“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.”
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.
Larralde, Carlos M., “Roberto Galvan: A Latino Leader of the 1940s,” Journal of San Diego History, Summer/Fall 2006.
Miller, Jim, Under the Perfect Sun (New York, 2003); interview.
Nelson-Cisneros, Victor B., “UCAPAWA and Chicanos in California: The Farm Worker Period, 1937–1940,” Aztlan, Fall 1976, vol. 7, no. 3.
Ruiz, Vicki L. “Una Mujer Sin Fronteras: Luisa Moreno and Latina Labor Activism,” Pacific Historical Review, 2004; “The Border Journeys of Luisa Moreno,” in Women’s Labor in the Global Economy, New Jersey, 2007; Cannery Women/Cannery Lives: Mexican Women, Unionization, and the California Food Processing Industry, 1930–1950, New Mexico, 1987.
Sanchez, George J., Becoming Mexican American: Ethnicity, Culture and Identity in Chicano Los Angeles, 1900–1945, New York, 1993.
Vargas, Zaragosa, Labor Rights Are Civil Rights: Mexican American Workers in Twentieth-Century America, Princeton, 2005.
Read Part One: "The California Whirlwind"