In Focus: Tomas Villanueva: a man beyond measure

June 13, 2014 

Nearing Pasco on a trip to Kennewick last May to have lunch with high school classmates (‘56), I noted portable toilets in asparagus fields along “the rabbit trail,” also known as the Pasco-Kahlotus Road. Farm laborers were bent over harvesting asparagus spears and I immediately thought of Tomas Villanueva and the luncheon interview I had with him at a Prosser café when I was the Tri-City Herald’s farm reporter 45 years ago. Tomas then was a key figure in the emergence of Chicano activism in Washington. He co-founded the United Farm Worker’s Co-operative in Toppenish and labored all of his adult life to advance the interests of farm workers. In 1970 he helped found the Farm Workers Family Health Center in Toppenish. It expanded into several Washington and Oregon communities and operates 13 clinics now known as the Yakima Valley Farm Workers Clinic. And, yes, he helped organize strikes for better pay and working conditions. Having risen at dawn to harvest asparagus before school and having picked cherries and prune plums and harvested concord grapes in my childhood, I had an affinity and great respect for farm work and for those whose livelihoods depend on it. I recall no bathroom facilities in the fields, orchards and vineyards in which I labored during my childhood back in the ’40s and ’50s. As Ruth and I continued on to our luncheon engagement at the Sports Page Bar and Grill, I told Ruth about interviewing Tomas. We had met at the Benton County Courthouse in Prosser, and I suggested we walk over to Prosser’s most popular café where many courthouse employees and visitors went for lunch. Tomas demurred that we wouldn’t be served there. Incredulous, I protested. Tomas said, “If you are with me, we might be served, but we will be the last people in the restaurant to be waited on.” So at my suggestion we staged our own little sit-in. It quickly became evident that Tomas knew what he was talking about. We took a table and sat and sat and sat; watching waitresses, as we called them in those good ol’ days, took orders of others who entered long after we had. Finally, unable to ignore us longer, and perhaps only because someone had recognized “a reporter in their midst,” our order was taken and we were served. Tomas said nothing about the social indignities that he and others of Hispanic heritage endured in the Yakima Valley as they worked not only to help feed a nation, but to earn morsels of human dignity. His was a fight for basic living conditions. Field toilets for farm laborers was one of the many issues that Tomas fought for, and it was one of the most basic. Other issues included drinking water in fields, pay, housing and access to basic medical care. Tomas and I also discussed the politically sensitive question of how Caucasians and the Tri-City Herald should refer to “his people.” Even “his people” weren’t united on that score. Various terms then in use included Mexican-Americans, Latin-Americans, Latinos, Hispanics, La Raza (The People), Spanish-speaking Americans, and of course a number of slurs then commonly used and best forgotten. As I recall, Tomas wasn’t hung up, as some were, on what collective moniker we used; he cared deeply about how we treated this important group within our society. I hope our luncheon wasn’t as painful for Tomas as it was for me; but I received an eye-opening education. As a journalist I met the high and mighty, the lowly and weak, celebrities and the obscure; but none were more impressive than Tomas Villanueva. Tomas died June 6 in a Seattle nursing home. w Terence L. Day is a native of Kennewick. He is a former Tri-City Herald staff writer and a retired faculty member of Washington State University.

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