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Pecan shellers carved a path for workers rights in San Antonio

UTSA Special Collections
Labor organizer Emma Tenayuca speaking to a crowd outside City Hall in 1937.

Eighty-five years ago today, as many as 12,000 San Antonio pecan shellers walked off their jobs to protest poverty wages and poor working conditions in the first mass labor protest by Mexican Americans.

The strike was a watershed moment for labor organizing in San Antonio, where Latino workers were underpaid and excluded from skilled jobs but could not afford to lose what little work they had during the Great Depression.

After more than a month of peaceful protests and police retaliation, the strikers won a pay increase and union recognition. The strike, comprised of and led by mostly women, contributed to the nationwide labor unrest that spurred passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938, which established a minimum wage and limitations on child labor.

The most prominent leader of the strike was Emma Tenayuca, a 21-year-old labor organizer with a reputation for standing up to powerful men. “She was like a hero to us,” recalled Frank Mendoza, the son of two pecan shellers who went on strike. Tenayuca had joined labor organizations in San Antonio as a teenager and quickly became an influential leader advocating for racial and gender equity, according to historian Zaragosa Vargas in Texas Labor History.

Today, the pecan shellers strike is remembered as a triumph for San Antonio’s working class that left a powerful impression on those who participated in it, and Tenayuca has achieved status as a labor icon who can be spotted in several murals around the city.

The San Antonio City Council recently approved the designation of a street segment in Southtown as Emma Tenayuca Memorial Way. Councilwoman Teri Castillo’s office also organized a gathering at Cassiano Park to remember and celebrate the striking pecan workers.

“While we’re here recognizing the work of labor organizers, we must ground ourselves in history and how it connects to the present,” Castillo said at the event, expressing support for several current unionization efforts, including those by Starbucks employees in San Antonio.

“The work that was done here in San Antonio, as it was so many other times, had a national impact for people well beyond the borders of this city, and yet I don’t think over the years we’ve taken time to recognize folks enough,” said Congressman Joaquin Castro at the gathering on Saturday.

In the 1930s, the Southern Pecan Company was one of the largest businesses in San Antonio, and pecan shelling was a vital source of income for women and Mexican immigrants. “It was just a booming, booming business” said Sharyll Teneyuca, Emma Tenayuca’s niece. She spells her last name differently.

Workers for Southern Pecan Company did not share in the fruits of their labor. Their already low wages sank during the depression. Mendoza said his parents worked long hours and brought sacks of pecans home with them so children and elders could help shell to make ends meet. Workers also complained of breathing pecan dust inside the dim, poorly ventilated West Side factories.

Workers at a second San Antonio Starbucks store joined their downtown colleagues on Sunday as nearly 100 stores around the country participated in a 3-day unfair labor practice strike.

Emma Tenayuca’s first involvement with labor organizing came when she was 16. She read about women going on strike at the Fink Cigar Company, according to her niece. She joined the cigar workers demonstrations and was arrested.

“She learned from that strike that you don't just walk out, you have to plan for a strike, and you have to organize,” Sharyll Teneyuca said. Emma Tenayuca spent the next few years learning how to organize strikes as a member of the Workers Alliance, a labor organization, and eventually took up the cause of impoverished pecan shellers.

When the pecan shellers walked out on Jan. 31, 1938, and began picketing, city officials, police, and even the Catholic Church all reacted in opposition to the strikers. City officials shut down soup kitchens organized by the strikers and police raided Tenayuca’s office and destroyed the furniture “just to demoralize them,” Sharyll Teneyuca said.

Much of the public ire from establishment figures over the strike was specifically directed at Tenayuca, who was a member of communist organizations and was therefore accused of being a communist agitator. At the pecan shellers protest, Tenayuca was arrested, but the protests continued.

With work at the factories having ground to a halt for five weeks, the Southern Pecan Company eventually agreed to negotiate with workers. Through an arbitration process, the company was forced to increase wages and recognize the pecan shellers union, and a few months afterward the Fair Labor Standards Act introduced a national minimum wage.

San Antonio’s pecan shellers could not savor their victory for long, as the company chose not to pay its workers a higher wage and instead began using machines to shell pecans rather than people. Those thousands of pecan shelling jobs disappeared. Frank Mendoza said as a result, his family joined the growing number of cotton pickers in West Texas, where he recalls helping his parents in the field starting when he was 7 years old.

The pecan shellers strike was nonetheless an emotional and organizational success, Sharyll Teneyuca said. “They did affect change, albeit short lived. And, you know, there was another hurdle down the road. The struggle wasn't over. I think it was just very enlightening to see that they could affect change. They could make a difference in unity. Not that it was easy, not that it made a clear path for the rest of their lives, but the fact that they were empowered.”

For Emma Tenayuca, her involvement with the Communist Party during a period of intense anti-communism in the United States rendered her an outcast in San Antonio. She was unable to find work, and after a brick was thrown through the window of her parents’ house, she fled to California.

She left her hometown, her family, and the community she had worked to organize only because she felt she had no other choice, Sharyll Teneyuca said. By the time she met her aunt years later, her activism was never mentioned. It had become a family secret that Sharyll Teneyuca only uncovered when she saw a picture of her aunt in the newspaper as part of a historical commemoration.

The picture, published in the San Antonio Light, shows her aunt standing on the steps of City Hall with a raised fist. For the past 20 years, Teneyuca has been gathering research and conducting interviews for a biography of her aunt. “She was not just effective, but phenomenal and beloved,” she said. “I learned that just by talking to people who lived during that time.”

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Ben contributes reporting and audio mixing to a number of podcasts at Texas Public Radio including The Shakeout, Petrie Dish, and Worth Repeating. In previous lives, he made podcasts at New Hampshire Public Radio, worked as a science news reporter, and briefly entertained a career in marine biology.