Yakima Valley farmworker rights advocate valued

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SEATTLE (AP) - There are pages and pages of history on Tomás Villanueva, Washington state’s most storied farm-worker rights advocate. But those who share in his struggles may not know the full story of the man.

They experience it when they collect a fair paycheck at the end of each week in the orchards, when their families are cared for at the Yakima Valley Farm Workers Clinic, or when they’re able to abandon a slumlord for quality affordable housing.

Yes, they earned it, but it was Villanueva, 72, along with the state’s first group of up-and-coming farm-worker advocates from the 1960s, who helped persuade the state to recognize those rights.

“Once, we went to a meeting with legislators on housing and someone told us we should be satisfied with half a loaf,” said former Seattle-area Democratic state Rep. Phyllis Gutierrez Kenney, who grew up in a family of farm workers in Toppenish. “Tomás said a half a loaf that is moldy and full of holes is nothing, and that’s what they were proposing.”

Villanueva’s fire in the heyday of his activism was matched by his charm and compassion. Those who know him best, many of whom gathered Tuesday in Seattle for a ceremony in his honor, describe a man who transcended class and ethnicity.

Growing roots

The backbreaking field labor that Villanueva and his family chased from Mexico to Texas and Ohio to Washington (where they settled in Toppenish in 1957) would prepare him for a life in La Causa - a Spanish phrase for “the cause” - coined by legendary farm-worker rights advocate Cesar Chavez.

Villanueva worked nights, weeks, months and years for more than three decades on La Causa, starting in the late 1960s, when he first met Chavez on an impromptu 1,000-mile journey to Delano, Calif., to make life better for farm workers. He once said he put everything on the line because he knew his people had nothing to lose.

“How can we risk what we don’t have?” he opined in an interview in 2004 with historians from the University of Washington documenting the state’s farm-worker rights movement.

Lupe Gamboa was with Villanueva when that light came on. Gamboa had met Villanueva in 1966 when they were students at Yakima Valley Community College, and the following summer the two took jobs as survey takers for what was then the state Office of Economic Opportunity.

They met Nick Jones, a volunteer with the United Farm Workers union, who came to the Yakima Valley searching for workers recently laid off from DiGiorgio Farms in California. At the time, the union was involved in the fight of its life ahead of an election to organize workers at one of the largest grape farms in California, and anyone let go after the company agreed to elections was still eligible to vote.

Jones made an impression, and Gamboa and Villanueva invited themselves into La Causa in short order. They met Chavez, who immediately put them to work finding former workers who would vote for the UFW and identifying where DiGiorgio and the competing Teamsters union were bringing in workers from to make them eligible in time.

“We nearly had some run-ins with the Teamsters, because unfortunately, organized labor is not all pure and sweet,” said Gamboa, who now travels the country working for the international nonprofit Oxfam. “They saw it as an opportunity to come in and pick up an easy election, but for the farm worker side it was about trying to get some dignity and respect.”

They returned to Washington before the election, which the UFW won in a landslide, and neither Villanueva’s life, nor that of his family, friends or brothers in the fields of the arid steppe, would ever be the same.

It began with a series of hop strikes between 1969 and 1971. There would be grape boycotts and pickets outside of Safeway stores. Villanueva took a brief exit from labor organizing in the late 1970s to start a family construction firm, but it wasn’t long before he came back to the movement full time.

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