In the 1910’s Mexican women in El Paso Texas worked at home raising the family, cooking and housekeeping. This required gathering firewood and collecting water by hand in order to support her husband working manual labor for the railroads or in the factories. It was rare to venture outside of the home but some intrepid women did when they could find a willing employer and when her husband would allow it.
The laundries frequently hired Mexican women. At El Paso Laundry 134 of 166 employed were Spanish-surnamed and Mexican women comprised at least 50% of the workforce at most laundresses. In addition to the Mexicans in El Paso, each morning a bus would arrive at the border crossing to collect women who lived over the border in Juárez and drive them to work as well. A Bergman’s factory also hired a large number of Mexican females paying no more than $9 per week.
Manuala Hernandez worked at the Acme company and earned $11 a week but estimated she would need $16 to feed her family comfortably. Exasperated by the conditions, in October of 1919 some Mexican women joined together and created the Laundry Workers’ Union. When the Acme Laundry of El Paso refused to recognize the union nearly 200 women went on strike.
In solidarity three other laundries joined the strike and in a few days between 300+ workers had gone on strike.
“Truly this was a sight that would do the heart of any one good to see these girls and women,” the Labor Advocate the AFL in El Paso, reported.” Some of them hardly in their teens and some of them bent with age, standing up and solemnly promising that no matter what may come or what may happen, they would stand together for the mutual good of their fellow workers.”
La Patria, the city’s Spanish language newspaper supported the strikers and they received endorsement from the Circulo de Amigos, a group of Mexican American Businesses. Outside of Texas, mine workers from Metcalf Arizona voiced support as well.
The owners struck back slandering the workers and published false claims insinuating the workers wanted to nationalize all industries and land in Mexico, promote free love, and overthrow the existing governments. They claimed the strikers were the advance guard of I.W.W. the Industrial Workers of the World and pointed to the mysterious writing on the wall of a public bathroom stall as evidence of this conspiracy. This split public opinion about the strikers and unfortunately sounds all to familiar to today’s news cycles.
Even though 486 women and men went on strike there were still hundreds of others desperate for work who began to break strike lines. El Paso’s attorneys and the AFL initially supported the women but were unwilling to admit Mexican workers to the union and backtracked as they protected rights only for American citizens. They did nothing to stop the factory owners from hiring strike breakers. The bus drivers put the final nail in the coffin as the factories were able to pick up unwitting workers from other parts of the city.
By the end of the year the momentum of the strike petered out and most of the women who went on strike were never rehired.
García, Mario T. 1980, The Chicana in American History: The Mexican Women of El Paso, 1880-1920–A Case Study. Pacific Historical Review