“Strange things are happening to this land,” said Luisa Moreno in 1949. “Yes, tragically the unmistakable signs are before us…who really love America. And it is we who must sound the alarm, for the workers and the people to hear and take notice.”
Speaking at the 12th annual convention of the California Congress of Industrial Organizations Council, Moreno explained: “Today, the fight for the very fundamentals of American democracy must again be fought for and reestablished.”
Moreno and husband Gray Bemis had recently built a small red house on an Encanto hillside. Known as the “California Whirlwind” for her 20 years as a labor activist, Moreno felt she had found a home at last on Medio Drive. In semiretirement, she joined the San Diego Organic Gardening Club, collected pre-Columbian art, and loved a quiet amble through Balboa Park. Although the San Diego Union labeled her “a subversive living under cover” and reactionary state senator Jack Tenney had called her a “parasitic menace” in deportation proceedings, Moreno made the inflammatory remarks, now known as the “Caravan of Sorrow” speech.
“[Latino workers] are not aliens,” she concluded. “They have contributed their endurance, sacrifices, youth, and labor to the Southwest. Indirectly, they have paid more taxes than all the stockholders of California’s industrialized agriculture, the sugar companies, and the large cotton interests.”
In 1950, like several other red-baited labor leaders, including San Diego’s Roberto Galvan, Moreno and Bemis were forced to leave the United States.
She came to San Diego in 1937. At age 31, she had a national reputation as a champion of workers’ rights, especially for women. Her motto: “One person can’t do anything; it’s only with others that things are accomplished.”
In 1935, after five years as a junior organizer in New York, she left her first husband and went to Florida with her daughter Mytyl. The American Federation of Labor (AFL) hired her to organize Latino, African-American, and Italian cigar workers in plants at Ybor City, Lakeland, and Jacksonville. But why a woman — a Latina, at that — in such a male-dominated milieu?
“The Ku Klux Klan,” writes Vicki L. Ruiz, “had a reputation for terrorizing labor activists and other progressives, which is one reason why the AFL was afraid of Florida. While [Moreno’s] bosses no doubt recognized her talent, they also considered her young, green, and expendable.”
Outside the plants, and at union hall meetings, Moreno listened as much as she spoke. Rather than offer a blanket solution, she asked workers: “What are your problems?” And when she gave a speech, witnesses agree, she was “forceful,” with a “talent for persuasion.” These skills surprised many because in private she was proper, soft-spoken, almost compulsively reserved. She rarely talked about herself and always looked fresh from the hairdresser’s.
She left New York, she said, because unions paid little attention to Latinas. In Florida she produced a solid contract with 13,000 employees. The Klan was not a problem; the AFL was. The negotiations favored labor, said the higher-ups; water them down for management.
On hearing the news, Moreno urged workers to reject the counter-proposal. For her efforts, the AFL transferred her to Pennsylvania. After numerous frustrations, she resigned in 1937, joined the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), and moved to San Diego.
In later years, Moreno swore she’d never eat canned food. She knew, writes Vicki Ruiz, “the conditions under which produce was processed.”
In the 1920s, cannery workers were paid by the hour. During the Depression, most women were paid “piece work,” by the number of cans they filled (or burlap sacks in the fields). “The faster we packed,” said Katie Asaro, who worked at the Van Camp Cannery in San Diego, “the more trays we packed, the more money we made.”
Even with no fish on the conveyor belts, women still had to be at Van Camp’s by sunup — on their own time. They were also on call, “ready to run to work whenever tuna boats arrived at the wharves.” When several came in, says Asaro, “the cannery would be flooded with fish” that had to be gutted (by males) and put on a large wooden tray for cooking. A conveyor belt then took the cooling meat to 60-foot-long cleaning tables, where women removed scales and bones, then on to tables where others packed the white meat into cans.
During peak periods, a crane heaped tons of tuna into a 100-yard flume down to the cannery (after a 24-hour walkout at Van Camp in 1937, employees had to pack 160 tons). Van Camp and other canneries went on “speed up”: workers did the same tasks double- and sometimes triple-time, for the same pay. They were on their feet all day. Accidents, in sweatshop conditions, were rife.
“If a worker cut her finger slightly while paring or canning,” says Moreno, “[she was] reluctant to take time to have it bandaged simply because she feared falling behind under the piece-rate scale.” Fingers became infected; some even lost. The women — as much out of pride as fear of falling behind — took more chances. Urged on by supervisors, they moved quicker on floors slippery with fish gurry. They had five minutes, in the morning and the afternoon, to use a “filthy” restroom, and labored until the last fish was processed.
“We worked 14 to 16 hours a day on piece-work rates,” remembered Inez Caerno, “[which] were cut every time we began to make enough to live on. The bosses always wanted us to work faster and faster, and if we didn’t, we were fired.” Checkers with clipboards kept score.
In 1937, Moreno began organizing the packing houses and canneries along the San Diego waterfront. She made inroads at the Ortega Chili plant and, working with Roberto Galvan, organized workers at tuna canneries in fish-streaked aprons and high boots.
Always on the move, Galvan “ran a labor union from a hotel room,” writes Carlos Larralde,” because he “faced regular threats from the Klan.” In one instance, the San Diego chapter put a stick of dynamite in his car. Galvan’s motto: “I do not believe in perfection. I believe in improvement.”
Read Part One: "The California Whirlwind"