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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. ■


  1. 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.”

  2. 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.”

  3. 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"

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Prosperina July 19, 2011 @ 6:12 p.m.

I wish my grandfather had known her! He was a naturalized citizen from Chihuahua, Mexico - he and my grandmother left the area in the early 1900's to flee the revolution and Pancho Via's wildness. They both worked in Az - she for a rancher in their home, and he on the railroad projects. He had to rise well before sunup each morning and wait by the window of their two-room shack to see if the foreman would raise a lantern to call him to work. He labored very hard for most of his life, laying track and working at the ranch as well. He loved to read, and his children grew up with the same penchant for books and learning. And, although he worked well into his 70's and lived into his 90's - no pension to speak of, no employment rights, no sick leave, no vacations. None for my grandmother either, come to think of it. They could have used a Whirlwind.... what became of her in Mexico?!!!?


Jeff Smith July 19, 2011 @ 7:05 p.m.

Moreno lived another 42 years. She and her husband raised chickens in Chihuahua, Mexico. Then they lived in other Latin American countries. She went back to Guatemala, but fled when the U.S.-backed coup took over in 1954. For a while, after her husband died, she managed an art gallery in Tijuana (Cesar Chavez and Delores Huerta would visit her, asking advice about organizing). In 1984, the U.S. wouldn't let her return for medical treatment she needed badly (typical Rosa: she refused to cross the border incognito). Finally back to Guatemala, where she died November 4, 1992. Vicki L. Ruiz, who interviewed her and became a friend, is co-writing a biography of Moreno.


Twister July 19, 2011 @ 9:38 p.m.

The irony of much of the "border" tragedy is that Native American blood runs in most of the veins (DNA actually) of the so-called "aliens," and if "blood" (actually culture) counts (as apparently it does in Israel, for example), "they" were here first. There were no borders until the Europeans and their descendants made them by force. The Spanish were not appreciably “better” than the British, the “Americans,” or any of the other truly alien invaders. Given these facts it is incredible that the term "Hispanic" (of Spain or the Iberian peninsula of Europe) is used. That may be an inconvenient, embarrassing truth, but it is the truth. And the atrocities and suffering and deaths continue . . .


SurfPuppy619 July 27, 2011 @ 6:26 p.m.

What is even more ironic is nearly ALL of CA was a part of Mexico until the US took it.


SurfPuppy619 July 28, 2011 @ 6:21 p.m.

Native Americans????? just guessing though.


tomjohnston July 28, 2011 @ 11:41 p.m.

Actually, Mexico "got it" from Spain. If I remember my California history correctly, there were quite a few Europeans who explored California as as far back as the 1500's. Pretty familiar names, Cabrillo, Sir Francis Drake. The Spanish started moving in on the mid 1700's and building their missions. The one in Mission valley, was the first. Mexico took control in the early 1800's. The first inhabitants have been dated back about 15k yrs. Nobody has really proven for certain how they arrived or where they came from but most archeologists think that they arrived in the region between 15k and 13k years ago and that they came overland from Northeastern Asia. I don't know about calling them native americans though, since their was no america at the time. I think it was the Spanish who first started using the name California and then it ws for pretty much the entire southwest region that they controlled. Before that they were just natives. Thus endeth the history lesson for today


nan shartel July 30, 2011 @ 4:17 p.m.

ditto tomjohnson

but exploration and settlement by Europeans along the coasts and in the inland valleys began in the 16th century

the remains of Arlington Springs Man on Santa Rosa Island are among the traces of a very early habitation, dated to the Wisconsin glaciation (the most recent ice age) about 13,000 years ago. In all, some 30 tribes or culture groups lived in what is now California, gathered into perhaps six different language family groups. These groups included the early-arriving Hokan family (winding up in the mountainous far north and Colorado River basin in the south) and the recently-arrived Uto-Aztecan of the desert southeast. This cultural diversity was among the densest in North America, and was likely the result of a series of migrations and invasions during the last 10,000-15,000 years At the time of the first European contact, indigenous tribes included the Chumash, Maidu, Miwok, Modoc, Mohave, Ohlone, Pomo, Serrano, Shasta, Tataviam, Tongva and Wintu

The first European explorers, flying the flags of Spain and of England, sailed along the coast of California from the early 16th century to the mid-18th century, but no European settlements were established. The most important colonial power, Spain, focused attention on its imperial centers in Mexico and Peru. Confident of Spanish claims to all lands touching the Pacific Ocean (including California), Spain sent an exploring party sailing along the California coast. The California seen by these ship-bound explorers was one of hilly grasslands and wooded canyons, with few apparent resources or natural ports to attract colonists

boy were they WRONG...hahahahahahahaha

altho at the time most of Southern Callie was semi arid desert land

this is an interesting well researched series Jeff...kudos!!


tomjohnston July 30, 2011 @ 5:03 p.m.

"but exploration and settlement by Europeans along the coasts and in the inland valleys began in the 16th century"

Exactly as I said, there were quite a few Europeans who explored California as as far back as the 1500's. Most historians agree that Portuguese-born Juan Rodriquez Cabrillo was the first European to explore California in 1542, while sailing under the Spanish flag. In 1579, it was Englishman Sir Francis Drake claimed the whole territory for the English Crown. From the time the Spanish began their Mission settlements in 1769 until Californis fell under the control of the US, about 1/2 of the Indian population was wiped out, primarily due to diseases introduced by the Europeans and as the result of their mistreatment as slave labor with the resulting changesto their diet and nutrition(and the ensuing revolts becuase of their enslavement.) The Spanish were generous enough to give the natives the right to continue to occupy their villages, though. Something the whites seemed not to care about as they rolled their way across the great plains towards the West.

BTW, There have been literally thousands of books written on the anthropological history of the native californians. You're much too good a writer to just simply cut and past from wikipedia.


nan shartel July 30, 2011 @ 6:41 p.m.

aaaaahhhhhhh tom...but Wikipedia is so much better with the facts then i am

i won't hang my head about the cut and paste factoids...hahahahahahahahahaha


Twister July 30, 2011 @ 6:33 p.m.

In "those days" everybody non-indigenous was taking land from everybody else; hence Mexico's claims are no better than US's.


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