Labor Leader Emma Tenayuca

Born on December 21, 1916, Emma Tenayuca was the eldest of eleven children who was raised by her maternal grandparents in San Antonio, Texas. Perhaps best known for her activities leading to the 1938 San Antonio Pecan Shellers strike, “La Pasionaria” (The Passionate One) as she was known, started her labor organizing at age 18 when she joined the Finch Cigar Company strike, made up largely of Mexican American women of San Antonio. Because of her activities as a chief organizer of the Finck Strike she was arrested. As her political awareness grew, Emma saw the injustices committed against Mexican Americans and Mexicans living in Texas. In particular, the repatriation of thousands of Mexicans and even some American citizens of Mexican descent to Mexico, caused her to join the Communist Party in 1936 where she was soon an advocate for Mexican American justice, protesting the deportations and police brutality.

By 1937 she had risen to be an important functionary of the Workers Alliance of America, a national labor movement. It was in her role as executive secretary of Texas chapters of the Workers Alliance that she became involved in the 1938 Pecan Sheller’s Strike of San Antonio. At the time, San Antonio was a leading center of pecan production and Mexican women made up the bulk of the labor force, shelling pecans by hand in poorly ventilated warehouses and being paid only five cents a day. When San Antonio companies opted to cut back on the price paid to workers to three cents a day, more than twelve thousand workers organized under the International Pecans Shellers Union local 172 (affiliated with the United Cannery and Agricultural Workers Packing and Allied Workers of America (UCAPAWA) went on strike. La Pasionaria soon became leader of the strike in which hundreds of strikers were arrested and beaten by police, among them Emma Tenayuca. The strike lasted for three months until Emma’s Communist Party affiliations compromised her effectiveness. Eventually she was replaced as head of the UCAPAWA chapter and a strike settlement was eventually negotiated.

In 1938 Emma married Homer Brooks, then head of the Texas Communist Party. She replaced Homer as Texas Chair of the Communist Party and made headlines once again in 1939, when she was scheduled to speak at San Antonio’s Municipal Auditorium. A crowd of thousands gathered outside the municipal auditorium to protest the Communist Party gathering and a riot soon erupted. Emma and her followers escaped with their lives but the municipal auditorium was vandalized. The death threats against Emma following the Municipal Auditorium riot and her inability to retain work, ended Emma’s labor organizing. She and Homer Brooks were divorced in 1941.

By 1946 she had left the Communist Party and labor organizing and resettled to San Francisco, California. In 1952 she received a BA degree from San Francisco State University and began a teaching career. In 1968 she returned to San Antonio where she earned a MA degree from Our Lady Of the Lake University and resumed a teaching career which she pursued until her retirement in 1982. In 1985 she was featured in the PBS documentary Yo Soy (I AM) and in the later years of her life became the subject of much attention from Chicana activists who were inspired by her previous activism. She died in San Antonio on July 23, 1999.