Before Cesar Chavez and the grapes boycott there was Emma Tenayuca and the pecan strike.
Emma was sixteen when she first went to jail, arrested for joining a labor strike by San Antonio cigar workers in 1932.
Emma picked up her social activist ideas at her grandfather's knee, going with him to the La Plaza del Zacate, the center of activity for Mexican American families in West San Antonio. Children could get an ice cream. Jobless families might be hired to pick cotton or work in the beet fields. Stories went round. You could hear the latest news from Mexico read aloud, preaching from the bible and fiery political speeches.
Seeing police bully picketers during the cigar makers' strike, propelled Emma to keep working for the rights of the poor, a fight that would nearly cost her her life.
She soon became well-known in San Antonio after leading several marches, demonstrations and sit-ins.
Emma campaigned for a minimum wage, and took up the causes of unfair allotment of New Deal public works jobs, discriminatory removal of Mexican American families from WPA relief roles, and illegal deportations of U. S. citizens of Mexican descent.
"I never thought in
When some 12,000 pecan shellers walked off the job to protest a wage cut, they converged on a local park shouting "Emma! Emma!" and chose her to lead their strike. She was 21.
Pecan-shelling was a major industry in the region and one of the lowest-paid in the country. Workers, mostly Hispanic women, typically earned between two and three dollars a week. Work areas were badly ventilated and poorly lit without indoor plumbing.
San Antonio law enforcement met peaceful picketers swinging clubs, hurling tear gas canisters and making mass arrests. Seven hundred strikers were arrested one day, under orders from the chief of police who stated the strike was a "Red plot" to gain control of the West Side of San Antonio.
At that point, the union removed Emma as an official leader of the strike, fearing her ties to the Communist Party would hurt the cause. The strike, one of the largest in the nation, continued for three months until pecan producers agreed to pay the minimum wage set by the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938.
Emma Tenayuca was blacklisted for being a communist in the 1930s, and still today, she is not considered a heroine by some people for the same reason. Yet, she was deeply concerned about many of the same issues that trouble us today, the disparity between the rich and the poor, discrimination against people of color and fear of immigrants.
Emma courageously went to jail a number of times for her beliefs, saying, "I never thought in terms of fear, I thought in terms of justice."
Some months after the pecan strike settled, Emma planned to speak at a Communist Party meeting at the city's auditorium.
A crowd of 5000 anti-communists gathered to protest and as they stormed the building with bricks and stones, police guided Emma to through a secret underground tunnel.
The rioters, including members of the Ku Klux Klan went on to burn the city mayor in effigy for permitting Emma the right to free speech. Fearing she'd be lynched, Emma left for Houston and later California, unable to return to her hometown for twenty years.
Writer Carmen Tafolla wrote of Emma:
"La Pasionaria, we called her, because she was our passion, because she was our heart -- defendiendo a los pobres, speaking out at a time when neither Mexicans nor women were expected to speak at all."
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