In the 1990s, I taught at the University of Texas at San Antonio. One day after I had lectured about the Great Depression in Texas and mentioned the labor organizing of Emma Tenayuca, one student came up to me and said she was related to her. She went on to tell me that the family did not speak about her publicly because they were embarrassed by her activities so many decades earlier. It hurt my heart but I understood their hesitancy. She was a controversial woman in her time.
Emma Tenayuca was a fierce defender of Mexican workers, especially women, and she spoke without hesitation about the terrible working conditions forced upon workers.
Tenayuca was born in San Antonio in 1916 and as a child she accompanied her abuelito to La Plaza del Zacate to hear speakers talk about the ideals of the Mexican Revolution. She said those talks influenced her ideas of justice.
Often women, especially the young and the old, have been excluded from our histories. Tenayuca is an example of the strong work of young women. At 16, she became involved in organizing cigar workers. By 21, she was an organizer with the National Workers' Alliance, which eventually brought together the Socialists and the Communists to work on behalf of workers who were suffering greatly during the economic crisis of the Great Depression.
She is most well-known for her work with the pecan shellers. If you have ever peeled pecans you know the fine powder that comes from the shell and that can irritate your skin. Imagine hundreds of women sitting in a room peeling pecans. The pecan dust filled the air. Their hands were reddened by the dust. In the 1930s it became cheaper for employers to hire Mexican American women at extremely low wages than to maintain pecan shelling machines. Pecan shellers were paid pennies and were offered all the pecans they could eat. When Tenayuca began organizing the workers for better pay and improved working conditions, 12,000 women walked off the job. After two months, employers gave in and raised their pay. This 1938 strike is often used as one of the examples of Mexican American women's power.
While the success of the strike was a positive for Tenayuca, it also brought her more attention. When she prepared to give a speech at the city auditorium, a mob entered the building, ready to attack her. She was led out of the building to safety. That night, members of the mob joined the Ku Klux Klan in burning the mayor in effigy for defending her. Emma had joined the Communist Party in 1938 (and married Homer Brooks, the Chair of the Communist Party in Texas). Her affiliation with the CP lessened her effectiveness as a labor organizer and also resulted in her being blacklisted. She was unable to find work.
During the Great Depression, the Communist Party gained the largest following it has ever had in the United States. Americans had been taught that if you work hard enough, you will make it. The Depression taught them that this was not true. Despite their hard work, many Americans were suffering from unemployment, homelessness, and hunger.
In 1941, Emma and Homer divorced. In 1946, she left the Communist Party. She moved to the Bay area where she eventually became a school teacher. She returned to San Antonio in the 1960s and died in 1999. She has become a role model for many Mexican American women since because of her important labor organizing work and her fearlessness.
In 2008, her niece Sharyll Tenayuca co-authored That's Not Fair! No Es Justo!: Emma Tenayuca's STruggle for Justice/La lucha de Emma Tenayuca por la justicia. I was happy to see this pride in her family about their brilliant relative.
“I never thought in terms of fear. I thought in terms of justice,” she said. It is a lesson to us all.