THE HISPANIC EXPERIENCE
Civil Rights Movement
Houston Institute for Culture
EVENTS IN THE LIFE OF EMMA TENAYUCA
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."
December 21, 1916 - July 23, 1999
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