Thousands of women stood up against repugnant conditions to make change.
By James Dusek
In the 1930s, San Antonio workers — mostly Mexican-American women and girls — shelled half the nation’s pecans in miserable conditions.
Shelling plants, mostly concentrated on the West Side, were poorly lit and ventilated. If there were windows at all, they didn’t open.
With each breath, a fine dust from the pecans filled the workers’ lungs.
The scratches on their lungs drastically increased the workers’ susceptibility to the already devastating tuberculosis that plagued San Antonio.
Dr. Sarah Gould, lead curatorial researcher at the Institute of Texan Cultures, said at the time there were already machines that could shell pecans, but they were expensive — more expensive, at least, than Hispanic women willing to work for 6 or 7 cents per hour.
In January 1938, the plants lowered workers’ already meager pay to 5 or 6 cents per pound — the final blow for the sick, underpaid workers. About 12,000 workers, mostly women, walked off their jobs Jan. 31.
The strikers chose a 22-year-old woman to be their strike leader. Her nickname among Mexican-American workers was “La Pasionaria” — “the passionate one” — because of her zealous dedication to political causes.
The woman, Emma Tenayuca, was well-known in local politics for her participation in protests and unions.
She was an organizer and member of the National Workers Alliance, an organization formed by the Communist Party.
Her grandparents were avid readers of the news and raised her to be aware and passionate about politics.
Gould said Tenayuca’s grandfather would often take her to Plaza del Zacate, where Mexican-American workers would gather to discuss politics.
When she was 16, she joined a picket against Finck Cigar Co., another industry with mostly female workers, which resulted in her first arrest.
After high school, Tenayuca helped organize the Ladies Garment Workers Union, where she organized meetings, wrote leaflets and encouraged workers to demand better pay.
“What’s amazing to me is she was young,” Gould said. “She was just out of high school, and she was able to speak in front of a group of people confidently and in an encouraging way.”
Though Tenayuca is inseparable from the story of the strike, she was only the strike leader for a short time.
She stepped down because she feared her associations with the Communist Party would be a detriment to the cause.
An article from the San Antonio Light referred to the strikers as “communistic agitators” who sought to “seize control” of the workers and their families.
According to the article, a statement from police Chief Owen Kilday read: “If this unfortunate condition would come to pass, these workers would be forced to form long parades, the red flag would be prominently displayed and they would sing the Internationale.”
For 37 days, pecan shelling came to a halt in San Antonio. Hundreds of strikers were arrested, stuffed into jails far too small for such a capacity. Many strikers were publicly beaten by police.
In March of that year, both sides agreed to a settlement.
A wage of about 7 cents per hour was settled upon.
It was less than the strikers had hoped for, but they didn’t expect to get more than that.
Wages were increased drastically later that year with the passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, which introduced a federal minimum wage of 25 cents per hour.
Subsequently, Mexican-American women were no longer less expensive than machines, and human pecan shellers were soon replaced.
Despite the bittersweet ending, Dr. Lisa Ramos, coordinator of Mexican-American studies, said the strike was important in part because it demonstrated the willingness of Mexican-Americans to fight for their rights.
“It shows that acts of discrimination were not simply tolerated by Mexican-Americans,” she said.
Ramos said women are often written out of textbooks, and recognizing the work and struggle of women such as Tenayuca is an important part of understanding America.
“If Mexican-Americans are left out of the textbooks, Mexican-American women are even more left out,” she said.
Although the workers were ultimately replaced, Gould said the strike was nonetheless a valuable event with a lasting impact.
“Their victory was short,” Gould said. “I think that the big question that people are often left with when thinking about the Pecan Shellers’ Strike is: ‘Was it a victory, or was it not a victory?’
“I think that in a sense, it was a victory, and the reason is that this strike got huge media coverage,” she said. “These little brown women were being beaten by the police … it got a lot of media coverage, and it brought a lot of attention to this kind of injustice.”