Why Faith Leaders Joined Farmworkers During Their 335-Mile March | Sojourners

Why Faith Leaders Joined Farmworkers During Their 335-Mile March

Farmworkers on their march from Delano to Sacramento, Calif. Courtesy of United Farm Workers

Farmworkers in California marched 335 miles in 24 days to meet with Gov. Gavin Newsom and urge him to support a bill that would allow mail-in ballots in union elections.

The marchers, organized by the United Farm Workers, were joined by hundreds of allies, including faith leaders, throughout their march. Farmworkers marched through triple-digit temperature days on their peregrinacion (pilgrimage). They carried American and Mexican flags, flags with union logos, and a banner featuring a large image of Our Lady of Guadalupe, a title for the Virgin Mary that carries special significance for Mexican and Mexican-Americans. Marchers proclaimed, “We feed you!” and chanted the UFW slogan “Sí, se puede (Yes, it can be done!)”

The march began in Delano and trekked to Sacramento — the same route that Cesar Chávez led farmworkers on in 1966 to bring attention to the Delano farmworkers’ strike. Twenty-five marchers walked the full 335 miles, while hundreds of others joined for portions of the march; many local churches hosted marchers along the way.

“As permanent marchers, we feel really grateful that everywhere we arrive they welcome us with open hands and recognize our sacrifice,” Teresa Maldonado Mendoza, a farmworker who participated in the full 335-mile march, told Sojourners in Spanish with UFW communications director Leydy Rangel translating.

Maldonado Mendoza told Sojourners that each day’s march began with a priest’s blessing, encouraging and strengthening them in their journey.

“The farmworkers always carry that faith with us. We believe in the Virgin of Guadalupe and everywhere we arrive, it’s been her, Our Lady of Guadalupe, who has been with us at the front,” Maldonado Mendoza said. “We have such a big faith in Our Virgin of Guadalupe. We have never left her, and she will continue helping us.”

Farmworkers and their allies are hoping their actions encourage Newsom to sign AB 2183, a bill that would allow mail-in ballots in union elections, which farmworkers say is essential to prevent intimidation from bosses. Farmworkers were excluded from federal protections of union access to worksites in the 1930s; in 2020, the Supreme Court struck down a California law allowing union representatives on private farms.

On the ninth day of the march, Fresno Bishop Joseph Brennan and Bishop Emeritus Armando Xavier Ochoa joined the march. Chandler Marquez, communications director for the Diocese of Fresno, told Sojourners that Brennan had done extensive research and heard from proponents for and against the bill, concluding that it was “obvious that no one, including our farmworkers who are such an integral part of the harvest, should vote on union rights with fear of intimidation.”

“[The bishops] knew that true support meant they had to be out in the heat with marchers, showing solidarity and also showing support of the bill,” Marquez said. “During the march it was apparent how many people in the community are tied to farmworkers and how many people want to support them and their rights.”

The bishops, Marquez said, hope the governor will “do the right thing and sign the bill.”

Clayton Sinyai, executive director of the Catholic Labor Network, said Catholic social teaching is consistent on the right to organize, but church leaders haven’t always followed suit.

“It’s very good to see the leaders of the church standing with the most marginalized workers, in defense of this right the church has consistently thought about and upheld throughout the years,” Sinyai said. “It’s always been church doctrine, but it’s not always been a priority for church leaders.”

Many faith leaders who joined the marchers were organized together by Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice, or CLUE, an interfaith justice movement in Southern California. Matthew Hom, an organizer with CLUE, told Sojourners that one of CLUE’s Catholic leaders, Daniel Orellana-Rogers, participated in the full march.

To support the marchers, CLUE began coordinating with UNITE HERE Local 11, a local union, to send a group to join for a day of marching.

Hom and others marched 9 miles with the farmworkers that day.

“[My feet] were tired, but the heat was the hardest thing,” Hom said. Fresno reached 99 degrees Fahrenheit that day, according to AccuWeather.

Mark Vinzani, who lives at the LA Catholic Worker, agreed that the heat was the most challenging part of the march. The Catholic Worker movement, founded by Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin, has supported unions and farmworkers as part of the Catholic call toward economic justice. Vinzani noted that the LA Catholic Worker had always held a close relationship with farmworkers in the area, and that joining the march was a natural continuation of their support for labor rights.

“A big part of our ministry is that we run a soup kitchen right in the heart of Skid Row,” Vinzani said. “Since we’re in the business of soup kitchens and serving people food, it’s really important to honor and remember the people who make it happen, the people who do the hard work so that we’re able to serve folks.”

Erin Mellon, communications director in the governor’s office, told Sojourners that he would meet with the marchers when they arrive in Sacramento. The governor has not agreed to sign the bill, which has overwhelming support in the state legislature.

“Governor Newsom is eager to sign legislation that expands opportunity for agricultural workers to come together and be represented, and he supports changes to state law to make it easier for these workers to organize,” Mellon said in a statement. “However, we cannot support an untested mail-in election process that lacks critical provisions to protect the integrity of the election, and is predicated on an assumption that government cannot effectively enforce laws.”