Emma Tenayuca - A Hero for the Future (Part III): Things That Were and Could Have Been
By Kevin Lentz
Editor’s Note: This is Part III of a three part series on the life and times of Emma Tenayuca. Part I can be found here. Part II can be found here.
The Municipal Auditorium Disaster and After
1938 proved to be a busy year for the twenty-one year old Tenayuca. Having been elected to the National Executive Committee of the Worker’s Alliance of America and having lead the historically unprecedented Pecan Sheller’s Strike, Tenayuca also found herself on the ballot for the Texas Communist Party. She stood for U.S. Congress alongside Homer Brooks, who ran for governor, and Black Houstonian Cecil Robinet, who ran for lieutenant governor.
In 1939, looking to institutionalize and strengthen the consensus bloc which had exploded into the public scene over the decade, the Texas Communist Party set its sights on San Antonio to host its state convention. In the figure of San Antonio’s progressive mayor Maury Maverick, the original Maverick, who deftly ended the rule of machine politics in San Antonio the Communists found a brief but reluctant ally. He granted the Texas Communist Party its request to use the city’s municipal auditorium to host the State Convention, citing the right to peaceful assembly granted under the first amendment. Tenayuca was to be one of the lead speakers at the event.
Unsurprisingly, the announcement was immediately met with a torrent of Red Scare outrage. This was 1930s America after all. The Catholic Church, various white nationalist outfits, veterans associations, and well-to-do middle class formations denounced Maverick, whose staunch defense of constitutional rights against the city’s dethroned political machine would prove to be his undoing and the end of his short progressive reign.
Sensing the potential long-term setbacks that such a spectacle of mass opposition to the convention and the mayor might bring, Tenayuca and fellow party member Elizabeth Benson resolved to postpone the convention. It made no sense to them to rush into what anyone could see was clearly shaping up to be a fiasco of historic proportions. Homer Brooks, however, thought otherwise, and through whatever means necessary, the convention was set to proceed according to the original plan.
Unsurprisingly, what followed was well beyond the worst-case scenario that the party had in mind when planning the event. All the voices that originally raised a stink when the convention was announced made good on their promises of opposition. Members of the Catholic Church, the American Legion, and the Ku Klux Klan set aside their differences and convened to hold an “Americanism” rally outside the police-protected auditorium. On the evening of the event a mob of roughly 5,000 protesters descended on the municipal auditorium—filled with roughly less than 100 communists and allies.
Things quickly turned violent as the massive crowd began throwing rocks through the window and attempted to climb in to do God knows what to the mostly Mexican and Black members of the Communist Party within. With the help of the local police and fire departments, everyone inside safely made it out through the back of the auditorium with no injuries reported.
The mobsters quickly overtook the auditorium, wrecked the banners and propaganda within, stole the American flag, and proceeded to terrorize the downtown area for the remainder of the night—leading a rally at the foot of the Alamo, destroying cars, beating passersby, and other such “American” acts.
Afterwards, the deposed city machine then used the event to oust Maverick from power in the next election, and the Texas Communist Party never recovered from the bitter fallout. Tenayuca would go on to co-author the essay “The Mexican Question in the Southwest” with Brooks, which stands out exemplarily as one of the only sustained scholarly engagements with the question of the Mexican people in America by American leftists.
She would then go on to leave the party and Brooks a short time later in 1942, having read the writing on the wall that her personal experiences and the Nazi-Soviet non-aggression pact represented.
Isolated, hated by many an influential San Antonian, and unable to find meaningful work, Tenayuca moved to San Francisco where she graduated magna cum laude from San Francisco State College. Fifteen years later she returned to San Antonio and earned her Master’s in Education from Our Lady of the Lake University and taught elementary school until her retirement in 1982. Tenayuca died over a decade later in 1999.
Conclusion: The Implications of Failure
In many respects Tenayuca no doubt seems an odd or perhaps unfit candidate for a political project looking to build out of the current wreckage of postmodern neoliberalism and into a future that can make sense of the world’s vast complexities.
After all, didn’t all of her efforts end in various forms of failure? The cigar strikes were ultimately lost, the strikes in the garment and pecan shelling industries, though victories on the face of it, only accelerated the mechanization of jobs which most of the strikers then lost, and what looked like a solid first step in securing an institutional force capable of empowering the least organized and most downtrodden sectors of the Texan population exploded into the air in 1939. The fruits of her labor were blacklisting, isolation, and exile, so what point is there to resurrecting past failures and the leaders that led them?
There are two reasons that make the practice worthwhile; the first having to do with the unacknowledged complexity of existing historically, and the second having to do with the nature of strategic parameters.
In the first place, regarding the conundrum of existing historically, the sequence of events headed up by Tenayuca in the ‛30s remains to this day totally unsurpassed in the field of liberatory experimentation. It is the high mark of future-oriented struggle for South/Central Texas, with ramifications that reach well beyond the mostly neglected region.
The question of legal power and fair treatment for “illegal immigrants,” the question of leadership and gender, as well as leadership and race, and the interrelated questions of organizing a politicized community and transforming the state to build a new society reached levels of concrete realization and resolution that are today unheard of.
As a result, undocumented Mexicans, now as then, are routinely shafted by employers in nearly every industry while receiving the hardest work (and now have a hostile national enemy in Trump), Chicanx and Latinx citizens continue to be beholden to the dictates of an Anglo-dominated state government (and in many cases Anglo, if not light-skinned, municipal governments), women are subject to a gendered dual wage, and the list goes on. We never solved these problems, and in most cases—the New Left chapter of history personified in a figure like Cesar Chavez not withholding—we have never come as close to solving them as Tenayuca and her community did in the ‛30s.
This is another way of saying that in every way Tenayuca’s failures of the past remain our failures today. We are contemporaries to Tenayuca and the pecan shellers—the future will be their future and ours together, or the present will forever be the shadow cast by our combined failures.
Regarding the second point, which has to do with the nature of strategic parameters; this is an obtuse way of directing attention to the stakes and tone of Tenayuca’s struggles. Far from the milquetoast pitter-patter of contemporary “politics,” the struggles and goals taken up by Tenayuca and her community were unapologetically radical. As Tenayuca herself put it:
“I had every damn right to be apprehensive. Was I in a state of panic or fear? No. I was pretty defiant. [I fought] against poverty, actual [sic] starvation, high infant death rates, disease and hunger and misery. I would do the same again.”
When Tenayuca fought it was not simply to secure some previous modest victory in something like healthcare rights or retirement benefits, but rather to break ground on a previously thought impossible terrain. Women, brown women, in open command of renowned political movements, Mexican immigrants with enough money to afford not to have to bottomline the entire economy, common workers with enough power to decide when and how to work; these are demands whose fulfillment would have deeply upset the established order of our society, and still would.
She fought to win, in other words, and not merely just to win but to utterly reform the commonly understood limits of what was deemed possible and reasonable. In contrast to the obscure and scheming methods of various political forces purportedly fighting for the general good today, a transparent victory that would overturn every understood political “commonsense” was always more or less the immediate goal in Tenayuca’s time.
This tenacity was no doubt in partial response to the severity of the times she lived in—you know, the Great Depression. Radical times tend to produce radical practices, and vice versa. With things going the way they are, however, in regards to the state of the global economy and the propensity for nationalist warfare that is on the rise in various governments, the time has come once again to re-examine the radical worldviews and strategies of ages previously thought over and done with.
In this regard, Emma Tenayuca and her struggles stand not only as part of a deeply inspirational chapter of history from times past, but equally so as a chapter of the future that must be written anew by adherents to the legacy of Tenayuca that live on today.