Manuela Solís Sager
Labor organizer and social justice activist
Manuela Solís Sager was a labor activist who organized workers throughout South Texas. She was a leader in the historic Pecan Shellers Strike of 1938, and helped establish the South Texas Agricultural Workers Union.
She was born Manuela de Barrera Solís In San José, Webb County, Texas, on April 29, 1911, to Joaquín and Angela (Barrera) Solís. Her parents were from Hidalgo, Coahuila, Mexico. Her paternal grandmother would make tobacco cigarettes to support her family, and as a young child her father and his siblings would sell them to the miners. Her father came to the United States when he was six years old. At twelve years, he had to work in the Dolores mines near Laredo, Texas. Her mother was an orphan and was teaching in Mexico when she was a teenager. When the mines closed, Manuela joined her family picking cotton and other crops. When Manuela was thirteen, her mother died in the fields, giving birth to a son. She died in Manuela’s arms.
Manuela was the oldest of seven children. Her family was devoutly Catholic, and she would participate in the pastorelas and was an Hija de María. Her father organized workers to help build their parish church Manuela became disillusioned with the church, though, when one of her parish priests wouldn’t support a childhood friend who was suffering from tuberculosis, and she learned about the way that the church had persecuted indigenous peoples during the Spanish conquest. Later in her life she would reconnect with the church as she witnessed how various nuns and priests became active in social justice movements in both the United States and Latin America.
She began labor organizing in her teens. At the time cotton pickers were paid 25 cents per hundred pounds; the grower wanted to cut that to 12 cents. Manuela talked with the other workers and told them they shouldn’t accept this cut; they staged a strike, sitting down in the fields. The grower raised the rate to 35 cents. She helped her father organize onion workers and worked to support the Roosevelt campaign. In the early 1930s she organized the local International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union and advocated for safe working conditions, better pay and racial justice. In 1934 she was offered a year-long scholarship from Asociación de Jornaleros to study at La Universidad Obrera in Mexico City, a highly respected leftist labor school. After she returned in 1935, she helped organize an onion workers strike. On April 10, 2000, workers joined the strike.
By that time she had begun dating labor activist James Sager, called “Jaime,” who had worked with banana strikers in Central America and in Puerto Rico and Colombia. They were both members of the Communist Party, and they married in 1936. They worked with other labor activists to consolidate a statewide Mexican labor movement. In 1935 they held a conference in Corpus Christi, with delegates representing labor unions and other community organizations across the state, and established the South Texas Agricultural Workers’ Union. She traveled around Texas organizing other unions. In the Río Grande Valley she faced the greatest challenges from anti-Mexican, anti-union work bosses, business owners and law enforcement. Her husband was refused office space in a Harlingen hotel (even though they had already paid six months in advance) when they saw that Manuela was of Mexican descent. She threatened to sue the hotel and said that if she ever built a hotel she would put a sign saying “dogs and Anglos not permitted.” Police also raided another office and destroyed their property. In spite of these challenges they managed to organize several unions with a combined membership of over 1000 field and packing shed workers.