This bilingual book tells the story of the labor organizer Emma Tenayuca, who, because of her work as an educator, speaker, and labor organizer, was known as “La Pasionaria” (The Passionate One).
In the 1930s Texas pecans accounted for approximately 50 percent of the nation’s production, with nearly 400 shelling factories in San Antonio alone. But it was one of the lowest-paid industries in the United States, with a typical wage ranging between two and three dollars a week. According to the Texas State Historican Association:
“Working conditions were abysmal-illumination was poor, inside toilets and washbowls were nonexistent, and ventilation was inadequate. Fine brown dust from the pecans permeated the air, and the high tuberculosis rate of San Antonio – 148 deaths for each 100,000 persons, compared to the national average of fifty-four – was blamed at least partially on the dust.”
In 1938, Tenayuca, only 21 years old, led 12,000 workers (mostly Hispanic women) in a strike of pecan shellers in San Antonio, Texas. Historians have described this as the first successful large-scale act in the Mexican-American struggle for civil rights and justice.
The workers who picketed during the strike were gassed, arrested, and jailed. It ended after thirty-seven days when the city’s pecan operators agreed to arbitration. [Over the next three years, cracking machines replaced more than 10,000 shellers in San Antonio shops when the plant owners mechanized operations to avoid the higher labor costs.]
Tenayuca also founded two international ladies garment workers unions, and organized a protest against the beating of Mexican migrants by United States border patrol agents. She was arrested several times, and finally had to leave Texas to ensure her safety. She is now honored in the Mexican-American community, but barely known by the rest of the United States.
The book depicts some of the injustices against Mexican-Americans that Emma encountered as a young girl in San Antonio. She felt angry:
“She saw so many people go to work when it was still dark and not come home again until late at night. Many worked so many hours that they were coughing and sick, and still they did not earn enough to feed their children.”
Emma refused to stand by and do nothing, and became an active advocate for justice in her early teens. Young readers will be inspired by how, with enough passion and commitment, even one young person can make a difference.
The illustrations by Terry Ybáñez echo traditional Mexican mural art, using bold colors and stylized shapes.
At the back of the book, there are additional resources on Tenayuca, including pictures and a more detailed biography.
Published by Wings Press, 2008