Eighty-four years ago this week, this Mexican American labor organizer led one of the largest strikes in Texas history—and was arrested and blacklisted for her trouble.
By Kim Kelly, February 1, 2022
Some knew her as la Pasionaria de Texas—the Texas Passionflower. Others called her Red Emma. But most of the people she fought alongside just called her “comrade.” Emma Tenayuca was born in San Antonio, Texas, in 1916 to parents of Spanish and Comanche descent, and spent her childhood learning about Mexican identity, the evils of Jim Crow, and revolution from her grandfather. Emma was also constantly running off to Plaza del Zacate in San Antonio’s Milam Park to listen to anarchists and activists speak about politics and workers’ rights from their soapboxes. Her first experience on the picket line came when she was only 16. In 1933, she joined a group of Mexican women workers from the H.W. Finck Cigar Company, who were out on a wildcat strike over low wages and unsanitary working conditions. The teenager was horrified to witness the violent police response to the strike, and was arrested herself. That early baptism into the labor struggle convinced the young Tejana that she’d found her place—and her purpose.
“She was really kind of written out of history,” her niece, San Antonio attorney Sharyll Teneyuca, said during a gathering commemorating the strike’s 84th anniversary. Texas Poet Laureate Carmen Tafolla also spoke, and the two women are currently working on a biography documenting Tenayuca’s life. She has suffered the same fate that has befallen so many other communist, anarchist, or otherwise “red” labor organizers like Ah Quon McElrath, Silme Domingo, Glen Viernes, and Marie Equi: consigned to obscurity for being “too radical,” too red, too Asian or Latina or queer or female or some combination thereof. During her lifetime, Tenayuca was smeared, threatened, and blacklisted, forced to leave her own hometown for decades after anti-communist threats made it impossible for her to find work or safety. Those who opposed her views on working-class liberation hated and feared her. Of course, they tried to silence her. Unfortunately for them, there are people who remember Emma Tenayuca’s life of militancy, mutual aid, and multiracial, multi-gender solidarity, and many more who are waiting to discover someone just like her.
As a bright, curious student who had become fluent in the language of racial and economic justice at an early age, Tenayuca gravitated toward other young radicals, and devoured every book she could on anarchism, Marxism, feminism, and the Industrial Workers of the World. Between 1934 and 1935, she helped organize two locals of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union, but butted heads with union leadership, who she felt didn’t understand the unique needs and culture of the Mexican American community. In 1935, she joined the Young Communist League, and started organizing Mexican workers into Unemployed Councils, which were part of a broader Depression-era Communist Party program to radicalize and mobilize the unemployed. She was involved in community organizing, as well, and helped build ties between unions and Spanish-speaking workers. Though Tenayuca initially found herself drawn to anarchism, she turned to the Communist Party for its professed anti-racist, anti-sexist principles, an appreciation for the successes of the Mexican Community Party, and the potential she saw within it as a means to organize the working class on a mass scale. “Communists were at the forefront of the struggle,” she later wrote, and that’s exactly where Tenayuca wanted to be.