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On Tacos and Solidarity: Bay Area Chefs Show Up for Marching Farm Workers

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An activist holding an red-and-white United Farm Workers flag raises her fist as she leads a group of marchers walking along the highway.
Flor Martinez Zaragoza walks with United Farm Workers and their supporters as they march through Walnut Grove on Day 22 of a 24-day march to convince Governor Gavin Newsom to sign Assembly Bill 2183, the Agricultural Labor Relations Voting Choice Act. The march started in the Central Valley and will conclude with a rally in Sacramento on August 26. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Long before his food truck, Al Pastor Papi, became San Francisco’s most prominent ambassador of tacos al pastor, Miguel Escobedo had an even more basic connection to food: He was the grandchild of farm workers. His grandfather first came to the United States from Mexico in the late 1950s to work in the fields through the government-sanctioned Bracero program. That was the beginning of his family’s American journey. For Escobedo, then, the challenges and struggles that farm workers face have always felt intensely personal. 

“My success—and hundreds of restaurateurs’ success—is pinned to the labor of my grandfather and all those people,” he says.

So, when Escobedo heard about the historic, 335-mile march that the United Farm Workers embarked on this month—walking from California’s Central Valley all the way up to Sacramento—to demand that Governor Gavin Newsom sign a bill expanding farm workers’ union voting rights, he knew he needed to show his support. 

Last week, Escobedo announced to Al Pastor Papi’s 33,000-plus Instagram followers that he would be donating 10% of proceeds from the taco truck’s Friday night Fort Mason Off the Grid gig to support the UFW march—a fundraising effort that wound up yielding more than $600. Then, on Tuesday morning, Escobedo loaded up his truck with hats, socks and big cases of water, Gatorade and hydration powder. He drove up to Walnut Grove, some 30 miles outside of Sacramento, and spent the afternoon passing the supplies out to farm workers who were finishing up another long day of marching in the sweltering 94-degree heat—many had already walked for 20 days. He gave hugs to as many of them as he could.

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The specific piece of legislation in question, Assembly Bill 2183, would allow farm workers to cast their ballots for union elections by mail, in private, without fear of intimidation by their employer. Last year, the governor vetoed a similar bill. For Escobedo, the bill is just a way for farm workers to have more control over their participation in the union—and, by extension, over their own working conditions. “It’s just power to the people and power to the farm workers, making sure that they’re looked after and their voices are heard loud and clear,” he says.

“It’s not a Latino issue, it’s a human compassion issue,” Escobedo adds. “It affects anyone who eats produce—that’s everybody.”

Marivel Mendoza, a co-founder of the nonprofit Hijas del Campo, explains that the conditions facing farm workers reached a real crisis point during the pandemic. Along with three other first-generation Mexican American mothers, Mendoza started the organization in 2020 to support local farm workers in the Oakley and Brentwood areas of East Contra Costa County who were still going out into the fields every day, even during the worst stretches of the pandemic—even when wildfires put their lives at risk. 

“We realized that they aren’t getting things like stimulus checks or any sort of relief,” Mendoza says. “If they can’t work, they’re out of that money.” 

Mendoza, whose parents were farm workers after they first arrived in the U.S., says she and another co-founder both plan to attend the final rally in Sacramento on Friday, Aug. 26, as a way to show solidarity—to “be another person in the crowd that has directly come from the campesino community and wants to see more rights.”

She also stressed the importance of restaurant owners and other members of the Bay Area food community using their platform to raise awareness about farm workers’ struggles.

Two chefs stand in front of a large pan set up inside an outdoor tent.
Sergio Monleón (left) of Berkeley’s La Marcha and Miguel Escobedo of Al Pastor Papi drove out to Walnut Grove, CA, on Tuesday, Aug. 23, to help pass out food and supplies to the marching farm workers. (Courtesy of Miguel Escobedo)

Like Escobedo, Sergio Monleón, chef and co-owner at Berkeley’s La Marcha, a Spanish tapas bar, grew up hearing about farm workers’ rights. Monleón’s mother was an activist, and he remembers attending United Farm Workers rallies in Los Angeles as a kid. At the time, the chants of “sí, se puede” didn’t mean much to him. Now, however, he has a much greater appreciation of how important farm workers are. “They are the backbone of what I built my entire career on,” he says.

Now Monleón has come full circle, bringing his own 8-year-old kid out with him to serve food to the UFW marchers. On Monday, they passed out about 100 plates of paella to marchers and community supporters in Galt. The marchers were in high spirits, he says, and happy to have a chance to try his paella—a nice change of pace from the steady stream of pizza and burritos they’d been given at other stopovers along the way.

La Marcha has set up a GoFundMe page for supporters to make donations to help fund these meals—it’s raised nearly $3,000 so far. Monleón says his plan is to continue to feed the marchers every day this week, including at Friday’s finale in Sacramento. 

 

Al Pastor Papi’s Escobedo hopes fans of his food truck who weren’t able to make it out to last week’s fundraising event might consider making a direct donation to the United Farm Workers.  Of course, he realizes that many of his customers might only care about buying a taco; they may not be aware of, or particularly interested in, his activism. 

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But Escobedo feels like it’s his job to raise awareness about farm worker conditions, even if it only makes a small, incremental difference. “If 100 people out of the 34,000 who follow me [on Instagram], it piques their interest—maybe they’ll stop and say, this does involve me,” he says. “If we enlighten one person, and they’re ready to mobilize, we’ve won.”

As the United Farm Workers and their supporters marched through Walnut Grove, they were greeted by members of the Bay Area food community who had come out to pass out food and supplies. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

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