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Luisa Moreno

Luisa Moreno (August 30, 1907-November 4, 1992)

Labor Leader/Social Activist

During Black History Month 2014, the Center for the Church and the Black Experience is honoring faithful Black women freedom fighters. Today we honor Luisa Moreno.

morenoA Guatemalan immigrant who became a union organizer in the United States and an outspoken critic of injustice, Luisa Moreno was a passionate crusader on behalf of all workers, particularly women of color.

Born Blanca Rosa Lopez Rodriguez to an upper-class family, Mrs. Moreno’s family immigrated to the United States in 1916.  She attended the College of the Holy Name in California before returning to Guatemala.  For the next few years, she wrote poetry and worked for local newspapers, which fueled her interest in social issues.  When she moved to New York City in 1928 with her husband, Guatemalan artist Miguel Angel de Leon, Mrs. Moreno immediately became involved in labor organizing after she saw how segregation affected people of color living there.  Because of her parents’ disapproval of her outspoken positions, she changed her name to Luisa Moreno in honor of the Mexican labor organizer, Luis Moreno.   

During the Great Depression, to support her unemployed husband and their daughter, Mrs. Moreno worked in a sweat shop in Spanish Harlem, experiencing first-hand the challenges of long hours for little pay.  Soon, she took a job at a cafeteria and participated in a strike with her co-workers during which her face was bloodied.  Mrs. Moreno joined the Communist Party, having been attracted by its goals of desegregating public facilities, organizing workers, providing relief for those in need, protesting police brutality and the deportation of Mexicans.  She traveled the country, organizing black and Latina cigar rollers in Florida, cane workers in Louisiana, sugar beet workers in Colorado, field and packing house workers in California, as well as tuna packers in San Diego.  Mrs. Moreno became a leader in several union organizations, including the United Cannery Agricultural Packing, and Allied Workers of America (UCAPAWA).

By 1937, Mrs. Moreno and her husband had divorced, but the single mother was undeterred in her quest for justice.  As a forceful bilingual speaker and writer who was also trustworthy and likeable, she was effective in building coalitions among the diverse groups as she helped people see the oppression that affected them all.  She also organized in San Diego the El Congreso de Pueblos que Hablan Español (the National Spanish-Speaking Congress) that networked Mexican American unions, organizations, clubs and associations.  This triggered an investigation by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC).

Mrs. Moreno continued her work across the country and married Gray Bemis, a U. S. Navy sailor, in 1947.  They settled in San Diego, but in 1948, after she had applied for U. S. citizenship, the HUAC determined that she was a “dangerous alien”.  As the situation deteriorated and she saw that her associates were being affected by the HUAC’s witch hunt, she and Bemis decided to voluntarily leave the country, moving to Mexico and then back to Guatemala, where they opened some small businesses.  Though she no longer worked as an organizer, Mrs. Moreno’s legacy as an early activist remains etched in the labor movement’s history.


Compiled by Rhonda K. Craven

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