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Mourning UFW ‘pioneer’ Josefina Flores, who witnessed decades of farm worker movement exploits and sacrifices

For decades, Dona Josefina Flores Cervantes played a key role in nearly every major United Farm Workers’ campaign and event and was a living witness of the movement’s exploits and sacrifices. She passed away peacefully on Monday, June 26 in Visalia at age 92.

Well into her 70s, 80s, and beyond, Josefina belonged to a small group of veteran farm worker women activists—including Carolina Holguin and Ruth Martinez—who regularly organized and participated with the UFW. As news of her passing spread, tributes poured in.

“Josefina was at every march, every picket line, every event,” affirmed farm labor and civil rights icon Dolores Huerta. “She was completely dedicated and loyal to the farm workers’ cause—a true warrior.”

“She was one tough lady,” stated Cesar Chavez Foundation President Paul F. Chavez.

“She cared for a big family of her own, but a fierce loyalty to the sisters and brothers of her labor family was a striking feature of her life,” offered Giev Kashkooli, the UFW’s 2nd vice president.

UFW President Emeritus Arturo S. Rodriguez said, “Josefina was one of the true pioneers of the farm worker movement who never stopped participating. She was a part of the three historic pilgrimages from Delano to Sacramento, in 1966, 1994, and 2022.”

She joined other lengthy farm worker treks along dusty rural highways to the state Capitol, sometimes in the searing heat of summer, to help win landmark UFW legislative and regularly victories. Approaching 90, her family made UFW leaders promise they would not let her go the entire route on a recent march to Sacramento.

Granddaughter Magdalena Gomez said during one of her last official outings, Josefina brought her great-grandchildren to help First Lady Dr. Jill Biden administer COVID vaccinations to farm workers at the movement’s historic Forty Acres property near Delano on Cesar Chavez’s birthday, March 31, 2021. It was the fourth generation Josefina led in championing the cause.

She was born on October 24, 1930 in Calexico, Calif., to a family with Yaqui indigenous origins from the Mexican state of Sonora. “That was where she got her warrior blood,” Magdalena observed. Denied a formal education, she learned to read and write on her own.

Decades of migrant farm work found her living in the Fresno County town of Reedley during the 1960s when Josefina first met Cesar Chavez. She recalled expecting a giant of a man and couldn’t believe he was of such small physical stature and so unassuming. The encounter changed her life.

What followed were decades of organizing and supporting strikes, boycotts, marches, protests, and political campaigns. She learned English working with the UFW. She was shot and seriously wounded during an incident in a field. Josefina went to Chicago and New York to help organize the lettuce boycott. She engaged in fasts well into her 80s, despite pleas from family members. She met Hilary Clinton, the Kennedys, and President Obama at the White House.

Josefina was an inspiration for generations of young UFW organizers and staff. As a new union organizer in the 1990s and 2000s, Giev Kashkooli recalls how Josephina “was very direct with workers. She’d say, ‘If you want to make change in your life, you have to do something about it.’ She was compassionate but forceful. She showed me that you have to challenge people to act.”

She was often coordinating with much younger people—demonstrating “how you could be both patient and urgent at the same time,” Giev said. “Josefina would say, ‘Mejo, that’s good, but we have to work harder.’”

There were other, less public endeavors, from babysitting the children of UFW staff and leaders and cooking for Cesar Chavez while living at movement headquarters at La Paz in Keene. Josefina lived for a time at the Paulo Agbayani Retirement Village on the Forty Acres outside Delano. For well over 20 years she resided at Casa Hernandez, the Cesar Chavez Foundation’s affordable housing community for low-income seniors in west Delano.

Josefina Flores is survived by two children, Yolanda Herrera and Maria De Los Angeles Zazueta Gomez (five others preceded her in death); nine grandchildren (two are deceased); 14 great-grandchildren; and three great-great grandchildren. Her son-in-law, Humberto Gomez Sr., was an organizer with the UFW for more than 20 years.

Her democratic union values and ¡Si Se Puede! attitude have been passed on to five generations. Granddaughter Magdalena Gomez is a community college trustee and associate director of the Fresno teachers’ union. Grandson Humberto Gomez Jr. M.D. is a California Democratic Party regional director. Granddaughter Maria de Jesus Gomez is a producer with Radio Bilingue in Fresno. Some great-grandchildren joined the UFW’s 335-mile march last summer in Fresno County.

Josefina Flores often carried the standard of Our Lady of Guadalupe during UFW marchers.