Emma Tenayuca bigraphy, stories - American labor leader

Emma Tenayuca : biography

December 21, 1916 - July 23, 1999

Emma Tenayuca (December 21, 1916 – July 23, 1999) was an American labor leader, union organizer and educator. She grew up in a family of eleven and began living with her grandparents at an early age in order to ease the burden on the rest of her family. Emma and her family were hit hard by the Depression, and all around her Emma Tenayuca began opening her eyes to see the suffering of low class workers. She became interested in activism and was a labor activist even before graduating from Brackenridge High School in San Antonio. Tenayuca’s first arrest came at the age of 16, in 1933, when she joined a picket line of workers in strike against the Finck Cigar Company.

After high school, Tenayuca obtained a position as an elevator operator, but she made a career out of her passion for labor rights. 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 a protest over the beating of Mexican migrants by United States Border Patrol agents. In her early adulthood she was arrested for a second and third time: once on a charge of “disturbing the peace” during a nonviolent protest, and again for her leadership role in a labor strike in 1938.

Organizing large scale strikes against the injustices in the labor sphere was also one of Tenayuca’s vocations. Tenayuca was instrumental 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 workers at over 130 plants protested a wage reduction of one cent per pound of shelled pecans. Mexicana and Chicana workers who picketed were gassed, arrested, and jailed. The strike ended after thirty-seven days when the city's pecan operators agreed to arbitration. In October that year, the National Labor Relations Act raised wages to twenty-five cents an hour.

Another source of Tenayuca's first-hand knowledge of the struggles of working people came from visits as a young child to the Plaza del Zacate, a place where socialists and anarchists would come to speak and work with families with grievances. Because it advocated her passion for minority rights, Tenayuca joined the Communist Party in 1936. In 1938 she married organizer Homer Brooks. Then, less than a year later, she was scheduled to speak at a small Communist Party meeting at the Municipal Auditorium permitted by San Antonio Mayor Maury Maverick. A crowd of 5,000 attacked the auditorium with bricks and rocks, "huntin' Communists." Police helped Tenayuca escape from the mob, but she was blacklisted and forced to move out of San Antonio.

Eventually, Tenayuca went on to pursue a college degree. She divorced Homer and left her hometown in order to attend San Francisco State College where she majored in Education. She later earned a master’s in education from Our Lady of the Lake University in San Antonio. From there Emma went on to teach in Harlandale School District until her retirement in 1982. Shortly after retirement Emma Tenayuca developed Alzheimer's disease and died on July 23, 1999.

Tenayuca continued to inspire activists after her own heart until and beyond her death. The admiration felt for this remarkable woman can be seen in That’s Not Fair! Emma Tenayuca’s Struggle for Justice, a bilingual children’s book that tells the story of her contributions to the pecan sheller strike, as well as in the play-dramas written to honor her dedication and contributions. The South Texas Civil Rights Project has dedicated an annual award, The Emma Tenayuca Award, given to individuals working to protect civil rights.

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