The Labor Roots of Environmental Justice in Washington State: A Testimony of Martin Yañez



Martin Yañez

This purpose of this narrative is to tell the life story of Martin Yañez, from his own perspective and with the support of an oral historian to fill in the gaps and frame his responses to interview questions within the specific historical contexts that he discusses. Yañez is an environmental justice activist with a unique labor and community organizing background from the Lower Yakima Valley in Washington State. The bulk of the data collected in these interviews spans the 1970s to 2006, when the interviews were conducted at his family residence. Yañez does, however, provide a brief family history in these interviews, which will be made available in their entirety in streaming video format.

Martin Yañez has been involved in community based organizing by directing projects funded by what has come to be known as the “War on Poverty” (aka the Economic Opportunity Act) the last of the Welfare State legislation which was passed in 1964.

Yañez was simultaneously involved in labor organizing efforts through the United Farm Workers committees in Washington and as a successful volunteer UFW organizer in Ventura County, California where he worked under the supervision of Cesar Chavez.

His interest in environmental justice stemmed from his involvement with farm worker health in the state of Washington. Throughout his experience as an organizer he faced many bizarre obstacles like being swarmed with bees, these unique details that come out in the interviews have the effect of animating history in a way only a story teller could. Yañez’s storytelling, as much as the new knowledge produced and presented in his testimonio offer us a window into the historical link between labor and environmental justice on the U.S. West Coast, and more specifically in Washington State.

SOURCE: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

This testimonio emerged as part of a larger project to recover living memories and stories that remained in private archives, family garages, photo albums and more directly in the minds of community elders. Many of these elders, due to the impact of environmental racism, colonialism, exposure to pesticides, radioactive pollutants, chemical pollutants, and the negative impact of assimilating to a North American diet, began to pass away as early as their 40s. In this sense, this collection of community oral histories is dedicated to those who have fallen, it is dedicated in particular to Minnie Pesina, who succumbed to diabetes in her late forties, all of those children including those in my own family who were born with “unexplained” birth defects or prematurely, and to all of those who continue to suffer from the effects of environmental racism.

Through this work I hope to provide inroads into the history of the Mexican diaspora in the United States that addresses the gaps caused by erasure via a heavy emphasis on the U.S. Southwest and also to address the absence of environmental issues within the framework of that history of migration and labor. Together with Martin Yañez, I hope to provide examples of efforts made early in the 1970s to address these environmental issues and to demonstrate through this testimonio, that there is a strong and proactive Mexican diaspora community in the Pacific Northwest that in many ways went beyond the trope of Chicano nationalism that dominates the existing narratives of the on the ground work accomplished in the period in question.

The testimonio as a form was chosen for its adherence to the oral tradition in Chicana/o Historiography. The strength of the testimonio form is its ability to draw in the attention of the reader through first person narrativity. As Carlos Maldonado, another fallen elder, explains,

The testimonio has several qualities that compliment the Chicano experience. First, testimonio provides opportunity to recover history through those who have been historically absent from the mainstream historical record. Second, testimonio resonates with the oral tradition dominant in the Chicano community and culture. Third, testimonio narrative is historically present in our community’s historical experience reflected in the ‘cronicas’, diaries, and other southwest Spanish colonial writings. Fourth, the testimonio tradition serves as an alternative to traditional methods of historical inquiry in Chicano historiography.[i]

This narrative is organized into seven sections that identify the main themes in the oral history. Each section has subsections where subtopics within the themes are labeled. The purpose for this method is to provide a coherent, readable text, as in the original order of the interview there was some jumping around from topic to topic as you would expect from a conversation. There was some control used in collecting this particular oral history. As part of the larger oral history project that this interview is a result of, interviewees were provided with a pre-determined set of questions regarding their personal background, organizing experience, cultural work experience and closing thoughts they may have had. This is reflected in the text as the two larger sections on Organizing and Environmental Justice make up the majority of the document. The closing thoughts are divided into four sections in this testimonio.



I. Migrant Roots: Historia de Martin Yañez

My family came, from Texas, back in the late 40s, I’m talking about mom and dad. Farm labor was our way of living. I was born in the Rio Grande valley next to Edinburg and McAllen. The first memories that I have is that we moved to the Yakima valley, well we migrated about 3 or 4 times from the Yakima valley from Texas in search of work. We finally settled in Outlook Washington to do farm work, mostly asparagus working warehouses and fields and also the hops and picked potatoes. One of the major reasons we moved to the Northwest was because our living for the family was based on picking cotton and the cotton machines came into existence back in the late ‘40s and early ‘50s. That displaced a lot of workers so we had to relocate.

In 1965 I was a school teacher, a Spanish instructor at Wenatchee High School. It was back in those years that the War on Poverty got started.[ii] And I became acquainted with, renewed my acquaintance with Samuel Martinez and again with Lupe Gamboa and established new friendships with Roberto Treviño and Carlos Treviño, Jesus Lemos, the original United Farm Workers organizing committee members.

At the same time during the War on Poverty, when I was still teaching, I used to come here [Yakima valley] for the summers and work on summer recreational programs for Chicano children.

The Idea of organizing workers came to me when I saw a picture of César Chávez on the front page of TIME magazine. When I came to the valley I saw quite a few community people doing grassroots organizing in the name of farm workers. That’s how I gave up teaching Spanish and I took a chance in coming to the Yakima valley, where my parents still lived and my brothers and sisters.

II. Grassroots Organizing: Labor and Community based

The federal projects came into being back in the late ‘60s. I was fortunate enough to become the director of one of the first early childhood education projects in Grandview. The other center that I had was in Crewport, WA which was one of the original farm worker camps for farm workers.

The idea came to a lot of us that because of the population that we were working with, there was a terrible need for healthcare, for health education, immunization, education for everybody, in terms of early childhood. Basically the mission became super strong among a lot of people in the valley and at that time I became very angry at the county health of Yakima because at that point, back in the late ‘60s, the director of county health returned back to the federal government $15,000 for migrant health. His excuse was that they could not identify migrant workers. And so that’s how we started.

Eventually when the farm workers were asked to give their input in Sunnyside, Washington, I was the coordinator, the facilitator for that meeting of 200 workers from all over the state. The agreement among the workers was that a clinic was to be established, of all places, in Granger, Washington because it was a compromise between Sunnyside, Grandview, Toppenish and Wapato that it would be in between and that a mobile health clinic was to be started along with the facilities and with appropriate medical staff to deliver medical services.

The proposal was written at the time and funded by what was then called Health, Education and Welfare, the United States department out of Washington, D.C. and it was funded. The farm workers health center got started in Toppenish, Washington with the help of Tomas Villanueva.[iii]

Interestingly enough the American Friends Service committee sent over a whole bunch of students from Philadelphia and the surrounding areas of Philadelphia, friends to help in the construction of a new building and clearing the ground, they basically provided labor for a summer to get the project started in Toppenish.

At the time I was at the University of Washington graduate school of education administration and the idea was to become a superintendent of one of the public schools in the lower Yakima valley but the community at this point had a migrant program called Northwest Rural Opportunities based out of Pasco, Washington. The project was basically going down and the federal government was about ready to defund it and they were looking for a director who had at least a bachelors degree who came from the area, knew the culture, knew the people, understood the economics, the socio-political economics and so I was called quite a few times by community people to apply for the director position, which I did.

That was back in 1971 and I was hired with one condition, that the board would give me full support in reorganizing the administration, the delivery of services and that there should be a personnel manual put in place and that the board had to be reconstituted to reflect the community of Moses Lake, Walla Walla, Pasco, the lower valley, Grandview, Mabton and the upper valley, Wapato, Toppenish, that particular area.

I got into hot water right way because I became really acquainted with the United Farm Workers organizing committee and they appealed to me to support the movement because back in those days, there was some community people, especially program directors, that thought that they were leaders of the community and they became very fearful of being associated with César Chávez and the farm workers movement. I was about the only one among program directors that stood out and supported it, and I said that publicly to the Tri-City Herald and that was right at the beginning of 1971 and so that the front page news, the next day came out, that the NRO director supports the UFW. Big headlines and after that the Tri-City Herald sent in what I would call a yellow journalist, one of those individuals that like to ferment controversy in the community. There were some Hispanic writers too, you know, they’re not even worth mentioning, that also cashed in on pitting anti-UFW people against the United Farm Workers supporters. Most of the people that were against [the UFW] publicly on the newspaper and television were people who were labor contractors, foremen, people who were supervisors in the different crops, asparagus, hops. The struggle was really intense media wise, but also organizing wise.


Enemy of the State

I became very involved [in the UFW] on a part-time basis for a lot of years, on my own time, to help and have house meetings, conduct meetings, support meetings and organize for house meetings. We did a lot of that up and down the valley for quite a few years. And of course, that battle, it spilled over to federal projects because I became the target of anti-UFW, even board members, who wanted to fire me and investigate my activities. The federal government under the direction of Richard Nixon sent in several plane loads of investigators to the state of Washington and they came in to open my accounting books, questioned the board members, interviewed community people from all over the state and it became a hot item.

This is in 19, right at the time when I was leaving the project, back in 1972 and ’73. Richard Nixon even included me in the enemies list, which was supposed to be a high honor among a lot of us, at that point in time of the early 70’s.

Third World Coalition

I became also involved with the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker organization out of Philadelphia and they made me an honorary board member of the organization, and they were very supportive of the UFW and naturally César Chávez and Dr. Martin Luther King. And so it was at those years of 71 through, throughout the early 70’s that the people of color who were also working in different communities throughout the United States, they honored my by becoming their first chair of the Third World Coalition, which still exists, even to this day, doing a lot of activity on the anti-war movement, especially in Vietnam. Back in those years it was quite a social, political, protest among a lot of Chicanos and among a lot of people of color and, including white folks.

United Farm Workers

In 1978 I became a full time UFW labor organizer, here in the state of Washington, so we put in some work in Idaho and Oregon for the Jerry Brown presidential campaign[iv] as a write in candidate and we also participated in the United Farm Workers, we even sent our own delegates to the [UFW] convention in Fresno and eventually in 1975, governor Jerry Brown signed the collective bargaining law in California.

The organizing committee of the state of Washington, Roberto Treviño, Carlos Treviño, Jesus Lemos, and myself, we volunteered to organize elections for the Union in California. We were all mostly based around the Oxnard, California area, Ventura County. Out of 19 elections that we participated, we won 19 elections. Some of them were extended by litigation, but we finally won them. And César [Chávez] was really, really pleased that we participated in the Julius Goldman’s Egg City ranch election. According to César [Chávez, that was] one of the best contracts that the [United Farm Workers] union ever got at that time.[v] They had 500 workers working night and day at the farm, year round employment, and Julius Goldman’s Egg City ranch had over 7 million egg laying chickens on the farm. So you can imagine why they called it Egg City because it had stop signs at every block where there were chicken houses. It was a tremendous victory, for all of us, [despite] the fact that the agricultural community of California decided to go along with the Teamster’s union. Overnight they signed sweetheart contracts with the Teamster’s union.

There was a very bitter fight between us, the [United Farm Workers] union and the Teamsters. [The Teamster’s] liked to send in what we called in those days goons, to the labor camps, to the fields, to make it difficult for workers to organize or to even participate in the elections and the immigration was called in to farms back in those days too, like the day before or two days before elections, to do a raid of the workers.

We were there [in Ventura County] for a while. We left at that point back to the state of Washington because we had been gone for quite a long time. Some of the [Washington] UFW organizers, especially Lupe Gamboa and Roberto Treviño were called in by the [United Farm Workers] union to work in the boycott, the national boycott against grapes and lettuce. Gallo wines was one of them. Lupe Gamboa after that became heavily involved in the boycott and then eventually worked in California.

I stayed in the state of Washington with most of the UFW organizers and continued our efforts to work and be on call whenever workers would, some of the workers were very unsatisfied with their working conditions and pay, and on their own, they would actually conduct, go on strike. One of the UFW organizers, I think it was Jesus Lemos who said, “it’s amazing, you know, we go in with the United Farm workers Union flag into some of these fields and the workers would just automatically leave the field and participate on the picket lines.”

Needless to say, back in those years we conducted boycott picket lines throughout the Yakima valley including Pasco, and Ellensburg as well as Seattle. For a year those picket lines were very visible, especially in agricultural areas like Prosser, Grandview, Sunnyside, Wapato and Toppenish. We were very visible with the United Farm Workers and people would participate. A lot of the criticism of the UFW [that] came from different corners was that this was a University of Washington [effort], University Students that were participating from different colleges in the boycott and the call for organizing workers into a union. A lot of the membership who participated in the picket line were basically, a lot of them were a lot older than I was at the time. We’re talking about people in their late 60s and 70s participating in, not only men, but a lot of elderly women also, and kids who were marching the picket line on a weekly basis, supporting the United Farm Workers union and supporting César Chávez. In those years we did conduct, organize, huge gatherings of farm workers whenever César Chávez came over to address the workers. We helped bring in Dolores Huerta, Richard Chávez, their cousin Manuel [Chávez], he was in one of our rallies at a downtown park of Sunnyside, Washington.

We got a lot of support from other activists, organizations from the Seattle Area, including people who have passed away now, but they were really good people, big hearted people like Milton Jefferson, and especially Tyree Scott[vi], he was always there in support of the farm worker’s union and Tyree was also one of the original members of the Third World Coalition that we started in Philadelphia, and he also was very instrumental in organizing construction workers and in protests of federal legislation, or to implement federal legislation to allow people of color to work in construction projects that were funded by the federal government and the state government. So he did a lot of good things for people.

We left the organizing back in the early 1980s and that was one of the last times that I talked to Cesar [Chávez] when he came over to Central Washington University. He was basically, as always, drumming up support for the United Farm Worker’s Union for the boycott. We arranged a lot of television and newspaper coverage and one of the biggest meetings that I [remember] for César [Chávez], actually a group of individuals in Central [Washington University], they numbered about 500 students and professors and community people and I believe that he delivered one of the best speeches I ever heard him do about what farm workers had to go through and the issue of pesticides and health, health concerns that we had and he had. A lot of the pesticides issues and concerns and rules that we were asking for were based upon what the people like Chávez were doing, especially Dr. Marian Moses, who did a lot of work in that area and I believe still that she’s still doing that, to this day.

We have a lot of labor laws in the state of Washington. Whether we have a collective bargaining law right now in the state of Washington for farm workers, I don’t know, I don’t think that we’re really ready for that. I know Dolores Huerta and César [Chávez] and other people from the union in years past have advised to do the basic organizing of workers first, before you start requesting a state law because it might backfire or you may end up with something that you don’t want.

Department of Labor & Industries 

When I worked for Labor & Industries enforcing labor laws for nine years, from 1989 to 1998, one of the things that I noticed about the beef industry, the plants, they all became owned by Japanese organizations, out of Japan. [I also] noted that the workers [were] mostly Hispanic in the plants. Here in Toppenish I would say that the number of complaints that I got when I was working for Labor & Industries and also when I was away from Labor & Industries, the major concern [for] workers was health and safety.

There are a lot of accidents that happen, because the work is so intense, so heavy, in conditions where you have to hurry to do your work and you get tired. One of the major issues that came to me when I was working for the state was the non-payment of overtime. When they came in, they had to put in their uniforms, they had to put on their boots and everything, their protective equipment, and then they would clock in. At the end of the day, they would clock out, and then go wash the protective equipment and their knives, and everything else and put it away. According to federal law, from the US Department of Labor, those are hours of work and also according to state law.

The project was huge because it involved I don’t know how many hundreds of workers. I collaborated with the US Department of Labor, and they were able to get back payments of overtime to the workers. [This issue] also happened among warehouses because a lot of warehouses were running for example apples from other companies. When [the workers in the warehouses] worked overtime they wouldn’t pay them overtime because they said its agriculture and we’re running our own apples and the workers said no, we’re running other people’s. Even if it’s for one day that they run [another company’s apples] out of the week, that’s what they call a contaminated work week, if they work over 40 hours they have to be paid overtime. I collaborated again with the United States Department of Labor and they were basically required to pay the overtime to workers because that was in compliance of the law and they shouldn’t violate the law. Even to this day I still hear complaints from warehouses about that.

Irving Newhouse

Politics, one of the biggest efforts that we did back in the early 70’s through the United Farm Worker’s Union leadership was conducting a voter registration in all the little towns here in the [Yakima] valley. Not only did we register them, but we kept track of them. During election night we provided transportation and daycare, childcare, for the people to go out and vote. In that particular year, it was in the earl 70’s, and Irving Newhouse was running for representative out of Sunnyside and we had a school teacher, a white school teacher out of Zillah who ran against Irving Newhouse completely unknown and Irving Newhouse won, he won around all of the Yakima Valley, he won by a thousand votes and he came pretty close to losing out, that might have been the end of his career. Irving Newhouse was really against farm workers and any kind of protective legislation for farm workers, especially unionization of workers, he was completely against that. He encouraged his foremen and people in supervisor positions [including] crew leaders to talk badly about the [United] Farm Workers union and so he became kind of like an enemy of [the United] Farm Workers Union for a long time. That was one of our first [political] experiences really, to really go after a legislator of that stature. In the past I know that there was community leaders who had encouraged voter registration before that.


The Bees: Obstacles to Organizing 

You know this incident as I recall, happened right about the time when I started working for Northwest Rural Opportunities back in 1971 and I accompanied the United Farm Workers organizing committee to Dayton, Washington. As we were walking through the area, the homes of the white workers who were in the pea harvest, a huge black cloud was coming towards us, in between the rows of the trailers and they were bees! We don’t know exactly what was happening, but we knew they were coming our direction so we quickly jumped into the van for safety purposes. Why it happened, I have an idea that because we were there. Who did it? We never did find out, but it was an amazing experience you know because right after that, we went into the Rogers Walla Walla labor camp in Walla Walla and we saw workers with the worst working, living environment that I’ve ever seen in my life.

[There was] dirt all over the place, there was no grass outside the building; the beds were in disarray and all beds. The food was atrocious, [the tenants] told me about being consistently sick with stomach problems. One worker had a broken hand but he was still required to cut asparagus. He showed me his check for the week and it was after the deductions for food and housing and everything else, because they were being charged for that, it was for 29 cents. For 29 cents! I couldn’t believe that! 

Public Letters of Investigation

I asked for an investigation by the state department of health and they found out that the food, the flour and some of the other food that they had in cans, were contaminated with rat droppings. That it was one of the [most] unhealthy living situations that I ever seen in the state of Washington, it was really bad, and it created a lot of news. People were upset because, especially from the agriculture community, because I had gone public. Even the state of Washington Department of Health was upset because they told me that I should have gone firstly to them before I issued the letter of investigation publicly through the news media and they didn’t particularly like that.

Of course along the way, I threw in an investigation of Irving Newhouse with a public letter for bad storage of pesticides on the playground of children here in Sunnyside at his labor camp. The water was bluish, greenish, [and] yellowish in color. And the truck that was parked next to it was open. The tailgate was open and you could see the crushed bones in some of the containers which means they were deadly, highly contaminant pesticides. The[re was a] pool of water because the water tank where they mixed the chemicals, the tank that was being driven in by the tractor, was parked right there and that’s where they would be filling it up with chemicals and it’s amazing that all of this was done in the very same playground, just feet away from where [farm workers] were living in the labor camp, [children] playing in the dirt and playing in the water. That was a labor camp owned by Irving Newhouse in Sunnyside, Washington.

Of course that letter was public and because of that and ever after that [Irving Newhouse] hated my guts so much that years later when I became an employee of the Department of Labor and Industries as an employment standards agent to enforce agriculture laws, he called my supervisor, Mark McDermott who happens to be the younger brother of our representative Jim McDermott. [Mark McDermott] said, “When we hired you and we announced it, the phone was ringing off the hook”, and guess who called first? It was Irving Newhouse, and he said, “at that point, I knew that we had hired the right guy”.

Many other things happened, our lives were threatened, many times, false telephone calls were made to our homes that we had been in an accident, that we had been shot at or something, just to intimidate the family that supported us. Basically, all of us had good support of our parents and our wives, and as an organizer that’s really important, you can’t do it if your family, if your immediate family is divided. That’s one of the biggest lessons I learned, and to this day, the union practices that, it’s almost a policy, but it’s really good advice based on the experience.

Bees at the University of Washington

When I was attending the University of Washington, the graduate school, back in ‘70 and the early part of ’71, there was a rally that was conducted, on one part of the campus against the war on Vietnam and I don’t know what other issues, but basically, it was the anti-war movement. It could have been also in support of farm worker issues, but I was not there. What I got from the news report and some of the students was that somebody dumped a container of bees to do away with the rally. Which they did, probably effectively for that time period, I’m sure that they got back together again.

The University of Washington was very active, the students protest marches and picket lines to support the farm workers union. It was quite an experience back in those years because the ROTC building, next door, across the street from my office, because I had an office also at the University, part of the building was bombed, by some individuals. I’m not sure exactly what their cause was, whether it was against the Vietnam war…we were really not clear about that you know, at least I’m not, but it was kind of a scary situation for a lot of people that people could resort to activities like that because, you know, César [Chávez] always said to us, and he told the membership and the organizers, that non-violence was the way to go. If we were to promote the movement, we had to use non-violent tactics along with what Dr. Martin Luther King practiced, it was really important.

III. Pesticides: The Labor Roots to Environmental Justice

The farm worker’s clinic was under fire by the community at that point, which is still based in Toppenish, and the community wanted to have a change of leadership. I was encouraged to become the executive director of the Farm worker’s clinic in 1973. And one of the primary reasons for that is that the Farm worker’s clinic directors had already made an agreement with an outside consultant firm to do an economic analysis of the community that would help support the clinic and I saw, they spent $40,000 for that study, I saw the, and I wish I had a copy of the study, but basically it said that the farm worker clinic should never be in any way, shape or form, involved, or in support of the United Farm Worker’s union and number two the one way of continual funding of the clinic was to make agreements with growers in the valley, where they would deduct, 10 cents out of every dollar and donate it out of the farm worker’s pocket to the farm worker’s clinic. That’s getting into the area of medical services benefits that the United Farm Worker’s union was offering to workers in California on their contract with the growers, with the input of Farm workers. This one was done completely without the input of farm workers. That was one of the main complaints against the clinic. I stayed there for about five years, and at that point I was, I became more involved in Health issues, especially on the issue of pesticides.[vii]

Pesticides is a danger, all forms of pesticides can effect a human being, of the central nervous system, some of them are so dangerous they can create mental retardation, birth defects, any number of things, cancer, respiratory illnesses, skin problems, but cancer is one of the primary things that happens to workers.[viii] And some studies have indicated that workers who do a lot of spraying, in those cases, in those years there were no protective rules or legislation in the state of Washington. So that liver cancer was pretty common, but it was not really diagnosed or connected directly to pesticides and so one of the issues that I had with the state of Washington was that why were we behind 25 years of California? I mean t hey had protective laws on pesticides, reentry levels, you know, protective equipment, those kinds of things, we didn’t even one rule in the state of Washington back in the middle 70’s that protected workers.

When I looked at the Agriculture manual of the state, I found out that the only word that related to pesticides was toxic ingredients and that was about it. For a lot of years legislators, especially in eastern Washington, were asking for proof that proved to us that pesticides were dangerous. Given the number of people who have died, even to this day, people are pretty much in denial. The people in power. I’m talking about people who own large farms, corporations, real conservative republican legislators. Even among the medical community you have elements where medical doctors might own a huge orchard. There’s one over on this side owned by a doctor. It was pretty common to hear that complaint. So when I left the farm worker’s clinic, what happened was that the medical doctors at the farm worker’s clinic became very indignant with me that I was getting too involved on the issue of pesticides, and to drop the issue.

I kept saying, why are we treating people at the clinic after they get sick? We should be practicing preventive medicine. Just like women that are in pregnancy and expecting a child. How can you give them the tools, the education, the medical attention so they can have good healthy children? Their health is also really important. That issue was one of the driving issues that a some community Hispanic so-called leaders started to ask for my removal. What happened was that the federal government defunded the project and gave it to another group in the valley to continue the farm worker’s clinic.

El Proyecto Bienestar

Before I left Central Washington University, because I was employed there for about three years, I was directing the College Assistance Migrant Program, one of the staff people of one of the legislators from King County [called] me. She was a former UFW organizer in the Boycott, with her sister Sarah Welsh. Nancy was the one that called me, Nancy Welsh and she was looking for my information, you know, files on pesticides. I told her, I had moved so many times that I had lost track of my files, so then she asked me, this was back in 1987, this is like 17 years after the issue of pesticides got started here in the [Yakima] valley, she asked me “is there one legislation that you would promote that we should initiate in the state of Washington?”, I said yeah, make it mandatory for all medical institutions and medical providers to report any and all accidents that are related to pesticides in the state of Washington. She said, “You mean we don’t have a law like that?” I said no, because one of the biggest arguments among politicians is that where are the statistics? Where’s the data? Where’s the documentation? [I told her] that we do really need pesticides rules in the state of Washington, and so that law was passed and out of that other issues came up and are now in place. The University of Washington is doing a long term study that I helped get funded through my work with Northwest Communities Education Center, Proyecto Bienestar[ix], which was funded for four years, and it is still ongoing, involving community people, experts from the University of Washington and the community, in conjunction with Yakima Valley Farm Worker’s clinic and Heritage University. Out of that effort, we’re hoping that other major studies and benefits will be derived from the studies and input from the community for the protection of workers.

[The project] started back in, lets see, we are in the third year, so probably around 2004, something like that, 2004. I became so concerned about environmental issues that we [founded the] Northwest Social and Environmental Justice Institute. The reason we started that environmental justice project was because in my connection with people from the east coast and the southwest, people who were working with the Navajos and other indigenous peoples from the Southwest, Teresa Juarez, Gilbert Sanchez who is a very good friend of ours, Chief Wilber Slaquish(sp) who became very, very involved back in the 70’s and was even in prison on the Salmon issues, Chief Johnny Jackson, we had people from the Shoshones and from Colorado, Lori Goodman, and then far east Dr. Mildred McLane, individuals from the black colleges in the South, who were giving us their input at different conferences that we conducted for the last four or five years, all on environmental and social issues. So that when I came back from these conferences I had a discussion with Ricardo Garcia that really one of our biggest concerns should be on environmental [issues].

Pollution in the Yakima Valley

At that point, I had a suspicion, but I was not totally up to date, or aware of what was going on, but I began to study what the department of Ecology was doing, department of Health, it all started with how contaminated the Yakima river really is and how the contamination becomes very visible from the Granger area, going down, winding down, to Sunnyside and probably even past Sunnyside, Washington. [I wanted to know] why the water, the sand, the dirt underneath, almost half of the Yakima River is now brown, an ugly brown color. I found out that all this area, they call it the Granger drain, which is from here, Zillah, all the way down to Sunnyside. We have a tremendous number of dairy farms, and they also have been doing a lot of spraying in this area too because of the Orchards. Then of course livestock’s were huge around the Sunnyside area, going to Mabton. The water, would all drain into a ditch, [and] then would wind down to Granger, Washington. That’s one of the most heavily contaminated ditches and irrigation water anywhere in the state of Washington. I learned in the process of reading the history of the contamination of the Yakima River that it dated back to 35, 40 years ago, when the Army Corp of Engineers drew their conclusions and their observations, the department of Agriculture, the department of Ecology.

The water that is going into the Yakima River, at least it was a year ago, two years ago, is ten times over, maybe more, contaminated over the limit of what the federal standards require.

I’m involved with professors from Heritage University and I found out that this corridor, for the freeway runs during the winter, the air is so contaminated by different contaminates including carbon monoxide many times over what the federal government requires. The law basically, and I’m thinking roughly, [requires] that the air quality here in this area should not exceed the federal limits more than maybe three times a year. The air quality here is contaminated a hundred times more. I mean, maybe even more than that. The wintertime here can sometimes be pretty bad. When we have fog, the air is stagnant and there’s no wind. The issue of health becomes very important for young people and children and elderly people. In fact, over the radio, we have had to advise people to use masks if they go out into the open from their homes.

Washington Beef: Air Pollution and Asthma

We have an incidence of asthma among children around the Toppenish area and people are wondering why that’s happening. I have a theory, which I think it needs to be proven, but I really believe that the Washington beef releases a lot of contamination into the air around that area. That smell that comes down into the neighborhoods of that area of Toppenish is so bad that you kind of wonder what effect it has on people in general. The reason I talk about that is because I’ve had that smell come to me many times when I was living in Toppenish back, three or four years ago. I would wake up at 2:00 in the morning, and this smell would be so bad, so heavy, that I began to wonder about that. Some of this was [air pollution from Washington Beef]. It’s not unusual for big corporations to do that, they have done it around the Savannah, Georgia area. Dr. McLane took us at night to where some of these neighborhoods, where mostly poor people live, and this is another organization, interestingly environmental justice. A lot of people of color, a lot of poor people, low income people, are mostly affected by all these contaminants in the water and the air, the soil and in this case, it reminded me of that plant, where they made things out of plastic, where in the middle of the night they would release this smoke that would go into the air. So that when I looked at the Washington beef, one winter we were driving by the plant and I saw 13 smokestacks, coming out of the ceiling, the roof of the Washington beef and you wonder, no wonder we get that smell.

Source: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

Hanford: Nuclear Waste and Cancer

Needless to say, I became involved as a proposal writer with Radio KDNA and Ricardo Garcia, and a lot of different state committees. [I worked] on the anti-smoking regulations, became involved with the Hanford [nuclear site] board and of course, the issues there are very serious on the clean up. I regret the day when the United States developed more nuclear plants, even for energy purposes because, what are you going to do with the waste? Hanford has approximately 54 million gallons of radioactive waste buried in the ground. And some of that is leaking into the groundwater, some of that is leaking into the Columbia River. What effect is that doing to wildlife and to the Salmon? What about the health?

I maintain that there is a corridor of cancer incidences, up and down the Columbia River all the way from The Dalles, [Oregon] to the Quincy, [Washington] area, maybe further. A lot of friends, people that I met over the years from Prosser, Grandview, Sunnyside and Mabton have passed away from cancer. Different forms of cancer that could be, in many ways, related to; especially the air releases of contaminated vapors into the air, by the Hanford [nuclear site]. A lot of that happened quite a bit in the 1950s. There is a lawsuit about the down winders, that I believe still needs to be settled.

There have been folks, and news articles written, even in the Reader’s Digest, where individuals were impacted by radioactive dust from as far away as Nevada, where they used to have a test site for nuclear bombs, clear down to Idaho. The medical people, who work for the federal government, up to this day deny, that any of this is happening, that it was, the dust that settled in Idaho for example, was benign, it was harmless. Radioactive stuff, if you have any sense of chemistry, the half-life of radioactive material goes into the hundreds of thousands, millions of years. How are we going to take care of that?

One of the quick solutions for the federal government is to put it into tanks when they drain the barrels, the tanks from underneath the ground, and then take them to the WIDS site. I don’t remember exactly what the acronym stands for but it’s an underground, and some of my friends have been there, they call it a city. They take these trucks into this city that is underground and they store the radioactive material, underneath the ground in that particular area. This is in New Mexico.

My friends who come from different indigenous groups, different tribes in the Southwest talk about how all this dry, arid, desert like area was given to the Indians as reservations to the indigenous people and then all of the sudden, they find Uranium. So now it becomes very valuable, and so they have done excavations of areas for Uranium, and they use water to get it out of the ground. Ponds and lakes in New Mexico and other areas are contaminated [by uranium residue].

There are different indigenous groups from the various tribes in the Southwest who have been dealing with the issue of cancer and contamination. One of the daughters of a friend of mine, who said that she put a Geiger counter to her mother’s stomach and that Geiger kind of went crazy, because her mother, I believe it was her liver, was highly contaminated. Her grandfather has a terminal disease of cancer in one of the nursing homes of New Mexico. Those issues, environmental issues are of great concern to us.

Ground Water Pollution: Nitrate and Birth Defects

The well waters in this area have been found to be contaminated with bacteria and other forms of chemicals such as nitrate [by 25% by two different studies]. In heavy doses, nitrate, and some wells have been found to be heavily contaminated by nitrate, can hurt children, newborns, I don’t know if there’s any real documentation, which I need to follow up, about the blue baby syndrome, where babies are born, and they look blue, in their skin, and that’s because they cannot, their body prevents them from taking in enough oxygen from the air into their bodies, that nitrate is blocking that in [their repertory] system.

There is concern about mental retardation in the schools because of the nitrate, deformities among children, by nitrates in the water. There have been cases in the [Yakima] valley where children are born without any form of brain stem, brain, cerebral part of the head is gone, in other words no brains. Children born [with birth defects and/or] without arms and legs. A friend of mine who worked for an organization in Yakima claimed that they are seeing more birth defects and deformities among farm worker women now, in comparison to ten years ago. All that needs to come out. [We need to] educate, to implement new changes, new environmental changes, and new legislation.

IV. Thoughts on the Local: Institutional Considerations in the US

Farm Workers Today 

The issue of the farm workers is still pretty much there. The problems that I talked about are pretty wide spread and they’re growing worse. If it hadn’t been for the minimum wage law that was implemented back in 1989 for farm workers, workers here would be in bad shape because most growers don’t want to pay more than the minimum wage. Who wants to work, like in Texas, for a minimum wage of $5.15 an hour? That’s where it’s at, right now, and even at that, there are some politicians who want to do away with that law, which was an initiative, passed by the state of Washington, people, and passed back in 1989.

There are other rules and laws that govern the health and safety of workers here. We need low income housing and more importantly, we need to have financial assistance and even foundation to give workers access, low income people, poor people, to be able to own their own homes and to be able to have their own properties.

Education Today

I think it is really important too, that the school system change. They’re not changing fast enough or good enough. Education is pretty much the same; let’s say like in Sunnyside, Washington where they still have, in many ways, a two track system. The bright students are channeled towards college and supposedly, the other not so bright students, which are mostly Hispanic, are channeled towards some form of vocational studies. Some schools are attempting to teach culture and language, and even for most, literature. I saw one grade school that had a book of César Chávez.

We still need a greater composition of Hispanics in the school boards. We need a greater number of administrators that are Hispanic, that understand the people, the language, the culture, who have access, who can be empowered to make policy changes.

There’s still a tremendous amount of uncertainty among Chicano students who are not really sure who they are, where they’re going. Some of them [are] not really knowledgeable about their culture. And in some ways, I don’t say all of them, highly confused as to their identity, as individuals, here in the Yakima Valley.

Justice System Today 

The educational system, not to mention the political system has to change, where people elected are more people in tune with the community at the grassroots level. Right now, I think a lot of the politicians, their home base is made on people with money and power and influence. There’s still a lot of racism in the Yakima County and throughout the state of Washington, especially eastern Washington, people of color are still looked down [upon].

Anytime you talk about criminal activity, like in Yakima or Sunnyside or Mab[ton] or Toppenish, they usually talk about gangs or Chicanitos, drugs. A lot of violence, drug use, dropping out of high schools and grade schools, a lot of it is based upon the socio-economic needs of the community.

There are kind of like red flags that come out and say there’s something wrong that we need to take care of [these issues]. They certainly cannot take care of it by running up every Hispanic person and taking them back to Mexico or wherever. Putting them in jail, [it is] something the people of the establishment like to see happen. Nationwide we have more people of color in prison than ever before.[x] If you go through Nevada and Texas, [as] I had an opportunity to do in the last five years, all you see out there in los llanos, surrounding the cities of San Antonio and Las Vegas, all you see is prisons, out in the deserts. We have a tremendous problem with the criminal system, the justice system. It’s no wonder that community people are complaining on a regular basis about police profiling. The number of Hispanics in the jails of Yakima county, county and city, I bet 90% of the inmates are Latinos.

I’m not trying to paint the picture black, but I feel that we do have a lot of work to do. I guess the struggle just has to continue at every level.

The US Economy

There are a lot of question marks that I have, that a lot of people are unaware and so we’re suffering under tremendous lack of leadership. Anything bad that happens in the United States they blame on terrorism, any money spent out of our children’s, children’s, children’s pockets into the future is based upon terrorism.

Our economy, we’re in one of the biggest debts ever in the history of the United States, it’s ironic that the past two electoral elections of the president have been based upon one state, Florida and Ohio. We’re in a state sad of affairs at this point but I think there are grounds in there, there’s room, for people to do some really good basic community grassroots organizing and I think it’s happening. We consider the social environmental justice movement as another civil rights movement and basically that’s where we stand at this point.

New Orleans

The organizations that I’ve been working with throughout the country are people of color and of course, what happened in New Orleans is a tremendous indictment of the present administration, lack of concern, lack of preparation, funding has been atrocious if not squandered, misuse, fraud is happening, just about every project President Bush funds, there seems to be elements of the misuse of funds, tax dollars that people have a lot of faith, certain things were going to be taken care of.

V. Thoughts on the Glocal[xi]: Considerations for Trans-National issues

Immigration Today

Now that the population has tremendously changed and we have an influx of workers, undocumented workers into the area, the whole state of Washington. I’m not just talking about Mexicanos coming in, what we’re talking about, on the west coast, people from El Salvador, Honduras, Argentina, Guatemala. Now the farmers are toying with the idea of bringing in people from Thailand and other countries, which is not unusual to do because in the United States, just in California alone, they brought in the Chinese workers. They brought in, when we start to organize, the Japanese workers. Back in the ‘20s and ‘30s they brought in the Filipino workers, but by then legislation in California was implemented so that, well the first requirement is that they wouldn’t, they didn’t want women to come from the Philippines, they wanted young men, basically, singles, if they were married they had to leave their wife behind, and if they were single they were not allowed to marry anybody that was a U.S. born, who was a citizen of the United States. Then they could not buy property, they could not buy their own homes or farms. Eventually, out of that [context], came the effort of the United States that the government of Mexico could bring in Braceros, and that project lasted from the I believe early 40s to 1964. Some elements of the politicians, especially the Republican politicians, are moving in that direction of only bringing in workers as guest workers to the United States, and then they go back to wherever they came from, Mexico, and not even have a chance to become citizens.

That issue of immigration is a big issue nationwide. I became involved in the national coalition for immigrant workers three or four years ago. An organization based out of Toledo, Ohio, where we had membership, leaders from all over the country. The person responsible for that is a lady, Beatriz Maya, who I really admire. She’s from Argentina. The problems of undocumented workers are very high and it extends throughout the United States involving many different workers from different countries.

Bringing out the Berlin wall between Mexico and the United States just doesn’t cut it. I mean supposedly, republicans, they highly revere President Ronald Reagan for bringing that wall down in Berlin and now they’re supporting another wall on the border of Mexico and the United States which is really, not only atrocious and backwards, and stupid really. One of the most stupid ideas I have ever heard.

Taking the military and the national coast guard and other people to protect the borders, looking for terrorists, to me it’s [ridiculous]. Workers are coming here to work, you know, and some of them want to become citizens if they had some kind of legislation. 

The Latin American Left

Mexico, they have a problem with economics and employment. I believe it’s up to them to decide where they are going to put the resources. That’s why I’m really disappointed that [Mexican Presidential candidate Manuel] Lopez-Obrador did not make it because of, up to this point, the recount of the votes. I’m hoping that he will make it. The United States leadership, namely Bush, he keeps talking about leftist all the time, that they are really against democracy and they’re probably one of the most democratic forms of government that they ever had in South America, Central America, allowing themselves to listen to the population. Democracy in the United States, it just ain’t working, because we got a bad President and the Republican Party has shielded themselves from being displaced according to the political maneuvering throughout the United States. Of course they’re heavily bankrolled by money and so that they have built a fortress around their party. The only way out is if great numbers of people, registered voters, go out and vote in backlash to the Iraq war, which is something that should have happened; there was no reason for [the Iraq war].


I really believe that the attacks on September the 11th in New York and Washington, D.C. was a backlash to the United States foreign policy. I think, in a way, it was a message sent to the capitalist system of the United States, of how they take advantage of people of color and the third world communities throughout the world. We have become known as a warmongering nation. I think it was a very strong message to the Bush family because his father was involved in the Iraq war, I think it’s a backlash. People from other countries complain about the financial partnership, friendship based between President Bush’s father and Osama Bin Laden when they were fighting the Russians in that area, heavily armed, heavily trained, bank rolled by the United States government.


VI. Hope for the Future: Suggestions on what can be Done 

At this point I’ve been talking to other people for the last five years and we see that there needs to be a change in the movement as far as the effort and priorities. I believe that voter registration drive is important because the communities, people of color in this case here, Hispanic individuals, but you know and everybody knows, that when you start using federal dollars, or whatever dollars, you can’t be partisan. You can’t say vote for this or register, so I prefer the volunteer basis where people can go out and organize people registering [to vote] and to become aware of the issues and do a lot of raising the conscious level of the people throughout the United States in their own homes if possible. Create television, movies, documentaries, write books or magazines that truly speak to the needs of people and the solutions to some of those problems.

I remember when the, El Teatro Campesino used to come down to the state of Washington and other areas like Oregon and Idaho and throughout California and talk about the issues in a theater form to the workers. Which was very unique and very important and it made an impact on people to see where they stood and where the foreman stood and where the labor contractor stood.

Nationalized Healthcare

So, right now, the issues are growing, the health needs are growing, the lack of medical insurance for workers and for children is atrocious, it is minimal at best. The availability of health care and access for the workers is miles and miles away from where they work. I mean talk about Matawa, Royal City or Waterville or Okanogan area, or somewhere else, the need is still there.

I’m hoping that we become open enough to the idea that we can have a National Insurance health plan, or even a state, to cover everybody. The elderly need it. They’re no longer working and they’re working on fixed income, medical prescriptions are really high, the only ones really benefiting are the Pharmaceutical companies. It’s really a tremendous issue right now among everybody.

VII. Closing: Personal Future and Plans

You know I’m semi-retired now. I’ve been staying at home mostly because of family illness. My mother went through a stroke last December and my daughter had been in pain for over a year and half, back problems, back pain from back problems. It turned out that one of her discs had slipped, she needed spinal surgery and so it took a number of trips to Seattle to get medical assessments, opinions. She’s now completing her, 5 or 6 weeks of recuperation and it seems that her health has improved quite a bit. She sleeps a lot better.

I am in contact with people from the east coast and the southwest and I’ve been telling them that there will be, on my part, a continuation of resource for the Environmental Justice Movement as soon as some of my issues are taken care of. I’ve been spending a lot of time with my family, but I do hope to dedicate myself more so to the Environmental Justice Movement. What better way is there of spending your retirement? If I can find part time employment, for it would allow me that freedom to do just that, I welcome it.

I will probably continue writing proposals for the effort and assist other community grassroots organizations, which I have [done] in the past and have access to student interns. [Student interns] are really important to work in the community, in all different levels of science. The project, El Proyecto Bienestar, has uncovered a large number of students from the high school level and first year students at Heritage [University] and other parts of the valley who have shown a tremendous interest in being involved in the community. [These students have] given information and [have] the motivation to give up their talent and their expertise to become involved in environmental sciences for example. [Environmental science is] a new field and if you’re bilingual, you’re bicultural; you can be a tremendous asset. We need more lawyers, more doctors, but that was the advice we used to give students back in the 60s. When you get an education make an effort to come back to work in the community. We’re still at it, we’re still at it.


[i] Carlos Saldivar Maldonado. “Testimonio de un Tejano en Oregon: Contratista, Julian Ruiz,” Memory, Community, and Activism Jerry Garcia and Gilberto Garcia, Eds. (East Lansing: Michigan State University 2005) p. 208.

[ii] See Margaret Miller. “Community Action and Reaction: Chicanos and the War on Poverty in the Yakima Valley, Washington.” M.A. Thesis (University of Washington, 1991)

[iii] See Jose Montoya, “A Chicano Testimonial from Tomas Villanueva” Forthcoming, Ed. Gilberto Garcia pp 249-263 and Anne O’Neil and Sharon Walker, “Interview with Tomas Villanueva” (Accessed 12/12/06)

[iv] California Governor Edmund G. “Jerry” Brown ran for United States President in 1976.

[v] See State of California Agricultural Labor Relations Board, Case No. 79-CE-89-OX, 6 ALRB No. 61 (Accessed 12/10/06)

[vi] See Obituary in The Socialist Worker: (Accessed 12/10/06)

[vii] See Devon G. Peña. “Environmental Justice and Sustainable Agriculture: Linking Ecological and Social Sides of Sustainability” Second National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit – Summit II Resource Paper Series (October 23, 2002) Commissioned and assembled by the Environmental Justice Resource Center at Clark Atlanta University.

[viii] Ibid. p. 3

[ix] “El Proyecto Bienestar: the Yakima Valley Well-Being Project Improving the health of Hispanic agricultural workers. Researchers at the University of Washington and collaborators at Radio KDNA, Heritage University and the Yakima Valley Farm Workers Clinic are identifying and addressing occupational and environmental health issues among Yakima Valley’s agricultural workers.” (Accessed 12/10/06)

[x] See Marc Maur. Race to Incarcerate (New Press, 2006)

[xi] By Glocal, I mean as in Global + Local that recognizes the interstitial space between National and International issues. I give credit to Azfar Hussain for coining this term, though other scholars have toyed with it.

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