Emma Tenayuca: La Pasionaria
Emma Tenayuca was just sixteen years old in 1932 when she joined a strike of women cigar makers. By 1937, when she was twenty-one Emma held a leadership role with the Workers Alliance of America, a group that sought to unite organizations of unemployed and industrial workers.
In January 1938, when pecan shellers in San Antonio walked out of their jobs, they looked to Emma for leadership. Their ranks swelled to between six and eight thousand strikers. Emma was arrested and released along with hundreds of others. Although she took a background role for the duration of the strike, she continued to write flyers and provide support behind the scenes.
Then a dispute over leadership arose between the Workers Alliance and the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). Emma’s communist affiliations were used to discredit her.
Emma was supposed to meet with Communist Party members in the municipal auditorium in 1939 when a riot broke out. A crowd stormed the building, smashing windows and attacking participants. Emma managed to escape, but she never again led a major labor protest. Employers blacklisted her. As a result, Emma was unable to find work in San Antonio.
She moved to California in 1946, where she earned a college degree and stayed for many years. Returning to San Antonio in the late 1960's, she was amazed to find herself hailed as "some sort of heroine." She earned a master's degree in education at Our Lady of the Lake University and taught in San Antonio public schools until retiring in 1982. She died of Alzheimer's disease in 1999. People still remember her as La Pasionaria for her fierce defense of the working poor.
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This Smithsonian Learning Lab collection received Federal support from the Asian Pacific American Initiatives Pool, administered by the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center.