UFW leader Teresa Romero honored with Presidential Medal of Freedom

Illustration featuring a photo of President Biden placing a medal on a smiling Teresa Romero, president of UFW
(Photo illustration by Diana Ramirez / De Los; photos by Tierney L. Cross / Bloomberg)

Teresa Romero still remembers the conversation that changed everything for her.

It was September 2009 and she was on a field visit to a tomato farm near Madero, Calif., in her capacity as executive assistant to United Farm Workers President Arturo Rodriguez — a job she took the previous year to weather a global financial crisis that had crippled her once successful construction project management business. Romero recalls the workers picking the fruit at breakneck speed, dropping them in buckets nearby. Once full, they would carry the heavy containers to a nearby truck and empty them, only to return to their picking stations to repeat the process all over again.

She approached one of them, an older gentleman who insisted on washing his hands before shaking hers. Romero asked if the work was difficult, knowing quite well that his calloused palms held her answer.

“Yes, but it feeds my family,” he said.

That exchange made everything clear for Romero. Her plan to restart her company in a few years went out the window. She was where she needed to be.


“I’ve had many conversations with workers, but that was the first time that I got so emotional that I cried,” Romero said. “It really got to me, and after that, I’ve had so many conversations with workers that just reaffirmed my decision that this is what I wanted to do. I saw how difficult and difficult the work that they do was. I told myself: ‘I’m not going anywhere. I’m going to retire here.’”

Romero quickly moved up the ranks of the labor union, serving as chief administrative officer and then secretary-treasurer before becoming its president in 2018 — a position that has been held only by Rodriguez, her mentor, and founder Cesar Chavez.

Last Friday, Romero was named one of the 19 recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Considered the highest civilian honor in the United States and established by President Kennedy in 1963, the award is given to people who have “made exceptional contributions to the security or national interests of America, to world peace, or to cultural or other significant public or private endeavors.” Among this year’s honorees were former Vice President Al Gore, Father Greg Boyle and Ellen Ochoa, the first Latina astronaut in space and former director of NASA’s Johnson Space Center.

Romero was selected, the Biden administration said, because she has “made life better for thousands of farmworkers who put food on our table.” Accompanying her to the ceremony were Asuncion Ponce, Maria Garcia and Rosa Maria Silva de Rodriguez — all agricultural workers represented by the UFW.


“To me, the Presidential Medal of Freedom means the people that I serve are being seen at the highest level,” Romero said in a statement. “Their work, their skill, their sacrifice and their courage is not being overlooked today. It is my honor to be here representing farm workers.”

Romero’s tenure leading the UFW was put to the test almost immediately after assuming the presidency. When the COVID-19 global pandemic struck, farmworkers didn’t have the benefit of working remotely. Agricultural workers were considered essential. An already vulnerable population was put further at risk.

“We weren’t concerned about organizing workers at the time,” said Romero. “We were busy keeping them alive and healthy and safe.”

The UFW mobilized to distribute protective gear along the West Coast. Once the vaccine became available, the union offered vaccinations at Forty Acres, its headquarters in Delano, Calif.

Mary Kay Henry, international president of the Service Employees International Union, has worked closely with Romero as part of the leadership team of the Strategic Organizing Center, a coalition formed by the SEIU, UFW and the Communications Workers of America. The SOC represents more than 2.5 million workers across several industries (about 5,000 of them are represented by the UFW, per the Department of Labor).

“I was impressed with her capacity to stare tough reality in the face,” she said of Romero’s actions during the pandemic. “Farmworkers have to labor and live under some of the most horrific conditions, not just in California, but across the country.”


Henry said she admired Romero’s ability to see the bigger picture in understanding that all worker fights are connected, adding that the UFW was a vocal ally in the SEIU’s recent push to unionize fast-food workers in Southern California.

“When it’s the right fight, she doesn’t need hours and hours of briefing,” Henry said. “She’s ready to stand in solidarity with you and make sure that workers win.”

In Henry’s eyes, Romero has done an admirable job at maintaining the storied legacy of the UFW.

“She stands on the shoulders of giants like Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta, but she also fills her own shoes and is able to take the history of that great union and move it to the next level,” she said.

In September 2022, the UFW secured its biggest victory under Romero’s tenure after Gov. Gavin Newsom signed Assembly Bill 2183. The legislation made it easier for farmworkers to join a union via “card check” elections, allowing them to vote on labor representation outside of a job site. Proponents of AB 2183 argued that it was necessary to protect agricultural workers from intimidation or deportation from their employers.

Newsom initially indicated that he would veto the bill, but relented after the UFW organized a march from Delano to Sacramento. Over the course of 24 days, union members walked 355 miles in blistering heat to put pressure on the governor. The campaign drew national attention and the support of the White House. Newsom eventually changed course on the condition that the legislation be amended to remove the mail-in ballot option. The new law went into effect on Jan. 1, 2023.


“It was an unforgettable experience,” Teresa Maldonado Mendoza said in Spanish. The 63-year-old Lamont, Calif., resident was among the core group of 26 who walked every step of the march. Despite her age, she says, she drew motivation from her namesake.

“After we would be done walking for the day, I would always look for my tocaya to get a hug from her,” she said. “It’s what kept me going each day.”

United Farm Workers President Teresa Romero, right, embraces Teresa Maldonado Mendoza
United Farm Workers President Teresa Romero embraces Teresa Maldonado Mendoza of Lamont, Calif., at Our Lady of Guadalupe church in Sacramento on Aug. 26, 2022.
(Hector Amezcua / Sacramento Bee)

The inspiration went both ways.

“I was joined by workers who already had a contract,” said Romero. “They were not doing it for themselves. They were doing it for other farmworkers because they knew how hard it is. They sacrificed a month of their life. They were without their kids. They didn’t work, but they were there every single day. That to me was the amazing [part of the march].”

Since AB 2183 went into effect, the UFW has successfully unionized various groups of workers across the state, though their efforts have not been without pushback or controversy.

In early April, Wonderful Nurseries accused the UFW of duping workers at its Wasco, Calif., facility into signing union cards in exchange for help in signing up for a $600 one-time payment from a federal relief program for farmworkers, and has asked the Agricultural Labor Relations Board to revoke its certification of the unit. The UFW adamantly denies the claim, accusing Wonderful Nurseries of union busting. The dispute is being heard by an administrative law judge.


Romero says the UFW is in an uphill battle against opponents with deep pockets, but her commitment to farmworkers remains unshaken.

“We have to have hope and follow it up with hard work. ‘¡Sí se puede!’ is more than a chant for us. We really believe it,” she said.

“What I would love is for consumers to realize just how important the work of an agricultural worker is,” Romero says. “Without them, we wouldn’t have fruits and vegetables, eggs, dairy, meat. It’s time to start treating them with the respect, dignity and consideration that they deserve.”

— Fidel Martinez

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(Jackie Rivera / For The Times; Martina Ibáñez-Baldor / Los Angeles Times)

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