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the new groves, which, by the end of the century, triggered a speculative frenzy. In the classic pattern of boom-bust cycles that periodically rocked the American economy, investors anted up in the pecan game, not, an observer decried, for “the profits they anticipated out of this crop, but through the money they could make selling the orchards.” Get-rich schemes abounded and fortunes were made just as fast as they were lost, all of which testified that pecans had become big bidness. It became bigger still, oddly enough, in the Great Depression. This was especially true in San Antonio, where two forces converged in the mid-twenties that in time would change the industry and trigger a memorable protest against horrific working conditions and political paternalism. The disruptive power of the Mexican Revolution sent thousands fleeing across the border in search of sanctuary. Those who made it to the Alamo City found instead a purgatory in the making. Settling on the city’s West and South Sides, finding shelter in any number of “corrals” and shacks that had no running water or other utilities, they lived in a pestilential environment, endured the pressures of a rising population density, and struggled to find work. Their very large numbers made matters worse: The overabundance of unskilled, cheap labor depressed wages already sinking in response to the early stages of the Depression. This economic and social catastrophe had a curious impact on the pecan industry. Because wages were so low, shelling corporations in San Antonio \(but nowhere shelling equipment and shifted to hand labor. Leading this regressive move was the city’s Southern Pecan Shelling Company, which Joe Freeman and Louis Seligmann founded in 1926 with $50,000. It rapidly dominated the market, Julia Blackwelder argues in Women of the Depression drastically cut its overhead, and was thus “an inducement to expansion of the industry.” Cheaper and more profitable still was its subsequent innovation, the contract system of shelling, in which the corporation supplied the pecans “to individuals or families, who were paid $0.06 to $0.08 a pound to shell the nuts at home.” Even that skimpy scale did not hold up. By the late 1930s, hand labor was getting a mere $0.04 a pound. Southern, meanwhile, was raking it in. In 1930 it generated $700,000 in sales, a figure that more than quadrupled by 1936. To justify this stunning discrepancy between plummeting wages and soaring profits, a San Antonio operator struck a paternalistic note: “If [shellers] have $5.00 they stay out and spend it,” George Azar asserted. “You can’t make a Mexican work a whole week if they have money enough to live on.” It must have come as something of a shock to him when a mass of these idlers rose up in 1934 and 1935, and more forcefully in 1938, and tried to shut down the companies to which they apparently owed so much. These strikes, and the emergence of their electric leader, Emma Tenayuca, have been much and well recounted. Her magnetism, the shellers’ determination, the Southern’s intransigence, the police department’s belligerencethese gave birth to a tension in which the lines of political power and social prejudice in San Antonio were vividly manifest, and, if only momentarily, disputed. The moment passed all too quickly. Stricter enforcement of the Fair Labor Standards Act by 1940 boosted wages, but Southern and other companies simply reconverted to shelling machines, drastically cutting the workforce, from a peak of 10,000 to 800 in a matter of months. Reduced, too, was the young woman who had done so much to publicize the pecan worker’s plight. An avowed Communist, Tenayuca was harassed and arrested, and later red-baited out of town. Her death in the summer of 1999 marked an apotheosis of sorts: Her reputation thoroughly burnished, she received a hero’s funeral service in San Fernando Cathedral. During it, there was a procession of gifts to honor her contributions to the community. “A simple of basket of pecans,” Jan Jarboe Russell reported in the Observer most emotion.” Its affective appeal was tied to its sacramental.quality, the basket a communion offering. In making the profane sacred, this simple memento inverted the narration of oppression once associated with the nut and the brutal industry it had sustained. Through Tenayuca, the pecan and a people had been liberated. Not all accept this construction. In early November 1999, in response to a reporter’s query about the infamy attached to his grandfather’s involvement in the Southern Pecan Shelling Company, Julius Seligmann III told the Express-News he had, “nothing to be embarrassed about.” Arguing that many workers preferred hand labor and resisted mechanization of the industry, he concluded that the strike, and by extension, Tenayuca, did not represent their real interests. “All I can say is I know there were 12,000 damn people there who were pretty damn happy to be there when they were working.” His unreconstructed vision, and that with which it competes, is an important reminder of how thoroughly the past can be integrated into the present even as it is being redefined by the present. Perhaps the best way to comprehend the complications such integration can pose in the history of San Antonio, a mid-sized bird once reminded me, is by cracking open a pecan. Contributing Writer Char Miller teaches at Trinity University and is editor of a forthcoming anthology on the environmental history of San Antonio. TM GET THE STATE OF THE STATE OF TEXAS ON-LINE Tough, investigative reporting; the wit and good sense of Molly Ivins and Jim Hightower; Political Intelligence; insightful cultural analysis; and much more. Check out Molly Ivins’ special subscription offer, too! Subscribe on-line or call The Texas Observer at 800-939-6620 DECEMBER 8, 2000 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 0 23