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Americans Who Tell the Truth :: Emma Tenayuca

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Robert Shetterly's portrait of Emma Tenayuca
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“I was arrested a number of times. I never thought in terms of fear. I thought in terms of justice.”
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Emma Tenayuca
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79 of 100
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(1916—1999)

Born in 1916 in San Antonio, Texas, Emma Tenayuca witnessed a time period when Mexican-Americans were allowed few freedoms and fewer privileges. Her close relationship with a grandfather who read the newspapers with her and took her to rallies focused on the rights of the poor fed the young girl’s profound hunger for both learning and social justice.

At age 16, already determined to change the injustices against the poor, she became involved in community organizing and was jailed and threatened numerous times. In a time when neither Mexican-Americans nor women were expected to speak out, she spoke out fearlessly, and was soon known as a fiery orator and a brilliant organizer. By age 21, Emma was considered by the National Workers’ Alliance to be its most effective organizer. That same year, 1938, when the wages of the city’s poorest workers were cut almost in half, the workers decided to strike. Emma was elected by the city’s more than 12,000 pecan-shellers, most of them women, to lead their strike. In less than two months, the pecan-shellers successfully forced the owners to raise their pay. The Pecan-Shellers’ Strike is considered by many historians to be the first significant victory in the Mexican-American struggle for political and economic equality in this nation.

Emma was so articulate and outspoken, during a conservative and sometimes hysterically frightened era, that by age 22, the Workers Alliance replaced her. There was no space in that time period for a woman - and worse, a “Mexican” woman - to be an intellectual and a champion for justice. In 1939, an enraged mob attacked the city’s Municipal Auditorium where Emma was speaking. Emma was escorted out through a secret passageway, for fear of lynching by a mob involved in what is still on record as the city’s largest riot. The mob threw bricks, broke windows, set fires, ripped out auditorium seats, and later that night, together with the Ku Klux Klan, burnt the city’s mayor in effigy for having defended Emma’s right to free speech. Black-listed, Emma left the state for many years, suffering poverty, unemployment, and personal threats against her own safety. A voracious reader, she put herself through college, and never stopped searching for an answer to the injustices she saw around her.

In the 1960s, Emma returned to San Antonio and began a different phase of her life-long community service - as a teacher of reading to migrant students. Emma always focused on empowering people in the most basic and humane ways: the ability to work, to eat, to feed one’s family, to read, to vote. The things she fought to achieve in our society -- social security, unemployment benefits, minimum wage, equal access to education, disability benefits -- were in her days called communist. Today, they are called social justice.

Yet among the people for whom she fought and spoke and went to jail, her name was whispered with a respect reserved for no other leader. They called her ... La Pasionaria. And they kept alive her story, even when so many others tried to erase it from history.

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See the full set of Robert Shetterly's portraits at www.americanswhotellthetruth.org.

Tools for Teaching: see the acompanying curriculum materials with suggestions on how to use the portraits and biographies of these American truth-tellers in your classroom.
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Americans Who Tell the Truth ::

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This beautiful coffee-table book is an eloquent collection of portraits and stirring words of these brave citizens from all walks of life.
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