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These Latinas Were Pioneers for Workers’ Rights in the U.S. Here Are 2 You Should Have Learned About in School

6 minute read

When news outlets projected Joe Biden would win Arizona’s 11 electoral votes in the 2020 Presidential election, people were quick to thank Cindy McCain, the widow of the late U.S. Sen. John McCain, who endorsed the former Vice President.

However, activists quickly pointed out that Latina grassroots organizers deserve credit for Biden’s win. They knocked on doors overlooked by party officials, helped Latino households register to vote and hosted community meetings. Led in part by Alejandra Gomez, they were continuing a decade-long effort that, in partnership with labor movement organizers like Neidi Dominguez, ousted Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio in 2016 after a 24-year tenure known for raiding neighborhoods and workplaces for illegal immigrants.

And yet, the history of Latina organizers mobilizing their communities is even longer. American history education tends to describe the Latino population as a monolith, but they have long played a key role in advancing the causes of fairer wages and humane working conditions that has benefited people from all racial and ethnic groups.

Discussion of the labor movement in textbooks has historically focused on the white union leaders and white immigrants. If any Latino individuals are spotlighted, the farm worker organizers of the 1960s like Cesar Chavez are the ones most often acknowledged. Other than a brief mention of Dolores Huerta, textbooks historically haven’t spotlighted the roles of other Latina women in the U.S. labor movement. For example, less attention is paid to Cesar’s wife Helen Chavez, whose critical work behind the scenes helped pave a way for Mexican American economic upward mobility.

But Latinas were active in the labor movement nearly three decades earlier, and that work is not taught as often in schools. In the above video, historians Sandra I. Enríquez, an Assistant Professor of History at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, and Lindsey Passenger Wieck, an Assistant Professor of History at St. Mary’s University in San Antonio, Texas, spotlight two Latina activists to know about.

For example, Emma Tenayuca, an organizer in San Antonio, Texas, in the 1930s and 1940s, had her political awakening in high school during the Great Depression. Back then, many Mexican and Mexican American workers, who had fled to San Antonio after the Mexican Revolution of the 1910s, were excluded from the New Deal’s jobs and housing programs. A reduced need for agricultural workers during the Great Depression, combined with fears that they were stealing U.S. jobs, led to a massive deportation of Mexican and Mexican-American workers. Tenayuca organized protests against the abuses that Mexican immigrants were facing at the hands of the border patrol. Her demonstrations landed her in jail countless times, earning the nickname “La Pasionaria de Texas” or “The Passionate One.”

On January 31, 1938, nearly 12,000 pecan shellers in San Antonio walked off the job to protest inhumane working conditions and wage cuts. They unanimously elected Tenayuca as the leader of what became one of the biggest labor strikes in U.S. history. In San Antonio, a center for pecan shelling, workers at around 150 factories were known for shelling 21 million pounds of pecans a year, but only earned between 30 cents and $1.50 a day. Strikers withstood tear gas and billy clubs for about six weeks, and TIME ran a photo of 21-year-old Tenayuca, describing her as at “the forefront of most of its civil commotions.” The workers got a wage increase after the strike, but mechanization of the process ended up eliminating many laborers’ jobs.

Historians say Tenayuca’s resilience and the impact she had at such a young age, provide a teachable moment for young people looking to find a way to make a difference in their communities. Often students of color “never see themselves reflected in history books,” says Enríquez. “Learning the history of Emma Tenayuca provides a window to see this is what the power of the youth can do.”

The same year that Emma Tenayuca was organizing pecan shellers in 1938, Luisa Moreno helped found the National Congress of Spanish-Speaking Peoples, which fought for fair treatment of Latino laborers and against segregation in public places, schools and housing. Moreno, a journalist and activist who went advocating for women to be admitted to the country’s universities in her native Guatemala, to criss-crossing the U.S. organizing all kinds of workers, such as garment district workers in New York City, cane workers in New Orleans, tuna packing workers in San Diego, and cigar rollers in Florida. In each city, she built multiracial coalitions to build solidarity among workers, informed them of their rights and how to call out injustices. She became an international representative of the United Cannery Agricultural Packing and Allied Workers of America, the first CIO local where Mexican women made up a majority of membership, and she was one of the first Latina American Federation of Labor organizers. Her 1940 speech, known as the Caravans of Sorrow speech, is still relevant today.

These people are not aliens,” Moreno said in the speech. “They have contributed their endurance, sacrifices, youth, and labor to the Southwest. Indirectly, they have paid more taxes than all the stockholders of California’s industrialized agriculture, the sugar beet companies and the large cotton interests that operate or have operated with the labor of Mexican workers.”

As Wieck explains Moreno’s significance, “We think of the Latino labor movement as really starting to catalyze [later in the 20th Century] with the United Farmworkers, but she’s out there doing this work twenty years earlier, which helped pave the way for these movements that came later.”

One reason Latina labor organizers haven’t been widely mentioned in history textbooks is because of mid-20th century red-baiting, a national effort to label minority groups as Communist and therefore anti-American. In that 1938 TIME article, the magazine called Tenayuca, “a slim, vivacious labor organizer with black eyes and a Red philosophy.” Moreno faced deportation in the 1940s because she had been a member of the Communist party at one point. But as she said at a Naturalization Services hearing, “They can talk about deporting me…but they can never deport the people that I’ve worked with and with whom things were accomplished for the benefit of hundreds of thousands of workers.” She left the country voluntarily in 1950.

The ideas and values that Moreno and Tenayuca championed are being carried on by today’s labor organizers fighting for farmworkers‘ rights, immigration rights, a higher minimum wage and the rights of the predominantly Latino workers on the frontlines of the COVID-19 pandemic. As awareness grows of Latinas in labor movement history, the more all Americans will be able to better understand where the growing Latino political power is coming from in the U.S. It’s especially important at a time when Latino voters were already projected to make-up the largest nonwhite voting bloc in the 2020 presidential election. The Hispanic population hit a record 60.6 million in the U.S. in 2019, and Latinos are the second-largest racial group in the U.S. after white non-Hispanics.More than ever, it’s important to learn the history of their contributions to America.

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Write to Olivia B. Waxman at olivia.waxman@time.com and Video by Arpita Aneja at arpita.aneja@time.com