros in a way that far exceeds what I could ever do in the classroom. The director of the Centro de Trabajadores Agricolas Carlos Marentes says that this is a history that belongs to the community. I want my students to know what he means. History belongs to the community.
Soon, I plan to return to Rio Vista to walk among the buildings that hold this rich, transnational history. Next time, though, I'm going to take my students and ask them to tell me what they see..
I woke up this morning with a broken heart.
Eleanor Roosevelt and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1949) from the NARA
Are immigrants human? Of course-- it's an absurd question. But it reminds us to incorporate human rights into our understanding of immigrant rights.
Since the Trump administration announced new measures to increase the power of ICE to expedite removals of migrants, there has been an activist focus on immigrant rights. And rightly so.
Raids, an expanded definition of who is a "risk to public safety," increasing expedited deportations, and the promise to hire more ICE officers have brought dread and fear to communities throughout the nation. The administration plans to hire 15,000 more immigration officers and has asked local police to help round up immigrants. It is not only immigrants who are affected through these increased deportations. Families, neighbors, and entire communities are hurt as well.
In December 1948, the United Nations declared the UN Declaration of Human Rights, following the horrors of World War II. It proclaimed,
"WHEREAS recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world,
WHEREAS disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind, and the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people,"
It is imperative that we educate ourselves and our communities about our rights. And it is equally essential that we remember that immigrants are human and deserving of human rights as well. Everything in the immigration systems tries to take away our humanity. Everything we do must evoke our humanity, everyone's humanity.
We are human beings.
Below, see the video, "What to do if immigrant agents are at your door."
Update: May 18, 2017 Today my partner Diana, our eleven-year old grandson J, and I headed out to the desert northwest of El Paso where the landscape is filled with yucca and mesquite. The land there was once filled with volcanoes and volcanic stones are everywhere. We were on our way to our favorite site when we were stopped at a mobile Border Patrol station. Living on the border, I'm accustomed to the Border Patrol. They go through my campus regularly on bikes, as they have for decades. This time was different, however. The agent who came up to my window was armed with a rifle. I'm fairly white skinned so agents usually don't ask me much. He asked where we were coming from, where we were going, and what we were doing. He was a nice man but the threatening weapon he carried intimidated me. When I opened the trunk for Diana to get her identification, the other agents quickly came over and surrounded her, hands on their pistols. The nice agent said he would call ahead so no one else would stop us and I guess he did. Although la migra was everywhere in the desert, no one else asked us anything. I thought how lucky we were to encounter a nice agent but still our breath was taken away. My heart was palpitating and we were both angry. Two older women with a young boy, I thought, and we have to explain ourselves? Three American citizens, I fumed, and we have to justify driving down a public highway? Then I realized it was not about being women, or older, or US citizens. It's about intimidation of everyone in Trump's America.
I teach borderlands history at a university located on the US-Mexico border. You can see Mexico from many spots on campus. It is not uncommon to see Border Patrol officers riding their bicycles through campus. I've seen it since I was a graduate student in the 1980s. It is almost impossible to ignore the border.
A few months ago, I sat in one of my graduate classes discussing scholarly work on the history of border and I asked my students: Where is the US-Mexico border? They looked at me like I had asked an insane question. But I was serious.
The borderline, as we know it today, has been shaped by wars, treaties, the changing river. It took over a century to define the borderline we have now.
But is that the border? Do migrants take the border with them when they move to the interior of the United States, as some cultural studies scholar argue?
Is the border defined by the Border Patrol? When my students and I reviewed the Border Patrol website, we came away with the understanding that the entire United States could be the "border region." I know that each time I drive away from my border city I inevitably run into a Border Patrol check point where I am asked my citizenship, many miles from the border.
Once, walking in the desert with my partner, we were stopped four or five times to ask what we were doing. (We were looking for rocks.) The officers knew who we were by the second time, but kept stopping us anyway. I remember crying.
The ACLU website includes a valuable section on the Constitution and the 100 mile border zone. In 1953, the federal government defined a border zone where the Border Patrol has expanded rights to interrogate and stop people. The 4th amendment of the Constitution protects individuals from unreasonable searches and seizures. The Customs and Border Patrol has the power to search us without a warrant within this 100 mile zone. See the ACLU document here: https://www.aclu.org/other/aclu-factsheet-customs-and-border-protections-100-mile-zone?redirect=immigrants-rights/aclu-fact-sheet-customs-and-border-protections-100-mile-zone
Does this mean we give up? No, it means that it ever more important for us to know and stand on our rights. Whether we are immigrants or citizens, we must educate ourselves-- an attack on our Constitutional rights, even if it is justified by federal regulations, affects all of us.
In the next post, I'll write about immigrants rights. Join me then.
Self-care is a radical act in these times of terror. Please view this new video and post your ideas below!
Sergio Adrian Hernandez Guereca
Almost seven years ago, I stood at the border in a circle of women, children, and men, singing, praying, burning sage and copal, remembering 15 year old Sergio Adrian Guereca Hernandez and his grieving family. Guereca Hernandez had just been killed by a U.S. Border Patrol office while the teenager was standing on the Mexican side of the border. I remember it was summer; the air was heavy. Our hearts were heavy.
Today, the Supreme Court heard arguments regarding the case. The Trump administration argues that the parents have no right to sue since their son was on Mexican soil. The family's legal team argues that he was killed by an agent standing on US territory in an area that is the responsibility of both nations. The SCOTUS is divided: conservative justices don't believe the parents have a right to sue. Liberal justices believe that they do.
The 4-4 tie could cause the SCOTUS to wait for the confirmation of the ninth justice to re-hear arguments and make the ruling.
The shooting caused anger, pain, disbelief on both sides of the border. According to witnesses, Sergio was hanging out with a group of his friends, running up and down the cement culvert that divides the two nations. When the officers caught one of the boys, Sergio moved back up the culvert to the Mexican side to watch, approximately sixty feet away from the agent. The Border Patrol officer, Jesus Mena, Jr., said that people were throwing rocks at him. Mena, standing on the U.S. side of the border, shot Sergio in the face, killing him. Mena was not charged with the killing; Border Patrol agents felt justified in using lethal force against rock throwers. The video above does not show Sergio threatening the agent.
The Obama administration refused a request to extradite Mena to face charges in Mexico. When Sergio's parents tried to sue, a lower court ruled that they could not sue because their son was standing on Mexican territory and not protected by the 4th amendment.
Even on the U.S. side the border, we are well-aware that government power is expanded, often outside of our Constitutional rights, on the border. In fact, in 1953 the Department of Justice defined an area 100 miles from external boundaries as an area where the 4th amendment does not necessarily apply. (Watch for a future post on the 100 mile rule.)
Sergio's life was cut short as he stood on the dividing line between the United States and Mexico. After years of waiting, I pray for justice for him and his family. Just like that summer night all those years ago.