Moreno and Galvan organized on San Diego’s Cannery Row, from the foot of F Street to 26th, especially at Van Camp Sea Food, Old Mission Packing Corporation, and the San Diego Packing Company. In 1939, they established Local 64 of United Cannery, Agricultural, and Allied Workers of America at Van Camp. A year later, an agreement created a closed shop, seniority rights, eight-hour days (with extra pay for work over eight hours, plus time and a half on holidays and Sundays). By 1942, Local 64’s predominately Latino workers boasted the highest wages in the packing industry. Historian Carey McWilliams called United Cannery “the most progressive, best organized, most intelligently led CIO movement in the country.”
Along with admitting all races, creeds, and genders, the organization defined itself as a “democratic trade union”: locals operated apart from national or state office interference, which served in advisory capacities. President John Tisa: “Democracy meant the right of the workers…to elect their own leadership, to conduct their own affairs.”
In effect, writes Vicki Ruiz, “power flowed from below.”
In 1939, Moreno and Galvan attempted to organize the Old Mission Packing Company, which canned chili peppers, olives, and pimentos and paid workers between 15 and 20 cents an hour. Their results, unlike at Van Camp, were mixed. And in 1948, Old Mission Packing, San Diego Packing, and, some say, Van Camp, would enact their revenge.
Throughout her travels, Moreno raised the possibility of a national convention. She helped organize El Congreso de Pueblos Se Hablan Española — the first civil-rights congress for Latinos — in Los Angeles, April 28–30 in 1939. Along with demanding desegregation of public facilities (restrooms, swimming pools), housing, education, and employment, the congress made specific demands (prisoners in San Quentin being allowed to exchange letters with their families in Spanish) and a radical one: it rejected assimilation. It “went so far,” writes David G. Gutierrez, “as to demand recognition of a bilingual-bicultural society that already existed in fact…. Americans would have to start living up to the democratic principles they claimed to represent.”
Working with Josefina Fierro, Moreno established a women’s platform for the Southern California chapter. Fierro: “No, we didn’t have a Lib Movement so we didn’t think in terms of what women’s roles were — we just did it and it worked.”
The organization didn’t last the war but, Fierro stressed, “for the first time Mexican and Spanish American people have gathered together for unified action against the abuses of discrimination and poverty.”
“Luisa Moreno” was her professional name, and public shield. Until the end of World War II, she permitted herself little time for a private life as “Rosa,” which close friends called her, or even time for daughter Mytyl. “I had a choice,” Moreno said. “I could organize cannery workers, or I could control my teenage daughter. I chose to organize cannery workers, and my daughter never forgave me.” (She did, but many years later).
Moreno’s first husband was abusive; her second lasted only a short while. In 1945, encouraged by a friend to “have some fun for once” at a V-J Day celebration in San Francisco, Moreno danced with a naval officer she recognized from long ago. When she dared to ask, “How’s your wife?” Gray Bemis said he was getting a divorce. Seventeen months later, Moreno became Mrs. Rosa Rodriguez de Bemis.
They moved to San Diego in 1947. In 1948, identified as a troublemaker by local canneries, Moreno faced questions by the newly formed House Un-American Activities Committee in a hearing at the Civic Center. The state committee, led by senator John Tenney, labeled her a “card-carrying Communist” (she’d quit the party in 1935) and an “agent of Soviet intrigue.”
“The government’s action appears to be linked,” wrote journalist Steve Murdock, “to a whole series of deportation actions against union leaders on the Pacific Coast, particularly…in the agricultural and food-processing industry.”
In March 1949, the U.S. Immigration Office changed her status: Moreno, now a “dangerous alien,” faced deportation. As she awaited an appeal, write Larralde and del Castillo, Moreno’s “life was shattered.” The house may have been bugged (so she turned the radio up), FBI agents investigated friends and neighbors, and she feared exile, if not worse.
Violent phone calls and verbal threats — many from “patriotic” organizations — forced Moreno and Bemis to leave Encanto and move downtown to Sixth Street. Before they left, they burned stacks of documents that might incriminate colleagues.
Bills piled up. Money ran out. Threats persisted. Then the FBI offered a way out: Moreno could become an American citizen. All she had to do was testify against Harry Bridges, former longshoreman and internationally renowned trade unionist. Moreno refused. She could never be “a free woman with a mortgaged soul.”
“They can deport me,” she wrote in 1950, “but they can never deport the people that I’ve worked with and with whom things were accomplished for the benefit of hundreds of thousands of workers…things that can never be destroyed.”
In early November 1950, police arrested Moreno and detained her at Terminal Island Federal Prison in Los Angeles harbor. Days after release, she and Bemis drove to El Paso in a Studebaker. On November 30, they crossed the border, never to return. ■
Song: “Union Shop and $22” (to the tune of “Yankee Doodle Dandy”): “They tell us that we want too much/ That we are merely playing/ But aching backs and straining eyes,/ Are worth more than they’re paying.”
Carlos Larralde: When Roberto Galvan died, “a cult emerged…objects he had touched became relics. Some even imagined he had been reincarnated as César Chávez.”
John Steinbeck attended Congreso meetings in San Diego. “Because of us,” says Moreno, “Steinbeck made drastic changes in his novels. [He] knew a great deal about writing, but we have been Hispanics longer than he has.”
Guitierrez, David G., Walls and Mirrors: Mexican Americans, Mexican Immigrants, and the Politics of Ethnicity, Berkeley, 1995.
Larralde, Carlos M., and del Castillo, Richard Griswold, “Luisa Moreno: A Hispanic Civil Rights Leader in San Diego,” Journal of San Diego History, Fall 1995; “Luisa Moreno and the Beginnings of the Mexican American Civil Rights Movement in San Diego,” Journal of San Diego History, Summer 1997.
Read Part One: "The California Whirlwind"