In January 1990, hundreds of garment workers arrived at the Levi Strauss plant on South Zarzamora as they had for years, ready for the day’s tasks.
They were told to gather for a message from management. It turned out to be the last thing an employee wants to hear: the plant was shutting down.
The workers, many Mexican American women who lived on the South Side, were stunned. Management said the company had to close the plant to stay competitive. The womens’ jobs were shipped to Costa Rica and their families were minus a much-needed paycheck.
They focused their pain into forming a nonprofit named Fuerza Unida, Spanish for United Force.
With little education and not much standing, the women fought back. They organized boycotts, hunger strikes and other protests. They also filed a lawsuit, which didn’t result in compensation but brought attention to their issues and strengthened community resolve. In the end, the group was able to secure training and education for the laid-off workers and then severance pay for the workers of the other two San Antonio Levi’s plants that closed in 2003.
Tuesday night, the group celebrated 29 years of social activism and community involvement at their South Side headquarters, located on New Laredo Highway.
More than 40 members and guests, largely women, attended the presentation hosted by former Levi workers and co-founders Petra Mata and Viola Casares who detailed their struggle from devastation to self reliance.
They’ve set up a sewing cooperative to help members find work; a food pantry and a community garden. They also sponsor an annual Summer Youth Leadership program that teaches young people leadership skills. The teens also learn about issues plaguing the city, such as hunger, homelessness and dating violence.
One teen inspired by the movement is Mata’s granddaughter, Olivia Quintana.
“Seeing my grandmother always being successful in her work and having just a little spark of fire in her … she’s always helping out in the community,” Olivia, 14, said. “That made me want to get involved in the community.”
Over the years, the women of Fuerza Unida have joined women advocates in other places, attending conferences across the nation, Canada, Central America and France.