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The Militant Passion of Emma Tenayuca

84 years ago this week, this Mexican American labor organizer led one of the largest strikes in Texas history—and was arrested and blacklisted for her trouble.

Some knew her as la Pasionaria de Texas—the Texas Passionflower. Others called her Red Emma. But most of the people she fought alongside just called her “comrade.” Emma Tenayuca was born in San Antonio, Texas, in 1916 to parents of Spanish and Comanche descent, and spent her childhood learning about Mexican identity, the evils of Jim Crow, and revolution from her grandfather. Emma was also constantly running off to Plaza del Zacate in San Antonio’s Milam Park to listen to anarchists and activists speak about politics and workers’ rights from their soapboxes. Her first experience on the picket line came when she was only 16. In 1933, she joined a group of Mexican women workers from the H.W. Finck Cigar Company, who were out on a wildcat strike over low wages and unsanitary working conditions. The teenager was horrified to witness the violent police response to the strike, and was arrested herself. That early baptism into the labor struggle convinced the young Tejana that she’d found her place—and her purpose.

“She was really kind of written out of history,” her niece, San Antonio attorney Sharyll Teneyuca, said during a gathering commemorating the strike’s 84th anniversary. Texas Poet Laureate Carmen Tafolla also spoke, and the two women are currently working on a biography documenting Tenayuca’s life. She has suffered the same fate that has befallen so many other communist, anarchist, or otherwise “red” labor organizers like Ah Quon McElrath, Silme Domingo, Glen Viernes, and Marie Equi: consigned to obscurity for being “too radical,” too red, too Asian or Latina or queer or female or some combination thereof. During her lifetime, Tenayuca was smeared, threatened, and blacklisted, forced to leave her own hometown for decades after anti-communist threats made it impossible for her to find work or safety. Those who opposed her views on working-class liberation hated and feared her. Of course, they tried to silence her. Unfortunately for them, there are people who remember Emma Tenayuca’s life of militancy, mutual aid, and multiracial, multi-gender solidarity, and many more who are waiting to discover someone just like her.