Civil Rights Movement

Houston Institute for Culture 

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Government: The Tejano Struggle for Representation

San Antonio native Emma Tenayuca was a pioneering activist involved with issues that resemble those of modern times: disparity of rich and poor, and substandard wages and working conditions of laborers and migrant workers.

In her formative years Tenayuca followed election politics of the U.S. and Mexico. She became a labor activist before graduating from high school. She was arrested at age 16 when she joined the picket line of workers on strike against the Finck Cigar Company of San Antonio in 1933.

Influenced by the causes of the Mexican Revolution, and Texas gubernatorial candidate Ma Ferguson's position against the Ku Klux Klan, Tenayuca's work for labor issues and civil rights predated Cesar Chavez and the Civil Rights movement.

She founded two International Ladies' Garment Workers Unions, and organized strikes against San Antonio's large pecan shelling industry.

Tenayuca worked as an organizer and activist for the Workers Alliance of America and Women's League for Peace and Freedom. She lobbied the mayor of San Antonio to improve relief distribution for unemployed workers during the Great Depression.

In 1937 she organized protests of the beating of migrants by US Border Patrol agents.

Like many artists and activists (including Frida Kahlo and Woody Guthrie) who were concerned about poor workers as industries grew powerful, Tenayuca joined the Communist Party in 1937. She was scheduled to speak at a meeting of the Communist Party in 1939, when organized opposition rioted at San Antonio's Municipal Auditorium. She received death threats and was blacklisted in San Antonio. She briefly relocated to Houston before moving to San Francisco, California to pursue a degree in education.

Throughout her life, Tenayuca was a vocal advocate for free speech and workers' rights, and a critic of many government policies. She was a dedicated student of political issues and processes. She expressed her belief in greater economic equality for citizens over expensive government relief programs.

In 1987, she told Jerry Poyo, with the Institute for Texan Cultures Oral History Program, "What started out as an organization for equal wages turned into a mass movement against starvation, for a minimum-wage law, and it changed the character of West Side San Antonio."

During Emma Tenayuca's 1999 eulogy, writer Carmen Tafolla read: "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."

Emma Tenayuca

December 21, 1916 - July 23, 1999

December 21, 1916 Emma Tenayuca is born in San Antonio, Texas
1924 The U.S. Border Patrol is created. See a Timeline of the US-Mexico Border.
October 24, 1929 Tenayuca is profoundly affected by the events of the stock market crash (Black Tuesday) and the Great Depression, particularly the condition of workers. She listens to speeches on the plaza in San Antonio.
1932-1933 Tenayuca joins protests of working conditions at the Finck Cigar Company. She is arrested at age 16.
1934 Tenayuca graduates from Brackenridge High School in San Antonio.
1934-1935 Tenayuca helps organize two branches of the International Ladies' Garment Workers Union in San Antonio.
1936 Tenayuca lobbies Mayor Charles K. Quin to improve distribution of relief supplies.
1937 Tenayuca has become general secretary for ten Workers Alliance chapters by 1937.
1937 Tenayuca joins the Communist Party.
February 24, 1937 Tenayuca organizes Workers Alliance members to protest brutal beatings of migrants by US Border Patrol agents.
June 30, 1937 Tenayuca, national committeewoman for the Workers Alliance of America, is jailed for "disturbing the peace" during a nonviolent protest (a WPA sit-in).
January 31, 1938 Tenayuca is arrested for her role in organizing a labor strike of pecan shellers.
1938 Tenayuca works with the Women's League for Peace and Freedom to feed striking pecan workers.
1938 Tenayuca marries Communist Party organizer Homer Brooks.
1939 Tenayuca becomes chairperson of the Texas Communist Party.
April 27, 1939 Tenayuca and other members of the Workers Alliance stage a nonviolent demonstration at City Hall to protest the city's refusal to grant the organization a parade permit.
August 25, 1939 Tenayuca prepares to speak at a meeting of the Communist Party when a riot breaks out at Municipal Auditorium. Tenayuca receives death threats and is blacklisted in San Antonio. She relocates to Houston and soon moves to San Francisco, California.
1952 Tenayuca receives teacher certification from San Francisco State College.
1960s Tenayuca returns to San Antonio in the late 1960s.
1974 Tenayuca receives her master's degree in education from Our Lady of the Lake University in San Antonio.
1982 Tenayuca retires from Harlandale School District.
July 23, 1999 Emma Tenayuca dies in San Antonio.