The Pride and Pain of the UFW March
The sun rises on California’s San Joaquin Valley, coloring the dawn sky with soft light blues and pinks. Sunrays shine on people as they emerge from cars, unloading water bottles, sombreros, bandannas, painkillers and portable speakers for the morning’s reception. A light breeze ripples the various cultural and historical flags the demonstrators carry, including the United States flag, the California state flag, Mexico’s flag and the flag of the American Indian Movement. The historic banner that leads this crusade, with its black Aztec eagle on a rich red background, represents the labor union, the United Farm Workers. This morning routine, and the preparation for the day, will repeat daily throughout the duration of the march.
On Aug. 3, 2022, the United Farm Workers (UFW) began a 24-day “peregrinación,” walking from Delano, California, to the state Capitol in Sacramento. The marchers embarked on a 335-mile route in the blazing summer heat, retracing the route of the legendary 1966 “March to Sacramento,” led by the UFW’s iconic founders, Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta. In ’66, California farmworkers were on a six-month strike when the union decided to make a dramatic public statement by marching to the state Capitol, demanding higher pay, safer working conditions and recognition of their union. In 1994, on the first anniversary of Cesar Chavez’s death, Arturo Rodriguez led the union once again to Sacramento, defining a new chapter in its existence and reassuring farmworkers and growers that Cesar Chavez’s legacy is still very much alive.
Twenty-eight years later, history is repeating itself. The organization and its allies are again making the grueling journey, this time to urge California Gov. Gavin Newsom to sign the California Agricultural Labor Relations Voting Choice Act (Assembly Bill 2183). The bill would give farmworkers more voting rights and provide protection for those voting in union elections. Currently, the voting system only permits farmworkers to vote in person and at their place of employment, where farmworkers often face intimidation from their employers. If the bill passes, it would enable them to vote from home by mail, as well as to form a union. A similar bill, AB 61, was vetoed last September by the governor, who said that it contained “various inconsistencies.”
The UFW and its supporters were not discouraged; union members say it has only made “la causa” stronger. Each morning, the sound of prayers begins the day — led by a local priest, a member of the Native American movement, sometimes a “permanent marcher,” one of the 21 marchers who have committed themselves to the entire 335 miles. At 7 a.m., El Capitán Antonio Cortez blows his whistle, signaling that it’s time for the demonstrators to line up. Each day, one person walks in front carrying La Virgen de Guadalupe, an honor for whoever has been chosen to set the pace that day. Marchers hold tightly to the flags that waved in the morning’s warm but rapidly changing weather, walking along the side of the highways. By noon, temperatures will reach the high 90s, and by 2 p.m., triple-digit heat will beat down on everyone. Permanent marchers are up front in their red UFW shirts, and supporters line the roads. The immortal chant — “¡Si, se puede!” — carries the group throughout the day.
Zaydee Sanchez is a Mexican American visual storyteller, documentary photographer and writer from Tulare, California, in the San Joaquin Valley. She seeks to highlight underreported communities and overlooked narratives, with a focus on labor workers, gender and displacement. Zaydee is an International Women’s Media Foundation grantee and a 2021 USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism Fellow. Her work has been published in Al Jazeera, National Geographic, NPR and more. She currently resides in Los Angeles.
Co-published with High Country News.