Hispanic Heritage Month: Meet three people who made a difference while building the labor movement
There’s a crucial intersection between Hispanic American culture and the labor movement, and it’s an important component of our celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month (September 15 – October 15).
Today, and throughout history, American citizens whose ancestors came from Spain, Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central and South America have made myriad contributions to the advancement of the labor movement. What’s more, those past achievements have made all unions stronger.
We all know the legends, including Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta, but there are many more who’ve made progress that affects us all. One reason Latinx labor organizers haven’t been widely mentioned in history textbooks is because of mid-20th century red-baiting, a national effort to label minority groups as Communist and therefore anti-American.
Meet three dedicated Hispanic labor leaders:
Santiago Iglesias Pantin
An outspoken advocate for workers’ social and economic well-being, Santiago Iglesias Pantin served as the American Federation of Labor’s organizer for Puerto Rico and Cuba at the start of the twentieth century. When the San Juan News accused him of violent agitation, Iglesias defended himself, saying, “My mission is most eminently American. For the organization of the working people, for their education, and for their liberty.”
He was the resident commissioner of Puerto Rico from 1933 until his death in 1939, and his successor Bolivar Pagan described him as “the main voice heard in a 40-year fight to raise up conditions of labor, to make the common man be conscious of all the rights and privileges under American democratic institutions.”
A passionate advocate for women and immigrant laborers’ rights, Luisa Moreno helped create a coalition of Latino labor rights activists in the 1930s. Moreno, who was born in Guatemala, organized New York garment district workers, Louisiana cane workers, and Florida cigar rollers. She also helped found the National Congress of Spanish-Speaking Peoples, which advocated for integration and fair treatment of Latino laborers.
Mexican American labor organizer Emma Tenayuca participated in the 1933 walkout of women cigar workers, and later helped form two International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union locals. She also protested border patrol abuses, led demonstrations and strikes, and advocated for Mexican immigrant workers’ right to unionize without fear of deportation. In 1938, when Tenayuca was in her early twenties, she led a pecan shellers’ strike after factory owners sliced wages. The strike was one of the largest in U.S. history and one of the first significant labor equity victories for Mexican Americans.