Social justice, labor and education activist
Emma Beatrice Tenayuca, “La Pasionaria,” was born in San Antonio on December 21, 1916, the oldest daughter of Sam Tenayuca and Benita Hernández Zepeda. Her activism for labor and civil rights was influenced by the moral lessons she learned from her grandfather, the fiery speakers on San Antonio’s Plaza del Zacate, and Catholic social justice principles. She was a vital part of the labor movement in Texas during the 1930s and a leading member of the Workers Alliance of America and Communist Party of Texas. She is best remembered for her role in organizing the largest strike in San Antonio history, the Pecan Shellers Strike of 1938. She was called “La Pasionaria” for all of her work on behalf of the San Antonio’s working poor.
Tenayuca was born into a large, blue-collar family on San Antonio’s south side, but moved to the Westside as a child to live with her grandparents. Her family had Spanish and indigenous roots in Mexico and Texas that could be traced back to the eighteenth century settlement at Los Adaes, which had served as the official capital of the Spanish province of Tejas in the mid-eighteenth century. She learned about Mexican politics from her grandfather, Francisco Zepeda. They went to hear speakers who gathered at the local Plaza del Zacate on Sundays. Walking around the plaza one could watch labor contractors seeking workers for the beet fields. On another corner someone was preaching, and on another part of the plaza you could hear a person reading from La Prensa aloud, with the latest news from Mexico. This was where Tenayuca first heard la cancion de los Magonistas, people who shared the ideas of the Flores Magón brothers, those who inspired the Mexican Revolution.
Tenayuca attended Brackenridge High School where she excelled in debate, baseball and basketball. She joined a ladies’ auxiliary of the League of United Latin American Citizens, but left the organization in 1933 because it excluded foreign-born Mexicans and did not yet allow women to participate as full members. Her labor activism also began that year, when she joined a group of women striking against the H.W. Finck Cigar Company of San Antonio. Her subsequent arrest and the mistreatment of workers she witnessed at the hands of local law enforcement strengthened her resolve to work in the labor movement.
After graduating from high school in 1934, Tenayuca worked as an elevator operator at the Gunter Hotel, where she began organizing workers alongside Mrs. W. H. Ernst, the leader of the Finck Cigar strike. From 1934 to 1935 Tenayuca played a prominent role in the formation of two locals for the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU). However, she felt that ILGWU leadership did not understand the needs of the Mexican American community. As a result, Tenayuca began working with the Unemployed Council, which later merged with other leftist organizations to form the Workers Alliance of America.