Seattle photographer Irwin Nash documented the life of Latinx farm laborers in the Yakima Valley from 1965-1975, a time when dismal working conditions and meager wages for the country’s migrant workers featured prominently in national news.
Staff at the Washington State University Libraries are working with a team of dedicated community members across the state to digitize his photo collection, housed in the university’s Manuscripts, Archives and Special Collections (MASC).
By preserving and sharing the 12,500 photos in the Irwin Nash Images of Migrant Labor Digital Collection, they hope to shed new light on the history of Washington’s largest minority group and to add their stories, voices and images to the complex narrative of Washington’s common heritage, said Lipi Turner-Rahman, manager of WSU’s Kimble Digitization Center.
“WSU is committed to preservation and worldwide open access to materials that document the lives of oppressed and neglected communities,” she said.
Search for family photo opens another door
It started with a search for a newspaper photo of an uncle with former U.S. Attorney General Elliot Richardson, taken at the Green Giant plant in Grandview, Wash., in the early 1970s. Laura Solis knew the history of her uncle, that he, her father and their family traveled from south Texas every year to do agricultural work in Washington. The photo was somehow tied to farm worker housing, her dad recalled. Solis wanted to find this meaningful piece of family history.
Her search led to the partially digitized Nash collection, and for Solis, the mission to find a family photo became one of preserving Nash’s images of regional and cultural history. She, her husband Mike Fong, both of Seattle, and other community members are donating funds to support digitizing the full collection, matching an $8,000 digitization grant WSU Libraries recently received. The Washington Digital Heritage grant is supported with Library Services and Technology Act funding provided by the federal Institute of Museum and Library Services through the Washington State Library, a division of the Office of the Secretary of State. Visit the WSU online giving page to join Solis, Fong and others who donated gifts for the digitization project.
“We know how much these photographs would mean to the families of the people depicted in them and how important they are to preserving the history of farm workers in the Yakima Valley,” she said.
The invisibility of agricultural workers
Solis, who grew up in the small town of Granger in Yakima County, was disheartened by the absence of stories about the area’s farm workers as she combed through Yakima Herald back issues. It hit close to home: Like her father, Solis’s mother and family members also worked the Yakima Valley fields.
“There were sections of the paper devoted to personal and community stories, but they never featured the lives of the people who came to Washington to work in the fields,” she said. “Looking through that lens, it was surprising and sad to me that agricultural workers were not seen as being part of the community because I knew the other story.
“Agricultural laborers weren’t merely present; they were living and thriving and creating communities of their own that are the basis of the communities that are there now,” Solis added. “The focus on agricultural workers as a problem to be solved had the effect of making them invisible as people.”
‘They give me back the truth’
The Nash collection filled in the missing pieces. Photos of weddings, dances, theater productions, rural women and agricultural labor revealed the rich and complex social, cultural, political and economic life of the Yakima Valley migrant laborers, according to Turner-Rahman.
Nash had also captured the rise of justice for migrant farm workers and labor movements within the Yakima farm and migrant worker community, she added. Of particular interest to researchers are photographs of visits by United Farm Workers (UFW) founder Cesar Chavez to farm worker rallies and Washington community organizers Guadalupe Gamboa and Tomas Villanueva.
“Here were the people that were missing from the newspaper articles,” Solis said. “Here were the experiences I remembered with my parents, brothers, aunts, uncles and cousins. The people in the photographs might even be members of my family. Above all, the photos show the humanity that had always been there. They give me back the truth about the place and the people I came from. They are beautiful and touching beyond words to me.”
Organizing in the Yakima Valley
In a video interview for the Seattle Civil Rights and Labor History Project, Gamboa recalled how he helped coordinate a series of strikes for higher wages on hop operations in Granger and the surrounding area in 1970. Men were paid $1.50 an hour, while women earned $1.25 doing the same job. The local farm workers seeking better conditions took their lead from the UFW in California. Eventually, the Yakima Valley strikes would disrupt the operations of between 14 and 16 hop ranches. More importantly, they laid the foundation for an organized farm workers movement in the region and state.
“This hadn’t happened before,” he said. “The growers had been used to very docile Mexicans.”
Despite that early success, organizing efforts in the Yakima Valley took more than a decade to coalesce when the newly formed UFW of Washington State held its first strike at Pyramid Orchards in early 1987.
“Culture played a very important part,” he said. “We had corridos [popular narrative and poetry that form a ballad] on the Mexican radio stations across the border talking about the benefits of the union and appealing to the culture and history of the workers, identifying how they were similar to Benito Juárez, Emiliano Zapata and Pancho Villa, who had fought for their rights.”
‘I just went in there to show what was going on’
A commercial photographer and Seattle native, Nash received his undergraduate degree at University of Washington. His first trip to the Yakima Valley was to the Ahtanum Labor Camp, where he photographed the Latinxs and the conditions that they lived in. He also went to the Crewport Labor Camp near Zillah, Wash., and made several subsequent return trips to the Yakima area.
When asked in a 1989 oral history interview why he wanted to do these types of projects, Nash replied, “I just went in there to show what was going on. To try and illustrate what was happening to a segment of the population that at best might have heard about it third hand, that’s all.”
Digitization and publication of Nash’s photographs will make them available to scholars and students at any time and from anywhere, Turner-Rahman said.
“The digitized collection will be of vital scholarly interest worldwide and give scholars access to formerly unavailable material on Washington’s Chicano populations’ everyday life, as well as their political, social and financial aspirations,” she said. “It will foster new research and research questions from a variety of disciplines and fields on converging issues, including social and political movements, migration, Diasporas and history.”