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To support her child and unemployed husband, Moreno worked in a garment factory near Spanish Harlem. Behind locked doors and boarded-up windows, she and Latina coworkers sewed and pressed clothing in sweatshop conditions: less than minimum wage, no overtime or benefits, filthy toilets. After 15 hours on the job, some women took their work home to complete the day’s tasks. Also known as “outwork,” cynical supervisors labeled it “tenement-house manufacture.”

One of the workers invited Moreno to see her baby. The incident, Moreno recalled, became “the defining moment of my life.”

As they walked up the crowded tenement stairs, a baby wailed. They ran to the woman’s apartment and saw her child: a mass of blood on the floor. A rat had chewed off half its face.

Moreno “did not know quite what to do,” writes Ruiz, but “knew she had to do something to change the material conditions of her fellow workers.” She decided to become a political activist.

“An absentee mother by circumstance and choice,” continues Ruiz, she also “found her radicalism an escape from a disintegrating marriage.” Her husband spent much of her earnings at a saloon, where he propped Mytyl on the next stool. Often, he left without her. Mytyl recalled having to cross wide streets, streetcars blaring, by herself.

In 1930, Moreno participated in her first strike. Zelgreen’s Cafeteria, in New York City, exploited its workers with long hours, constant sexual harassment, and the threat, should anyone object, of dismissal. The attitude: this was the Depression; they were lucky to have jobs.

Hearing that workers would picket the cafeteria, police formed a line on the sidewalk that allowed customers to pass through. A woman approached (Moreno). No more than five feet tall in high heels, her hair meticulously in place, she wore a fur coat — and a stern, patrician air — and looked determined to have a meal inside.

The police let her pass through, perhaps tipping their hats to such dignity. When Moreno reached the front door, she spun around, yanked a sign from her coat, and held it high. “Strike!” they say she shouted.

For an instant, she was a one-person picket line, blocking the entrance. Then policemen grabbed each elbow and hauled her down the street. When she emerged from an entrance next door, they had bloodied her face. Years later, Moreno said she was lucky she wasn’t disfigured.

Not long after, she joined the Communist Party. With very little money or outside help, she organized coworkers into La Liga de Costureras, the League of Seamstresses.

For the next four years, under the tutelage of labor leader Ernesto Galarza, she rose from “junior organizer” to a front-line activist. Galarza: “She knew how to adapt herself to everyone else and how to handle her opponents. She knew how emotions could taint everything, and she cherished the value of being consistent.”

To those who knew her, Moreno seemed two people. The public person spoke with passionate conviction. But in private she was inward, controlled, and impeccably dressed. Bert Corona, labor organizer, remembered: “Even if you knocked on her door at 8:00 in the morning, you’d find her well put together.... She was always proper and rarely complained.”

The public Moreno encountered “double discrimination” — as a woman and a Latina — from local, male-dominated unions.

During this time she met Gray Bemis, a soft-spoken New York cabbie and activist originally from Nebraska. They kept running into each other at meetings and became friends, then good friends. But Moreno wanted no more: “I liked him, but he was married.... Although I was in a miserable marriage, I do not fool around with married men.”

Throughout her life, Moreno made sudden, complete breaks from her past. In 1935, she severed more ties. She left her abusive husband. (They divorced in 1937.) She quit the Communist Party, she told an interviewer, “because of ideological disputes” (or racial, as Bert Corona speculated: the left and the Communist Party defended “only labor leaders…of European descent and not Latinos”). And she left New York. She took Mytyl on a bus to Florida, where she would organize workers for the American Federation of Labor.

She also changed her name. Until then, she had been Rosa Rodriguez-Lopez, then Rosa de León. In Florida she became “Luisa Moreno.” Some say she identified with Luisa Capetillo, the Puerto Rican organizer; others, with Mexican activist Luis Moreno.

“With her light skin, education, and unaccented English,” writes Ruiz, “she could have ‘passed.’ Instead, she chose to forego any potential privileges based on race, class, or color.” The name also reflects this choice: where once she was “Blanca Rosa” (white rose), now, writes Ruiz, “she chose the alias ‘Moreno’ (dark).”

In the years to come, “Luisa Moreno” became an internationally recognized activist. But as her achievements and reputation grew, so did the forces determined to bring her down. ■

QUOTATIONS

  1. Luisa Moreno (in a poem about her first husband): “I know / that you are a tear in my life / That your hands/will strip off my petals / and break my stem.”

  2. Carlos Larralde and Griswold del Castillo: “The contemporary struggle for Mexican American civil rights and fair treatment in San Diego had its roots in the activities of Luisa Moreno during the World War II and post-War periods.”

  3. Larralde and del Castillo: “Moreno loved things well done. As she used to say, ‘If you do something, do it once and do it right.’”

SOURCES

  • Garcia, Mario T., Mexican Americans, New Haven, 1989.

  • Gutierrez, David G., Walls and Mirrors: Mexican Americans, Mexican Immigrants, and the Politics of Ethnicity, Berkeley, 1995.

  • Larralde, Carlos M., and Richard Griswold del Castillo, “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.

  • Lorca, Federico García, Poet in New York, English translation, New York, 1998.

  • Ruiz, Vicki L., “Una Mujer Sin Fronteras: Luisa Moreno and Latina Labor Activism,” Pacific Historical Review, 2004; “The Border Journeys of Luisa Moreno,” Women’s Labor in the Global Economy, New Jersey, 2007.

Read Part 2: "Rosa/Luisa: The California Whirlwind"

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Comments

Evelyn June 30, 2011 @ 9:52 a.m.

unfortunately, many of us still find ourselves in 'mindless labor' and are told to be glad we actually have employment. so much has changed and it's all stayed the same.

this was uber inspirational! thanks!

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Ruth Newell July 18, 2011 @ 11:41 a.m.

Wonderful story about an incredible woman. Thank you! On to Part II!

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