Washington Latino Political Activism
Latin American political activism in Washington State did not stop with the demise of the Bracero program. The 1960s ushered in a new era of political activism among Washington’s Latin American population that lasted until the mid-1990s. The Mexican American civil rights movement begun by Cesar Chavez in the 1960s in California and the southwestern United States spread into the agricultural and urban areas of Washington State during the mid-1960s.
As information about the Mexican American civil rights movement reached Washington State, two local farmworkers there, Tomas Villanueva and Guadalupe Gamboa, began their own community- and labor-organizing efforts after meeting personally with Chavez in 1965. Sometime around 1966, Latin American farmworkers in Washington launched their first labor strikes in the Yakima valley. In 1967 the Mexican American Federation was founded in Yakima in order to advocate for community development and political empowerment for Mexican Americans living and working in the valley.
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Shortly thereafter, also in 1967, Tomas Villanueva established Washington’s United Farm Workers Co-op in Toppenish, Washington. In 1968, Latino students at the University of Washington formed the United Mexican American Students (UMAS). In partnership with African American students from the University of Washington’s Black Student Union, as well as the University of Washington’s local chapter of the national Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlan (MEChA), UMAS joined Chavez’s national grape boycott from 1968 to 1970. In addition to the Washington chapter of MEChA (located in Seattle), another key student group called the Brown Berets emerged as an influential student political group that linked University of Washington students with political activism in migrant farmworkers’ communities in other parts of the state. Between 1969 and 1970, Yakima valley experienced a series of strikes referred to as wildcat strikes from Latino farmworkers and the community activism groups MEChA and the Brown Berets. The Latin American farmers’ organizing efforts paid off in 1970, when wildcat strikes in the hops ranches in Granger and Mabton, Washington, secured better wages and working conditions for the workers.13-15
However, much of the success gained from the wildcat strikes at Granger and Mabton did not last. Organizing efforts characterized by large marches in towns throughout the Yakima valley continued in Washington’s agricultural areas through the 1980s, denouncing low wages and poor working conditions. In 1986 the United Farm Workers Co-Op, founded by Tomas Villanueva, was re-created into the United Farm Workers of Washington and was celebrated by a historic march led by Cesar Chavez in the Yakima valley.16
Further setbacks in unionizing Washington’s Latin American farmworkers continued into the late 1980s, when efforts by the United Farm Workers of
Washington and the state’s Apple Commission in 1987 failed to reach an agreement regarding the alleviation of substandard living conditions, low wages, and high unemployment of workers in the state’s apple industry. In 1988 another organizing effort for better work conditions and wages was launched at the Chateau Sainte Michelle winery. By the early 1990s, the Chateau Saint Michelle efforts turned into a corporate campaign to improve the Latin American workers’ benefits. And, finally, in 1995, the first union contract for Farm Workers in Washington State was established some 20 years after Washington’s initial organizing efforts for better support of Latino farmworkers.17-19