National Hispanic Heritage Month and migrant farmworkers

National Hispanic Heritage Month ran from Sept. 15 to Oct. 15, a time to celebrate how the Hispanic community has added tremendous value to our society. As part of the celebration, WSU Libraries delved into the archives to highlight the Yakima Valley migrant farmworker community and their contributions. The images below were captured by photographer Irwin Nash, who recorded these migrant workers over 10 years from 1965-1975. His hope was to document their working conditions and give us a glimpse into their lives. To see more of Nash’s photos, browse this collection.

A young boy harvests asparagus in 1971.

Safe working conditions and fair wages were things these farm workers had to fight for. One of the leaders in this movement was civil rights activist Cesar Chavez, who lobbied for farmworkers’ rights. He alongside fellow activist Dolores Huerta founded the National Farm Workers Association, now known as the United Farm Workers labor union. The UFW helped implement safer working conditions and negotiated contracts for better wages. 

Cesar Chavez speaks at a Yakima, Wash., rally. 

Chavez was a prominent figure in leading nonviolent protests, using boycotts and strikes to achieve his goal of creating positive change.

Dolores Huerta protests with a sign in front of a Safeway in Seattle.

The well-known slogan “Sí, se puede” (translated as “Yes, it can be done”) was created during this time by Huerta. This slogan is still used today in protests and has inspired many movements. 

Clinic van parked outside of Del Monte’s labor camp.

Access to health care was one of the challenges migrant farmworkers faced. Working with dangerous pesticides and other unsafe working practices increased the likelihood of farmworkers becoming ill. But their low wages often meant that the farmworkers barely lived near the poverty line, making health care inaccessible. 

Farmworkers on strike at Yakima Chief Ranch. 

Strikes were often a means to advocate for fair wages and working conditions. 

Washington state is home to one of the largest communities of Mexican American farmworkers in the United States. National Hispanic Heritage Month offers an ideal way to recognize the challenges that this community endured and the resilience that helped them overcome these challenges. Farmworkers lobbied not only to improve their own conditions, but also to improve the working conditions for future generations. They left a great impact on the farming industry. 

There are many takeaways from this time period. One is to shop ethically. Movements in recent years highlight continued injustices in the farmworking community. Keep up with local initiatives and support them to ensure fair treatment of farmworkers. Advocate for these groups whenever possible, and spread the word.