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Echoes of San Antonio's labor past found in new art installation

The front entrance to Labor Plaza. A sidewalk moves past a grey brick short wall with "Labor Plaza" written on it and a ceramic tile art of colorful trumpeters. A steel conical sculpture can be seen coming up past the brick wall with bands of steel going around its circumference at three points on the cone-shaped structure. Trees and grass fill the plaza and downtown buildings are in the background.
Josh Peck
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The front entrance to Labor Plaza.

San Antonio is known for many things: the Spurs, the Riverwalk, great breakfast tacos and the taller-than-the-Space-Needle Tower of Americas. What the city is less known for is labor unions. But city officials hope a new public art installation in downtown San Antonio will change the way people think about labor’s place in the Alamo City’s history.

Labor Plaza, designed by the city’s Department of Arts & Culture with assistance from the San Antonio Chapter of the AFL-CIO, opened to the public on Labor Day. The plaza, sitting across from the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center on Market Street, celebrates eight prominent San Antonio labor figures and replaces a deteriorating statue of American Federation of Labor founder Samuel Gompers, who died in San Antonio.

The plaza is made up of steel sculptures, ceramic tile art and inscriptions in the concrete floor about the eight different labor figures, the labor song “Solidarity Forever” and an original poem by former San Antonio Poet Laureate Octavio Quintanilla.

One of those honored in the installation is Mario Salas. Now a UTSA professor, Salas was deeply involved with both the civil rights and labor rights movements and is a former City Council member. He said he saw the struggles for civil and labor rights as intertwined, best exemplified by his involvement with Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta’s grape boycott in the early 1970s.

“I was actually helping out with that particular union with volunteers for the picket line and so forth,” Salas said. “It almost got me killed one time, in a kind of dangerous situation. I never stopped doing it, and I always saw the connection between the civil rights movement and the movement for workers’ rights.”

Salas said he joined his first picket line when he was 19. By then, he was already devoted to civil rights as a member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and was persuaded to picket at a Labor Day breakfast.

“I had enough experience as a civil rights worker to know that people who work for companies or corporations who work at the baseline level, meaning the people who do the hard work were not being paid fairly (or) treated fairly,” Salas said. “So, it fit right into my understanding of what’s just and what’s unjust.”

Emma Tenayuca is also celebrated in Labor Plaza. In 1938, she led nearly 12,000 people on a pecan-shellers strike for three months in San Antonio. It remains the biggest strike to ever occur in the city. Her niece, Sharyll Teneyuca, attended the plaza’s opening. Teneyuca, who spells her last name slightly differently, was proud of her aunt.

“Her leadership forced business owners to listen to the needs of their employees, of their workers, and to make concessions about fair wages, better working conditions,” Teneyuca said. “She didn’t think of her own safety. She didn’t think of fear. She thought in terms of justice.”

Like Salas, Emma Tenayuca’s labor activism was also civil rights work.

“The pecan shellers’ strike in San Antonio was the first mass movement that I know of in the Mexican-American community that had any effect,” Teneyuca said. “It was the first strike by workers where there was actually a result.”

After the strike and a riot over a Communist Party meeting with which she was involved, Tenayuca was forced to leave San Antonio for 20 years out of fear for her safety. Eventually, she returned from San Francisco and became a teacher, until she died in 1999.

Teneyuca said her aunt would be honored to be included in Labor Plaza were she alive today.

“I think that she would be glad that there was recognition of what she did, not for her, but because of knowing the history of it and knowing the reasons and the circumstances that led to that work and that change that she affected,” Teneyuca said.

Salas said he was delighted to be part of the plaza.

“I was very pleased to receive the award and the recognition for having been a supporter of organized labor. It put a big smile on my face,” Salas said.

Tom Cummins, president of the San Antonio AFL-CIO and the Bexar County Federation of Teachers, worked closely with the city to put Labor Plaza together. Cummins said the plaza’s opening happens to come at a time of increasing union favorability.

“The opening of Labor Plaza actually corresponds with the new labor activities throughout the country,” Cummins said. “The polls suggest today that over 71% of Americans support labor unions, which is a very high figure.”

Cummins said San Antonio labor history goes all the way back to the mid-1800s.

“I think it was around 1838, there was a typographical union,” Cummins said. “Then in the 1880s there were six unions which came together under one umbrella. Interesting enough, one of the six unions was African American. To think that that happened less than 20 years after the Civil War in a segregated state like Texas is amazing.”

Quintanilla, the former San Antonio Poet Laureate, wrote a poem entitled “So That Our Crossing May Never Be Obstructed” for Labor Plaza. He said his inspiration was his father’s work as a laborer and his own experience as a migrant farm worker.

He added that the last two lines of the poem spoke to why he thinks labor activism is important.

“And as such, this weaving is nothing more than love and labor to procure a decent wage for we who must live on, for we who must persist. To grind down fences and hammer bridges up.”

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story misstated where labor leader Samuel Gompers was from. He was born in London and lived in New York City. He died in San Antonio.

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Josh Peck is the Technology & Entrepreneurship Reporter for Texas Public Radio.