Luisa Moreno: A Proud San Diego Troublemaker

by on October 4, 2019 · 2 comments

in History, Labor, San Diego

By Brett Warnke

In a 1991 article John Celardo writes, “Luisa Moreno sensed the local uneasiness created by [World War II], particularly in San Diego.  Housing was in short supply, rations became a nuisance, transportation became a problem, and racial conflicts in the Navy and around San Diego became more intense.”

Luisa Moreno was born and died in Guatemala but spent the 1940s and 1950s as one of San Diego’s tireless and brave local labor organizers.  She challenged the bogus tranquility of our quiet little paradise in the sun. She understood the divisions and attempted to forge friendships across the city but, like most greats, she had all the right enemies.

Loathed by the conservative media owners on the side of the rich, Moreno was hunted by the KKK, local vigilante groups, but lived as a human bridge between communities and classes.  Local mob groups forced her to leave her home in San Diego and relocate to Guatemala until a CIA-backed coup forced her to leave once more.

As our country’s labor organizing evaporates under a two-party system suspicious of any organizations outside of it, our military town’s own labor legacy should be reviewed.  And Luisa Moreno’s face should be seen throughout OB’s and San Diego’s public spaces–in statues, murals, t-shirts, and emblazoned over our public buildings.

She is a proud reminder of the best of San Diego.

Moreno’s legacy, a Chicana activist and radical labor organizer could be our cherished legacy in Ocean Beach, but will it?  Do we still hold the fiery spirit for justice?  Or are we another risk-averse suburb, a sleepy bar stop of the “chill” herd?

After all, Moreno was the personification of a strong and thoughtful intersectional voice who bravely spoke up against exploitation and abuse in the working classes around San Diego.  When she first saw police beat down Latino protestors during the economic collapse of the Great Depression, Moreno knew how she would spend her life.

In an extraordinary profile by Carlos M. Larrade and Richard Griswold del Castillo, Moreno’s rich life of activism shines through.  “If you want to survive in politics,” she said in an an interview, “you need to be thick-skinned and not be baited by distractions or turbulent individuals.”

After working in the American South, Moreno settled in San Diego in 1937 and worked for the United Fish Cannery Workers Union as an organizer for local 64.  She sacrificed a life of peaceful motherhood for organizing, uncertainty and a collision with capitalism.  As a result of her bilingual charisma, Moreno was able to manage a network of activists and organizers.  As more workers immigrated from Mexico during World War II, clashes began with locals and the military, too.  Workers of color, especially in unions, were seen as dangerous infiltrators in a heating brew of racism and fear.

From this uncertainty, Mexicans became San Diego’s scapegoats.  America has seen this before:  Evildoers, Troublemakers, Witches, Illegal aliens, Bad Hombres, Welfare Queens, misceginating politically correct vegans.

In times of great uncertainty, when the social bonds of a local community wither, scapegoats can be seen on every corner.  Understanding how the fear is created and root causes of malaise and anxiety were Moreno’s special gifts.

Moreno’s most famous moment came as the paranoia and racism of serviceman targeted “Zoot Suiters.”  Wandering bands of military men roamed through the streets both on foot and in taxis harassing stylish looking men of color in fancy suits.  These mobs beat them up as police turned the other way and the media kicked up an atmosphere of fear.

But Moreno worked to stop wild rumors and criticized even the use of the word “riot.” She was a voice of calm.  She also worked to organize the first labor rights congress for Spanish-speakers.  Yet local papers run by conservatives smashed her attempts at postwar bonds across race and class.  Racist measures like “Operation Wetback” (praised by then-candidate Donald Trump) rounded up people of color, some of them citizens, and dumped them off in the desert over the Mexican border.  Some deportees died of dehydration.  The radicals, organizers and progressives of the political 1930s became the targets of the Red Scare in California of the “tranquil” 1950s.

In her extraordinary “Caravan of Sorrows” speech Moreno described the atmosphere of the time in San Diego, a time filled with fear and anxiety.  She invoked the wild memories of the hysteria after World War I, when the Attorney General Palmer, a progressive turned reactionary, who raided radical groups and began deporting “aliens.”

“For [Latinos] the Palmer days have never ended.  In recent years while deportations in general have decreased, the number of persons deported to Mexico has constantly increased.”

Thuggish groups of patriotic vigilantes formed and wrote Moreno threatening notes, calling her “a dangerous alien.”  Little thug bigmouths in office, one who sat on the “Un-American activities” committees, even labeling her a “parasitic menace.”

Yes, reactionary thugs in government, paid by the growers and industry, condemned a proud, organizing woman of color.  Can such things be believed?  In America?

After severe threats, Moreno was forced to flee with her husband to Mexico and then to Guatemala before an American-backed coup toppled the reformist government of President Arbenz.  This event ushered in decades of right-wing dictatorship, genocide, migration, and civil war.

By the 1980s, 150,000 civilians had been killed in Guatemala.

But Moreno’s legacy shouldn’t only be one of how the fear-mongers forced a brave trouble-maker out of San Diego.  In her famous speech Moreno for the Spanish-Speaking People’s Congress she said the “Caravans of Sorrow” were becoming “Caravans of Hope.”  She spoke of the possibilities for Latinos in the United States:

“They are organizing in trade unions with other workers in agriculture and industry…the purpose of this movement is to seek an improvement of social, economic, and cultural conditions, and for the integration of Spanish-speaking citizens and noncitizens into the American nation.”

Moreno’s legacy should be seen on OB’s walls, taught in OB’s schools, and we should follow her model as we discuss our own troublemakers and scapegoats.  Her model is not easy tolerance but demanding justice, not hysterical fear but empathetic understanding, not reaction but organization.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

ZZ October 4, 2019 at 1:18 pm

Brett’s Woke Academic Score this article is 5. Not bad, but can do better:

+5 for constant references to race/racism
+2 for three “reactionaries”
+1 for one “intersectional” but really should be using this term every single paragraph
-3 for using Latino or Latina. The proper term, Grampa B, is now “Latinx”


Brett October 5, 2019 at 1:24 pm

I’ve heard it mentioned in all my fan mail that, yes, I am indeed woke.


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