Photos: The pride and pain of the UFW march

California farmworkers and their advocates walked 335 miles to the state’s capitol in support of voting protections.

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.

This photo essay was supported by the Economic Hardship Reporting Project

Passing endless crop fields on the 13th day of the march, the group walks the 22 miles from Le Grand to Merced, the longest distance so far. By late afternoon, temperatures will reach 105 degrees Fahrenheit.

José Pérez, a grandchild of farmworkers, drove down from the bay area, San Pablo, with his brother, Carlos, to join the march. Wearing his classic white Adidas — which he soon discovers will not carry him through the whole journey — he and Carlos help keep the group motivated throughout the long hot days. From the front to the back of the line, you can hear the brothers chant: “Esta marcha no es de fiesta, es de lucha y protesta. Esta marcha no es de fiesta, es de lucha y protesta.” (“This march is not a party, it is a fight and protest. This march is not a party, it is a fight and protest.”)

The scenery changes as the miles pass, from empty fields to rows of tomatoes to orchards of almond trees – crops that many of the permanent marchers and their farmworker supporters have picked by hand. At times, the road becomes difficult and unpredictable, and El Capitán has to improvise. Here, he leads the group on an unintended detour along train tracks.

“The logistics of the march have been the most challenging for me,” said El Capitán. “Making sure we arrive at the set times in every town. It is a huge responsibility.”

Communities along the route find many ways to support the marchers as they pass through their small towns. In Planada, California, Cesar Chavez Middle School students cheer the group as they take a break for lunch. The marchers are served a typical school lunch — spaghetti, bread and a fruit cup with a carton of orange juice.

By the 19th day, permanent marchers are feeling the fatigue. One of Lourdes Cardenas’ legs gives up on her, forcing her to accept a ride on one of the UFW vans. The labor union looks after its supporters, providing water, porta-potties and vans that offer a chance for much-needed rest.

Veronica Mota, one of the permanent marchers, feels agonizing pain in her feet. She’s been at the front of the march, assisting El Capitán. But now, halfway through the 24 days, she can no longer ignore her suffering. She bandages her blisters and boils and applies pain-relieving cream to her legs. “My feet are swollen. They are covered in blisters, and only painkillers calm my pain,” she said tearfully. “But the pain in my heart, a pill cannot take away. The pain that we as farmworkers carry from being intimidated to vote, threatened, and as women constantly being sexually harassed. Unable to speak out for fear of being fired.”

Veronica Mota, originally from Oaxaca, Mexico, has been a farmworker for 22 years in Madera, California. She works primarily in grape fields, harvesting and picking fruit. Now, she drives a tractor. She has faced sexual harassment from the “mayordomos” who supervise the field workers. “My motivation is my anger,” Veronica said. “My anger of being disliked as a farmworker. But my goal is to get to Sacramento. If God gives me strength and health, I will be there on the 26th.”

“At 61 years old, my body no longer feels any job too difficult. You become accustomed to it all,” said permanent marcher Teresa Mendoza. She has been a farmworker for the past 19 years, picking a variety of fruits and vegetables, including nectarines, lemons, cotton, radishes, and carrots. “I would say if there is any type of fruit or vegetable to pick that is the most difficult, it would be carrots.” Because of the kneeling and the delicate texture of the carrot in the morning, Teresa finds picking it a bit more wearing than others. Like many farmworkers, she enjoys her job. It was her employer’s mistreatment that motivated her to join the march. Teresa said she was fired after someone accused her of calling for a labor union. Given her reputation for supporting labor unions, the mayordomo assumed she was the one who complained about working conditions and fired her, under the guise that her work was now finished. Since then, she has been aching for a movement just like this one. Teresa said, “I would tell my partner, ‘I want to join a march. I want to fight for the rights that we deserve. I want to feel just like the politicians feel when they win.’”
Zaydee Sanchez / High Country News

“At first, I was driving back to Visalia every day after the march,” said permanent marcher Joshua Casas. “I realized I was driving a lot, waking up in the early morning and going home each day after walking 15 miles a day.” When UFW organizers saw Joshua returning every day to support the union, they offered him a chance to become a permanent marcher and have nightly lodging. After 14 days of marching, his body aches, especially his feet. “What keeps me going is the union. I am a U.S. citizen, so I tend to have more rights than many of my farmworker colleagues. I want to be here and show my support even through the most difficult pain,” Joshua said. He left home, his wife, and two younger children at home as he set out on the journey, praying he and everyone arrive at the Capitol safely.

From beginning to end, the community support is profound. The movement brings people together from all walks of life. Children and their families hand out water. Almost every day, someone's ama makes homemade burritos. Another woman volunteers to wash all of the marcher's clothes. And then there's the music: Throughout Merced County, a mariachi man plays his guitar, often singing “De Colores,” a song that was often sung during Cesar Chavez’s fight. It still gives the people a sense of unity.

(left) Whether it’s the charismatic mariachi man, a portable speaker, or a lowrider following along, the corridos and rancheras are always playing. Often lowriders jam out to Vicente Fernandez’s “Volver Volver,” the marchers singing along. The energy of la causa can be felt throughout, a feeling El Capitán says the Latino community has been yearning for. (right) A UPS truck passes by, honking in solidarity with the marchers, the driver waving a UFW flag.

Around 4 p.m., things begin to quiet down. The heat is now at its highest point, and only the sound of footsteps is heard. The group has about an hour to go before they reach the day’s final destination. The number of people generally decreases by now; many have had to jump inside the van to rest.

At the end of each march, the local city welcomes the peligrinos with an evening reception. If medics are present, they provide treatment for the marchers. Cynthia Burgos, a permanent marcher, has excruciating pain in her legs. A farmworker herself, she joined the movement to be able to unionize without fear of intimidation. “Can you imagine how beautiful it would be if you see your vote actually make the change happen that you wanted? I don’t understand why we can't have that. They say we are essential — then why do we not have the same benefits as everyone else?”

Cynthia began working in the Bakersfield agricultural fields after domestic violence forced her to leave Los Angeles. She had never worked as a farmworker before, and as a single mother, she had to leave her 10-month-old boy with her eldest children to work double shifts. “I think one of the most difficult things about being a farmworker is not being able to spend time with your children. You miss all the school awards and events,” Cynthia said. “I would tell my children, ‘Close your eyes and pretend that I am in the crowd, waving to you, saying hi’ and my little girl would say, ‘Mami, I saw you, I could see you.’” During the 24 days of the march, two of Cynthia's boys celebrate their birthdays. She celebrated with them through video chat.

(left) Miguel Trujillo, a poet, activist and permanent marcher, is from the American Indian Movement. With the sound of his maraca, which he says is a healing rattle, he has led the line at various times. His body is tired, Miguel said, but he added, “I am healing the earth and bringing healing to its people. You can see it from the people uniting.” (right) Sorjino, a permanent marcher, is a quiet young man who prefers to go by his first name. Everything is about equality, he says. In addition to dedicating himself to the full 24 days, he’s fasting, consuming only fluids and nuts as an additional form of protest.

UFW President Teresa Romero can’t believe the union finds itself once again marching to Sacramento. “I just can’t believe it sometimes: Here we are, 28 years later, still having to do this,” she said. “My body is tired, but the community keeps me going – the people providing food and water out of their own will, the children cheering us on. It is remarkable to see.”
On Day 24, the final day of the march, the energy is exuberant. The American Indian Movement leads thousands of supporters in prayer before they set out on the final one-mile march to the state Capitol.

Veronica Mota leads the crowd carrying La Virgin de Guadalupe. UFW President Teresa Romero, Dolores Huerta and permanent marcher Xochi Nunes chant along with the crowd, “Newsom eschucha, estamos en la lucha. Newsom eschucha, estamos en la lucha.” (“Newsom, listen, we are in the fight. Newsom, listen, we are in the fight.”)

Gov. Newsom's office releases a statement that said he cannot support AB 2183, but that there is still time for negotiations. On the steps of the Capitol, Teresa Romero addresses the crowd. “The governor says he cannot support our bill. And I say, I am going to need a new pair of shoes.” Romero and the permanent marches begin to take off their shoes, placing them on the front of the stage.

Antonio Cortez, “El Capitán,” formerly a professor in Mexico, moved to the U.S to save for a home. He worked in San Jose’s farm fields before he joined UFW. “The union has changed my life. I love my work deeply,” he said. Throughout the 24-day march, Cortez carried the responsibility of leading the marchers through safe terrain and keeping on schedule. On the steps of the Capitol, he reflected on the march. “I still keep insisting that so much sacrifice was not necessary. But we are realizing this (the march) is the only way.” He wants to make sure their sacrifice is clear, that they not only want the right to vote, they want to vote without intimidation, and they want the right to unionize if they choose to. Antonio feels it is important for farmworkers to have more than just voting rights; they need access to health care for themselves and their families, a retirement plan and better treatment in the fields. “I want ranchers to value their workers. Yes, the ranchers hold 50% of the power, but have they not forgot that we the workers hold the other 50%? We are equal. We need them, but they need us just the same.”

On Monday, Aug. 29, AB 2183 passed both California’s Senate and Assembly. The bill has now landed on Gov. Newsom’s desk. Both President Joe Biden and Speaker Nancy Pelosi have released individual statements supporting it. As the UFW and its supporters wait for Newsom’s response, they are hosting 24-hour vigils in four major cities, Sacramento, San Francisco, Fresno, and Los Angeles. A decision is expected by the end of September.

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.

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