Emma Tenayuca Biography

(d. 1999)
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Emma Tenayuca was an organizer and activist who fought for civil and labor rights for Mexican and Mexican American workers in San Antonio, Texas, in the 1930s.

Who Was Emma Tenayuca?

As a young woman, Emma Tenayuca advocated for civil and labor rights for Mexican and Mexican American workers who had little political and economic power. She was arrested for the first time at a strike when she was 16. In 1938, she became a lead organizer during a strike by pecan shellers, the largest such action in the history of her hometown of San Antonio, Texas. Following a violent clash that broke out when she and other Communists were meeting in San Antonio in 1939, Tenayuca could not find work under her own name in Texas. 

She eventually moved to California and became a teacher, and continued to teach when she returned to San Antonio in 1968. However, once back in her home state, Tenayuca learned her earlier activism was now lauded. Before her death at age 82, she was interviewed, studied in history classes, included in an exhibit of notable Texas women and inducted into the San Antonio Women's Hall of Fame.

Early Life, Family and Education

Emma Beatrice Tenayuca was born on December 21, 1916, in San Antonio, Texas. Tenayuca was one of 11 children and the oldest daughter of Sam Tenayuca and Benita Hernandez Zepeda. (Her family's surname has also been spelled as Teneyuca.) Her father's side of the family traced its heritage from Native Americans, while her mother's family had descended from Spanish settlers. Growing up, Tenayuca saw some relatives' disdain for her "Indio" father. She later stated, "I carried an Indian name. And I was very, very conscious of that. It was this historical background and my grandparents’ attitude which formed my ideas and actually gave me that courage to undertake the type of work I did in San Antonio."

Her maternal grandparents were able to influence Tenayuca's political development because she lived with them during her childhood. They were active registered voters who educated their granddaughter about the dangers of the Ku Klux Klan. Her grandfather also contributed to Tenayuca's political awakening by taking her to a local plaza where she could hear political speeches, and by reminding her that their family's Catholic faith required her to aid the poor and downtrodden.

Tenayuca graduated from Brackenridge High School in 1934. Once she graduated from high school, Tenayuca worked as a door-to-door saleswoman, washed jars in a pickle factory and worked as an elevator operator, while also focusing on organizing and activism. She studied briefly at the Workers' University of Mexico in 1936 and took classes at the University of Houston and Sinclair Business School in Houston in the 1940s.

Activist and Organizer

A young Tenayuca joined the women's auxiliary of the League of United Latin American Citizens in 1932 but left due to her disagreement with the group's policy of standing apart from those born outside the United States. In her view, "Mexicans needed to unite, not divide on the basis of citizenship, class or educational status."

A high school reading group with a curriculum that included Thomas Paine and Karl Marx, along with the privations she witnessed during the Great Depression, were additional galvanizing forces in Tenayuca's organizing career. "All of us were affected by the Depression," she once said. "We became aware that there were some aspects of the free enterprise system which were highly vulnerable."

Tenayuca took part in her first strike with workers from the Finck Cigar Company. It was during a strike with cigar workers that she was arrested for the first time at age 16. After graduating from high school in 1934, she continued to support labor actions, engaging in activities that ranged from creating leaflets to standing on picket lines. Her efforts helped establish local branches of the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union.

As the Great Depression continued in the 1930s, Tenayuca used her roles in organizations like the West Side Unemployed Council and the Workers Alliance of America to push for better treatment for Mexican Americans who were not receiving equitable access to Works Progress Administration resources. She also protested beatings conducted by border patrol officers and the deportation of Mexican American citizens.

Local authorities disliked the protests and demonstrations Tenayuca led. In 1937, police raided the Workers Alliance. Tenayuca was arrested for unlawful assembly, assaulting an officer, and disturbing the peace. Afterward, the police chief declared, "the Tenayuca woman is a paid agitator sent here to stir up trouble among the ignorant Mexican workers."

However, Tenayuca was clear about what had compelled her to become an activist: "I had a basic underlying faith in the American idea of freedom and fairness. I felt there was something that had to be done."

Teneyuca and the Communist Party

In 1935, Tenayuca became a member of the Young Communist League. By 1937 she'd joined the Communist Party. She chaired the Communist Party of Texas in 1939 and ran for Congress as a Communist in 1938 and '40.

A piece that Tenayuca co-authored with then-husband Homer Brooks, "The Mexican Question in the Southwest," was published in The Communist in March 1939. It analyzed the discrimination experienced by Mexican Americans and Mexicans.

Tenayuca's communist beliefs ostracized her from parts of her community. A Catholic newspaper proclaimed, "In the midst of this community exists a woman by the name of Emma Tenayuca who wants to spread disorder and hatred…. [She] is not a Mexican; she is a Russofile, [sic] sold out to Russia, communist."

Tenayuca did not remain a member of the Communist Party for long, formally leaving in 1946. However, being a Communist Party member would have lasting consequences. Her application to join the Women's Auxiliary Air Corps during World War II was rejected, presumably due to her membership. In addition, the FBI maintained a file on Tenayuca and surveilled her until 1953.

Leaving San Antonio

In August 1939, Tenayuca organized a Communist Party meeting at the San Antonio Municipal Auditorium, despite her misgivings about doing so at a time of burgeoning anti-Communist sentiment. A furious crowd of 5,000 protestors tore through the building to disrupt the gathering, forcing Tenayuca and others to escape via a tunnel with police protection.

After this event, Tenayuca was sent death threats and was unable to find work under her own name. In Houston she took jobs under the pseudonym "Beatrice Giraud." She departed Texas for California in the mid-1940s. Following her move to California, Tenayuca earned a teaching degree from San Francisco State University in 1952. 

Tenayuca returned to San Antonio in 1968. Upon her return, Tenayuca discovered that her earlier efforts to fight for civil and labor rights were now better appreciated. She noted, "I left San Antonio, went to San Francisco and stayed there for 20 years. And to my surprise, I returned and I find myself some sort of a heroine."

In 1974, she received a master's degree in education from San Antonio's Our Lady of the Lake University. She retired from teaching in 1982.

Personal Life

Tenayuca married Homer Brooks, a leader in the Communist Party of Texas, in October 1937. The pair divorced in 1941. Tenayuca's son, Francisco Tenayuca Adams, was born in 1952. She raised him as a single mother.

Death

Tenayuca died at the age of 82 in San Antonio on July 23, 1999. Prior to her death, she'd been diagnosed with Alzheimer's.

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