More than a thousand people marched through downtown Bakersfield Sunday morning in a show of strength demanding immigration law reform and celebrating the legacy of civil rights activist Cesar E. Chavez.
United Farm Workers union flags were waved at Jastro Park during a rally before the march as speakers talked about the need for reform and the hard work immigrants perform in this country. There were T-shirts that read "The Pathway to Citizenship Passes Through Bakersfield" and signs with "We are all Americans!" written on them.
Cal State Bakersfield sociology professor Gonzalo Santos called the current U.S. immigration policy a "cruel, broken system." The professor said there are 11 million immigrants in the U.S. who contribute to society in every way except for the papers they hold, and they need to be treated with equality and dignity.
Diana Tellefson Torres, executive director of the UFW Foundation and UFW National Vice President, said Chavez's legacy of social justice continues today through efforts such as Sunday's march. Marches were planned across the West Coast in honor of Chavez, whose birthday falls on March 31, and to bring scrutiny to the plight of immigrants impacted by the current U.S. immigration policy.
They shouldn't be treated differently, because they contribute and work just as hard as anyone else, she said.
"We want Congress members to know that the food they eat in Washington, D.C., is food picked by many of the people here in the Central Valley," Torres said.
Local politicians in attendance included Bakersfield Mayor Harvey Hall, Arvin Mayor Jose Flores, McFarland Mayor Manuel Cantu Jr., Kern County Supervisor Leticia Perez and Assemblyman Rudy Salas, D-Bakersfield.
Hall said he was glad to be able to participate in the march, and he called the U.S. a nation of immigrants. He said it's time to acknowledge the contributions immigrants make to the U.S. economy, and also give them reassurance their families won't be split apart through deportation.
"It is time to offer peace to families who live under the shadow of fear of separation," Hall said.
Herlinda Villanueva said the pain of separation is what she's been living with since her adult son was deported about five years ago. Villanueva, wearing an American flag on her head and carrying a poster board plastered with pictures of her son and articles about immigration, said her son got in with the wrong crowd and committed a crime and was deported after he was released from custody.
She did not specify what the crime was.
"I cry as an American mother to bring my son home," Villanueva said.
Teresa Barrientos, a Bakersfield resident who attended the march with her brother, Isidro Barrientos, said her parents came to the U.S. at a young age and worked their whole lives in agriculture. She said there are a lot of immigrants who live and work in the U.S. who want to stay here.
Her brother said he wants reform now.
"For me it's nice to be here because we want to keep all the families together," Isidro Barrientos said.