When Emma Tenayuca led San Antonio pecan shellers to a strike in 1938, the 21-year-old was an enemy of city leaders who sided with the pecan shelling companies and had her arrested.

More than 80 years later, city leaders are planning a tribute to Tenayuca, by way of an honorary street designation and potentially a statue.

A council consideration request (CCR) filed Nov. 18 by Mayor Ron Nirenberg and Councilwoman Teri Castillo (D5) seeks to add Tenayuca’s name to the street signs near the site of the pecan shelling factories on Cevallos Street in Southtown, though the street’s name and mailing addresses would not change.

The move initiates city staff’s work on a formal proposal for the street signs that would need to be approved by City Council. The CCR also asks city staff to look into the creation of a statue “to further enshrine Emma Tenayuca’s indelible mark on San Antonio’s rich history.”

The council consideration request would add a special designation to Cevallos Street, which runs east and west through Southtown. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

“Emma was a true labor and civil rights hero,” Castillo said at a press conference Monday with leaders from the Mexican American Civil Rights Institute. “And while she was shunned from San Antonio and treated as a pariah by local leaders of the city at the time, in the end, her vision and her passion for working people is the most puro San Antonio spirit.”

Tenayuca’s three-month pecan shellers strike drew national attention and ultimately paved the way for many modern worker protections like overtime pay and minimum wage requirements. Those rights are included in the Fair Labor Standards Act, which passed the same year Tenayuca and the pecan shellers, mostly Hispanic women, were sprayed with tear gas and thrown in jail for demanding higher wages and better working conditions.

Activist Emma Tenayuca at the Bexar County Jail.
Activist Emma Tenayuca at the Bexar County Jail. Credit: Courtesy / UTSA Special Collections – San Antonio Light Photograph Collection

The move comes as organized labor seeks to make a comeback in San Antonio politics. In September the city dedicated a portion of the River Walk Public Art Garden to artworks recognizing the history of organized labor in San Antonio.

On the heels of a pandemic that exacerbated conflicts between employers and employees, pro-union Democrats have embraced Tenayuca’s story, and held it up an example of the how young people can shape policy.

“Texas has a long history of fighting and winning, progressive change. … And we should look back to that history in this moment of truth,” Congressman-elect Greg Casar told students at a campaign event at Texas State University in San Marcos last month. Pointing to Tenayuca and the pecan shellers as an example, Casar said, “Workers rights were born in Texas, and it’s up to all of us to bring them back.”

Tenayuca, who was a leader in the pro-union Workers Alliance of America and member of the Communist Party, already has some fans among young activists in San Antonio.

Last year a 23-year-old St. Mary’s University graduate student proposed renaming a King William street after Tenayuca, though the idea was rejected by the King William Association.

In 2011, City Council voted to change the name of downtown’s Durango Boulevard to César E. Chávez Boulevard to recognize the contributions of the famed labor activist. The change came over the objections of the San Antonio Conservation Society, which unsuccessfully sought a judge’s intervention in the matter.

At Monday’s press conference, Nirenberg held up a photo from his office at City Hall, in which Tenayuca is shown discussing job scarcity with San Antonio’s then-Mayor Charles Quin the year before the strike.

“For decades, her presence has been felt in our city, whether we recognized it or not,” Nirenberg said. “…finally we can rectify some of that history.”

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Andrea Drusch

Andrea Drusch writes about local government for the San Antonio Report. She's covered politics in Washington, D.C., and Texas for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, National Journal and Politico.