Known to many as “La Pasionaria de Texas” (The Texas Passionate One), Mexican American Emma Tenayuca led a pecan shelling workers’ strike that paralyzed the lucrative industry for three months in 1938.
Her commitment to the working poor came from her politically active maternal grandparents’ as well as by the anarchist and activist speakers she heard at San Antonio’s Plaza del Zacate growing up.
By the time she was 16, Tenayuca faced arrests and beatings along with other Mexican women workers who were striking the H.W. Finck Cigar Company over low wages and unsanitary working conditions. The violent police response only strengthened her resolve and militancy.
Tenayuca joined the Communist Party and honed her speaking abilities as a member of her high school’s debate team. Those skills helped her organize two locals of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union while still in her teens.
By age 20, she was an executive committee member of the Workers Alliance of America and led marches, demonstrations, and sit-insagainst poor working conditions, discrimination, and unfair wages.
Tenayuca was also the general secretary for San Antonio’s chapters, representing 10,000 Workers Alliance members, about 3,000 of which worked in pecan factories. At the time San Antonio represented 50 percent of the national pecan industry, in which thousands of Mexican American pecan shellers earned $2 to $3 a week while enduring exposure to the nuts’ fine brown dust, which caused tuberculosis for many.
The low pay and unsafe working conditions sparked strikes in 1934 and 1935, particularly against the Southern Pecan Shelling Company. Those actions generated minimal progress but created unity among the workers.
In January 1938, nearly 12,000 pecan shellers walked off the job when the company cut their pay. They elected Tenayuca to lead the strike committee and a day later she was jailed along with other organizers.
“I was arrested a number of times, [but] I don’t think that I was exactly fearful,” she said years later. “I never thought in terms of fear. I thought in terms of justice.”
San Antonio’s mayor declared the strike a “revolution” led by “red” outsiders and sent police to harass, assault, and arrest more than 1,000 strikers while disrupting picket lines, closing strike kitchens, and raiding striker leaders’ homes.
Tenayuca’s communist ties made her a liability, and she was removed as a strike leader, though she remained involved behind the scenes. A pay raise won during arbitration ended the three-month work stoppage, but the gains were short-lived. After the 1938 Fair Labor Relations Act set a minimum wage, the company brought in new machinery and laid off 10,000 workers.
“Red Emma” was blacklisted and couldn’t get a job, and soon left San Antonio and the Communist Party.
She briefly worked office jobs in Houston under the alias Beatrice Giraud before moving to San Francisco, where she spent the next 20 years and launched a teaching career that she continued when she returned to San Antonio in the late 1960s.
The Chicano Movement of the 1970s rediscovered her story and accomplishments and she was embraced once again in her hometown, where she was inducted into the San Antonio Women’s Hall of Fame in 1991.