One day in the early 1980s a 20-something named Teresa Romero arrived in Los Angeles from Mexico on a temporary visa.
She knew right away this would be her home.
Romero became a U.S. citizen under the 1986 immigration bill signed by President Ronald Reagan. Those early years in a new country were tough, as she recalls.
"I didn't speak or understand English," said Romero. But that would hardly keep her from progressing in a new culture, a new land. She got help from her grandmother, who also didn't speak a word of English — or Spanish for that matter.
Her grandmother was full-blooded Zapotec, an indigenous people from the state of Oaxaca. She had moved to Mexico City and only spoke her native tongue. But Grandma survived in her new environment, and Romero drew strength from that.
Romero moved to Lancaster to manage her family-run construction company and a law firm that helped workers with immigration matters and workers comp claims. And then, in 2009, she decided to try something new.
"By chance, I applied for the job of executive assistant to the president of the United Farm Workers union," said Romero, now 60 and distinctive with her salt and pepper hair. "I was familiar with the farmworkers' struggle by reading and viewing the documentary 'Fighting for Our Lives'," she said. She got the job.
A lot has happened in Romero's life since then. She rose through the ranks and today is the UFW's secretary-treasurer and chief administrative officer. Last week, she was named as the new president of the UFW, replacing Arturo Rodriguez, who is relinquishing the job in December after 25 years at the helm.
Why retire now? "It's a good time to step down because we are in a strong position," said Rodriguez.
He was named UFW president after the sudden death of his father-in-law, UFW founder Cesar Chavez, in 1993.
Romero becomes just the third president of the UFW, which has its roots in Delano and its national headquarters in Keene. She joins a growing chorus of woman elected to head major labor unions and organizations, including Mary Kay Henry, president of Service Employees International Union, and Maria Elena Durazo, former Secretary Treasurer of Los Angeles County Federation of Labor and Executive Vice President of the governing body of the national AFL-CIO. Durazo by the way, is a former farmworker herself who says she was inspired by Cesar Chavez.
Romero speaks confidently of the numerous challenges facing the UFW as a union. She doesn't shy away from or minimize the fact that union membership today is a fraction of what it was once years ago. Today, UFW does not have any contracts with major grape growers in Kern County as it once did. That hardly means, however, that the union is rolling over. Rather, it's using a new strategy.
"We are working with collaborative relationships with employers," said the president-elect. "We need to come up with solutions that benefit both the employer and the workers."
One such collaboration was a June effort with D'Arrigo Brothers Co. The giant vegetable producer based in Salinas signed a contract with the UFW that includes full medical, dental and vision insurance coverage for its roughly 1,500 workers. This deal gives workers wage and health benefits while the company wins the loyalty of a work force amid a nationwide farm labor shortage. Contracts such as this one were practically unheard of before, because growers have generally fought the UFW in hopes it would go away. The way Romero sees it, times have changed and the sight of workers picketing a company may not necessarily be the way to go.
Said Romero, "It is a transition and the circumstances are different."
Working conditions in the fields have changed for the better as the UFW, under the leadership of Arturo Rodriguez, managed to pass some key legislation. In 2005, the state adopted new regulations requiring water and shade for farmworkers, construction workers and landscapers. People were dying of heatstroke during the blazing hot summer months. The regs were strengthened again in 2015.
Starting next year, farmworkers in California will be paid overtime after working more than eight hours a day or 40 hours in a week. But the key remaining obstacle facing farmworkers today is an old one: comprehensive immigration reform. Though the UFW was involved in talks with federal officials in past administrations, it's a completely different story under the current White House occupant.
Despite the advances, Romero would like to see more. "I wish that one day farmworkers be recognized as a profession," she said.
"Not just anyone can do the work they do."
Since being named president, she's been constantly been reminded that she -- a woman, and an immigrant at that -- will be the next president of a decades-old labor and social movement.
"It's taken some time," said Romero. "But yes, this is really happening."
Contributing columnist Jose Gaspar is a news anchor/reporter for Telemundo Bakersfield and KGET. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. His work appears here every third Monday; the views expressed are his own.