Waving a small labor union flag, 72-year-old Damien Hernandez shuffled slowly under the midday sun, keeping pace Thursday with other marchers on the first leg of a two-day trek to protest a recent crackdown on suspected illegal immigrants across Southern California.
The day was warm and the road from Santa Paula to Oxnard awfully long. But the Oxnard strawberry picker said he had no doubt he would finish, welcoming the 17-mile hike as a break from his days of stoop labor.
"This march is about justice," Hernandez said. "We want to tell the community that immigrants are here to work, not to take anything away. And we want workers to be treated with dignity and respect."
Dozens of marchers took that message to the streets Thursday in a walking rally organized by the United Farm Workers union.
The Ventura County event is one of several UFW-led demonstrations being held across California this week.
The rallies were launched in response to a recent U.S. Border Patrol crackdown on suspected illegal immigrants, a move that stirred fear and outrage in some heavily Latino neighborhoods.
The rallies also were aimed at spurring support for the so-called AgJobs bill, legislation pending before Congress that would make about half a million undocumented farm workers eligible for legal status.
March organizers said they saw the two issues as related, noting that legalization would lessen the need for such Border Patrol enforcement and allow workers who were currently undocumented to live free of the fear of capture and deportation.
"We are marching to support those workers who don't have a voice," said Oxnard strawberry picker Guillermo Licea, carrying a banner emblazoned with an image of the Virgin Mary in one hand and a placard supporting legalization in the other. "If we don't work in the fields, who will do that work?"
The march began in a park across from Santa Paula City Hall and cut through town, past Angel's Donuts, Sancho's Cocktail Lounge and the Payless Smoke Shop.
Motorists honked their horns in support, keeping time with the UFW chant of "Si se puede, si se puede!" ("Yes we can, yes we can.") A van hauling a portable toilet trailed the marchers, in case the need arose. Oxnard resident Cuauhtemoc Magana maintained a running commentary on a bullhorn to explain the activity to the curious.
"We need your support; we work hard, and we want to keep doing it," he bellowed. "We are marching for human dignity. If we don't, no one else will."
Marchers left the city limits and cut through the countryside dotted with nurseries and citrus orchards. Several late-comers joined the procession along the way. At one point, a group of nursery workers briefly left their jobs to applaud the assemblage and join in the pro-union chants.
The first day ended at Cabrillo Village in east Ventura, a former farm labor camp-turned-farm worker housing cooperative. Day 2 kicks off today at 9 a.m. at the housing complex and will wend its way to Plaza Park in downtown Oxnard.
"It's good for the soul," said union supporter Denis O'Leary, an Oxnard-area teacher and school board member.
"We need to make sure some corrective action is taken in the policy toward immigrant workers," he said. "It's the right thing to do and the right time to do it."