Emma Tenayuca

Mexican American labor organizer, civil rights activist, and educator (1916-1999)

Emma Beatrice Tenayuca (December 21, 1916 – July 23, 1999), also known as Emma Beatrice Tenayuca, was an American labor leader, union organizer and educator. She is best known for her work organizing Mexican workers in Texas during the 1930s, particularly for leading the 1938 San Antonio pecan shellers strike.

Emma Tenayuca in 1937


  • El Espanol que yo hablaba era un Espanol que los Conquistadores trajeron aqui, verdad, porque era “vide por vi; ansina por asi”, and when I went to school and started to learn Spanish, I had an awful time, because some of these teachers were not from the city or from Texas. They were from the east, you see. And they’d tell me, “Senorita, usted no sabe hablar el Espanol, verdad?” And they mixed it up with this Texas-Mex and that sort of thing.
  • It wasn’t until the ‘30s that Spanish began to be taught in the schools – in the high schools. And there was a woman by the name of Esther Caravajal who wrote one of the first text books for the teaching of Spanish in the schools here.
  • What really kept us (our neighborhood) together was the church – St. Agnes.
  • Remember this – we didn’t have radios, we didn’t have this, we didn’t have that, we didn’t have a lot of things. So, this going to the plaza and just listening...(to people) speak to a crowd
  • Remember, at that time here, ’24, the Palmer raids, the Ku Klux Klan
  • The Klan was very, very strong here, particularly on this side of town.
  • In 1929, the Wall Street crash; in 1932, the closing of all the banks... My grandfather lost some money in one of them, and he didn’t tell anybody. The person he told, I mean...he came over to me and told me, he says, “I’ve lost everything I have.” And he was already about, I guess, 65, close to 70. So, I don’t know, I felt that had an awful effect on me.
  • I felt at first that I was more of an anarchist than anything else. And this came from the anarchist movement here;...The Magonistas, at one time, had about...I think they had about thirty or forty papers throughout south Texas, yes. And I remember the Wobblies, too. I know Mother Flor and Mother Jones were from here, from what I have read, so they work. Then you had some labor unions here. Not too many, but you did have railroad workers; and at that time, there were quite a number of railroad workers; and at that time, there were quite a number of railroad workers who were Mexicans.
  • I had become very, very interested in the labor movement. I mean, I had...first there were the anarchistas and so forth. And then you had, also, the influence in the CTM [Confederacion de Trabajadores de Mexico].
  • It’s only recently that I have been able to talk about some of the things that I saw here. I mean as far as poverty – because it was just too difficult.
  • I just have a feeling, a very strong feeling, that if ever this world is civilized, that it would be more the work of women.
  • I don’t think that women will ever be completely and totally free – or any of the minorities – until you have socialism.
  • Look, it was not the Black, the savages or the Indians who brought about a government such as the Hitler regime...I think after four, almost five hundred years of European domination that this next period would be one of revolt against European domination. And there are lots of lives being lost in Nicaragua and these other places.
  • I read quite a bit. I would say I read, well, I didn’t read all of Das Kapital, but I read that and Price and Profit, Wage, Labor & Capital, so I had an idea of how capital was made; how it was used, and so forth and so on.
  • The question was always one of land, and it wasn’t tackled in Mexico until the time of Cardenas. And it wasn’t tackled in Cuba until Castro.
  • Theodore Roosevelt...he was an imperialist, but he had a liberal approach.
  • You had this factionalism all the time.
  • Any effort of the Mexican workers to organize was met with brutal force, from the very beginning.
  • 1938 was the hardest year because by that time the Depression had really struck every city, every place.
  • The Workers’ Alliance was an organization for the unemployed. And I think it did a tremendous job, because all of the housing projects that are here are due to the Workers’ Alliance...they were organized by the Communists and Socialists.
  • I was removed; because I was a Communist, I was removed from leadership of the Workers’ Alliance of the CIO.
  • There were spontaneous strikes. You don’t have those if you have a good organizer.
  • If I had to give any credit to myself, I would say that I was a darn good organizer, and if I did it was because I read the works of the...I read quite a bit about the anarchists’ organization.
  • The Wobblies could come into a town and establish free speech. They’d bring in...one would come by railroad then – ride the rods and so forth and so on – they they’d come into a town. They had one group that would go out. That group would be arrested. They’d get another group to get up and speak, and then another group would fill the damn jail. And you had lawyers there.
  • We’ve been spending too much money on armaments. We haven’t had any peace since World War II. We had troops in Korea, Vietnam, South American, Europe. We cannot continue to do that.
  • I was beginning to miss more and more meals, so...I’ve come from a family of eleven; I was one of the oldest. I couldn’t get a job, I couldn’t help, I couldn’t do anything, so I left San Antonio. I went to San Francisco and stayed there for twenty years, and to my surprise, I return and I find myself some sort of a heroine.
  • I would like to see a history...not just of the Communists but of the Left Wing movement and its narrow, factional, sectarian approach.
  • I attended one convention, that was all. The woman for whom I had the greatest admiration was, of course, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn. The man for whom I had the...was not Browder, who was the secretary, but was Foster – William C. Foster...along with those heroes whom I did have – women heroes – Mrs. Roosevelt, Amelia Earhart, Babe Diedrickson
  • I would say that the times are absolutely different. Unfortunately, American history books, especially at the high school level...and I examined about three of them here in 1968, I haven’t examined any since then. But they were not analytical. They were not critical. You will find history books that will tell you we still don’t know why the Depression occurred – a world-wide Depression. England went on the bill. Certainly, World War I had a lot to do with it. Why did we have a World War II? The unbearable, actually, the unbearable load or money that Germany had to pay us, which actually stripped their economy. Germany never had what you would call a true democratic society.
  • It would be difficult to say that minorities have not advanced. You will find quite a few members of the state legislature, a few senators, but quite a number who are Mexican. You will find a number who are in the Senate. You will find a lot of Blacks. But, again, you have a split there; you have a split.
  • I have expected my country, your country, to become the scientific Athens, but I don’t think that will be the case.
  • I once read that people from...among those graduates at West Point you wouldn’t find any liars and cowards: you get Poindexter; you got North. I mean, these guys filled their minds that covert actions, terrorism – the same type that we’re trying to fight
  • (Ronald Reagan is) nothing but a bag of hot air.
  • But where are the intellectuals: Where are the Clarence Darrows?...Where are all of those writers who went out and picketed when Sacco and Vanzetti were put in jail? You see, we do have a big movement against war. Against nuclear war, in particular. But I just don’t know...if I could see in the future somebody who could take the presidency and have a knowledge of the program... I would hate to see another Carter or another movie star, because they don’t know foreign policy; they don’t know history.

Quotes about Emma Tenayuca

  • Chicana labor leaders and politicians, like Denver's Dolores McGran González, testified before congressional committees, ran for local office, and served as national delegates to the Progressive Party Convention in the late 1930s. Other women who have become models of female-inspired activities of the period are Dolores Hernández, who was killed on October 10, 1933 during a strike of 15,000 farm workers in Visalia, California. Another woman labor union leader made history in 1936 when she led pecan sheller strikers in San Antonio in a successful strike effort. Emma Tenayuca Brooks, then a 17-year-old labor organizer and orator, became a beacon of hope to beleagured workers throughout the United States. For her efforts, she has had to live 40 years in obscurity and anonymity. In civil rights and educational reform, a strong women's advocate, Mariá L. Hernández of Lytle, Texas, worked tirelessly throughout the 1930s demonstrating, speaking, and protesting the educational status of Mexican-Americans in the United States.
    • Martha P. Cotera, "Feminism: The Chicano and Anglo Versions-A Historical Analysis" (1980)
  • Communist Mexican-American labor activist Emma Tenayuca, "the Passionflower of Texas," led protests, walkouts, and demonstrations to protest the deplorable working and living conditions that Latino workers faced in her native San Antonio...Like many labor activists of her generation, Tenayuca was later blacklisted for her political affiliations, but there was no erasing the impact she'd made on San Antonio and the labor movement as a whole.
  • Less than five feet tall, she was a powerful speaker and excellent writer, lovingly called La Pasionara (the Passionate One)...Emma became chair of the Texas Communist Party, then a strong voice for the oppressed. Forced to leave Texas by Red-baiting, she returned later to be a teacher and a beloved inspiration always.
  • The 20th anniversary Chicano Activists Reunion organizers had made efforts to recognize women's accomplishments. The featured speaker at the Labor Lunch and guest of honor at the banquet was Emma Tenayucca, the young leftist heroine of the huge Mexican pecan shellers' strike in San Antonio in the 1930s, called "La Pasionaria" by local people, and now in her 80s.
  • As a twenty-three-year-old member of the Workers' Alliance and secretary of the Texas Communist Party, Emma Tenayuca emerged as the fiery local leader. Although not a pecan sheller, Tenayuca, a San Antonio native, was elected to head the strike committee. During the six-week labor dispute from 6,000 to 10,000 strikers faced tear gas and billy clubs "on at least six occasions." Emma Tenayuca courageously organized demonstrations and she along with over 1,000 pecan shellers were jailed. Known as "La Pasionaria," Tenayuca, in an interview with historian Zaragosa Vargas, reflected on her activism as follows: "I was pretty defiant. [I fought] against poverty, actually starvation, high infant death rates, disease and hunger and misery. I would do the same thing again."
    • Vicki L. Ruiz, From Out of the Shadows: Mexican Women in Twentieth-Century America
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