Emma Tenayuca

Emma Tenayuca

(1916-1999)

Emma Tenayuca was a dedicated activist for the cause of exploited workers in the state of Texas. She was born in San Antonio. Her mother was a descendant of Spanish colonial¬ ists, and her father was of Indian descent from southern Texas.

At the age of sixteen, Tenayuca led Mexican female workers on a strike at the Finck Cigar Company. Her role landed her in jail, but the publicity brought notoriety to her and the strikers. Shortly after the strike, Tenayuca helped form a chapter of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union in San Antonio.

During the 1930s, Tenayuca served as the executive secretary of the Workers Alliance of America, a national communist organization. She helped organize several local chapters in San Antonio. Her high visibility in labor dis¬ putes made her an enemy of government offi¬ cials and business owners.

Prior to one Communist party rally in San Antonio, local leaders instigated a riot in an effort to discredit Tenayuca. The U.S. House Un-American Activities Committee placed Tenayuca on its blacklist for her communist affdiations.Tenayuca managed to persevere, and in the 1930s, she led the famous pecan shellers’ strike.

Texas was a leading producer of pecans, but many of the workers were Mexicans who received wages at barely subsistence levels, and they suffered in sweatshop-like conditions. When the United Cannery, Agricultural, Packing and Allied Workers of America replaced her as the leader of the strike because of her communist connections, she was ‘rein¬ stated” as the honorary leader by the workers, due to her popularity.

In spite of her professed loyalty to her native state—Tenayuca described herself as “a Texan first and a Hispanic second”—she was a staunch advocate for the rights of Hispanic Americans. She responded to U.S. immigra¬ tion officials’ unjust deportation of Mexican American activists by staging protests and embarking on an aggressive letter-writing cam¬ paign.

Tenayuca’s efforts helped bring more money to San Antonio from the federal New Deal program to create jobs for Spanish¬ speaking people.During the pecan shellers’ strike, Tenayuca met and fell in love with Homer Brooks, a fel¬ low communist.

They married and carried on their activism together. In 1939, they pub¬ lished an analysis of Mexican-American rela¬ tions. Their study, “The Mexican Question in the Southwest,” advocated for educational and cultural equality as the means to improve the plight of Mexicans in the region.

At the outset ofWorld War II, Tenayuca left the Communist party in protest when the Soviet Union signed a nonaggression treaty with Adolf Hitler. She moved to San Francisco, where she earned her master’s degree and became a school teacher. Tenayuca eventually returned to San Antonio, where she lived and worked for the remainder of her life.