Emma Beatrice Tenayuca is certainly a Texan woman worth knowing about. She fought for workers’ rights, and immigrant workers’ rights in particular; her activism was very controversial at the time. She is famous for having said,
” I was arrested a number of times. I don’t think that I felt exactly fearful. I never thought in terms of fear. I thought in terms of justice.”
Tenayuca lived from 1916 to 1999. She is most famous for leading the 1938 strike among workers at the Southern Pecan Shelling Company.
Whether you work in a factory, construction, concrete repair, or even technology or finance, you owe many of your rights as a worker to Emma Tenayuca. Therefore she is well worth learning about for anyone who holds a job.
Although Tenayuca was born in Texas, her heritage was Mexican-American. In those days, Mexican-Americans did not have the same freedoms as white European-Americans. This was also a time when women did not have the same rights as men. Therefore Tenayuca was arrested and put in jail numerous times for her efforts. This never stopped her. She seemed to be fearless.
Tenayuca’s grandfather introduced her to the notion of activism from a very early age, encouraging her to speak out against injustice and make a difference. It was largely due to his influence that Tenayuca worked to fight the injustices she saw around her from a very early age.
In 1938 when Tenayuca was only 21, she was one of the major leaders for the National Workers’ Alliance. That year, she organized a strike among the 12,000 pecan shellers in her city, many of whom were women; securing a pay raise for the underpaid pecan plant workers in under two months’ time. Unfortunately, however, Tenayuca proved to be too outspoken even for the National Workers’ Alliance that she had worked so hard to help. They replaced her the following year.
In 1939 an angry mob of people formed while Tenayuca was speaking publicly. Tenayuca escaped, but she became somewhat of a pariah in San Antonio, and was forced to leave town. She attended college even in the midst of poverty and continual threats against her.
She returned to San Antonio in the 1960’s with a new approach to social justice and empowering the immigrant community. She became a teacher, helping immigrant children learn to read English. Her nickname among those she served was “La Pasionaria.”
I first learned about Emma Tenayuca when I was doing research for a project about women’s equality in my 20’s. I was shocked that I had not heard of hear before, and disappointed that they did not talk about her when I was in school. Although her story is rather sad in parts, Tenayuca quickly became one of my heroes. I think everyone should know about her, and appreciate her for her efforts toward laborers’ rights.
You can read more about Tenayuca’s story here. It can be easy to forget that the rights we take for granted today, were at one time considered to be radical, and required radical acts of courage to bring about change.