• U.S.

LABOR: La Pasionaria de Texas

3 minute read

Everyone in San Antonio knows about little Emma Tenayuca, a slim, vivacious labor organizer with black eyes and a Red philosophy. She first shone in her native city a year ago during a garment strike, has been at the forefront of most of its civil commotions since. With San Antonio’s police chief, she carries on a feud which has landed her in jail on countless occasions. Among the Spanish-speaking San Antonio proletariat, she is known as “La Pasionaria de Texas.” Since her husband, Homer Brooks, former Communist nominee for Governor of Texas, lives in Houston, their marital life is confined to irregular weekends, but Emma Tenayuca declares pertly: “I love my husband and am a good cook.”

Last week La Pasionaria de Texas was up to her small ears in a pecan pickers’ strike. In a good year San Antonio’s 147 pecan shelleries shell 21,000,000 lb. of pecans.* No successful machine has ever been invented to pick pecan meat from pecan shells and the “world’s largest pecan shelling centre” depends upon the family labor of Mexicans and Tex-Mexes (U. S.-born Mexicans). Wages were recently cut from (7¢ per lb. to 6¢ for halves, from 6¢ to 5¢ for broken pieces —which means that a pecan picker can earn from 30¢ to $1.50 per day. Everyone, including the owners of the shelleries, agree that these are miserable wages but the industry claims that it can pay no more, that pecan picking is a pin-money job.

The pecan pickers took their troubles to Juan Lopez, a naturalized Mexican priest, with strong C. I. O. sympathies. With Father Lopez” approval the International Pecan Shellers Union (a San Antonio local of C. I. O. Cannery Workers) called a mass meeting to plan a strike. Into the meeting to steal the show completely marched Emma Tenayuca. La Pasionaria’s Communism was too much for Father Lopez, and he retired from active direction. Not more than 1,000 of 11,000 workers, struck. Soon pickets were parading with signs reading, “El Padre Lopez es un mat Católico. C. I. O.”

La Pasionaria then retired from active direction, leaving the field to President Donald Henderson of the C. I. O. Cannery Workers, who flew from Washington to take charge. For by this time it was apparent that the piddling pecan strike would probably turn out to be a C. I. O. showdown in Texas, where John L. Lewis has yet to make much headway.

From her office at the local Workers Alliance, Emma Tenayuca continued to pull strings with the assistance of her “gang,” some 300 devoted followers whom she deploys with a masterly hand in picket line or mass meeting. But by week’s end the strike had gone into the legal trenches with hearings, investigations, applications for injunctions and loud demands to the Governor for Texas Rangers to enforce civil liberties in San Antonio.

* Of which John Nance Garner’s five acres of Texas pecan trees produced 3,000 lb. that were sold at an average of 25¢ per lb.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com