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.

Villanueva followed Chavez's model, receiving sometimes little and mostly no compensation for his efforts, and having to ask the same of his volunteers.

"Tomás could not promise them any lost wages or that it would be resolved quickly," said Ricardo Garcia, another longtime friend and a founder of Spanish-language Radio KDNA in Granger. "But his energy was so strong, the spirit was high in the community."

Even when there was little coin to pay for food and bills, La Causa filled the Villanueva home in Toppenish, where Tomás and his wife, Hortencia, raised seven children. Tomás wasn't around very often, but his wife of 48 years never begrudged him for it. She just bought in to the cause in her own way.

"The cause was all that really mattered," said Hortencia Villanueva, a farm worker born to a family of farm workers.

Family on board

Hortencia was 21 and living with her parents when she met Tomás at a farm-workers' food co-op he started in the Lower Valley. Even though Hortencia was an adult, her parents forbid her from dating. But that changed when Tomás went to see them.

"I didn't much like him, and I told him my parents didn't let me date," she said. "But they already liked him from the co-op, and he made it look easy."

Villanueva's life was work, and his life was based out of their small home on a dirt road outside of Toppenish, hand-built by Villanueva and his father. When they didn't have food, someone in the extended family always brought some over. When they didn't have time to sleep, it was because there was no time to waste. When there was no money for the children's toys, Villanueva's ingenuity took another form.

"In his wood shop he would make checkerboards and chess pieces," his son, Gabe Villanueva, 42, recalled. "One year for Christmas he made us rubberband guns. We played with those every day."

Gabe and his sister, Graciela Villanueva, said they never realized they were poor until well after they grew up and started earning their own paychecks. With so many family members and a community that quickly rallied around their father, they grew up in possession of the kind of wealth that droughts or conniving foremen can't take.

"We didn't realize how poor we were because everyone was so close-knit," Gabe said.

Graciela recalls playing by herself in the corner of the governor's office in Olympia while her father met face-to-face with then-Gov. Booth Gardner in the 1980s. Tomás would take the children to strikes and boycotts in the Yakima Valley and around the state. In those places, his children saw hate for the first time, when some opponents driving by would toss garbage and shout racial epithets.

"We were protesting at the Chateau St. Michelle winery when that happened, and I was 12 or 13, and it was the first time I was old enough to realize what was happening," said Graciela, 35. "But Dad was always willing to convince anybody of anything, even somebody that was his enemy or stood against everything he believed in."

Strong admiration

Tomás Villanueva led strikes across the Valley at farms such as Pyramid Orchards, Gamache Farms, Golden Gate and others. None of those ended with a union contract, but employers made plenty of concessions: improving wages by paying the advertised rate and bettering working conditions by making toilets and drinking water available in the fields.

Villanueva led a four-day work stoppage at SKD Farms in 1987 near the end of the asparagus harvest. Farm co-owner Kevin Bouchey, now a Yakima County commissioner, recalls his family's decision to end the harvest early — the protests had come late in the spring season — effectively putting an end to the strike that way.

"Tomás and I saw each other a lot because we both lived in the Toppenish area, but we never specifically spoke about the issue after that," Bouchey said. "He's always been polite and gracious to me."

Bouchey said over time he came to admire Villanueva's tirelessness.

"I certainly appreciate his passion for what he was doing," Bouchey said. "If you want to make a change, you've got to get out there and you've got to be bold, and he certainly did that."

Former Gov. Mike Lowry, who worked with Villanueva on farm-worker housing issues as a congressman in the 1980s and during his time as governor from 1993-97, said Villanueva was informed and passionate but also had a way of easing politicians into seeing the farm worker side of things.

"Sometimes, understandably, people working on issues of fairness will come on awfully strong," Lowry said in a telephone interview from Renton. "Tomás was very effective at reasoning why we ought to be doing a better job as a society to provide for farm workers."

Lowry would go on tours of farm worker camps with Villanueva. He said he still remembers people sleeping unsheltered in sleeping bags on the banks of the Columbia River.

"There have been a lot of improvements made since then, and Tomás is the reason for that and other reforms," Lowry said.

Making a difference

Villanueva was the face of the movement but he rarely made the push for reform on his own. He would bring a caravan of farm workers to Olympia, a practice that immigrant and farm-worker rights groups still utilize today.

"It wasn't just about him but the class he represented," said University of Washington history professor Erasmo Gamboa, a Sunnyside native. "He created a very powerful public appearance when he went to Olympia."

Villanueva always had his eye on the next struggle, but his options became limited as his health started to deteriorate. His last campaign was in 2006, when he ran for state Senate and lost by more than 7,000 votes to incumbent 15th District Sen. Jim Honeyford, R-Sunnyside.

"That Honeyford race was Tomás' own decision," said Garcia, the KDNA founder. "We told him he had never been a candidate and he was running against someone who was entrenched, an incumbent that was popular.

"But he had an ideal we still share — that a well-versed Latino politician from our area can be elected to the Legislature."

A series of strokes in the summer of 2009 were nearly fatal for Villanueva, and put an end to much of his activism. He was eventually moved from a nursing home in Wapato to Sea Mar Community Health Center in Seattle, part of the Sea Mar health system run by another close friend, president and CEO Rogelio Riojas.

Riojas said Villanueva was the first advocate to successfully create a health care clinic for farm workers, and continued in that effort by successfully pushing for laws to make health insurance accessible to farm workers and their children.

"In a way, he is the founder of all these community health centers," Riojas, also the son of farm workers, said at Tuesday's ceremony hosted by the Secretary of State's Office at Sea Mar.

The ceremony was organized for Villanueva after he couldn't make it to one in September honoring him and others featured in a secretary of state's exhibit on Washington's most influential personalities and industries.

Still passionate

Villanueva's mobility remains limited. He moves from one room to the other in a wheelchair aided by medical staff or his wife, who moved to Seattle not long after he was transferred here.

He has lost his strength, and at times his family says he's not always in the room with them even when he's there. Villanueva knows it, too. It seems cruel for a man no less passionate than the one who met Chavez in 1967 to suddenly feel powerless. It brings him to tears.

"We can never, never give up," Villanueva said in an interview hours before Tuesday's ceremony, pausing with some thought and tearing up.

"Our work was never about results; it was about making a statement."

He remains the steward of the movement among his peers. The strokes took much out of him, but his work was always bigger than anything one can do with his hands. For the more than 100 gathered at Sea Mar on Tuesday, many of them from the Yakima Valley, Villanueva is the first. but hopefully not the last. of his kind.

"I still hope and pray someone will take up what Tomás has done," Hortencia Villanueva said. "Hopefully they won't let his accomplishments go by the wayside."

Villanueva was introduced to the audience, but there couldn't have been anyone in the packed room who hadn't already heard his story. He belongs to them.

When he was recognized, their applause rose in lockstep toward a crescendo and broke over the room as Tomás, their Tomás, shouted, "Si se puede!"

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Information from: Yakima Herald-Republic, http://www.yakimaherald.com

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