Emma Tenayuca, Fierce beyond fear
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.
Leave a Reply.