Fight for Civil Rights in Texas: The Emma Tenayuca Story

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Her first arrest, which would become one of many, occurred when Emma Tenayuca was 16 years old. Born into a Comanche family in South Texas in 1916, the Depression took its toll on those around her, and it was at this time she saw first-hand the suffering of low-class workers, often with the help of her grandfather, who read newspapers with her and took her to rallies. While in high school, activism for labor rights became her lifelong passion. While working as an elevator operator, she founded two international ladies’ garment workers unions and was highly involved in both the Worker’s Alliance of America and Woman’s League for Peace and Freedom.

She organized large-scale strikes against the injustices in the labor sphere and was a key figure in one of the most famous conflicts of Texas labor history–the 1938 Pecan Shellers Strike at the Southern Pecan Shelling Company. During the strike, thousands of mostly female workers at over 130 plants protested a wage reduction and were gassed, arrested, and jailed. After 37 days, the strike eventually ended when the city’s pecan operators agreed to arbitration. This strike is considered by many historians to be the first significant victory in the Mexican-American struggle for political and economic equality in the United States.

San Antonio

Photo: Facebook/Working Class History

Because it advocated her passion for minority rights, Tenayuca became interested in the concept of socialism and joined the Communist Party in 1936. Scheduled to speak at a small, permitted Communist Party meeting, a crowd of 5,000 attacked the auditorium with bricks and rocks, and later that night, together with the Ku Klux Klan, burned the mayor’s effigy for having defended Emma’s right to free speech. Police helped Tenayuca escape from the mob via a secret passageway, but she was blacklisted and forced to move out of San Antonio. This event is still on record as San Antonio’s largest riot.

Organizer of people

Photo: Facebook/Midwives Alliance of North America

Tenayuca went on to support herself and obtain a college degree, where she majored in Education. She returned to San Antonio in the 1960’s and later earned a master’s in education from Our Lady of the Lake University in San Antonio. Emma taught in the Harlandale School District until her retirement in 1982. Shortly after retirement, Emma Tenayuca developed Alzheimer’s disease and died on July 23, 1999, at the age of 82. Her reverence in the community is reflected by her nickname “La Pasionaria”. Today, The South Texas Civil Rights Project has a dedicated annual award in her name, which is given to individuals striving to protect civil rights. Every Texan can be proud of the work achieved by this remarkable woman who dedicated her life to social justice.