Labor leaders aren’t the most recognizable figures in American culture. If you handed the average worker a picture of president of the AFL-CIO, Richard Trumka, I bet they wouldn’t be able to distinguish him from the next mustachioed Pennsylvanian man.
Those of us in the Latinx community know of Cesar Chavez or Dolores Huerta as leaders who have transcended their identification with labor and have become synonymous with Latinx civil rights.
There is a labor leader who deserves to be more well-known but remains a small footnote in Latinx history. I’m talking about Luisa Moreno, a labor leader of Guatemalan origin, who was deported 70 years ago in November of 1950.
If Luisa Moreno is known, at all, it’s in the area San Diego where she has been subsumed into Chicano mythos for her legacy of organizing workers and defending the immigrant community before coming under the scope of the House Committee on Un-American Activities. House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) was a committee of congress created in 1938 that investigated individuals and groups that were seen as subversive or having ties to communism.
Luisa, who was born Rosa Blanca, changed her name as part of her political metamorphosis she undertook as a migrant in New York. Scholars, like the foremost Chicano historian Vicki Ruiz, believe that the Luisa was a tribute to Luisa Capetillo, the early 20th century Puerto Rican Labor Leader. The “Moreno” name was a direct identification with the browner working class she engaged with as a labor organizer. Dr. Ruiz argues that Luisa Moreno was the most recognizable Latina Labor leader of her era, and yet, she is relatively unknown outside of academic circles.
Luisa was from a wealthy family in Guatemala and as a young girl was boarded with the nuns at Holy Names in Oakland. This early experience away from home probably stuck with her as she was a bit of a vagabond for the rest of her life, in the spirit of other Latin American figures like Che Guevara. As a young woman, she moved to Mexico City where she was a journalist and a poet, hanging out with cultural icons like Diego Rivera. She then moved to Spanish Harlem with her first husband, a Mexican caricaturist. In those early years she worked as a seamstress and quickly found herself organizing her fellow workers.
She would go on to organize workers and Latinx throughout the country in a way that was unprecedented. Eventually she became the vice president of the United Cannery, Agricultural, Packaging and Allied workers of America (UCAPAWA), the first Latina to hold such a position in any of the major unions. She formed El Congreso de Pueblos Hablan Española, a national Latinx civil rights assembly. The founding convention was hosted in Los Angeles in 1938 and received thousands of delegates representing hundreds of organizations. She even raised money in the labor movement for the young Pachucos of the Sleepy Lagoon Murder Trial.
It was in her early years in New York when Luisa joined the Communist Party. Her short-lived membership would create problems for her a little more than a decade later in 1948. Retired from union organizing and living with her second husband, American activist Grey Bemis, Luisa was served a deportation notice. She was asked to sell out the legendary San Francisco Labor leader, Harry Bridges, in exchange for citizenship. Brought in on the morning of Sept. 10, 1948, she pleaded the Fifth when asked if she was or had ever been a member of the Communist Party. Though she never disavowed her socialist convictions, facing deportation, Luisa accompanied by Grey, “voluntarily” left for Mexico in 1950.
The couple eventually returned to Luisa’s native Guatemala where she was welcomed by the Guatemalan Labor Confederation. She would be forced to abandon her work and return to Mexico after the CIA sponsored coup of Jacobo Árbenz’s government in 1954. After the death of her husband, she lived for a short time in revolutionary Cuba until she returned to work in an art gallery in Tijuana. Luisa would spend her final years in Guatemala until she passed on Nov. 4, 1992 at the age of 85.
I had ambitious plans to produce a graphic novel biography of Luisa, who lived a life worthy of telling in various mediums and formats. Who knows, maybe someday I’ll actually finish it. Whether I am able to or not, we should all have access to the important legacy that is Luisa Moreno’s life, a Centroamericana who undoubtedly left her mark on Latinx history though the majority of us may not even know it.