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.
In the previous post in this series, I wrote about the special challenge posed by the fact that the bicycle ride Ivan Sigal and I will be doing in June retraces a historical act—the 1966 California Farmworkers March—whose story is still incomplete. To explore and understand the unfinished dream of the Farmworkers March and what it represents, we'll be interweaving history with the stories of people who are shaping the future of California's Central Valley today. That's why Ivan and I are prioritizing three things on our route:
- locations of historical importance
- leaders who are shaping the future of the Central Valley
- landscapes that reveal the larger forces that communities reckon with
You can see how we balance these factors in our decision to start in Bakersfield rather than Delano, and our decision to end the ride not in Sacramento, California's state capital, but rather in Oakland, with a celebration along the San Francisco Bay. The path to the ocean is a constant part of debates about farming, water, and the health of the Central Valley, and we decided it would be impossible to understand those stories without also following the Sacramento-Joaquin Delta out to the ocean.
May 31: We'll arrive in Bakersfield and meet in Arvin, a town that continues to be defined by climate, labor, and migration. We'll be meeting with community leaders at the Central California Environmental Justice Network. Arvin was made famous by Weedpatch Camp, a refugee camp John Steinbeck wrote about during the Dust Bowl migration of the 1930s. In the last year, leaders in Arvin have successfully advocated for state-wide buffer zones between oil wells and people's homes.
June 1: On our first day, we will ride from Bakersfield to Delano, learning more about the history of oil and agriculture that still defines the region's local economy. We'll also visit Forty Acres, the former national headquarters of the United Farm Workers of America and one of the proposed locations of the Historical Park the US Senate will be voting on establishing this year.
June 2: The second day’s ride will start along the route of the Farmworkers March and then turn south to visit two communities defined by access to water. At Allensworth State Historic Park, we'll learn more about the Black leaders and former enslaved people who established an independent community in 1908. The town was condemned in the 1970s due to problems with the water supply. We also plan to visit the Matheny Tract, an unincorporated community of 300 households that successfully advocated for water access in 2016. We also plan to meet with community leaders before rejoining the farmworkers’ route in Visalia on our way to the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains.
June 3: Water and air will also be the themes of our third day, where we will follow the snowmelt from Sequoia National Park into Fresno. While there, we plan to meet with groups who are working to improve air quality near schools, and people organizing religious communities around climate, labor, and health issues.
June 4: On the fourth day of our ride, a Sunday, we will learn more about Mexican-American cultural heritage in the Central Valley, visiting the legendary Azteca Theater in Fresno, established in 1948 as the first Spanish-language cinema in the Central Valley. The theater played an important role in the Golden age of Mexican Cinema (more here), and in 1966 hosted a rally for the marching farmworkers. On our way out of Fresno, we will visit the Friant Dam, a still-debated infrastructure project completed in 1942 that provides water across the San Joaquin Valley. We'll continue in parallel to the San Joaquin River to Madera, Chowchilla, and end a long day of riding in Merced.
June 5: By the time the 1966 Farmworkers March reached Merced it had grown to more than 200 people. On the fifth day, we will follow their route through Turlock, Modesto, Stockton, and other towns where the march grew in numbers and developed into an international media sensation that inspired gatherings around the world. We will visit churches and community centers where labor leader and civil rights activist Dolores Huerta grew up and gained early experience as an organizer—communities that embraced her and the other marchers on their pilgrimage to Sacramento, where a welcoming crowd of ten to fifteen thousand people awaited them.
June 6: Our sixth and final day will start in Sacramento at the steps of the state Capitol where the marchers held an Easter mass and celebrated their success at gaining a union contract that let them engagine in collective bargaining on behalf of grape industry workers. From there, we will turn south, following the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, which was designated a National Heritage Area in 2019.
Riding our bicycles for 100 miles along winding levee roads with a small group of friends and supporters (contact us if you're interested in joining the ride), we will reflect on the millennia-old conversation between humans and the land that shapes our climate, our livelihoods, and our shared future. People who want to join us for a shorter ride can meet up with us at the RockRidge BART station to roll through town for the last few miles.
The ride will end with a picnic for friends and supporters in Oakland on the shores of the San Francisco Bay.
- NPS Study Team (2013). Cesar Chavez Special Resource Study and Environmental Assessment: Summary and Final Recommendations. National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior.
- Berg, C. R. (2015). The Classical Mexican Cinema: The Poetics of the Exceptional Golden Age Films. University of Texas Press.