5 lessons Emma Tenayuca’s activism can teach us about standing by our ethics today

Emma Tenayuca was a Texas labor organizer who was born on Dec. 21, 1921, in San Antonio. Her ancestors had lived on the land that would come to be known as San Antonio since 1685. 249 years later, Tenayuca graduated from Brackenridge High School in 1934. This was during the Great Depression era and when Jim Crow laws were enforced with a heavy hand. The Ku Klux Klan had a strong presence, and labor protections were practically nonexistent.

Mexican and Mexican-American workers were developing an organized class-consciousness. Although many Mexican-Americans assimilated well, especially those who were of Spanish descent, had wealth, or married Anglo, there were many more people worked intensive labor jobs that paid poverty wages, if they were paid at all.

Tenayuca is most well-known as the leader of the Pecan Sheller’s Strike of 1938. The strike was held by 12,000 shellers, mostly women of Mexican descent, who walked off their jobs and striked for three months in protest of a pay cut. The strike was a result of four intensive years of organizing on Tenayuca’s part. Other strikes she organized with cement, laundry, and garment workers had been broken. Still, she was a relentless organizer whose politicization is traceable through the groups she joined and formed throughout her life.

Tenayuca was not fond of the media attention she received for her labor activism in 1930s San Antonio. A decade prior to her death in 1999, Tenayuca recalled she’d had more publicity than she actually cared for. She never saved any newspaper clippings from the tumultuous Depression Era; she was too busy organizing strikes, knocking door to door, reading leftist literature, and getting arrested. Her combative spirit may be encapsulated by the words of a nun from her former church: “I have to read the paper, Emma, in order to find out whether you’re in jail or not.”

Emma Tenayuca’s story, the ideologies, and actions with which she fought systemic oppression in Texas can teach us about our own ethical stances today. Further, the parallels between Depression-era racism and xenophobia under the Roosevelt administration juxtaposed with the Trump administration can be teased out and inspected. Here, five lessons found in these parallels are highlighted.

One of numerous murals depicting Emma Tenayuca in San Antonio, Texas. Painted in 2006 by Valerie Aranda. Tenayuca’s face is the largest in the mural/Urban Spotlight

1. Activist organizations always have room to grow.

As a high schooler, Tenayuca joined an auxiliary group of civil rights organization League of Latin American Citizens (LULAC). At the time, LULAC did not accept women as full members. Nor did they extend full membership to undocumented Mexican people. In 1933, at only 17 years old, Tenayuca decided to disengage with the civil rights group, finding these two exclusions unacceptable.

On Saturday afternoons in 1930s San Antonio, La Plaza del Zacate was overflowing with activists sharing their doctrine, but today, large non-profits are often the first place people look to for examples to model their activism after.

While the non-profit industry has mission statements intending to effect social change, organizations often perpetuate the status quo. It is prudent of members, new or veteran, when they challenge outdated or harmful practices. Non-profits must evolve within their changing society to have authentic outcomes. This has looked like adopting a new values system, changing the framework within which goals are achieved, or a shift in leadership, to name a few possibilities.

2. Religious institutions can be apolitical to a fault.

There is undoubtedly value in faith-based moral objection to systemic oppression. However, the unifying messages of religion have historically been as much a source of inspiration as complacency. As a teen coming of age during the Great Depression, Tenayuca was disillusioned by the Catholic Church’s political apathy. The fragile standing of San Antonio’s Mexican-American middle class leaned heavily on this Catholic indifference for its claim to civility and separation from undocumented communities. Predictably, the local Catholic Church condemned labor activism.

Today, while it is important for churches to condemn the inhumane treatment of refugees and provide humanitarian aid, no religious institution should monopolize these efforts. Attempts to benevolently politicize religious doctrine must be treated delicately. As in the cases of abortion and marriage equality, religious politics may actually foster oppression. Although some churches in the Rio Grande Valley have taken a stance against the cruelty, one “pro-life” Baptist pastor from McAllen actually praised the separation of families as God’s will.

Emma Tenayuca in jail cell, San Antonio, Texas, 1938. Source: Dolph Briscoe Center for American History

3. Don’t discount radical change as extreme.

Emma Tenayuca was a respected labor leader in the San Antonio community, having organized for years before she mobilized the striking pecan shellers in 1938. However, because she had joined the Texas Communist Party, Tenayuca was urged to step down, and she did. When asked if she felt treated unfairly, she responded selflessly, stating, “We were very careful in those days,” likely referring to the fact that it had only been 15 years since the Red Scare. She didn’t want to jeopardize support for the strike.

Today, ideologies that foster vocal objections to abhorrent human rights violations are still regarded as extreme. Tenayuca can speak to the cost of maintaining one’s ethics immovably. She was blacklisted from gaining employment in San Antonio, even by the very unions she organized with. So, she left. “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,” she said. And indeed she is.

Mexican woman and children at filling station in Neches, Texas, traveling after being deported, 1939/Russell Lee, Library of Congress

4. Laws do not always bring justice.

Forcing workers to perform duties in disgraceful conditions was not illegal in the 1930s. The enslavement and genocide of Black and Indigenous people in order to build the United States was also not illegal. Nor were boarding schools for Indigenous children or Jim Crow laws. Elsewhere in the world, apartheid and the Holocaust existed as lawful policies.

Today, laws still protect harmful acts such as the global depletion of protected Native land, of natural resources, unrestrained pollution in poor communities of color, and the separation of refugee children from their parents, to name a few. There are massacres, genocides, and occupations being enacted around the world every day that are protected by law. While many groups are working hard to end current human trafficking and slavery, these awful crimes flourish because groups like immigrants, children, and poor people of color, lack the protections that these atrocious acts have.

Relief lines in San Antonio during the Great Depression/Wikimedia Commons

5. Racism and xenophobia persist regardless of citizenship.

Though Mexican “repatriation” had been happening since 1915, when Texas Rangers terrorized communities in response to the Plan De San Diego, Tenayuca’s activism occurred during the time when Mexican and Mexican-American workers were the first to be laid off in a collapsed agricultural economy.

The forced deportations started in 1929 and affected an estimated 500,000 laborers, 60 percent of whom were US citizens. The deportations were facilitated by partnerships between local, state, and federal government and affected the Rio Grande Valley, only hours south of Tenayuca, so intensely that few Mexicans remained in the area by 1931.

Today, a glaring example of cross-agency cooperation in efforts to increase deportations is Secure Communities, a program created by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Re-implemented in 2017, Secure Communities uses an excessively broad definition of what constitutes as a crime to locate undocumented people in custody with the intention to deport. During its first run, roughly 90 percent of deportations were of people who committed low-level crimes, a trend that has peaked in 2017, though the program is billed as a tool to remove those most dangerous to society. Further, a 2011 study reported 1.6 percent of those detained using Secure Communities data were actually US Citizens.

Emma Tenayuca may have been surprised by the accolades she garnered later in life, especially since her work was so often denounced when it was actually happening. However, it is clear the ferocity and intellect with which she stood her ground still speaks to those looking for a sign that they are on the right side of history today.