Emma Tenayuca was a Mexican American labor leader, union organizer and educator. Born in South Texas, Tenayuca was raised surrounded by working class people of color. The Depression was a harsh reality for her family, and one that opened her eyes to the struggles of those around her. In high school, her passion for a social change was already evident through her activism with labor workers in her city. She was arrested for the first time at the age of 16 while picketing with a group of striking workers from the Finck Cigar Company.
Later, she organized large-scale thousand-person strikes, once against the beating of Mexican immigrants by members of the United States border patrol, another time to rally laborers at a pecan shelling company against a wage reduction. There, the protesting Mexicanxs* and Chicanxs* were gassed and arrested.
Tenayuca founded two garment factory workers unions and became involved Worker’s Alliance of America and the Woman’s League for Peace and Freedom. She joined the Communist Party in 1936 because it advocated for her belief in minority rights.
Tenayuca ultimately achieved a college degree and began teaching in San Antonio, spreading her first-hand knowledge of the people’s struggle to her students.
In 1999, Tenayuca died from Alzheimer’s disease. The South Texas Civil Rights Project dedicates an annual award in her name to individuals doing work to protect and further civil rights.
* As a literary form of personal resistance to the patriarchal system, Mexicanx and Chicanx are spelled with a non-traditional ‘X’ in place of an ‘O’ or ‘A’. This decision is conscious and informed by moral obligation. It is not an error.