Emma Tenayuca-“La Pasionaria”

In lieu of our normal Intro to Public History class, we visited the Rinconcito de Esperanza, which translates to Little Corner of Hope. The Rinconsito de Esperanza is a cultural hub dedicated to documenting the history of Westside San Antonio.

On this trip I learned about a prominent Mexican American historical figure, Emma  Tenayuca. Emma was born on December 21, 1916, in the Westside of San Antonio, Texas. Emma had ten siblings and lived with her grandparents. Throughout her life, Emma witnessed the poverty and misery that plagued the Mexican American people in her community. This empathy for others and drive for equality strengthened Emma into a courageous and passionate young woman, later earning her the nickname “La Pasionaria”. At a very early age, Tenayuca joined in the Labor Movement to combat social injustices. At the age of 16, Emma joined a picket line against the Finck Cigar Company, where she was arrested for her involvement.  

Emma Tenayuca, American Labor Leader | Photo Courtesy of The San Antonio Light Collection, The Institute of Texan Cultures at UTSA
Pecan-Shellers’ Strike 

In 1938 at only 21 years old, a courageous Emma lead the historic Pecan Shellers’ Strike.  The wages for pecan shellers had dropped to a measly three cents an hour. Owners were getting richer and richer, while only working one or two hours a day. Meanwhile, the pecan shellers, mostly made up of Mexican American women, worked from dawn until dusk and still did not earn enough to feed their families. Workers faced deplorable wages and unsafe working conditions. The inadequate ventilation and fine dust from the pecans contributed to a higher tuberculosis rate in San Antonio. Emblazoned by the sheer injustice, Emma mobilized 10,000 pecan shellers to go on a strike of 400 factories for nearly two months. With nearly empty factories, the owners lost a lot of money for the duration of the strike. Throughout this time, Emma was threatened and thrown in jail repeatedly but persevered. Ultimately, the owners were forced to raise the worker’s pay. Unfortunately, the factories mechanized their operations, which led to thousands of layoffs. 

Emma Tenayuca, leader of the Pecan-Shellers’ Strike of 1938 | Photo Courtesy of The Institute of Texan Cultures

The strike was documented in newspapers nationwide. It was a small victory but it gave the community hope and was a step forward in the struggle for equality. It showed that one person, no matter how small, can make a difference. Being a Mexican American resident of San Antonio, I gravitated to Emma’s story. Emma Tenayuca led a spirited movement utilizing her tenacity and dedication to justice. Following the Pecan-Shellers’ strike, many San Antonio residents ostracized Emma because of her controversial political ties to communism. Angry protesters sent numerous death threats and eventually forced Emma to flee San Antonio in fear for her safety.

Over 20 years after the Pecan Shellers’ Strike, Emma returned to San Antonio to get her Masters Degree in Education from Our Lady of the Lake University. Emma then taught bilingual education, and devoted herself to teaching children of migrant workers how to read. She continued to empower others until her death in 1999. This last part of her story is especially compelling for me because Emma dedicated the latter half of her life to education. It feels me with hope to think that I too can make a lasting difference.

How Emma’s Story Lives On

Although Tenayuca’s life was fraught with controversy, she has come to be known as a pioneering Hispanic heroine in San Antonio. Beginning in the 1970s during the Chicano Movement, scholarly organizations such as the National Association for Chicano and Chicana Studies recognized Emma for her civil rights activism. In 1991 Emma was inducted into the San Antonio Women’s Hall of Fame. In 2008, Carmen Tafolla and Sharyll Teneyuca, Emma’s niece, wrote a children’s book illustrating the life and trailblazing spirit of this San Antonio heroine. The book, titled That’s Not Fair! / ¡No Es Justo! is a wonderful legacy for a powerful Mexican American figure.

Most recently, Emma Tenayuca was remembered with an ofrenda dedicated to her memory displayed at the 2018 Dia de los Muertos celebration at the Pearl Market in San Antonio.

Emma Tenayuca ofrenda at the Pearl Market Dia de los Muertos celebration

Emma Tenayuca left a legacy of social change and an inspiring commitment to justice. Let’s honor her memory by continuing her fight for social equity.

6 Replies to “Emma Tenayuca-“La Pasionaria””

  1. I think her story is really amazing too, and I found it a true shame that her political leanings were what held her back from being a truly recognizable figure across the country. Her story is truly exceptional!

  2. She is an example that should be praised in schools across the country, but unfortunately wearing the communist label gets you banned from the text books. It took a lot of courage to stand up and fight like she did. If everyone followed her example the world would be a much better place all around.

  3. Sara,
    Thank you for sharing Emma’s story. While I had known about her, I didn’t know the details that you shared in your post. Seeing the silent video of pecan shellers led me to wonder how they thought about their life and the future generations to come.
    After discussing this post with some family it turns out that my wife’s grandmothers house was built on what was a pecan orchard at the time of the strike. I’ll never look at the pecan tree in the backyard the same way again.

  4. It is an absolute tragedy that stuff like this event occurred back then but to think now with organizations that we purchase everything from shoes to food from, there is still that sense of unfair wages and options for the workers. It is definitely something that still has work to be done. I hope that working with Graciela further can reveal some of these individuals that were a part of injustices like this.

  5. Such an inspiring story Sara. Much of the work she did is still making a huge impact even today. In fact I saw a story about her in todays News paper 8/30/18. If you happen to get the news paper maybe that could be an add on to this blog. Ill save it for you, just remind me. The story of the pecan shellers in SA is a really interesting one which interfuses Joe Freeman (Freeman Colosseum), the shellers, and the labor movement. Its all tied in together really but its interesting how Freeman was involved.


  6. I love that Ms. Ramirez told you a little bit of her life after the momentous strike. Every time I hear this story I am always told about her life all the way to the end of the strike. I never hear of her life after, as if her life after the strike did not matter as much. She truly is an inspiration for coming back to San Antonio, facing her demons and furthering her education. The fact that she felt her calling was to quietly help children and not be in the spotlight is a very selfless thing to do. She could have gone on to work with major activists but decided her time was best spent helping others one at a time.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *