AMPLIFY: Luisa Moreno

Hi there, HerStry readers! Thank you for taking time out of your life to read about incredible women throughout history. For our May Amplify, you’re going to learn a bit about Luisa Moreno, an influential activist who was prominent in the US throughout 1930s and 40s. In many ways, she helped set the stage for activists to come later, like Dolores Huerta, the first ever Amplify feature.

Luisa Moreno was born Blanca Rosa Lopez Rodriguez on August 30, 1907, in Guatemala City, Guatemala, to a prominent and well-to-do family (2). Details on the specifics of Moreno’s life are hard to come by, but we do know that during her school-age years, she attended boarding school in Oakland, California. As a teenager, she moved back to Guatemala for a time before moving to Mexico City to work as a reporter and columnist for a Guatemalan newspaper (2).

By 1928, Moreno moved from Mexico City to New York City, coming back to the US for the second time on the other side of the country (1). She moved to New York in hopes of a fresh start and found a job working in a garment factory. It was there that she encountered low wages, long hours, and deep racism against non-white laborers (1). These working conditions helped radicalize Moreno into the activist she would become. In 1930, Moreno officially changed her name from Blanca Rosa Lopez Rodriguez to Luisa Moreno for both her own self-preservation and to put distance between herself and her family in Guatemala, who did not share her political views (1). In this same year, she became a member of the Communist Party (1) - a decision that would impact the trajectory of her life, significantly.

After participating in multiple strikes at her place of work, a garment factory, Moreno quit her job and was hired by the American Federation of Labor (AFL) in 1935 (1, 2) as a professional organizer. She was first assigned to organize tobacco workers in Florida, which was considered a large and dangerous undertaking, as the Ku Klux Klan would regularly attack labor activists in the area (2). The result of her work in Florida? A new and well-negotiated contract for 13,000 tobacco workers (2). Moreno worked with many other organizations, including the United Cannery, Agricultural, Packing, and Allied Workers of America (UCAPAWA). This organization represented many Latina laborers, as the women working in these fields were particularly vulnerable to long work hours and incredibly low wages, along with other workplace abuse (4). Over the years, Moreno worked as an activist in New York, Florida, Louisiana, Texas, and California (2, 3). 

In 2018, The Smithsonian added an installation to its “American Enterprise” installation featuring Luisa Moreno, curated by Mireya Loza. Loza told The Smithsonian that she believes Moreno was most impactful in Southern California, with El Congreso de Pueblos de Hablan Española (The Spanish-Speaking People’s Congress) (1). Loza explains it as “... a nice dovetail between her labor activism and civil rights work” (1). El Congreso de Pueblos de Hablan Española became the voice for Mexican-Americans. Moreno was convinced that in order for Mexican and Mexican-American working conditions in the US to improve, they first needed to focus on civil rights for every Mexican-American, not just laborers (2). It was her work with El Congreso de Pueblos de Hablan Española, paired with all of her prior activism, that placed her under the watchful eye of the House Un-American Activities Committee for the duration of her time in the United States (3). 

Moreno continued to travel throughout the US, organizing various labor groups. She organized beet workers in Colorado, pecan shellers in Texas for United Cannery, Agricultural, Packing, and Allied Workers of America (UCAPAWA) (3). It was in San Antonio that Moreno would cross paths with fellow Mexican-American labor leader, Emma Tenayuca, and they worked together with the pecan shellers (1). Later, in California, Moreno convinced the majority of the cannery workforce to join UCAPAWA (3). 

Violence against Mexican-Americans was heightened during World War II, specifically in the Los Angeles area. In 1942, José Gallardo-Diaz was found dead on a road near a swimming hole, called the Sleepy Lagoon. According to an autopsy, the injuries that Gallardo-Diaz had could have been from a fall or car accident, given he was extremely intoxicated. The police, however, started referring to the case as The Sleepy Lagoon Murder and began targeting young Mexican-American men as suspects and using the murder as an excuse to incarcerate them (2). As a reaction to this, Moreno founded the Citizens Committee for Defense against Mexican American Youth. Of the incident, Moreno is quoted saying, “The hysteria against the Sleepy Lagoon defendants and The Pachucos over all was the outward manifestation of a complex fear in Southern California that Mexicans were moving more into the essential industries like agriculture, the food-processing commerce, the garment commerce, construction and other businesses” (2). 

As Moreno continued as an activist and civil rights leader, she came under more and more scrutiny by the FBI. She was being constantly surveilled and harassed by agents. Moreno was offered full citizenship if she provided testimony against her colleagues, but she refused (3). In the era of McCarthyism after WWII, Moreno’s former ties to the Communist Party and her activism both made her the target of the government for deportation (2, 3). Other labor leaders distanced themselves from Moreno, and by 1950 she decided to leave the US for good on her own volition, instead of being forcibly deported (1). Moreno first moved back to Mexico, with her daughter and husband. For a period of time after her husband died, she lived in Castro’s Cuba with her daughter, until ultimately moving back to Guatemala (1), where she died on November 4 in either 1992 or 1994 (sources are unclear). 

The time that Luisa Moreno spent in the United States was brief, but the work she did had undeniable impact on workers’ rights, especially those of Mexican-Americans. Her story did not end with her leaving the United States. She continued to work for human rights until her final days throughout Mexico and Guatemala (3). 

Thank you for taking the time to learn about another incredible woman in history. I leave you with an open invitation for feedback. Suggestions, criticisms, questions, corrections - I want it all! I’m trying to help educate the HerStry community on the badass women of our past, but I still have a lot to learn myself.

Luisa Moreno’s Timeline: 

1907 - born Blanca Rosa López Rodríguez, in Guatemala on August 30

1927 - publishes book of poetry, El Vendedor de Cocuyos (The Seller of Fireflies)

1928 - moves to New York City

1930 - joins the Communist party

1934 - joins Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO)

1935 - hired as a professional organizer for American Federation of Labor (AFL)

1938 - launches Congreso de Pueblos que Hablan Español (National Congress of Spanish-Speaking Peoples)

1940 - convinces majority of cannery workers in California to join United Cannery, Agricultural, Packing, and Allied Workers of America (UCAPAWA)

1950 - leaves the US on the verge of being deported, to Mexico city

1992/4 - dies in Guatemala on November 4



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Ashlee lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She is an Illinois native - grew up in the Chicago suburbs, went to school at Augustana College in Rock Island, IL, and lived in the city of Chicago up until 2015. In June 2015, she packed up with her partner and moved to the city she has absolutely fallen in love with, Pittsburgh! When she's not at work, she can typically be found in yoga class, working on the next edition of AMPLIFY, cuddling with George the cat, or enjoying trying to figure out what next home improvement task she is going to take on. Follow her nonsense on Twitter: @trashleeinpgh