Emma Tenayuca - A Hero for the Future (Part I)

Courtesy of Institute of Texan Cultures

Courtesy of Institute of Texan Cultures

By Kevin Lentz

Editor’s Note: This is Part I of a three part series on the life and times of Emma Tenayuca. Part II can be found here. Part III can be found here.

We’re living in troubled times.

The earth is slowly losing its ability to host human civilization due to global warming; endless wars rage in the Middle East as each would-be regime is met by Western intervention and counter-jihadism; the global economy, despite the late boom in China, is sliding into a locked pattern of austerity and stagnation; working people are earning less and paying more; a belligerent seventy year old white-economic nationalist has been elected president of the United States; protest movements are spreading across the world—massive protest movements, the size of which is in many cases record breaking—and for many The Future is something to be avoided rather than looked forward to.

In dark times like these it’s important to stop and take a hard look back at how we got here. Without examining the global collection of national and international policy choices that began in the second half of the twentieth century commonly referred to today as “Neoliberalism,” we don’t really have a chance at overcoming the limits they are rapidly throwing up.

As a Tejana woman growing up in the brutal world of San Antonio before, during, and after the Great Depression, Tenayuca helped write one of the richest, most inspiring, and radical chapters in all of Texan history.

Equally important though is the need to take a look back to search out the human seeds of alternative futures that, for whatever reason, were never brought to fruition. It’s through the recovery and cultivation of these seeds that we can both save the dreams of the past and transition from the horrific inequalities of the present into a future worth living in.

In a word, we need to recover our heroes and revitalize them—flag bearers and representatives of values and struggles which in our day are unheard of and often appropriated by the powers that be in the service of nefarious and and self-serving ends. Heroes that fought and persevered against daunting odds, bowed to no one, and through their efforts shifted the earth beneath their feet—however temporarily.

Emma Tenayuca is one such hero, and one that is truly worthy of recovery.

As a Tejana woman growing up in the brutal world of San Antonio before, during, and after the Great Depression, Tenayuca helped write one of the richest, most inspiring, and radical chapters in all of Texan history. A chapter filled with dust, pecans, Communists, semi-feudal business owners, slums, the New Deal, Catholics, labor organizers, the KKK, Anglo police chiefs, Mexican insurrection, Mavericks, struggle, progress, and exhaustion—a chapter that has since been buried and denied its proper importance by decades of Anglo-male-centric public, private, and social reaction.

We hope you will join us at Latinx Spaces this Women’s History Month as we take a three part journey through old San Antonio—north star of the Rio Grande Valley—and examine the characters and landscape that gave shape to Emma Tenayuca and her Tejanx community who in turn gave shape to a future that could have been, and may one day still be.

Part I: A Portrait of San Antonio’s West Side Slums

In many ways Emma Tenayuca’s story begins with the Texan (and now nationwide) institution of denying Mexican immigrants and Mexican-Americans a legally and economically validated space in our socio-political system—an institution which crested with particular violence in the early twentieth century. In South Texas particularly, practices like the pass system for Mexican agricultural workers, the all-white primary, vigilante and state lynchings, and other odious American legacies were repeatedly employed. In many ways everyday social society was only a stone’s toss away from the outright system of formalized chattel slavery that marred American society up to the Civil War.

To put it bluntly, for business owners the barrio presented a seemingly bottomless labor pool desperate for work and willing to accept piecemeal wages, with no legal rights to challenge their lot in the matter.

One result of this particular social system in South Texas—in which Mexicans and Mexican-Americans received such curses as insufficient seasonal employment, rock-bottom wages, the constant threat of deportation, formal and informal housing and educational segregation—was the formation of a large Mexican and Mexican-American settlement in San Antonio’s neglected West Side from the twenties onward.

Among other things this infamous barrio boasted massive numbers of unemployed seasonal agricultural workers—between 15,000 and 20,000 or nearly a quarter of San Antonio’s Mexican residents at the time—an infant mortality rate at twice that of the national average at 96.3 per 100,000, and the highest tuberculosis death rate in the nation at 159 per 100,000.

Conditions here were so poor, and San Antonio’s political elite so uncommitted to their improvement, that San Antonio’s West Side slum indeed became something of a national point of interest as progressive interest in inequality surged during the buildup to the Great Depression. As Italian Father Carmelo Tranchese of the Guadalupe parish in the West Side stated, “I am familiar with slums of San Francisco, New York, London, Paris, and Naples, but those of San Antonio are the worst of all.” An Audrey Granneberg, writing in Survey Graphic, put it this way: “The West Side is one of the foulest slum districts in the world…Floorless shacks renting at $2 to $8 per month are crowded together in crazy fashion on nearly every lot. They are mostly without plumbing, sewage connections or electric lights. Open, shallow wells are often situated only a few feet from unsanitary privies. Streets and sidewalks are unpaved and become slimy mudholes in rainy weather.”

While for the inhabitants of this barrio prospects indeed seemed desperate if not hellish—as the flood of 1921 ripped through the barrio killing an undetermined amount of people and left countless homeless, only to be followed by the starting rumbles of the Great Depression which stirred up an unprecedented wave of deportations—for business owners and farmers, the picture of the barrio looked rather different.

To put it bluntly, for business owners the barrio presented a seemingly bottomless labor pool desperate for work and willing to accept piecemeal wages, with no legal rights to challenge their lot in the matter. As a result the burgeoning garment, cigar making, and pecan shelling industries found in the San Antonio West Side barrio something of a utopian setting—cheap land, cheaper labor, and non-existent government regulation. 

It is from within this volatile relationship—between a disenfranchised and starving class of Mexican and Mexican-American workers concentrated in the West Side slum facing a ruthless and sadistic host of business tyrants and their counterparts in city hall—that a series of truly insurrectionary strikes and movements will arise.

Here to, our hero.