In California’s Agricultural Heartland, a Mayor Is Running on Compassion

Wesaam Al-Badry and Magnum Foundation, The Nation , October 13, 2020

The ongoing struggle for racial justice. The future for immigrant families. The health and well-being of all Americans. The very fate of our fragile planet. The US faces a crossroads in this year’s elections. Seeking out the stories flying under the national radar, The Nation and Magnum Foundation are partnering on What’s At Stake, a series of photo essays from across the country through the lenses of independent imagemakers. Follow the whole series here. This installment was produced with support from the Economic Hardship Reporting Project.


The town of Gonzales is located in the idyllic California’s Salinas Valley, also known as the “salad bowl of America.” The region produces two-thirds of the nation’s lettuce and much of its strawberries, tomatoes, and broccoli. All of which means that when the coronavirus crisis hit the state, the region’s farmworkers were considered “essential” and therefore exempt from Governor Gavin Newsom’s “shelter in place” mandate.


Even though the workers have continued to go into the fields throughout the pandemic, and even though their labor has kept the rest of the country fed, because many of them are undocumented, they also did not qualify for the federal government’s CARES relief package. Understandably, many of them feel their basic rights have been stripped away; they are forced to work under unhealthy conditions—ranging from the bad air quality caused by the raging wildfires and, in many cases, proximity to coworkers diagnosed with Covid-19.


The mayor of Gonzales is an anomaly in the region: Maria Orozco is the first Latina woman to have won the position in the town, and she’s turned into an outspoken advocate for her constituents. First elected mayor in 2008, Orozco is now in her sixth consecutive term. Faced with the pandemic, the burning wildfires, and the challenges of overseeing a resource-strapped town, Orozco is fighting for justice for all the people who live in Gonzales, regardless of immigration status.