Luisa Moreno, (1907-1992), Labor Organizer
Activist in the Mexican-American Civil Rights Movement (which preceded Chicano activism)
Organized first National Congress of Spanish-Speaking People (1938)
Luisa Moreno was born in Guatemala in an upper-class family. She later moved to Mexico where she married; she and her spouse moved to the United States in 1928 and settled in New York City.
By the early 1930s the numbers of jobs for anyone were severely limited but Moreno found work as a sewing machine operator in Spanish Harlem. She quickly became aware of the poor conditions for workers and she founded a Latina garment workers union. This brought her to the attention of the American Federation of Labor (AFL), the mainstream organization for labor organizers. They hired her to help organize, but she soon moved on to their more progressive rival, the CIO the Congress of Industrial Organizations.
Moreno became one of the prime organizers of the movement against canneries and food-processing plants in the southwest. On behalf of the CIO, she formed the United Cannery, Agricultural, Packing and Allied Workers of America (UCAPAWA). In organizing this group she brought thousands of Mexican food-processing workers into the ranks of organized labor. Of the new members, 75 percent were women.
In 1939 she pulled together the first Latino civil rights assembly (El Congreso de Pueblos que Hablan Español).
World War II
During World War II Moreno was living in San Diego where shipping and manufacturing were gearing up for the war effort. Thousands of Mexicans moved north from Mexico to work but no matter what their qualifications, they were restricted to low-paying menial jobs—they were not allowed to work in war-related industries, including the shipyards or the petroleum industry.
Life of the Migrant Workers—Full of Sorrow
In 1940 she was asked to speak to before the American Committee for the Protection of the Foreign Born. She eloquently described the lives of migrant workers in words that could be added to pamphlets or websites today:
“These people are not aliens. They have contributed their endurance, sacrifices, youth and labor to the Southwest. Indirectly they have paid more taxes than the stockholders of California’s industrialized agriculture, the sugar companies and the large cotton interests, that operate or have operated with the labor of Mexican workers.”
Fought Against Racial Profiling and Violence
In 1942 she became active during the Sleepy Lagoon murder trial in San Diego where she was living at the time. The case involved the death of Jose Diaz and the accusation was that he had been killed by a gang of marauding Mexicans. However evidence uncovered later indicated that he may have been killed by a hit-and-run driver or as a result of his own drunk driving.
Nonetheless, 300 young Chicanos were arrested and 23 were convicted. The stress this raised in the community led to “riots” that were directed against Mexican-Americans. Many of these anti-Mexican campaigns were carried out by soldiers and sailors who were stationed in San Diego.
One of the sailors was quoted as saying: “We’re only out to do what the police have failed to do…we’re going to clean up this situation.”
As Americans came back from the war and were looking for work, the United States actively tried to remove from the country Mexicans and Mexican-Americans (Operation Wetback). Labor leaders were a particularly popular target for the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS). As a result, Luisa Moreno began receiving threatening letters and On November 30, 1950, she and her second husband left the country. The reason given for her deportation was that she had one time been a member of the Communist Party.
She moved first to Mexico and then Guatemala. She and her husband had to leave Guatemala when the CIA sponsored a coup against the Guatemalan government in 1954. They eventually returned to Guatemala where she lived until her death in 1992.