By Martin R. Herrera
Seventy years have passed since local pecan shellers walked out on the Southern Pecan Shellers Co. to protest poor working conditions and low wages.
During that time, the group’s leader has remained a relatively obscure figure, relegated to local folklore.
That could change thanks to the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center, whose production of “An Altar for Emma” aims to foster a greater awareness of Emma Tenayuca, the labor activist and San Antonio native.
Produced in collaboration with Our Lady of the Lake University’s Center for Mexican-American Studies and the Avenida Guadalupe Association, this is the second time the performance piece has run.
Written by Beva Sánchez-Padilla, the initial run of “An Altar for Emma” was in 2000.
Graciela Sánchez, Esperanza’s executive director, told the audience, “We’re really excited about this presentation taking place 70 years after the shellers’ strike.”
Sánchez pointed out that some of the issues being dealt with in 1938 are still an issue today.
Among those is the recent revision by the San Antonio City Council to the city’s parade ordinance, which regulates processions and parades in the city, requiring organizers to obtain a permit.
Sánchez’s concern is that the newly approved fees are cost prohibitive and, thus, violate the freedom of speech protections in the First Amendment.
A temporary injunction against the city’s implementation of the new sliding fee schedule was recently ordered.
The production tells the story of Tenayuca who in 1938 led 12,000 laborers in a two-month walkout.
The strike successfully forced sheller company owners to raise worker wages and caused the federal government to establish a minimum wage in 1938.
The play audience learns of Tenayuca through the one-sided phone conversation of one of the play’s central characters, Sara, who is talking to a friend who has never heard of the woman.
This word-of-mouth method is how Tenayuca’s tale traditionally spread.
When audience member and former District 7 Councilwoman Elena Guajardo was asked how she heard of Tenayuca, she said it was a “West Side tale.”
As Sara talks, the audience is treated to flashback sequences in Tenayuca’s life using audio, video and live re-enactments.
At one point, the audience is invited to participate.
Using poignant dialogue and music, the play successfully served as a springboard for an informative question-and-answer session with the cast afterward.
“An Altar for Emma” runs at 8 p.m. today and Saturday in the Providence West Social Room of Our Lady of the Lake University. A performance on Sunday, also at Our Lady of the Lake, starts at 3 p.m.
A $5 donation is suggested by the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center.