¡Saludos, todos! Here is our second book for this month, again following the themes of civil rights and child activism. Our book for this week, That’s Not Fair! / ¡No Es Justo!: Emma Tenayuca’s Struggle for Justice/La lucha de Emma Tenayuca por la justicia, is a bilingual book written by Carmen Tafolla and Sharyll Tenayuca and illustrated by Terry Ybáñez. This compelling tale, best for grades 2-6, recounts the biographical story of Emma Tenayuca, a young, Mexican-American activist. This book is an excellent contribution to our effort to diversify the immigrant narrative, as it exposes not only the initial hardships of immigrating to the U.S., but also the myriad of injustices and human rights abuses that have existed and still do exist for Mexican-Americans upon arrival in the U.S. Emma Tenayuca, from a very young age, recognizes the importance of education and the unfairness of the society around her. Her sympathetic viewpoint, coupled with a focused desire to redress wrongs, leads her to become a pioneer for Mexican-American rights in the U.S.
The illustrations nicely complement the themes of the story, the rights of Mexican-American laborers and pecan-shellers, and reinforce Emma’s bold agency throughout. In a review of the book, Beverly Slapin of De Colores: The Raza Experience in Books for Children, comments upon the illustrations: “Ybáñez’s full-bleed double-spread illustrations, rendered in watercolor and pen-and-ink on a palette of bold, flat colors with bright highlights, are reminiscent of traditional Mexican murals. While Emma’s red sweater on almost every page focuses the reader’s attention on the subject, the pecan trees and branches that frame each illustration focus the reader’s attention on the issue.” Indeed, the illustrations, as you can seen in the image to the right, subtly show images of trees (the border) and pecans (the illustration on the back wall), reminding readers of the issues at hand. This story, though inspired by real events, reads as a picture book with bright, kid-friendly illustrations. In contrast, the last page of the book provides non-fiction, historical information about Tenayuca, as well as black and white photos of her in the midst of civic engagement. This tale is also written by Emma Tenayuca’s niece as well as one of her friends, adding a layer of intimacy to the biographical telling.
Tenayuca was born in 1916 in San Antonio, Texas. She was one of eleven children and at a young age she was sent to live with her grandparents. As readers will see throughout the story, Emma’s grandfather played a very important part in both her personal life, and in her community activism. According to the synopsis at the back of this book, Tenayuca’s feats of activism marked the beginning of a long history of civil rights movements: “Historians regard this action as the beginning of the Mexican-American struggle for civil rights and justice.”
The story starts in the year 1925, when Emma is 9 years old. As Emma walks on her way to school, she passes other communities of Mexican-Americans and she is struck by the scarcity of their food and clothes. While Emma is moved by the instances of extreme poverty all around her, she also feels discouraged by her inability to help; the food she offers the children on the street will quickly run out, and once again they will be in need. However, when Emma decides to teach her young neighbor how to read, she realizes, this “would last her forever.” While exposing readers to the history of poverty and human rights abuses that Mexican-American workers suffered here in the United States, this story also emphasizes the importance of education in a move towards civil rights.
Emma’s attention is focused especially on the rights of the pecan shellers, or nueceros, who worked long hours and developed a variety of health conditions from an unsafe and unhealthy factory environment: “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.” Many of the nueceros were women and children.
As the story progresses, Emma teaches the nueceros how to organize and resist. A review by De Colores contributes to the biographical information presented by the book:
By the time she was 16, young Emma had already been jailed several times. ‘I never thought in terms of fear,’ she later said, ‘I thought in terms of justice.’ A brilliant orator, activist and educator at a time when Mexican and Mexican American women were not expected to speak out, Emma became known as ‘La Pasionaria,’ and took on one battle after another. In 1938, Emma was asked to lead the strike of some 12,000 pecan shellers, most of them Mexican women; and in fewer than two months, they forced the factory owners to raise their pay. This historic victory was the first significant win for Mexican American workers in the struggle for political and economic justice.
Emma Tenayuca is an important figure in the history of Mexican-American rights and of the U.S. overall. Yet, she is still one of the lesser-known labor rights figures. For teachers looking to diversify their classroom texts, this book would be a perfect way to complicate students’ understanding of immigrants, women’s rights, and the history of labor rights in the U.S. This book could surely inspire a lesson plan on history, social movements and civil rights, while focusing on lesser-known biographies.
The book offers students another valuable lesson through the relationship Emma shares with her grandfather. When Emma speaks with him about the horrible injustices that she witnesses, he tells her, “Sometimes things are not fair. But still, each one of us can usually do something about it, even if it’s just a little thing.” This is an important message for young readers who may be struggling with a growing awareness of hardship and injustice: you can always help, even if it is just a little bit.
This wonderful story has received an abundance of great reviews and we are adding our voice to the choir. Emma Tenayuca’s biography provides a perfect way to teach kids about the history of Mexican-Americans in the United States, as well as values of education, activism, and social and justice.
For those who are interested in teaching about the history of the Pecan Shellers’ Strike and related labor rights issues, here are some additional resources:
- Zinn Education Project’s resources on Tenayuca and the Pecan Shellers’ Strike
- Document-based questionnaire about the Pecan Workers’ Protest
- For comparative studies, consider the American Labor Studies Center’ Labor History Lesson Plans or Teaching Tolerance’s Labor Matters resources
And to elaborate on the discussion of Emma Tenayuca’s biography, here are several resources:
- Americans Who Tell the Truth: Biography of Emma Tenayuca
- Audio Interview with Emma Tenayuca
- Video Biography of Emma Tenayuca
Images modified from That’s Not Fair!/ ¡No es justo!, pages 3, 16, 19, 31.
Images from Tumblr, American Postal Workers Union website, and Americans All website