By Samantha Delgado
Despite being overlooked by a large portion of historians, Latinas played a huge part within the American labor movement. The Latinx community faced higher percentages of living on poverty-level wages than white women, and they were more likely to work in farm work, blue-collar work, and temporary work. These jobs left little for moving up or into other higher paying occupations, and contained harsh working condition. Latinas specifically had the lowest rate of unionization amongst all other groups. Thus, when the chance arose to combat the disparities and disadvantages facing them, Latinas took it and shaped it to fit the needs of their communities.
Latinas took the labor movement as a way to organize their community and uplift themselves from some of the issues that affected them and their community most. In the early to mid 1900s, Mexican and Mexican-American women in the seasonal canning industry in California were able to form one of the largest, most effective labor unions: The United Cannery, Agricultural, Packing and Allied Workers of America (UCAPAWA). As half of the total UCAPAWA’s total membership, numbers showed that Mexican women had the highest percentages of executive board-trustee posts, negotiating-organizing posts, and social and community service positions in UCAPAWA, even compared to their male counterparts. Latinas used the labor movement to heighten their consciousness as females and ethnic minorities facing inequalities in the workplace, and develop organizing strategies of their own.
UCAPAWA also produced one of the most influential Latina leaders of the time: Luisa Moreno. Moreno has been noted as one of the unknown heroes of the labor movement, due to the lack of depth and recognition she receives outside of Latinx history. Her work in the labor movement paved the path for Linda Chavez-Thompson and other Latina labor leaders alike. From Tampa cigar-rolling plants, New York City garment shops, and canneries in Los Angeles, she organized in various communities for workers across the country. Moreno would go on to become the Vice President of UCAPAWA, making her the first-ever female V.P. of a major union. Using her power as a leader in several communities, Moreno organized the first national Latino civil rights assembly, as well as a Mexican Civil Rights committee in San Diego. She spoke out on racial profiling and police brutality against Mexican-Americans as well as other ethnic minorities. Sadly, she was deported due to a major operation against Mexican and Mexican-Americans. It is devastating not just to the Latinx community, but to the history of the labor movement that her story and work has often gone overlooked. Moreno is not the only Latina who has been ignored by historians, and it is crucial that as scholars, we dig deeper into history and give light to the unsung heroes of the Latinx community.
UCAPAWA was just one example of the many ways Latinas used the labor movement to understand their own concerns as both women and Latina (and what those two parts of their identity mean). It showed how they came together collectively to organize for their issues, negotiate their benefits as workers, and take active leadership roles both within and outside the unions.
Despite being ignored by historians, Latina union membership grew from 500,000 to 3.5 million in a span of 7 years during the early to mid 1900s. Our history–– Latinx history–– has been repeatedly ignored, and therefore, young Latinx people lack the encouragement to get involved with their communities, like Moreno did. Latinas like Moreno deserve their work and contribution to be recognized. By telling others about Moreno’s work, and getting involved in our own communities, we can give her and other Latina leaders the recognition they deserve.