Luisa Moreno’s imprint as an immigrant labor organizer, activist
By DEBORAH A. MILES
As the immigration process and debates continue to dominate American headlines and social media pages as we enter March, National Women’s History Month, it is an appropriate time to recognize foreign-born women who advanced the labor movement. One of the most dedicated organizers was Luisa Moreno, a Guatemalan activist who also played a prominent role in the U.S. labor movement.
Moreno was born Blanca Rosa Lopez Rodriguez to a wealthy family in 1906. She was fortunate to attend primary school in Oakland, CA, and returned to Guatemala City as a teenager. She was unable to continue her education as women students were prohibited from Guatemalan universities. She organized La Sociedad Gabriela Mistral, which successfully lobbied to enroll female students.
She pursued a journalism career, wrote poetry and married Angel De Leon, an artist. They relocated to New York City in 1928 and started a family with a daughter named Mytyl. Moreno worked as a seamstress in a Spanish Harlem garment factory, and was outraged by the insufferable working conditions, low wages, racial segregation and discrimination. She organized her Latina co-workers into a garment workers union.
In 1930, she adopted her new name to disassociate her family from her political positions and Latino labor activities. At that time, a Warner Brothers movie, Under A Texas Moon, was protested by a group of Latinos led by Gonzalo Gonzalez, who was killed by police during a raucous picket. The murder sparked a Pan-Latino protest, in which Moreno participated. It further motivated her to help unify Spanish-speaking communities.
The American Federation of Labor hired Moreno in 1935 as a professional organizer. She left her husband, who had become physically abusive, and moved to Florida with her daughter. She unionized African-American and Latina cigar-rollers. She joined the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) and became a representative of the United Cannery, Agricultural, Packing and Allied Workers of America, becoming the first editor of its Spanish-language newspaper in 1940.
Moreno helped organize workers at pecan-shelling plants in San Antonio and Los Angeles. Her leadership empowered other workers, and she strongly encouraged women to take leadership roles in union organizations. And she is remembered for her eloquent speech before the American Committee for the Protection of the Foreign Born. It became known as the “Caravan of Sorrow” speech which movingly described the lives of migrant Mexican workers.
With World War II on the horizon, the defense industry was expanding, particularly in San Diego. Mexicans were forbidden to work in war-related fields such as shipyards, and were relegated to the lowest paying jobs. Moreno was quoted in newspapers, criticizing this discrimination.
“California has become prosperous with the toil and sweat of Mexican immigration attending to its number one industry, agriculture. Now they have sustained a true and lasting patriotism to a democratic country that refuses to give them citizenship or even basic civil rights.”
She took a year off to travel throughout the U.S., visiting Latino workers and allying refugees of the Spanish Civil War to her cause. In 1942, she helped to establish a defense committee for hundreds of Mexican Americans who were wrongfully arrested and detained in Los Angeles. This occurred just after the unexplained death of a man that came to be known as the Sleepy Lagoon murder.
Moreno was a co-organizer of the Sleepy Lagoon Defense Committee to exonerate the indicted youths accused of the murder. The committee also stopped rumors about flamboyant street gangs called pachucos who allegedly engaged in guerrilla warfare with servicemen.
In 1947, she married Gray Bemis, a Navy veteran from Nebraska whom she met at a Socialist Party of America national convention. During the 1950s, the Immigration and Naturalization Service conducted “Operation Wetback” to forcibly deport Mexicans and Mexican Americans, especially targeting labor leaders. The couple was issued a warrant of deportation on the grounds that they were once a member of the Communist Party. They eventually settled in Guatemala during a revolution, and Moreno spent her time teaching the importance of activism. She was interviewed by historians before she died at the age of 85.
The Great Wall of Los Angeles pays tribute to Moreno with a mural including a portrait of her face surrounded by images of strikers.