Emma Tenayuca

Emma Tenayuca

Emma Tenayuca was born in San Antonio, Texas on December 21, 1916. Emma lived with her grandparents to ease the burden on her family of eleven children. She attended Brackenridge high school, and after graduating in 1934, obtained a job as an elevator operator.

Emma's first knowledge of the struggles of working people came from visits as a young child to the Plaza del Zacate, a place where socialists and anarchists would come to speak and work with families with grievances.

Emma joined the labor movement when she was 16 and read about strikes at the Finck Cigar Company. She joined the picket line, and was arrested. By 1937 Emma had become general secretary for ten chapters of the Workers Alliance in San Antonio.

During the Depression most of the pecan shelling for the nation was done in San Antonio. Although the pecan industry had been formerly mechanized, hand labor became cheaper during this time period. Workers were paid about six cents per pound of pecans.

Tuberculosis rates were high in San Antonio because of the fine dust in the air from the pecans. There were other dangers in the work, and adequate rest room and cleaning facilities were few. When in January of 1938 the wages for pecan shellers were cut in half, about 12,000 workers decided to strike. Emma was asked to be the strike representative.

The strike lasted for several months. From six to eight thousand workers, mostly women, joined the strike. Intimidation was used to keep other workers from joining in the work stoppage. Strikers were tear gassed several times, and police were deployed to prevent the strike from being effective. On August 25th, 1939, Emma Tenayuca was scheduled to speak at a small meeting of the Communist Party at the Municipal Auditorium. Mayor Maury Maverick had granted the auditorium meeting permit.

As Emma tried to hold the meeting, an estimated 5,000 people stormed the auditorium, "huntin' Communists." Men, bricks, and rocks were trucked in for the attack, and several people were hurt. Police managed to get Emma to safety, but she was hounded by death threats long after the riot.

After being forced to leave San Antonio because of being blacklisted after the municipal auditorium riot she moved to San Francisco. She obtained teacher certification in 1952. After returning to San Antonio in the late 1960's she taught reading in the Harlandale school district for many years. Emma earned a master's degree in education from Our Lady of the Lake University in 1974 She retired in 1982. Emma Tenayuca died July 23, 1999.

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