Money  /  Book Excerpt

On One of the Great Unsung Heroes of the American Labor Movement

Emma Tenayuca and the San Antonio Pecan Shellers Strike of 1938.
University of Texas at San Antonio

The business of pecan shelling had been mechanized a few decades before, but the Depression brought cheap labor, and it was more cost-efficient for the pecan companies just to hire people to do the work by hand than to buy and maintain the machines. The workers’ pay came in envelopes from a local bank that cheerily advised them, “Let a Bank Account shelter you on that Rainy Day! The Acorn from which wealth grows is—Saving!”

But to a pecan sheller, a savings account was as distant a prospect as a Park Avenue penthouse. Pay was tied to the amount of pecan meat produced, seven cents for a pound of intact halves and six cents for pieces. The typical weekly income for a sheller in 1938 was $2.73. The median yearly income for a family of five was less than $300. To the company’s owners, the low wages were easily justified by what they imagined to be the workers’ inborn low expectations.

“The Mexicans don’t want much money,” one of the owners concluded. “Compared to those shanties they live in, the pecan shelleries are fine. They are glad to have a warm place to sit in the winter. They can be warm while they’re shelling pecans, they can talk to their friends while they’re working . . . If they get hungry they can eat pecans.”

But after the pay for a rendered pound of pecans was reduced by a penny at the beginning of 1938, somewhere between 6,000 and 8,000 shellers went on strike. It was an impromptu strike at first, but it soon acquired an experienced, disciplined leader named Emma Tenayuca. She was only 20 years old, weighed 108 pounds, and was five feet, one and a half inches tall.

“It was right she would be called La Pasionara,” another Texas labor leader of that time, Latane Lambert, remembered many years later, “because in her shrill little voice she would make your spine tingle.”

La Pasionara roughly translates as “the Passionate One,” a fitting name for a girl who went to her first political rally at the age of six, learning the words to “The Internationale” (“Arise ye workers from your slumbers / Arise ye prisoners of want”), and quickly moved on to the writings of Karl Marx and of the Flores Magón brothers.