Texas History Unveiled
The wonderful story of James and Manuela Sager and their role in Texas labor history was told to singer Anne Feeney, who recorded Manuela's voice on cassette in an automobile en route to Kerrville, Texas, for the annual Folk Festival in 1991. Anne kept the tape without transcribing it until now. On the audio, Manuela, or Mela, recalled monumental events in Texas, while also describing many of the smaller, more personal, aspects of her hard life.
Mela was born 80 years before, in Dolores, Texas. Her father and mother had both come there from Mexico. At the age of 12, Mela's dad was put to work mining coal in mines worked formerly by Black southern slaves. In that hard environment, he eventually played some role as a union organizer.
Her mother had been a schoolteacher, and she taught Mela in 1st and 2nd grades. But death took her when Mela was 12-13 years old, and Mela was left with her father, an uncle, two sisters, and five brothers. She was the oldest, and was responsible for their care.
The miners suffered severe layoffs. Her dad was laid off in 1928; he sold the family home for $65, the cows for $5 each, and the bee hives for 50 cents. He moved the family to Laredo. Mela and her family worked in harvesting vegetables and cotton at unbelievably low wages.
Mela tells the tape recorder: "It was hardship hardship hardship. We had to go to the carrot fields and work for 1 1/2 cents for a dozen bunches. We had to dig them up, tie them up, and wash them for a cent and a half. For the onions, they used to pay us $1.25 for the whole day, sun up to sunset. If you cut the little roots, they paid us by the box, 2 and 3 cents, a box, a big box of about a hundred. And then to take the dirt off. This is incredible. My father was a tall man. I was a short girl. He used to get together with those big things for the corn, a big sack where they pick the corn for selling. We used to hold it so the dirt would shake off. For that they used to pay us 3 cents a box. It was cheap, cheap labor. It was against the child labor laws."
Employers usually tried to cheat their employees, and sometimes refused outright to pay. Mela recounts one story of being driven from a farm at gunpoint!
At one point, Mela provided the sole income for her family as a clerk in a Laredo store. She says that the proprietor became a millionaire by exploiting the daughters of laid-off mine workers. They worked from 5 AM to 11 PM! Growers and store owners alike cheated their Spanish-speaking employees and customers regularly, Mela said.
From the beginning of her working life, Mela learned about class struggle in the hard way. She recounts, "We had a strike in Laredo in the onion fields. We had an onion strike, and at that time, they called the National Guard to protect the progress of the company. So we got in the middle of the road, we didn't let them pass. We did take a lot of pressure from the law. We didn't win the strike, everybody said they sold the strike." On other occasions, the young Mela became a negotiator for the farm workers, because she was the only one who spoke English.
Racism was also a regular companion to Mela's activities. She remembers her father and uncle being driven from a restaurant at gunpoint because they wanted to stay and drink the beer they had just purchased there. She remembers being driven from a park area, even though it was in the 1950s, by a racist with a rifle.
While working in the needle trades in Laredo, Mela organized the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) which was a pioneer CIO union in Texas. She served as its Laredo Chairperson for two years while still a very young woman. The union members collected a small donation for her when she received an opportunity to attend, on scholarship from the Mexican government of Lazaro Cardenas, the University of Mexico. She studied law there, while also being active in progressive workers' movements and the Mexican union, CTM. One strike she remembered well had to do with workers who made bottle caps for Coca Cola.
Although her narrative is not completely clear as to the timeline, it must have been about this same time that she married James Sager, a Bostonian who had come to the Valley to organize for one of the most aggressive CIO unions - the United Cannery and Agricultural Workers (UPACAWA). For the first three years, she saw her husband very little.
Later, she tells us, he had an office in the Robert E Lee hotel in Laredo. In order to obtain rooms together, the Sagers had to resort to subterfuge, as "Mexicans" were not allowed in the hotel.
Mela tells the story of the time that a Texas Ranger "arrested" and physically abused her husband. When she called for him from outside the makeshift jail, he responded, "Mela, get the hell out of here! They're after you, too!" She didn't leave, however, and spent the night calling everybody who might help obtain James' release.
During her narrative, Mela named most of the major towns in the Valley. In each of them, she reported, she and James Sager left a union hall. Perhaps the best known of all the struggles that the pair worked on was the pecan sheller's strike in San Antonio in 1937. Mela, 4 months pregnant, played a big role in motivating the striking women. Both she and James were eventually pulled out of strike leadership, along with the more famous Emma Tenayuca, because of red baiting.
On the tape, Anne Feeney asked Mela, "Have you ever lost a job because of red baiting?"
Mela answered, "Oh man, have I? I got kicked out of a job because of it. Not for being a Red but for being the wife of a Red. People didn't know who I was. But after that, I said, 'The hell with them!" As a matter of fact, when we were organizing in the Valley, is it all right to talk about this? We had no time. We had a union hall, as I told you, in every town starting from Harlingen. We went to San Benito, Brownsville, then we went to Edinberg, Weslaco, Santa Rosa, La Feria, Weslaco, and we organized a union hall in every town."
Red baiting continued to hurt the Sager family as the anti-communist witch
hunt period replaced the glory days of CIO union organizing. In the last words
recorded on the 1991 cassette tape, Mela recounted long years of low-paying
jobs and continuing FBI harassment. She also told about her husband's final
moment: "By the time he passed away, with 15 years of working, he was
getting $1.25 or $1.35, I can't remember. He was supposed to have got a pension.
He was 77 when he passed away July 18, 1979. It was the day, while he was
in the hospital. The last words of him were, 'I'm glad we got rid of Somoza
in Nicaragua, now we're going to have to get rid of him in the USA with all
of his millions and his family.' He died with a heart attack. I was glad somebody
got rid of Somoza, in some South American country. You want to hear about
For further study of the significant contributions
of socialists to Texas: http://www.labordallas.org/hist/reds.htm