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103 Years Later: Emma Tenayuca's Push For Labor Rights Still Resonates In San Antonio

San Antonio in 1916 was a world where women lacked civil rights, where minorities faced racism in every aspect of life and where workers lacked basic workplace protections or financial security. Into that world, on Dec. 21, Emma Tenayuca was born. As the little girl learned more about the harsh realities around her, she was inspired and determined to transform that world into something better.

Her commitment to social justice and civil rights placed her on the frontlines of San Antonio's greatest riots and labor strikes. It earned her national spotlight, jeopardized her life and made her a fugitive from her own hometown. But what she achieved still resonates almost a century later.

Writer, poet and educator Carmen Tafolla explained Tenayuca was born into a Mexican-American family of 11 children. She lived for a time with her grandparents, an experience that largely molded her outlook on the community around her.

"Her grandfather was a well read, very intelligent gentleman who voted in every election," Tafolla said. "She sat in his lap, and they studied the newspaper together, and he said, ‘Look, what's happening here,’ and ‘We have to go change this.’ He cultivated her concern with social justice."

A black and white photo of Emma Tenayuca.
Credit San Antonio Light UTSA Libraries Special Collections
A black and white photo of Emma Tenayuca.

Tenayuca's grandfather often visited Milam Park in downtown San Antonio, and he brought his granddaughter with him. Tafolla said the park space he visited, Plaza de Zacate, was important to Latinos in San Antonio.

"It was the main plaza of the Mexican American community," she explained. "It was where folks shared the latest issues socially (and) politically. And it was also where a lot of the exiles from the Mexican Revolution came to speak."

In a 1987 interview, Tenayuca recalled what she would typically see during her visits.

"And you could go to one corner of the plaza and listen to someone reading the Bible," Tenayuca said. "You could go to another place, and you would see one person with a newspaper reading the paper to other workers — the latest news from Mexico."

Arrested At 16

The Mexican Revolution inspired writers and other intellectuals to move to the United States, and they brought ideas of justice and humanitarianism with them. Some of them settled in San Antonio.

Writer and urban planner Sherry Wagner recalled the hard reality that confronted that idealism.

"We didn't have social security, we didn't have 40 hour workweek, we didn't have weekends off, we didn't have paid leave – we didn't have any of those things," she said.

Tenayuca grew more aware of the extent of those injustices as she grew older. Attorney Sharyll Teneyuca, who spells her name differently than her aunt and is partnered with Tafolla on an upcoming biography, said the teenager was determined to do something to help in some way.

Tenayuca decided to help laborers. The Finck Cigar Workers' Strike in 1932 was Tenayuca's first brush with the law. She was only 16 years old.

"It was a spontaneous strike. She read about it in the paper, and, in sympathy, she just decided she would join them," Sharyll Teneyuca explained.

Emma was arrested.

“People asked her, ‘Were you afraid?’ And she said, 'I didn't think in terms of fear. I think if I did, I would've stayed home. I thought in terms of justice.'”

In 1938, Tenayuca led a group of striking pecan shellers, and her efforts thrust her into the national spotlight.

San Antonio police officer Arthur Perez, left; pecan shellers strike; published in the Light on Feb. 11, 1938.
Credit The Light Collection / UTSA Libraries Special Collections
UTSA Libraries Special Collections
San Antonio police officer Arthur Perez during the pecan shellers strike, published in the San Antonio Light on Feb. 11, 1938.

"The Pecan Shellers were primarily Mexican American, primarily women," Tafolla explained. "And they were supporting what was the biggest industry in San Antonio at the time."

Four hundred sweatshop factories employed 12,000 shellers across the city. Pecans were a huge cash crop, but shelling them was a miserable and unsafe job performed by those with few options. Their working and living conditions were horrendous.  

"San Antonio had the highest infant mortality rate in the nation,” Tafolla said. “We had the highest rate of tuberculosis deaths in the nation of any major city."

The workers' 7-day-a-week, 12-hour workdays netted them about $2. Then, the factory owners decided to cut that in half.

"They just felt like these workers would take whatever they paid them, even next to nothing,” Sharyll Teneyuca said. “They were making record profits, and they thought, 'They're unskilled labor. They have no other options.'"

But Tenayuca was determined to change that. She formed a pecan shellers' union, and then she and the shellers shut down production. The factory owners were shocked.

"Oh, they were furious. I think they thought that in a couple of days, they were going to go back to work," Sharyll Teneyuca said.  

But the shellers didn't go back to work. Instead, they launched what became the biggest strike in San Antonio's history. And, Tafolla said, against all odds, it worked.

"In a time period when women were not supposed to have a voice, and she challenges the biggest business in this city, and she eventually shuts them down," Tafolla said.

Sharyll said her aunt had done the unimaginable.

"It was a big victory. It made national headlines. It was the David and Goliath fight," she said.

Fleeing And Returning Home

Wagner said Tenayuca's fight for women, workers and minorities led her into joining the Communist Party. But it wasn't the party of the Soviet Union.

"At that time, that homegrown communist party were the people who were looking for social security, for a limited hour work week, for weekends off for sick leave," she said. "Which now we have. We have all the things they stood for."

Credit Jack Morgan
Emma in a mural inside of Pico De Gallo restaurant.

In 1939, Mayor Maury Maverick approved a Communist Party meeting at the old Municipal Auditorium downtown. But instead of a meeting, a riot exploded.

“The local media whipped up the public into a frenzy over the fact that communists were being allowed to gather and meet in the municipal auditorium," she said.

Five thousand anti-Communists showed up, pelting the auditorium with rocks and bricks. It was one of the city's worst riots.  

Tenayuca and other leaders were whisked away. Tafolla says Tenayuca fled to California, eventually settling in San Francisco.

"She had to leave the state and work her way through a degree,” she said. “I think she was about 30 when she finally got her degree, and then she was 47 when she got her master's back here in San Antonio."

In the 1960s, Tenayuca quietly returned to San Antonio. Over time, she realized that she hadn't been forgotten. She was studied in Chicano history classes, celebrated by feminists and honored by civil rights activists. And in the 1980s, Texas Gov. Ann Richards created a traveling museum exhibit celebrating notable Texas women, and Tenayuca was one of them.  

"I left San Antonio, went to San Francisco and stayed there for 20 years. And to my surprise, I returned and I find myself some sort of a heroine," Tenayuca later recalled.

She died in 1999 in San Antonio.

Tafolla says Tenayuca's achievements helped to transform Texas politics and Texas society, long before Martin Luther King, Jr., Dolores Huerta or Cesar Chavez.

"It's kind of like an incredible mixture of this unstoppable force hitting an immovable object,” she said. “Something was going to give. And what gave was the absolute arrogance that existed at that time that Mexican Americans would never have a voice; that no matter what they said, they were not going to have an impact; that we didn't have to pay attention to what their needs were."

In 2009, a 4-foot tall historical marker was created to celebrate Tenayuca's life. It was placed on the plaza that inspired her as a child.

CLARIFICATION: A previous version of this story said Carmen Tafolla is working on a biography of Emma Tenayuca. Tafolla is co-authoring the biography with Sharyll Teneyuca.

Jack Morgan can be reached at Jack@TPR.org and on Twitter at @JackMorganii.

Jack Morgan can be reached at jack@tpr.org and on Twitter at @JackMorganii