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Sophie Gonzales

1920-1995

Leader of the Tex-Son Strike

Labor

THEME

Special thanks to Claudia Sánchez for writing this profile.


Sophie Gonzales, later to be known for her quick wit and charismatic leadership during the Tex-Son garment strike, was born on January 30,1920 in San Antonio, Texas to Feliciano and Maximiana (Reyes) Gonzales with one sister and two brothers. 

She grew up in a very small town just southwest of San Antonio on a ranch in Von Ormy, Texas. From her home she would travel and attend the schools in Somerset, a bigger city at the time that was on the outskirts of San Antonio. She attended high school up to the tenth grade and would participate in the school’s volleyball, track, and baseball teams. Little is known about the conditions of her upbringing in Von Ormy, but Sophie was ready to spring into the workforce after spending two more years in her hometown. Her older brother left and set toward San Antonio for work, and after her 18th birthday, she decided to join him and find work at a local sweater company. Once in San Antonio, her first-hand experience as a garment worker was beginning, and her ties to the Westside were getting established. She got married to her first husband George Edward Gray in 1941 at the age of 21 and had two sons with him: George, Jr. Gray and Daniel Gray. Daniel Gray would go on to serve in the Air Force. By 1945 the two would divorce, a few short years before Sophie’s work as a union leader.


Sophie spent the next three years, from 1946 to 1949, laboring in a sweater shipping company in San Antonio. Here she gained the majority of her work experience in the garment industry. Although young and new to the field, she began to learn the hardships and inequalities she and other garment workers were subjected to such as low wages and job insecurity due to company outsourcing.  Her older brother, who had been living and working in San Antonio for longer than her, was a part of the Amalgamated Butchers of America Union along with her other brother as well. In 1949, Sophie was offered a position as an organizer in the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union local chapter. Following her brother’s advice and personal experience in the industry, Sophie accepted the position as protest organizer and officially joined the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU). Thus, her journey and legacy as the first Mexican- American woman hired by the ILGWU began.


Sophie was unlike others who had the role before her. She had ten years of experience in the industry, and Sophie had an advantage that other Anglo organizers before her did not have. She was a Mexican- American woman who spoke Spanish fluently and was one with the community she was organizing. Her experience in the industry allowed her to make connections and friendships that would aid her in acquiring the position and becoming a successful leader. The previous ILGWU organizers were only White males who did not speak Spanish and could not properly connect with the Westside community of San Antonio. In the 1930’s the ILGWU had attempted to address this problem by sending White females who spoke Spanish to lead the organization. However, the relationship between these White organizers and Mexicana union members continued to be strained. This was exemplified by previous ILGWU organizer Rebecca Taylor who expressed her struggle to recruit and keep her Mexicana members due to the cultural differences and barriers between the two groups. Sophie was different from her Anglo predecessors. However, along with the positives of being the first Latina organizer she also had to tackle the difficulties her gender and race would play in her position. These would be shown in the Tex-Son garment workers strike of February 1959-1963; one of the first strikes in which Sophie held a significant leadership role. Tex-Son was a garment manufacturing company that sold children’s apparel in San Antonio, and their workforce was predominantly Hispanic women. The ILGWU local chapter 180 would form to protest against Tex-Son for better wages, an end to outsourcing, and increased job security for its workers.


In February 1959, less than one month into the strike against the Tex-Son Garment Manufacturing Company, Sophie was making headlines in the San Antonio Express as the leadorganizer of the strike. “Started As a Sweater Girl: S.A. Strikers Take Cues From Sophie, Organized Organizer,” read the article as reporter Marco Gilliam praised Sophie for her feminine and charismatic leadership style. Maintaining a physical appearance that was considered ladylike in the 1950’s atmosphere was of utmost importance for Sophie. As a Mexican American woman, the notion that she was “unladylike” because of her heritage was not a new tool others tried to use against her. Photos taken of the women after violent confrontations from police showcased the women with hair rustled and bare legs in order to paint the strikers as ‘promiscuous.' Sophie didn’t let critics use this tool to discredit the movement. Historian Lori A. Flores states: “Gonzales led the Tex-Son picket line every day in high heels, a conservative blouse, and a fashionably long skirt, modeling common understandings of proper 1950s womanhood for the press, police, and San Antonio public.” Due to this Sophie became a favorite of the press and her ability to make connections garnered a lot of attention to the movement. Her strikers followed suit and utilized the physical appearance of femininity as a weapon to discredit those who accused them of being violent and “unladylike” due to their ethnicity.

"No tengas miedo-- don't be afraid."

--Sophie Gonzales

 

"That trouble yesterday was started by the 'scabs.' My strikers acted only in self-defense. Sure we're mad today. Wouldn't you be if those people were screaming and cursing at you?"

--Sophie Gonzales

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San Antonio garment workers in jail during 1936 general strike
San Antonio garment workers in jail during 1936 general strike

(Photo courtesy of University of Texas at Arlington Libraries, Special Collections)

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Two women on strike against Tex-Son.
Two women on strike against Tex-Son.

(Photo courtesy of University of Texas at Arlington Libraries, Special Collections)

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Picket line in Nuevo Laredo supporting the Tex-Son strike in San Antonio of the ILGWU [Sophie Gonzales is 4th from right].
Picket line in Nuevo Laredo supporting the Tex-Son strike in San Antonio of the ILGWU [Sophie Gonzales is 4th from right].

(Photo courtesy of University of Texas at Arlington Libraries, Special Collections)

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San Antonio garment workers in jail during 1936 general strike
San Antonio garment workers in jail during 1936 general strike

(Photo courtesy of University of Texas at Arlington Libraries, Special Collections)

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