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The Los Angeles Dressmakers Strike of 1933: Anita Andrade Castro Becomes a Union Activist

In October 1933 Chicana dressmakers in Los Angeles launched a citywide strike against the sweatshop conditions under which they toiled. An interview with Anita Andrade Castro, a young dressmaker who went on to become a longtime union activist, provided glimpses of the experience of the rank-and-file strikers. In two excerpts from a long interview done in 1972 by historian Sherna Gluck for the Feminist History Research Project, Castro described, first, her initiation into the union and, second, her arrest as a striker, her anxieties about the impact on her desire to become a citizen, and her encounter with a prostitute.

Listen to Audio:

Anita Andrade Castro: After the strike in New York, and I was talking to the girls in the shop one day, and I said, “It’s funny,” I said, “they have a union in New York, and I wish we had one in Los Angeles.” So this girl says to me, “Well, what would you do if they had one?” I said, “Boy,” I said, “they wouldn’t even — my heels wouldn’t touch the floor. I would go so fast to the union.”

So in the same afternoon, the one girl says to me, “And how would you like to go to a meeting with us?” So I said, “What kind of a meeting?” I know they good Catholic, but I don’t change religions. So she says, “Oh, it’s a union meeting, silly.” And I said, “All right. I’ll go.” So I went with them, and they spilled the beans, everything they were doing, how we was, piecework, and they sometimes, the tickets would get lost and you made $4 or $5 a week and you kill yourself. . .

So anyhow, we talked, and I talked most, more than anybody else. And, believe it or not, there was a stool pigeon among the group, because when we came to work the next day, the boss knew everything that had happened. So, of course, I didn’t have no idea what had happened. So the boss called me in and he told me, “Well, you owe me $10 and something for a dress.” He says, “I’ll forget about it if you just drop that union that you’re going to a meeting.” And I guess have been awfully surprised. So I says, “No, sir.” I said, “You’re not going to buy me with a dress.”I got highly insulted, you know. So anyway, I got fired.

Gluck: During this period of the general strike, were you arrested at all during that time?

Castro: I started getting arrested right away. I was arrested altogether close; Of course, not that strike only, because there was other strikes years later. But altogether, I was in jail thirty-seven times.

Gluck: And were you arrested during the general strike?

Castro: Yeah. Oh, yeah.

Gluck: Do you recall your first arrest?

Castro: The first arrest was funny. They gave me. . . I didn’t do anything. I was giving out leaflets. And, of course, I wasn’t a citizen. So, of course, that’s the most important thing. When you come to this country, you want to be good so you can become a citizen. And they gave me a bunch of leaflets, and I gave out as many as I could, and they—somebody called the police and they arrested me and—Let’s see. There was quite a few of us arrested, about six, I think. And I was new yet, so if I only could swallow those leaflets, I would have swallowed them, because I figured if they had no proof, they can’t do anything to me. And I didn’t know what they were going to do or what I had done, because the only thing—I hadn’t been fighting at all at this time because I didn’t know anything about it yet. But,

Gluck: What happened when they came up to arrest you?

Castro: They arrest me and they arrested a few others and they take us to jail. And they had told us at the union, if you get arrested, they let you make one telephone call, so be sure to call the union.

So we were arrested, and the first thing, they took all our clothes and they gave us a bath and gave us one of those jail dresses, you know, long down to here. So I tied the belt like this, and then I pulled the dress up.

And there were a bunch of us in the same room. There was all kinds of women. I think there was about four from the union. And there was all kinds. There was prostitutes and there was thieves or whatever.

So anyway, there was, I was sitting in there and I was kind of worried—not because I was in jail. I was afraid firstly because I want to be a citizen, and I couldn’t get rid of the leaflets. And the leaflets only said, “Join the union,” or “Come to a meeting.” I don’t know what else it said. So I stayed all day in jail. One woman is sitting, a young woman, and she’s crying. And I said, “Why are you crying? Why are you in jail?” and she says, “Because I was soliciting.” But I didn’t know what soliciting meant. So, “What were you doing?” and I says, “Well, I was distributing.” I thought it’s cute, she’s soliciting, I’m distributing. So I asked her what she was soliciting. So she told me. So I said, “Oh, gosh.” I says, “Why do you have to do that for?” I says, “You shouldn’t do that. That’s, I’ll tell you what,” I says, “I belong to the union.”I said, “We’re garment workers and we have a strike. But when the strike is over, then there will be plenty of jobs.” I says, “You come over and see us at the union, and you can get a job sewing. You don’t have to go looking for men.” And the reason she was crying is because she was married, and her husband was coming home and he was going to find her in jail, so I guess she was cheating.

So anyway, they all laughed at the union when I told them. Of course, to me, it’s so funny, you know.

Source: Oral history courtesy of Sherna Gluck, Feminist History Project.