San Antonio native Emma Tenayuca was a pioneering activist involved with issues that resemble those of modern times: disparity of rich and poor, and substandard wages and working conditions of laborers and migrant workers.
In her formative years Tenayuca followed election politics of the U.S. and Mexico. She became a labor activist before graduating from high school. She was arrested at age 16 when she joined the picket line of workers on strike against the Finck Cigar Company of San Antonio in 1933.
Influenced by the causes of the Mexican Revolution, and Texas gubernatorial candidate Ma Ferguson’s position against the Ku Klux Klan, Tenayuca’s work for labor issues and civil rights predated Cesar Chavez and the Civil Rights movement. She founded two International Ladies’ Garment Workers Unions, and organized strikes against San Antonio’s large pecan shelling industry.
Tenayuca worked as an organizer and activist for the Workers Alliance of America and Women’s League for Peace and Freedom. She lobbied the mayor of San Antonio to improve relief distribution for unemployed workers during the Great Depression.
When 12,000 pecan shellers marched out of the factories in 1938, she was unanimously elected strike leader. Tenayuca explained in an oral history interview,
What started out as a movement for organization for equal wages turned into a mass movement against starvation, for civil rights, for a minimum wage law, and it changed the character of West Side San Antonio.
Tenayuca was a passionate advocate for free speech and workers’ rights, and a critic of many government policies. She was a dedicated student of political issues and processes. She expressed her belief in greater economic equality for citizens over expensive government relief programs.