San Antonio City Council voted Thursday to honor 1930’s labor organizer, educator and civil rights activist Emma Tenayuca with a street designation near the site of the famous Pecan Shellers strike.

Tenayuca’s name will be added to the Memorial Way street signs near the site of the old pecan shelling factories on Cevallos Street, between Interstate 35 and Probandt Street in Southtown. The street’s name and mailing addresses will not change.

The council consideration request, filed by Mayor Ron Nirenberg and District 5 Councilwoman Teri Castillo, also requests a permanent memorial of some sort to honor Tenayuca’s mark on San Antonio — and the nation’s — history.

While she was denigrated at the time for being a radical and a communist, Tenayuca’s work paved the way for many modern workers’ rights.

“There’s a long history in the United States of brown and black people being written out of history when they were ‘too radical,’ when in reality, they were too brown, too black, too Asian,” Castillo said. 

Tenayuca, who was ultimately run out of Texas for her work, began her labor activism at 16, joining a picket line of workers striking against the Finck Cigar Company in San Antonio. That was the first time she was arrested.

On Jan. 31, 1938, at age 21, she helped lead pecan shellers — mostly Mexican immigrant women — across San Antonio to strike, protesting low wages, long work hours and unsafe conditions. The fine brown dust from the pecans made workers vulnerable to tuberculosis and lung problems, according to the Mexican American Civil Rights Institute (MACRI).

Activist Emma Tenayuca at the Bexar County Jail in 1937.
Labor activist Emma Tenayuca at the Bexar County Jail in 1937. Credit: Courtesy / UTSA Special Collections – San Antonio Light Photograph Collection

They protested for nearly three months; many pecan shellers were sprayed with tear gas and thrown in jail. Tenayuca led the strike with the Workers Alliance of America, which represented almost 10,000 workers in San Antonio at the time. 

Their efforts ultimately led to the passage of the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act, which created worker protections like a federal minimum wage — of 25 cents an hour at the time — an 8-hour workday, time and a half and overtime pay. The act also abolished child labor. 

Tenayuca returned to San Antonio as an educator in the 1960s, and lived here until her death at age 82 in 1999.

Dennis Campa, a nephew of Tenayuca’s, said the family was “eternally grateful and appreciative” of the recognition, but added his late aunt would want everyone to think of the workers when they think of her name. 

“It was about the 12,000 people she lent a voice to and that compelled her to have passion and work on the issues,” Campa said. “I ask as we go forward, everytime people see ‘Emma Tenayuca Way,’ they think of all those people that worked exploitative conditions and suffered to make San Antonio better.”

The signage will cost roughly $4,300, to be paid for out of Nirenberg and Castillo’s general fund allocations in the city budget.

The council consideration request mentioned a statue of Tenayuca, but it was not discussed Thursday. According to a city spokesman, an art piece to pay homage to Tenayuca could be a possibility in the future.

Castillo thanked those involved who made the designation possible, including MACRI, U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro, the family of Emma Tenayuca, the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center and the West Side Preservation Alliance.

“That is the legacy of Emma,” Castillo said. “A collective effort to work towards the goal for the better. All of these organizations and people have played a major role in uplifting the history of Emma Tenayuca and ensuring that more of us understand this incredible history.”

Nirenberg said the designation was part of a comprehensive effort to recognize the contributions of Mexican Americans in San Antonio. 

“We are the largest Latino majority city in the country and we have not done a good job of recognizing the contributions of Mexican Americans to our history,” Nirenberg said. 

The city will celebrate the 85th anniversary of the pecan shellers’ strike from 3 – 5 p.m. on Saturday at Cassiano Park, 1728 Potosi St. on the West Side, where the pecan shell workers were known to meet.

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Raquel Torres

Raquel Torres is the San Antonio Report's breaking news reporter. She previously worked at the Tyler Morning Telegraph and is a 2020 graduate of Stephen F. Austin State University.