Mapping a different kind of bicycle tour

Photos (clockwise from top left): Kern River Oil Field by Steve Boland (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0); Cesar Chavez stands in front of a map detailing the route of the 1966 march. Credit: Jon Lewis Photographs of the United Farm Workers Movement. Yale Collection of Western Americana, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library; supporters gathered at the Azteca Theater in Fresno, California to greet the members of the farm workers march, by Gerhard Gscheidle, from the cover of the April 1966 edition of The Movement, the magazine of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee; National Park Service map of California's Central Valley.

This article is part of a series by J. Nathan Matias for a 500+ mile bicycle ride in June 2023 that is raising funds for Rising Voices, Global Voices’ endangered/Indigenous language program, and the Central California Environmental Justice Network. Donate to the initiative here

This year, the U.S. Senate is voting on the Cesar Chavez and Farm Worker National Park, which could establish a Historical Park in California along the route of the 1966 Farm Workers March. For six days in June, Ivan Sigal and I will follow their journey by bicycle, riding 500-plus miles from Bakersfield to Sacramento and then out to the Pacific Ocean. Along the way, we will report on the legacy of the march, interact with leaders working for change today, and experience the landscape that shapes the shared future of our planet.

Bicycle tours tend to prioritize beautiful views, great food, and quiet roads—and we love those things too. But since our ride is also a journalistic exercise, we needed to learn more about the 1966 march and develop a different philosophy of route-making.

Why did farm workers march 280 miles from Delano to Sacramento?

By the 1960s, generations of immigrants from China, Japan, the Philippines, the Eastern US, and Mexico were working in California as farm laborers cultivating fruit, vegetables, and nuts along the Central Valley’s 450-mile span. In the previous century, farmers, engineers, and government officials had drained Lake Tulare, built a system of dams and reservoirs, and managed the flow of labor for millions of immigrants at the same industrial scale as the flow of water. The laws, however, that grant American workers the right to negotiate their work conditions and engage in collective bargaining excluded farm workers—an exception that remains in place today.

In the fall of 1965, when Filipino workers in the city of Coachella successfully negotiated wage increases with grape growers, Filipino and Mexican communities 270 miles away in Delano started a nonviolent strike, demanging wage increases and union recognition from the area’s grape farms. The communities organized a fund to support families that lost income, “Huelga priests” (“huelga” is the Spanish word for “strike”) held masses for the strikes, and El Teatro Campesino developed songs and plays about the movement. By December 1965, national unions had also called for a general boycott of the growers’ table grapes.

By February 1966, the campaign seemed at risk. Growers were circumventing the unions by hiring different workers for the new season, and the state government was unresponsive to the workers’ appeals. A group of organizers gathered for a three-day meeting to decide their next steps. Inspired by other marches that had been successful at gaining public attention, they settled on a 280-mile march from Delano to Governor Pat Brown’s office in Sacramento during the Christian observance of Lent, in the form of a religious pilgrimage. At each town, the group of activist-pilgrims would read their demands and urge communities to refuse work from grape growers. The final day, Easter Sunday, would end with Mass and an appeal to Governor Brown, who was up for re-election that year.

What route did farm workers follow in 1966 as they carried banners of the Aztec eagle, symbols of the Virgin of Guadalupe, and a cross? An archival photo shows César Chávez pointing at the route sketched out with a thick felt-tipped pen on a large sheet of paper. The National Park Service site, “A Fight for Bread and Dignity,” describes the route in greater detail.

Cesar Chavez stands in front of a map detailing the route of the 1966 march. Credit: Jon Lewis Photographs of the United Farm Workers Movement. Yale Collection of Western Americana, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.

Following the route of march on bicycle turns out to be tricky. When I first mentioned the idea, many locals responded with concern—“You’re not going to ride Route 99, are you?” Local governments are developing the Central Valley Passage, which could offer car-free cycling along major sites in the proposed Historical Park. In the meantime, the most direct route is a six-lane highway with little to no paved shoulder. Even the marchers themselves were required to leave Route 99 as their numbers grew.

Charting a pilgrimage through unfinished dreams

As a computer scientist, it would be easy for me to imagine our route as the kind of path optimization problem we professors sometimes give our students. But as I looked at the pile of maps from the National Park Service, I realized I had an even deeper question: what does it mean to retrace a legendary act whose story is still incomplete?

To answer this question, I reached out to Marshall Ganz, who helped organize the 1966 Farm Workers March. In our conversation, we discussed the whiplash of there being widespread recognition for the movement in monuments and history books—while farm workers still face very challenging conditions and sometimes have even fewer rights than they did in 1966.

Marshall reminded me that the 1966 march was imagined as a pilgrimage. In the Christian tradition, no pilgrimage is ever truly complete: the journey presents a recurring opportunity to honor the spirit of the past in the present, walking toward a new future in the company of others.

Telling stories about today's leaders is important because American democracy has a tendency to prioritize symbolic progress over substance. As the late philosopher Hanna Pitkin argued, recognition and representation don't always translate to real changes in people's lives. That's one reason why we're meeting today's leaders and raising funds for organizations working for change in our time. I hope our ride will honor important history and support the work people are doing now to improve lives across the Central Valley.



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