The Militant Passion of Emma Tenayuca

The Militant Passion of Emma Tenayuca

Eighty-four years ago this week, this Mexican American labor organizer led one of the largest strikes in Texas history—and was arrested and blacklisted for her trouble.


Some knew her as la Pasionaria de Texas—the Texas Passionflower. Others called her Red Emma. But most of the people she fought alongside just called her “comrade.” Emma Tenayuca was born in San Antonio, Texas, in 1916 to parents of Spanish and Comanche descent, and spent her childhood learning about Mexican identity, the evils of Jim Crow, and revolution from her grandfather. Emma was also constantly running off to Plaza del Zacate in San Antonio’s Milam Park to listen to anarchists and activists speak about politics and workers’ rights from their soapboxes. Her first experience on the picket line came when she was only 16. In 1933, she joined a group of Mexican women workers from the H.W. Finck Cigar Company, who were out on a wildcat strike over low wages and unsanitary working conditions. The teenager was horrified to witness the violent police response to the strike, and was arrested herself. That early baptism into the labor struggle convinced the young Tejana that she’d found her place—and her purpose.

“She was really kind of written out of history,” her niece, San Antonio attorney Sharyll Teneyuca, said during a gathering commemorating the strike’s 84th anniversary. Texas Poet Laureate Carmen Tafolla also spoke, and the two women are currently working on a biography documenting Tenayuca’s life. She has suffered the same fate that has befallen so many other communist, anarchist, or otherwise “red” labor organizers like Ah Quon McElrath, Silme Domingo, Glen Viernes, and Marie Equi: consigned to obscurity for being “too radical,” too red, too Asian or Latina or queer or female or some combination thereof. During her lifetime, Tenayuca was smeared, threatened, and blacklisted, forced to leave her own hometown for decades after anti-communist threats made it impossible for her to find work or safety. Those who opposed her views on working-class liberation hated and feared her. Of course, they tried to silence her. Unfortunately for them, there are people who remember Emma Tenayuca’s life of militancy, mutual aid, and multiracial, multi-gender solidarity, and many more who are waiting to discover someone just like her.

As a bright, curious student who had become fluent in the language of racial and economic justice at an early age, Tenayuca gravitated toward other young radicals, and devoured every book she could on anarchism, Marxism, feminism, and the Industrial Workers of the World. Between 1934 and 1935, she helped organize two locals of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union, but butted heads with union leadership, who she felt didn’t understand the unique needs and culture of the Mexican American community. In 1935, she joined the Young Communist League, and started organizing Mexican workers into Unemployed Councils, which were part of a broader Depression-era Communist Party program to radicalize and mobilize the unemployed. She was involved in community organizing, as well, and helped build ties between unions and Spanish-speaking workers. Though Tenayuca initially found herself drawn to anarchism, she turned to the Communist Party for its professed anti-racist, anti-sexist principles, an appreciation for the successes of the Mexican Community Party, and the potential she saw within it as a means to organize the working class on a mass scale. “Communists were at the forefront of the struggle,” she later wrote, and that’s exactly where Tenayuca wanted to be.

By the end of 1937, nearly everyone had heard of her in San Antonio. An executive committee member of the Workers Alliance of America, a coalition of socialist and Communists groups that had grown out of the Unemployed Councils and focused on serving the needs of unemployed people and exploited workers, Tenayuca became known for her organizing abilities as well as her passionate speeches. “The time is now for the workers to organize!” she thundered to one crowd. “We can no longer wait for better days without fighting for those better days!” Tenayuca was also the general secretary for San Antonio’s chapters, and represented 10,000 Workers Alliance members there–about 3,000 of which worked in the city’s pecan industry.

At that time, half of the country’s entire pecan market was controlled by one San Antonio–based nut behemoth, the Southern Pecan Shelling Company. Its owners, Julius Seligmann and Joe Freeman, had concocted a system to deindustrialize the labor-intensive process of shelling nuts; they sold their raw product to over 100 different contractors, who then farmed out the labor to predominantly Mexican and Mexican American workers, dodging labor regulations and paying them piece rates. Prior to 1926, pecan companies had used machines to handle most of the process, but Southern Pecan discovered it was cheaper to go the old-fashioned route. “They did not go for machines, because they had such a large group of people here to exploit,” Tenayuca explained to journalist Luis R. Torres in a 1987 interview.

The contractors paid men more than women, but all were paid very, very poorly. The average wage for a pecan worker was $2 to $3 per week, and thanks to unsanitary working conditions and a lack of ventilation, came with the added risks of disease. The rate of tuberculosis among San Antonio’s pecan shellers was almost three times the national average. A contemporary study cited in Justin Akers Chacón’s terrific Radicals in the Barrio: Magonistas, Socialists, Wobblies, and Communists in the Mexican-American Working Class described how “thousands of human beings living in decrepit wooden shacks or in crowded corrals, breathlessly shelled pecans in a race with starvation.” Many of the workers also took piles of pecans home, and families would spend their nights cracking open as many nuts as possible.

The pecan shellers did not suffer this exploitation or the Jim Crow–approved segregation at work quietly. They struck in 1934 and again in 1935; these wildcats were successful only marginally because of a lack of resources and support, but prompted the workers there to take further action among themselves with the help of Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) organizers Minnie Rendón, Leandro Ávila, and Willie Garcia. These efforts resulted in the Texas Pecan Workers Union’s being chartered by the United Cannery, Agricultural, Packing, and Allied Workers of America in 1937, as Pecan Workers Local 172, and not a moment too soon, because a revolt was brewing amid the brown dust and cracked shells. On January 31, 1938, after Southern Pecan had slashed their pay without warning and left workers without the barest hope of making ends meet, nearly 12,000 pecan shellers—the vast majority of them Mexican and Mexican American women—walked off the job.

The workers elected Tenayuca to lead the strike committee, and the charismatic 21-year-old was thrust to the forefront of the largest strike the city had ever seen. Twenty-four hours later, she was in jail alongside several other organizers, and was freed only when a crowd of 300 supporters descended upon the jail. This rude welcome from the city’s power brokers was only the beginning of what would become a protracted battle between the striking workers, the pecan kings, the mayor, the cops, the city’s conservative Mexican middle class, and even the church. At the center of it all stood Tenayuca, who seemed to be everywhere at once. “I was arrested a number of times, [but] I don’t think that I was exactly fearful,” she once said. “I never thought in terms of fear. I thought in terms of justice.”

Faced with a growing mass movement of disenfranchised, increasingly militant workers of color, San Antonio’s mayor, Charles K. Quin, took the novel approach of claiming the strike did not exist. Instead, it was an attempted “revolution” led by “red” outsiders, and thus did not fall under the protections of the still-new 1935 Wagner Act, which protects workers’ right to collectively bargain. Police Chief Owen Kilday followed suit, ordering his officers to protect strikebreakers while harassing, assaulting, and arresting strikers; disrupting community attempts to deliver supplies to the picket lines; shutting down strike kitchens; and raiding suspected strike leaders’ homes. Armed with tear gas, riot gear, and lethal weapons, the San Antonio police terrorized the striking workers, arresting over 1,000 men, women, and children during the three-month conflict. When the arrestees sang songs of solidarity in their overcrowded cells, their jailers turned fire hoses on them.

During the strike, Tenayuca and her fellow organizers endured months of Red-baiting from the pecan bosses as well as from local San Antonio business and religious leaders. Kilday, cited Tenayuca’s presence (as well as that of Manuela Solis Sager) to justify using force against the strikers. Under oath, he referred to the strike as a “Red plot” and told the papers, “It is my duty to interfere with revolution, and communism is revolution.” An investigation by the Texas Industrial Commission later found that the San Antonio police’s interference with the strikers’ right to peaceful assembly was unjustified, but the police faced no consequences for their assault on striking workers (and Kilday’s brother, Paul, was later elected to the US House of Representatives).

Uneasy with Tenayuca’s outspoken commitment to communism, the CIO buckled under the public and internal pressure, and removed her from her position as strike leader. They replaced her with CIO organizer and Democrat J. Austin Beasley, who immediately removed women from the strike’s leadership roles even as he leaned on the experience of United Cannery, Agricultural, Packing, and Allied Workers of America founder Luisa Moreno (a brilliant Guatemalan labor leader who deserves her own column entry here) for guidance. However, Tenayuca remained involved in the strike, and played a critical role behind the scenes. In ​​Zaragosa Vargas’s Major Problems in Mexican American History: Documents and Essays, Tenayuca wrote, “I continued to write all the circulars, [and] met with all the picket captains.”

The mass arrests and police violence against the strikers began to attract national attention. “These little brown women were being beaten by the police,” Sarah Gould, lead curatorial researcher at the Institute of Texan Cultures, told The Ranger in 2017. “It got a lot of media coverage, and it brought a lot of attention to this kind of injustice.” Governor James Allred informed the mayor that he supported the workers’ right to peacefully picket, and the Mexican Consul protested the arrests and jailing of dozens of Mexican citizens. After 37 days, the two parties agreed to participate in arbitration, which resulted in a favorable decision for the strikers. They won a small wage hike and union recognition.

Though the strikers won their battle against Big Pecan, their victory was short-lived. When Congress passed the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act later that year, it established a minimum hourly wage of 25 cents. That pay hike would have been an improvement for workers like San Antonio’s pecan shellers. The pecan bosses, however, were horrified, and immediately shut down the factories and petitioned for an exemption to avoid paying up. When the government declined to grant them an exception, the company embraced mechanization—and permanently laid off 10,000 workers. By 1948, Pecan Shelling Workers Union No. 172 had fully dissolved.

Tenayuca herself wasn’t there to see any of it. By then, exhausted by her inability to find a decent job and disillusioned with the political landscape, she had left both San Antonio and the Communist Party. “I was beginning to miss more and more meals,” she told interviewer Jerry Poyo. “I’ve come from a family of 11; I was one of the oldest. I couldn’t get a job, I couldn’t help, so I left San Antonio. I went to San Francisco and stayed there for 20 years.”

After studying in San Francisco to become a teacher and spending two decades away from home, she finally came back to Texas to help educate the next generation of rabble-rousers. Tenayuca, a veteran activist used to being taunted and harassed, wasn’t prepared for the welcome she received. “To my surprise,” she said, “I return and I find myself some sort of a heroine.”

Tenayuca was inducted into the San Antonio Women’s Hall of Fame in 1991, nine years before her death in 1999, and a new generation of labor, Chicano, and women’s liberation activists began to rediscover her work and impact. There are songs and murals dedicated to her memory, and she and the pecan strikers are featured in the 2018 documentary A Strike and an Uprising in Texas. In 2021, Virginia Hartung, a public history graduate student at St. Mary’s University, began circulating a petition to rename San Antonio’s Beauregard Street—which currently honors a Confederate general—to Tenayuca Street, and has so far collected over 1,000 signatures.

Tenayuca is an inspirational labor leader, an important part of Texas history, and, yes, a heroine, but before she was any of that, she was a working-class Mexican kid who took a look around and decided that things needed to change—and that she was going to be the one to change them. The next Emma Tenayuca is already out there, hard at work, reading or dreaming or causing trouble. Here’s hoping history is kinder to her.

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