Women organizers in our history: great role models…
The moral force of young people at work…
Recently, we have witnessed the moral and political force that young people represent, i.e., young activists who are not content to merely read about and learn history. They are practicing their schooling, as it were, making history in their own right. Some examples:
In 2011, young people, many of them Dreamers, were a major force in the historic recall of Russell Pearce, author of the racist Arizona SB 1070 (“Show me your papers”) law. In 2012, young Latinas/os risked arrest and even deportation by sitting in at federal offices, Republican and Democratic Party headquarters, and Obama campaign offices in several states and pressured President Obama to stop the deportation of Dream Act-eligible youth. Between 2011 and 2014 Mexican American Studies students and other young people were the driving force of the Tucson movement to save Mexican American Studies after the legislature determined that MAS courses were “illegal” and “un-American.”
In 2012 Young Navajo tribal activists fought and defeated a Republican attempt to force the Navajo Nation to waive its water claims to the Little Colorado River. In 2014 the “Change the Name … Change the Mascot” movement emerged after seven young American Indian activists challenged the Washington NFL team’s trademark on the grounds that the team name is a racist term. In 2015 Congress allowed a foreign corporation to build a copper mine on an ancestral Apache sacred site, Oak Flat. Led by young people, over 300 tribal members and supporters occupied Oak Flat, vowing not to leave until Congress reverses its action.
In 2016 the youth-led Black Lives Matter movement is confronting the political establishment. Young people—Latinas/os, American Indians, African American, white—are fueling the history-making Bernie Sanders presidential campaign, causing panic among the political establishment.
We were those young people once…
I am of the Chicano Generation and can identify with today’s young activists. Forty-plus years ago WE were the young people described above. We too were loyal to principles rather than to political parties or machines. We also were told to be “patient,” to think small rather than big and were arrested, sometimes beaten, for marching and picketing for barrio issues, worker rights, etc. We took on the political establishment and exposed their corruption and venality. We moved mountains by changing rather than adapting to the political culture.
Rich legacy of women organizers…
A significant portion of the young activists I describe above are women. Today’s young Mexican American/Latina activists are continuing the rich legacy of women activists and change makers in our history. Some, like the United Farm Worker’s Dolores Huerta, are well known. But there are many “unsung heroines” whose work may not be well known but, I believe, should be. Below is a sampling of women who were active in the 1930s-1950s, times when organizing for civil or labor rights was very difficult and even dangerous.
In the 1930s-1940s, while in her early 20s, Guatemalan immigrant Luisa Moreno unionized Mexican women cannery plant workers in California, fighting for maternity leave, equal pay for women, and racial equality. She was beaten by police and arrested while picketing. In 1939, Moreno and Josefina Fierro de Bright (discussed below) brought together 73 organizations in El Congreso Nacional de Pueblos de Habla Hispana (National Congress of Spanish-Speaking Peoples), the first national effort to unite Latino workers to work for civil, labor, and women rights. Moreno was active in the Los Angeles Sleepy Lagoon Defense Committee that supported seventeen Chicano youths falsely accused of murder. She was deported in 1950 as part of “Operation Wetback,” which targeted labor leaders and political “troublemakers.”
At age 18 Josefina Fierro de Bright quit her pre-med studies at UCLA to organize against anti-Mexican American discrimination in California in the 1930s. She organized boycotts of businesses in Mexican American barrios that did not hire Mexican American workers and protests against racism in the Los Angeles schools, the exclusion of Mexican Americans from public swimming pools, and police brutality. With fellow El Congreso founder Luisa Moreno, she supported Spanish-speaking union workers in various industries and was a key figure in the Sleepy Lagoon Defense Committee. Labeled a “communist subversive,” Fierro de Bright was investigated by the California Committee on Un-American Activities. In 1948, the authorities set out to arrest and deport her, and she fled to Mexico.
Emma Tenayuca, of San Antonio, Texas, was moved to action by the injustices committed against Mexican Americans and Mexicans in Texas. In 1933, at age 18, Tenayuca was arrested when she led the Finch Cigar Company strike. In 1938 Tenanyuca led a strike of twelve thousand workers—almost all women—of the International Pecans Shellers Union, the first time in San Antonio’s history that Mexican women challenged pay violations, unfair production quotas, and unsanitary working conditions. Tenayuca and hundreds of strikers were arrested and beaten by police. When Tenayuca joined the Communist Party in the late 1930s, she received many death threats and was blacklisted, forcing her to leave San Antonio (she returned later and became a teacher).
Anita Torrez played a key role in the historic 1951 International Mine Mill and Smelters Workers Union strike against the Empire Zinc Company in New Mexico. Anita’s husband Lorenzo was one of the strikers. When a court order prohibited Empire employees from picketing, Anita Torrez, then a young mother, and the other wives took over the picket lines and were arrested and jailed. In January, 1952, the strike was settled, but Lorenzo was blacklisted in the mining industry, forcing them to move. Eventually they settled in Tucson, where Anita worked for 18 years in a garment factory where she organized the workers into the International Ladies Garment Workers Union. The Empire Zinc strike is memorialized in the movie “Salt of the Earth.”
In the 1950s while in her 20s, Soledad “Chole” Alatorre led strikes that improved working conditions for garment workers in Los Angeles. She became a union organizer and was affiliated with several unions. In 1968 she co-founded, with Bert Corona, El Centro de Acción Social Autónomo Hermandad General de Trabajadores (CASA) and fought fiercely for humane immigration reform. Those efforts led to the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act, which legalized 2.7 million undocumented persons. Alatorre was also affiliated with the Mexican American Political Association, whose goal was to politically empower Mexican Americans, which often put her and MAPA at odds with the political establishment. In the 1960s-1970s, Alatorre was a major figure in the Chicano Movement in Los Angeles.
Barrio mothers to the rescue…
And there are many examples of women—who unfortunately are not “famous”—who acted collectively and made extraordinary contributions to our community. Some examples:
In 1955, 10 years after a 1944 federal court case established that not allowing Mexican Americans to use public facilities was illegal, many Arizona cities allowed Mexican children to swim in public pools only once a week. A group of Mexican American mothers came together and with the help of the unions in Arizona’s mining towns challenged that discriminatory policy. They petitioned, picketed, and took the case to court and won.
In 1970, a group of Mexican American mothers were the backbone of a campaign to get the City of Tucson to build a west-side park where kids could play and families could gather. Over many months entire families marched and picketed in the summer heat and driving rain, and there were many arrests. After a long struggle, the park was built. This was a defining moment in the political evolution of Tucson’s Mexican American community.
In 1984 the California Legislature, without consulting the community that would be affected, proposed building a state prison in East Los Angeles. A small group of barrio women, calling themselves the Mothers of East Los Angeles (MELA), organized to oppose this proposal and soon there were hundreds of mothers, along with their children and husbands, marching and picketing and lobbying legislators. MELA succeeded in keeping the prison out of East LA.
These activists in our history, and others like them, are the people responsible for the progress our community has made over the years. They are the kind of role models our youth—actually, all of us—should emulate.
Note the commonalities among them: they cast their lot with the working class rather than with the political elite. They took risks and/or made sacrifices when they put their principles into action. Their motivation was the greater good rather than personal enrichment. They did not sell out to the political establishment of their time. On the contrary, they confronted and challenged the power structure in their respective worlds. Frankly, that is the ONLY way our community has ever made progress—the political establishment, Democrat or Republican, has NEVER done anything for us of its own volition. c/s
Copyright by Salomon Baldenegro. To contact Sal, write: Salomonrb@msn.com Photo of Dreamrs used “fair use” of copyright law, photos of Dolores Huerta, Emma Tenayuca copyrighted by barrio Dog Productions, Inc. Photo of Sal Baldenegro being arrested courtesy of the author. Photo of Soledad Alatorre courtesy of Rosalío Muñoz. All other photos are in the public domain.