“I was arrested a number of times. … I never thought in terms of fear. I thought in terms of justice.”
Born in 1916 in San Antonio, Texas, Emma Tenayuca lived at a time when Mexican Americans were allowed few freedoms and fewer privileges. Her close relationship with a grandfather who read the newspapers with her and took her to rallies for the rights of the poor fed the young girl’s profound hunger for both learning and social justice.
At age sixteen, already determined to challenge injustice, she became involved in community organizing and was jailed and threatened numerous times. At a time when neither Mexican-Americans nor women were expected to speak out, she spoke out fearlessly, and was soon known as a fiery orator and a brilliant organizer.
By age twenty-one, Emma was considered to be one of the most effective organizers for the Workers’ Alliance of America. That same year, 1938, when San Antonio’s lowest paid workers suffered massive wage cuts, they decided to strike. The city’s twelve thousand pecan shellers, most of them women, elected Emma to lead their strike. In less than two months, the pecan shellers forced the owners to raise their pay. The pecan shellers strike is considered by many historians to be the first significant victory in the Mexican American struggle for political and economic equality in this country.
Emma was so articulate and outspoken that the Workers´ Alliance replaced her when she was twenty-two. There was only so much room for a woman – a Mexican woman – to be an ambitious and intellectual champion for justice.
In 1939, as Emma was giving a speech, an enraged mob attacked the San Antonio’s Municipal Auditorium. Fearing that she would be lynched, Emma was led away through a secret passageway. The mob threw bricks, broke windows, set fires, ripped out auditorium seats, and later that night, together with the Ku Klux Klan, burned the city’s mayor in effigy for having defended Emma’s right to free speech. This event is still on record as the San Antonio’s largest riot.
Blacklisted, Emma left the state for many years, suffering poverty, unemployment, and personal threats against her safety. A voracious reader, she put herself through college and never stopped searching for an answer to the injustices she saw around her.
In the 1960s, Emma returned to San Antonio and began a different phase of her life-long community service, becoming a reading teacher for migrant students. Emma always focused on empowering people in the most basic and humane ways, inspiring and supporting their ability to work, to eat, to feed their families, to read, to vote. The things she fought to achieve in our society – Social Security, unemployment benefits, minimum wage, equal access to education, disability benefits – were in her days labeled “Communist.” Today, they are considered to be markers of social justice.
Yet among the people for whom she fought and spoke and went to jail, her name was whispered with a respect reserved for no other leader. They called her “La Pasionaria de Texas.” And they kept her story alive, even when so many others tried to erase it from history.
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