Teresa Romero was born into a large family of Spanish and indigenous Zapotec ancestry in Mexico City, and grew up in Guadalajara. Her father, who worked for a tortilla machine manufacturer, and her mother, a homemaker, made sure that all six of their children were educated. Romero came to the United States in her 20s and settled in California’s San Fernando Valley. The 1986 immigration bill signed by then President Ronald Reagan provided a path for her to become a legal resident, and later a naturalized U.S. citizen. Reflecting on being an American, she said, “I am very proud I’m a U.S. citizen and I’m very proud of my Mexican and Zapotec heritage; it’s something that’s in me.”
Romero achieved success with her own construction management consulting business and she also managed a law firm that assisted farmworkers and others with immigration and compensation claims. When the 2008 financial crisis hit her business hard, Romero took what was supposed to be a temporary job as an assistant to the president of the United Farm Workers of America (UFW).
Cofounded in 1962 by the legendary labor leader Cesar Chavez, the California-based UFW is the nation’s oldest farmworkers labor union. Passionate about the “la causa” (the cause), as Chavez called the UFW’s fight for workers’ rights, Romero rose to become secretary-treasurer, the second-highest position in the organization. In 2018, Romero assumed the top role as UFW president, only the third in the union’s history. She is the first Latina and the first immigrant woman in the United States to head a national labor union.
During her time with the UFW, the union achieved key victories in California, including the creation of state standards protecting farm workers from extreme heat, and the first state law in the country securing overtime pay after eight hours of work. Romero also successfully fundraised to build a modern, nearly 11,000-square foot facility in Salinas, California, to better serve union members and educate the public about the UFW’s history and work.
Romero has also made comprehensive immigration reform one of the union’s top priorities. The farm industry relies heavily on the labor of undocumented immigrants, with the UFW estimating that at least half of farmworkers are undocumented. This means that many farmworkers have little leverage to advocate for better working conditions. This challenge, along with a lack of healthcare options, has become acute as farmworkers are especially critical to maintaining America’s food supply chain during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Early on in the crisis, farmworkers were declared essential workers, but few steps were taken to protect these frontline workers from contracting the virus, or to provide them with needed government assistance in areas like healthcare and housing. Romero is leading the UFW’s efforts to advocate for protections for agricultural workers across the country. The union is providing farmworkers with public health information in Spanish and indigenous Indian languages, as well as meals and food boxes and personal protective equipment. Romero is also urging the government and the agriculture industry to offer guaranteed sick leave, to introduce hazard pay, and to arrange for access to medical services, including testing and treatment, and other measures to protect farmworkers. “They’re essential, but they do not have essential rights,” Romero has said. “And they’re feeding all of us.”