Moreno, Luisa (1906–1992)

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Moreno, Luisa (1906–1992)

Latina labor organizer and civil rights activist who, facing deportation, left her adopted homeland in protest. Name variations: The California Whirlwind. Born in Guatemala on August 30, 1906; died in Guatemala in 1992; graduated from the Convent of the Holy Names, Oakland, California, mid-1920s; married to a Mexican artist by 1928 (divorced by mid-1930s); children: one daughter.

Worked as a journalist in Mexico for a Guatemalan newspaper (late 1920s); emigrated to U.S. (1928); after briefly working in the garment trade in New York City (early 1930s), became an organizer for the Needle Trades Workers International; became organizer for the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and (after 1936) for the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO); was co-founder of El Congreso de Pueblos que Hablan Espanol (the National Congress of Spanish Speaking Peoples, 1938); became organizer and international vice president, United Cannery, Agricultural, Packing, and Allied Workers of America (UCAPAWA, 1941–47); appointed to the California Fair Employment Practices Commission during World War II; made vice president, California CIO (1945); returned to Guatemala (1949) and became an active supporter of the democratic government of Jacobo Arbenz; moved to Mexico after the overthrow of the Arbenz government (1954); participated in the revamping of the Cuban education system after the 1959 revolution.

In 1949, facing certain deportation from the United States, Luisa Moreno opted to return voluntarily to Guatemala, the nation of her birth. Before she left, however, she spoke to the 12th Annual Convention of the California Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), an organization she had helped found. Her message was one of warning. The Tenney Commission, a state-level forerunner to the national anti-Communist hysteria of the 1950s, was determined to expose and deport labor and political radicals such as Moreno. "Strange things are happening in this land," she told the convention:

Things that are truly alien to traditions and threaten the very existence of those traditions.…Yes, tragically, the unmistakable signs are before us—before us, who really love America.…For it seems today, as the right to organize and strike was fought for and won, as the fight against discrimination is being fought but far from won, so the fight for the very fundamentals of American democracy must again be fought for and reestablished.

By the time Luisa Moreno stood before those members of the California CIO, cautioning them that the current political conservatism threatened the rights of native-born and immigrant alike, she had been fighting for those rights for more than 20 years. Though she would be active in democratic politics in Guatemala and involved in the Cuban revolution of 1959, Moreno left the United States in 1949, fearful that all she had worked for would be erased. She was also bitterly disappointed that she could no longer be a part of the effort to sustain the rights now in jeopardy.

Strange things are happening in this land.…And it is we who must sound the alarm, for the workers and the people to take notice.

—Luisa Moreno

Luisa Moreno was born in Guatemala in 1906, the privileged daughter of a wealthy and prominent family. Like many daughters of the Guatemalan elite in the early 1920s, Moreno was educated in the United States, attending the prestigious Convent of the Holy Names in Oakland, California. She would later remember herself as a "rebellious teenager" who upset her conservative family by publicly demanding the expansion of education for Guatemalan women. Her first job was as a journalist for a Guatemalan newspaper. Assigned to Mexico City, she met the man she would soon marry, a Mexican artist. The young couple emigrated to the United States in 1928, settling in New York City.

The following year, the Great Depression began. With her husband unemployed, as was a fourth of the U.S. workforce, the now-pregnant Moreno found a job in a garment factory near Spanish Harlem in New York City. Conditions in the garment trades had always been difficult. Faced with long hours, seasonal employment, and low wages, the primarily immigrant workers had fought for union representation for years. The Depression only made conditions worse: those fortunate enough to still be employed saw their already low wages slashed. Working alongside Puerto Rican immigrants, many of whom were socialists, Luisa Moreno became radicalized.

While her upbringing and education set her apart from her co-workers in the garment factory, she did share their language. Even more important, many were women who like Moreno were forced to support children, and unemployed husbands, on meager wages. When her husband deserted her and their infant daughter, Moreno experienced firsthand the all-too-common hardship of unskilled women workers. Her work experiences, combined with her increasingly radical politics, caused Moreno to see union representation as the only way to increase wages and improve often dangerous or simply degrading work conditions. By the early 1930s, this daughter of an elite Guatemalan family became a full-time organizer for the Needle Trades Workers Industrial Union.

At the same time that she was fighting for the rights of workers, Moreno was also actively fighting against the discrimination of Spanish-speaking people, then so common in the America. In 1930, a demonstration was organized to protest the opening of the movie Under a Texas Moon (with Myrna Loy as Lolita Romero in one of her early ethnic roles and Frank Fay playing a stereotypical "bandido" as Don Carlos), which Spanish-speaking immigrants saw as anti-Mexican. When the police forcibly broke up the demonstration, many protesters were injured, including one of the leaders who soon died of a fractured skull. Moreno joined several other New York Latino community leaders in organizing an even larger demonstration.

By the mid-1930s, she was working in Florida and Pennsylvania, organizing Italian and Cuban cigar makers for the American Federation of Labor (AFL). Union organizing was a demanding job, involving much travel and sometimes personal danger. Now officially divorced from her husband, Moreno had sole responsibility for her young daughter, who accompanied her when possible. However, it was frequently necessary for Moreno to board her child with sympathetic friends as she crossed the country organizing for the newly formed United Cannery,

Agricultural, Packing, and Allied Workers of America (UCAPAWA).

The UCAPAWA was born out of the increasingly widespread discontent within the AFL. At the 1936 AFL annual convention, an informal caucus met to discuss the AFL's apparent disinterest in organizing agricultural workers. The caucus, which included Moreno, asked the convention to sanction the formation of an agricultural and food processors union and to guarantee that the dues be set at a rate which the members, among the lowest paid of American workers, could afford. When the AFL ignored the caucus and its demands, caucus members decided to create their own independent international union. Thus the UCAPAWA was born at much the same time that the Committee of Industrial Organizations was gaining strength within the AFL. The Committee, headed by veteran miners' union president John L. Lewis, would finally break off from the AFL in 1938, becoming the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO).

Unlike the AFL, the CIO actively sought to organize industrial workers as well as unskilled women, blacks and Latinos—categories of workers which the AFL had always deemed unorganizable. After 1935, New Deal legislation enacted to address the economic hardships caused by the Depression aided the formation of CIO-affiliated unions, including the UCAPAWA. Organizers such as Moreno were invaluable to the CIO as it established itself during the late 1930s. As a woman who spoke both Spanish and English, she could effectively organize large numbers of workers, specifically Spanish-speaking women, previously judged as incapable of union membership. In writing about the UCAPAWA, the historian Vicki Ruiz claims that "women organizing women proved a key to the union's success."

As an organizer for the UCAPAWA, Moreno spent the 1930s working with tobacco workers in Florida, sugar cane workers in Louisiana, pecan shellers and cotton pickers in Texas, and sugar beet workers in Colorado. The situation was the same everywhere—low pay, difficult if not dangerous work conditions, and unsanitary company housing. To all, Moreno delivered the same simple message: as American workers—whatever their ethnicity, race, or gender—they had the right to a decent wage, a safe work environment, and clean, affordable housing. Despite the frequently violent employer resistance to unionization, Moreno succeeded more than she failed. As her fellow CIO activist, friend, and colleague Bert Corona later remembered, "She was a small woman, under five feet tall, but she had a powerful gift for persuasion."

As a Latina, Moreno was acutely aware of the particular problems shared by all Spanish-speaking women workers who faced constant ethnic and gender discrimination. For most Latino workers, especially Mexican-Americans, it was as much an issue of civil rights as it was of worker rights. "You could not organize workers," Moreno said "in the face of violence and terror." To help combat that terror, she took a leave of absence from the UCAPAWA in 1938. Using her own limited funds, she traveled throughout the American Southwest organizing local chapters of El Congreso de Pueblos que Hablan Espanol (National Congress of Spanish Speaking Peoples).

From its inception, El Congreso was seen as a vehicle of the U.S. Communist Party, as was the UCAPAWA. Years later, when discussing the politics of the UCAPAWA, Moreno saw it as a "left" union rather than a Communist union. Whatever their political affiliation, both the UCAPAWA and El Congreso were radical for their time in the demands they made for worker and Latino rights. This radicalism soon came to the attention of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), then headed by Congressman Martin Dies. When HUAC learned that Moreno had arranged for the first national convention of El Congreso to be held at the University of New Mexico in March 1939, the committee reacted swiftly. HUAC put pressure on the university, threatening to investigate the faculty, and in consequence the Albuquerque gathering was postponed for a month and moved to Los Angeles.

Despite political repression, the first El Congreso national convention was testimony to the effective organizing of Moreno. Hundreds of Latinos, men and women, representing 136 unions and Latino community groups from across the U.S., met in Los Angeles in April 1939. For four days, convention-goers attended dozens of panels, most conducted in Spanish, addressing among other things labor issues, police brutality, and community relations. As Corona remembered, "Above all, the congregation of so many Spanish-speaking people stamped in my mind, and in the minds of many others, that we were a national minority and not just a regional one." At that time, the largest concentration of Latinos, primarily Mexican-Americans, lived and worked in California. Many, especially Latinas, toiled in the growing cannery industry. It was here that Moreno would spend her last ten years in America, organizing workers who were underpaid and at risk from unsafe machinery.

Late in 1940, Moreno took over the daily management of UCAPAWA Local 75. Just a year earlier, the mostly women workers employed by the California Sanitary Canning Company (Cal San), one of the largest canneries in Los Angeles, had walked out at the height of peach processing season, demanding union recognition. After three months of picketing, Local 75 won recognition and a closed shop. However, the difficult work of consolidating the union remained. Luisa Moreno was an excellent choice for this task. While both Mexican-American and Russian Jews were employed at Cal San, the Latina workforce tended to speak only Spanish. Many disputes on the shop floor arose simply because Mexican-American workers could not communicate with their Anglo supervisors. Moreno was particularly adept at mediating these conflicts.

She also demanded consistent company compliance with government regulations and contract stipulations. Her leadership played a large part in the evolution of Local 75 into one of the UCAPAWA's strongest, most democratic affiliates. The local's strength allowed its members to play a significant part in organizing food processing workers elsewhere. In 1942, as the newly elected UCAPAWA vice-president, Moreno asked the Cal San workers to help her organize workers at the California Walnut Growers' Association plant. According to Ruiz, "the technique of using rank-and-file union members to lay the groundwork was both innovative and effective." Moreno's skills as an organizer and her involvement of union members soon won victories at the Walnut Growers' plant and two other plants as well. Out of this union drive was born Local 3, the second-largest UCAPAWA affiliate.

While Moreno was organizing the workers of southern California, the United States entered World War II. As the nation geared up for war, many employment opportunities opened up for Mexican- and African-American workers and for women in general. Southern California in particular was a center of defense work and, as white men went off to war, those long denied entry into skilled, well-paying jobs entered defense plants by the thousands. Long interested in the civil rights of minority workers, Moreno was an appropriate appointee to the California Fair Employment Practices Commission. For the duration of the war, she sought to ensure that workers were treated decently and paid fairly, no matter their gender, race, or ethnicity.

She also continued organizing for the UCAPAWA. In the fall of 1942, she directed an especially violent effort to organize workers at Val Vita in Fullerton, the largest cannery in California and one with the worst work conditions. Three-quarters of the workforce were Latinas, who were paid low wages and driven to the point of fainting during production speed-ups. Despite employer resistance which became violent, Moreno arranged for a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) election which resulted in the formation of Local 2.

A year later, in 1943, she joined with fellow UCAPAWA organizer Dixie Tiller and rank-and-file union leader Pat Verble in the formation of the Citrus Workers Organizing Committee (CWOC). Patterned after the radical Steel Workers Organizing Committee (SWOC) of the 1930s, Moreno and CWOC organized scores of small food processing plants across the state of California. Dehydration plant workers, citrus pickers, and shed packers were all organized in one of the most successful campaigns in the history of the UCAPAWA. Eighteen months later, 31 NLRB elections brought union representation, improved work conditions, and increased wages to thousands of workers.

By 1945, Luisa Moreno had been elected a vice-president of the California CIO, and the UCAPAWA had a new name. At the 1944 convention, union members had voted to call their organization the Food, Tobacco, Agricultural, and Allied Workers of America (FTA), in recognition of the growing number of tobacco workers in the union. Newly christened, the California FTA would enter the immediate postwar era involved in its most bitter struggle, one which would prove ultimately unsuccessful. It would also be Moreno's last campaign on behalf of the workers for whom she had fought for almost 20 years.

In May 1945, the AFL granted the International Brotherhood of Teamsters the right to organize food processing workers in California. Seeking to block a Teamster takeover, the FTA launched a massive organizing drive in the canneries of northern California. When the FTA turned to Moreno to head up this effort, she called in a number of fellow FTA organizers as well as CIO leaders to assist her in the yearlong campaign to keep the Teamsters and the AFL out of what the FTA considered its territory. However, Moreno's skills and even the widespread support of the rank-and-file were not enough to counteract the frequently violent tactics employed by the Teamsters, as well as a charge by the California Processors and Growers Association that the FTA was a Communist union. The FTA lost the NLRB election in August 1946 and, by 1950, had shrunk from the seventh-largest CIO union to virtual non-existence.

For Moreno, this was a particularly bitter defeat. As a woman who had dedicated her life to union organizing, to lose such a critical battle which was really one of union against union was especially painful. In Moreno's mind, and to others like her, the AFL's attempts in the post-WWII era to undercut the gains made by CIO unions in the previous ten years only hurt those most in need of protection—the workers. Moreno had spent her career organizing those considered un-organizable. Now she was branded as a subversive. Though she retired from public life in 1947, it was not soon enough. By 1948, she was under investigation by the state of California, suspected of being a Communist. Sure that she was about to be deported, as many soon would be, Moreno left the United States in 1949.

She returned to Guatemala in time for the 1950 election of Jacobo Arbenz, thought by some to be Communist-backed and repressive and by others to be one of the most democratic presidents in that nation's history. Seeking to restore national control of the economy, Arbenz challenged the authority of the United Fruit Company which had close ties to the U.S. government. Moreno was an enthusiastic supporter of Arbenz and his policies. The United States, on the other hand, was not, and supplied a Guatemalan exile force with the arms necessary for the overthrow of the elected president. Once again, Moreno became a political outsider. She then spent several years in Mexico before going to Cuba after the revolution there in 1959. One of the major goals of Cuban revolutionary leader Fidel Castro was to improve the country's educational system. Moreno assisted in this effort, playing a part in the near-eradication of illiteracy in Cuba within just a few years. Later returning to Guatemala, the land of her birth, she died there in 1992.

During the 20 years she spent in America, and for more than 40 years after that in Central America, Luisa Moreno's goals remained essentially the same. She devoted her life to the principles of economic justice, political freedom, and social equality. These were the goals she sought to bring to Latino workers in the United States and to the citizens of Guatemala and Cuba. Whether it was through union membership, national control of resources, or improved education, for Moreno the end result was to be the same—the promise of human dignity.


Garcia, Mario T. Memories of Chicano History: The Life and Narrative of Bert Corona. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1994.

Ruiz, Vicki L. Cannery Women, Cannery Lives: Mexican Women, Unionization, and the California Food Processing Industry, 1930–1950. Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press, 1987.

suggested reading:

Garcia, Mario T. Mexican Americans: Leadership, Ideology, and Identity, 1930–1960. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1989.

Sanchez, George J. Becoming Mexican American: Ethnicity, Culture, and Identity in Chicano Los Angeles, 1900–1945. NY: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Kathleen Banks Nutter , Manuscripts Processor at the Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts